Azure cloud services: 5 questions CIOs should ask

Understanding the evolving world of cloud services can be overwhelming. Use these questions to help guide your Azure strategy
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Today’s CIO doesn’t need an introduction to Amazon Web Services, as we wrote recently – it’s a household name. But that doesn’t mean AWS is the only option for public cloud. Microsoft Azure is another significant cloud services platform.

IT leaders don’t typically say “who?” when you mention Microsoft, either – no intro needed. But the Azure cloud is a large, changing ecosystem – and still relatively new in the context of the company's long history.  

And as we also wrote recently, they call them “hyperscale” clouds for a reason: Simply navigating the evolving menu of technologies and services can seem like a full-time job in and of itself. (For a growing industry of consultants and managed services providers, it’s literally a full-time job.)

So CIOs and their teams can certainly use a bit of help with thinking through how Azure can fit into their overall cloud strategy. 

[ Want to accelerate application development while reducing cost and complexity? Get the eBook: Modernize your IT with managed cloud services. ]

Some of the same tips – especially around business value, workload selection, and cost considerations – from our related article, “Amazon cloud services: 5 things CIOs should know,” apply here as well, so be sure to check it out.

5 questions CIOs should ask about Azure cloud services

Here are five fresh questions worth asking to help sharpen the focus of your Azure evaluation and strategy.

1. Will you need to differentiate between “Microsoft-centric” workloads and other apps?

Again, Microsoft is a large, well-established company with a broad IT portfolio. For organizations that already use lots of other Microsoft software, hardware, and services, this might make for a more seamless transition and/or integration to Azure. For other workloads, it may not be as straightforward.

“CIOs must validate the consistency of experience with Azure cloud services across workloads that are Microsoft-centric or otherwise,” says E.G. Nadhan, global chief architect leader, Red Hat.

As with any platform choice, you’ll want to do a detailed analysis of workload suitability. Otherwise, you may be asking the team to effectively smush together pieces from several disparate puzzles – which isn’t a cloud strategy so much as a cloud mess.

2. How will we get there – and can we move again once we arrive?

Unless you’re planning to do nothing but net-new greenfield development on Azure, you’ll have some migration and/or modernization choices to make, as is typically the case with public cloud platforms.

“Do we want to take a lift-and-shift approach or take the time to update the architecture to be more elastic and cloud-native?” asks Michael Allen, software architect at Laserfiche. “Do we need to re-platform our application in addition to re-hosting it?”

There isn’t a uniformly “correct” answer here. It’s an organization-specific decision that should weigh the benefits against the costs of different approaches.

“This hinges on the time and expense of developing a cloud-native architecture versus just taking a simple lift-and-shift approach,” Allen says.

You should also be considering long-term portability and flexibility once your migration is complete. Will you want or need to move data between different platforms and/or environments? Will your ability to do so be hampered in any way – by architectural choices, for example, or by data egress costs?

[ Related read: Why today's cloud is built on containers ]

“CIOs must be aware of the ability to move workloads between Azure and other cloud environments seamlessly,” Nadhan says.

Nadhan adds a bonus consideration: How will you measure the success of your migration? This should be something you have in place from the start if at all possible.

“Enterprises must have the freedom to deploy workloads of choice to Azure but also have the ability to capture the metrics to track the benefits of cloud migration,” Nadhan says.

3. What are our compliance requirements? 

Compliance requirements should be a key consideration in any public cloud migration, Azure included. It’s ideally a question you’re asking before you arrive.

As with other components of a broader migration project, managing the regulatory compliance implications may be best served by starting simple and tackling more complex systems and data later.

“If I’m just starting a data center migration project, I would want to steer away from SEC-regulated data or criminal justice data, for example, because there are specific and demanding compliance requirements for the former, and the latter also has certification requirements for both the provider and the way the system is used,” Allen says. “I’d want to start with workloads that have simpler compliance requirements to maximize the chance for success when just starting out.”

Regulatory compliance controls can vary within a broader ecosystem – not all environments or services available to you are the same. This is an added benefit of a fully managed service like Azure Red Hat OpenShift. In addition to taking a lot of the infrastructure operations toil off your team’s plate, it bakes in comprehensive compliance and security controls.

4. Do we have the right IT skills internally?

This is a different way of framing the question – who will manage this? When evaluating a specific platform like Azure, you’ll need to evaluate what skills you have already – and which skills you’ll need to develop or hire for.

“What additional training do we need to provide our staff?” Allen asks. “Are the existing IT staff certified or trained to use cloud tooling?”

[ Related read: 5 things CIOs should know about cloud service providers ]

Microsoft, of course, offers various Azure certifications and training programs, as do third-party organizations. 

Keep in mind that your skills evaluation may need to be not only Azure-specific but also encompass related cloud-centric tools like Kubernetes – for which there is a well-known shortage of available talent. 

DevOps Institute CEO Jayne Groll shares four ways to address the Kubernetes talent shortage in this article, by the way. A fully managed service can also help fill a talent gap. 

Suffice it to say that this is not an issue where you want to improvise as you go. 

5. What does the future hold?

Finally, you should be asking not just about what you can do today but also in the future.

“CIOs must ask questions about the roadmap for cloud services that are not fully available on Azure today,” Nadhan says.

While your near-term goals may be the most pressing thing on the agenda, it’s good to have a future vision – will the platform meet your long-term goals, too? If something isn’t ready today, as Nadhan asks, is there a plan to add it down the line?

Strategic focus is important, but it shouldn't require sacrificing long-term vision.

[ Learn more about hybrid cloud strategy. Get the free eBook, Hybrid Cloud Strategy for Dummies. ]

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.