Microsoft Azure: 8 Ways to Save on Cloud Storage

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Data storage vendors are pairing up with cloud providers such as Microsoft Azure as a way to broaden their offerings and lower storage costs for their customers. After all, the economies of scale offered by the likes of Google, Microsoft and Amazon make it hard for others to compete on raw cloud storage. But these providers offer further services to add additional value. That can be a blessing or a curse depending on how smartly you deploy them.

Here are eight tips from the experts on how to maximize the value of the cloud storage services provided by Microsoft Azure.

1. Begin with a Pilot

Augie Gonzalez, director of product marketing, DataCore Software, advises others to take small steps before they throw all their storage eggs into an Azure basket. There are so many factors to take into account that a mere reading of the pricing sheet won’t suffice. You have to experience how it all works and see how that translates into a monthly bill before you can really appreciate the nuances of cloud pricing.

“Explore the variables that you can rapidly adjust to meet variations in the capacity and performance of the Azure cloud storage by starting with a modest pilot program,” said Gonzalez.

2. Look for Immediate Returns

Plenty of enterprises are evolving all-cloud strategies at a top management level. But it’s up to those on the ground floor of storage to inject some reality into the equation. Those at the top are attracted by the huge potential cost savings of the cloud. They have lived through years of on-prem IT and storage cost overruns and budgetary bickering. They are keen to simplify, cut costs and move storage over to more of a utility model.

But caution is advised. It’s up to storage managers to figure out tactically how to make actual savings. And in most cases, that means the avoidance of an “all-cloud now” approach. That doesn’t mean that it’s an undesirable long-term goal. But in the short term, the best way forward is to find the low-hanging fruit, learn the ropes and add more cloud from there.

“Identify spot uses for Azure cloud storage where its flexibility and convenience bring immediate payoff, without having to deliberate on long-term strategic decisions that tend to bog down the initial taste,” said Gonzalez.

3. Think Colo

Many in IT have experience in using colocation facilities. They are aware of the way colos work and how to factor in the different elements to determine what is worth collocating and what is not. So for those less familiar with Azure pricing, yet who are being urged by management to head for the cloud in a big way, Gonzalez’ advice is to think of the cloud in a similar way to colocation economics.

“Look at Azure the way you might assess a colocation facility, but with someone else taking care of the day-to-day chores necessary to keep the servers and storage infrastructure running well,” he said. “Tap the services of experienced hybrid cloud solution providers to expedite the process.”

4. Understand All Costs

The above points all add up to gaining an understanding of all the real-world costs of cloud storage. This goes far beyond storage capacity, and delves into bandwidth, compute fees, the cost of API calls, event monitoring, and the oft-forgotten inter-region, intra-region and intra-cloud communication charges, said Greg Schulz, an analyst at StorageIO Group.

“Likewise, understand the difference between ephemeral local on the instance and persistent storage, as well as other cloud storage options,” he said. “It’s not just about blobs, objects, containers and buckets.”

5. Be Flexible

Schulz added that flexibility is key, and that means finding the right balance. A blinkered look only at very low storage costs in the cloud may appear to save a bundle. But the corresponding compute charges or network and gateway as well as API fees may kill any real savings. It’s best to view the various services and see which one works best for you. That may mean paying a little more for storage in order to get more compute and lower latency. That might either be cheaper or gain the organization greater productivity.

“Look at all of your options, including where your applications are going to be located in order to maximize cloud efficiency,” said Schulz. “Also, understand how licensing works. There can be pricing advantages which are constantly changing, as are the resiliency, regions and location support.”

6. Address Latency

An important consideration in any cloud strategy is latency. You don’t want your users to have to go out to the cloud every time they need to access data. That could mean delay. After all, the request has to come from your own internal systems, be fed over the Web to the cloud, be processed there, and then make its way back.

There are ways around this, of course. Azure provides compute resources for a premium to greatly reduce latency. Similarly, storage providers add value by taking the latency out of the process via various strategies. Nasuni, for example, has a cache-from-cloud architecture.

“Azure is used to store the authoritative ‘gold copies’ of all files, but frequently accessed files are stored locally in edge appliances for fast access,” said Warren Mead, vice president, alliances and business development, Nasuni.

7. Consider Security

To paraphrase Scottish poet Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and storage managers often go astray.” This is particularly the case when security is not taken into account in an otherwise carefully thought out plan to slash storage costs when heading for the cloud. The plan may save millions, but if it violates security policies or leaves the organization less in control, it won’t be approved.

“Many cloud storage services either do not use encryption, or hold the encryption keys themselves,” said Mead. “You also need to consider what authentication and access procedures will be used for cloud storage.

Again, storage providers are coming up with ways to address security concerns and give enterprises greater control. Nasuni, for instance, lets customers hold their own encryption keys, which means neither Microsoft nor Nasuni can access sensitive data. Similarly, it integrates with on-premises Active Directory (AD) implementations and uses standard CIFS/SMB protocols to present access to file shares on the edge appliances the same as traditional NAS. Access to the cached local data is governed by standard AD authentication, and the usual drive letters still apply. As a result, user drives don’t have to be re-mapped, and automation scripts and workflows don’t need to be changed.

8. Be Bold

Yes, caution is advisable, and Azure storage and services sometimes cost more than expected. But for everyone who has gotten an unfortunate surprise at the end of the billing period, there are many more who have reaped the benefits of cloud storage — financially and otherwise.

That’s why Schulz recommends doing a proof-of-concept for functionality, management, day-to-day operations, troubleshooting and how to refine process and procedures, as well as testing performance before you leap. Also, know what tools you have in your toolbox for moving, migrating, optimizing and managing cloud services and cloud storage.

“But don’t be afraid of using cloud services, just be prepared and informed,” said Schulz.

In other words, be bold. Fortune favors the bold, after all.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb is a contributing writer for Datamation, Enterprise Storage Forum, eSecurity Planet, Channel Insider, and eWeek. He has been reporting on all areas of IT for more than 25 years. He has a degree from the University of Strathclyde UK (USUK), and lives in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.

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