A number of factors have come together to form a guide for Microsoft to the path that has made Azure the key to the company’s future success. That road has been bumpy, but almost always on a good trajectory. Now, as the offerings gel and mature, Microsoft has to maintain its commitments and satisfy those who have bought in while keeping the world excited about Azure.

Cloud is a great name for this market, because just like trying to control the weather, it’s hard for humans to control anything even in the best of conditions. To prove this point, there have been outages and missteps to remind Microsoft, and everyone else, that this stuff is hard, especially at these scales. Thanks to these difficulties, Azure continues to evolve, with new capabilities and features coming fast. Now that the major patterns have emerged, it is easier to help even newcomers find their bearings. Bill Wilder, CTO of Finomial, author of “Cloud Architecture Patterns” and an Azure MVP, calls this the “second generation of Azure services. These new services are rich with enterprise-class features, but also accessible to mere mortals because they hide so much of the complexity.”

The single most common question that people ask about Azure is “How can I use Azure or any cloud for that matter?” which boils down to “What is in it for me?”

These are simple questions with not-so-simple answers. The first thing to understand is that Azure is about providing services that you can leverage to get your work done quickly, easily and cheaply. It is important to remember that, just like no one buys a computer because they want the operating system, you will not choose to use cloud capabilities for their own sake. The offerings of Azure are growing, and it can be bewildering to even understand how to categorize things.

Four ways Azure works
The easiest way to approach this is to understand that there are four major modes or categories where Azure plays that will help with understanding how you can jump into using it and make sense of new announcements going forward. The service categories break down into Virtual Machines, Azure Websites, Cloud Services and Packages.

For most companies with dedicated IT staff, the easiest place to start is to take a computer or virtual machine and host it in Azure, taking advantage of the Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) aspects of Azure. Through the virtual machine hosting capabilities, Microsoft provides power, ping (Internet access), the Microsoft OS license, and even a wide array of template systems to choose from when creating the VM. The rest is up to you, including ongoing patching, any troubleshooting of the OS and your application, and upgrades, making this offering very similar to what is provided by any number of ISPs, such as Amazon, GoDaddy and Rackspace.

There are two potential advantages to using Microsoft’s IaaS, with the first being the company’s ability to provide the license, rather than having to buy the license and pass that cost on to the consumer, which all the other IaaS providers must do.

The other really big advantage is the ability to move VMs from Azure to your own data center using Microsoft System Center. This is a really big deal because Microsoft can serve as your backup data center, or your on-premises servers can be the backup with Azure holding the primary. This is an excellent option for those that either have trouble letting go or need to keep parts of their systems on premises. Most organizations in the world cannot afford to have a disaster-recovery location, so this is a way to have it without this overhead. Also, while not an exclusive advantage, Microsoft does provide a pay-as-you-go model that only Amazon matches currently with its On-Demand Instances as part of the EC2 offering.