Despite playing catch-up to Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure has quickly become a contender with its powerful Platform-as-a-Service and Infrastructure-as-a-Service offerings. With constant innovations around usability, open source and cross-platform compatibility, infrastructure management and evolving software development paradigms for new devices and applications, it can be hard to get your bearings within the vast platform.

First things first: What comprises the Azure platform? It’s not turtles all the way down; in Azure principal program manager Scott Hanselman’s words, the underlying layer, the “infinite hard disk in the sky,” is Azure storage, where you can drill down to every virtual hard disk (VHD) image in your deployment. The next level up comprises virtual machines, which you choose, configure and manage.

On top of those VMs is a middle ground between IaaS and PaaS: Worker Roles, which are stateless cloud apps that can scale their VMs up or down. Above Worker Roles we are clearly in PaaS territory, with Web Apps, Azure Batch and HDInsight (Hadoop) for Big Data analysis. And at the top there are Web Jobs, Mobile Apps, and Media Services. These pieces are among those also available as the Azure Stack for on-premise datacenters or hybrid cloud applications.

(Related: PaaS gets a new lease on life)

“The first distinction to make as an Azure customer is, do I want to consume VMs, or do I want to consume the platform that Azure provides me?” said Esteban Garcia, Visual Studio ALM MVP and chief technologist for Nebbia Technology, and Azure company in Orlando. “Within PaaS, we typically do a Web app and SQL services. Those are pretty straightforward and easy to discover.”

It’s likely that most cloud problems you’re facing have already been solved somewhere in the Azure community, advises Corey Sanders, director of program management for Azure. “Make sure you look at the full breadth of services we offer, because they solve a lot of different problems. That’s the value of having a broad platform such as Azure,” he said.

Read on for tips from these Azure experts.

1. Saving pennies, saving dollars
The promise of the cloud is elasticity: sizing your deployment according to demand. Too often, Azure users are surprised by the multiple dimensions of pricing, from storage to transactions, support, bandwidth and more. The first step toward transparency in billing is not to “set it and forget it” but to monitor, measure and adjust frequently.