Archive for Michael Pelletier

The Business Value of Microsoft Azure – Part 5 – Notification Hubs

This article is part 5 of a series of articles that focus on the Business Value of Microsoft Azure. Microsoft Azure provides a variety of cloud based technologies that can enable organizations in a number of ways. Rather than focusing on the technical aspects of Microsoft Azure (there’s plenty of that content out there) this series will focus on business situations and how Microsoft Azure services can benefit.

In our last article we focused on virtualization and the use of virtual machines as part of an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) solution. While this is a great approach for traditional server workloads, there has been a significant shift in the way individuals interact with and consume information suggesting the need for something different. Specifically, a mobile device has overtaken the PC in terms of unit sales/year and this presents a scenario that many municipalities can tap into.

Let’s think back to our fictional town of Gamehendge. A hurricane is approaching and Mayor Wilson needs to warn its citizens. To handle the scale required to communicate in this fashion would require a significant notification infrastructure. Why pay for this type of scale when it’s only needed on occasion? Microsoft Azure Notification Hubs is a massively scalable mobile push notification engine for quickly sending millions of messages to iOS, Android, Windows, or Kindle devices. It’s possible to tailor notifications to specific citizens or entire groups with just a few lines of code, and do it across any platform.

Further, in Gamehendge there is a population that doesn’t speak English as their native language. Traditional communications can often go without understanding. The templates feature of Notification Hubs provide a handy way to send localized push notifications so you’re speaking to citizens in their language. Templates also eliminates the hassle of storing the localization settings for each group.

Combining the scalability and configurability of the Notification Hubs solution, along with its ability to work with either on-premise or cloud based systems, your municipality gains the ability to notify your citizens of any information that can prepare and inform them of upcoming events in the event of an emergency or as part of a more generalized community awareness system. While the Notification Hubs feature is just one small component of the Azure platform, it can have a significant impact in your community.

As a partner with BlumShapiro Consulting, Michael Pelletier leads our Technology Consulting Practice. He consults with a range of businesses and industries on issues related to technology strategy and direction, enterprise and solution architecture, service oriented architecture and solution delivery.

 

The Business Value of Microsoft Azure – Part 4 – Virtual Machines

This article is part 4 of a series of articles that focus on the Business Value of Microsoft Azure. Microsoft Azure provides a variety of cloud based technologies that can enable organizations in a number of ways. Rather than focusing on the technical aspects of Microsoft Azure (there’s plenty of that content out there) this series will focus on business situations and how Microsoft Azure services can benefit.

In our last article we focused on data loss from the standpoint of system failure, corruption or other disasters that requires access to a backup. Today, and I’m surprised it took me to part 4 to get to it, we’re going to focus on Virtualization. One of the simplest and most common Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) solutions is virtualization, or the creation of virtual machines in a cloud infrastructure.

Take, for example, the story of a local town. They have an ERP system that is currently running on Windows Server 2003. The nature of the application is such that it runs best through Remote Desktop (RDP) and is how both their local and remote users access the system. Like many towns they were wrestling with the best path forward for their infrastructure. Here are a few characteristics that defined them:

  1. They had an older ERP system that they needed to upgrade because it was currently running and only supported on Windows Server 2003. Windows Server 2003 hits end of life in July of 2015.
  2. They weren’t certain if the next version of their ERP system was where they wanted to be in the long run, but hadn’t found a suitable replacement as of yet.
  3. Any investments in hardware/software to support the new ERP would therefore need to be questioned given the fact that it was conceivable they would only run it for another year.
  4. They had several locations throughout the town that all connected over RDP to access the ERP system because it was not designed to run well as a client/server system over a WAN.

After an initial assessment it was determined that their existing infrastructure would not be able to support the new environment. A local IT vendor quoted them approximately $50,000 in hardware and software to create a new virtual server environment on-premise. Were it not for the ERP upgrade requirements, their existing hardware/software would continue to be sufficient for a number of years. $50,000 is a significant amount given that the town isn’t sure it is going to stick with the ERP system. What else could this town do?

Enter Microsoft Azure Virtual Machines

In order to give the town some breathing room on making a switch to a different ERP system and ease their need to upgrade their on-premise infrastructure, the town turned to Microsoft Azure. Using the virtualization capabilities of the Azure platform the town created a new RDP environment along with the ERP system server and database. This solution, which the town connected to their existing environment with the site-to-site VPN capabilities of Azure, provided the town with a secure, reliable and easily expandable environment to meet their needs.

The key benefits of this approach were as follows:

  1. Eliminated $50,000 of up-front cost for revamping their existing hardware and shifted them to a reasonable $1,000/month Azure subscription model
  2. Avoided a sunk cost should the town decide to move to a different ERP solution, perhaps one that follows a SaaS model. With Azure, if a set of services is no longer needed you simply turn them off and you don’t get billed further.
  3. Allowed them to continue to get life out of their existing on-premise infrastructure
  4. Established a pattern that could be followed for other applications in that the town now had the option to quickly and easily add additional virtual machines into their Azure subscription to support other workloads.

Before your town or business elects to go down the traditional path of investing 10s of thousands of dollars in a new on-premise infrastructure, take a look at Microsoft Azure for your virtualization needs.

As a partner with BlumShapiro Consulting, Michael Pelletier leads our Technology Consulting Practice. He consults with a range of businesses and industries on issues related to technology strategy and direction, enterprise and solution architecture, service oriented architecture and solution delivery.

The Business Value of Microsoft Azure – Part 3 – Backup

This article is part 3 of a series of articles that will focus on the Business Value of Microsoft Azure. Microsoft Azure provides a variety of cloud based technologies that can enable organizations in a number of ways. Rather than focusing on the technical aspects of Microsoft Azure (there’s plenty of that content out there) this series will focus on business situations and how Microsoft Azure services can benefit.

In our last article we focused on data security from the perspective of the ability for users to purposefully or inadvertently cause data to leave the organization. Today we’re going to focus on data loss from the standpoint of system failure, corruption or other disaster that requires access to a backup.

Many organizations still rely on tape based backup systems as the primary means of backing up critical business data. Let’s take the typical municipal office. Chances are that our fictional town of Gamehendge has either a traditional backup to tape solution or perhaps a disk-based virtual tape system where copies are then made to physical tapes. These tapes are sent offsite to a facility that manages tape archiving for disaster protection purposes. While this seems reasonable, our town faces a problem.

If a production system fails or if data needs to be restored due to user deletion/corruption it might take up to 24 hours for the IT department to work with the off-site records management company to request, locate and deliver the appropriate tape with the ensuing process to then actually recover the data.

One solution to this problem might be to set up a co-location solution with a hosting provider and replicate certain servers. Again, this is a fairly common practice. However, replicating all the servers in their environment is costly and so only a handful of the most high-priority systems are replicated. This approach, while a step in the right direction, only allows a few key systems to be restored in 2-3 hours, leaving the remaining systems to a 24 hour recovery period.

Our fictional town wants to free up their IT folks to spend time on value added activities. Right now the amount of time spent managing backups, restoring data and managing the replication processes makes this a challenge. Our town budget is just as tight as everyone else and so finding a creative way to address this issue without needing to hire another resource is critical.

Enter the Microsoft Azure StorSimple family of hybrid cloud storage solutions.

StorSimple is an on-premise enterprise storage area network that interoperates with Microsoft Azure to provide hybrid-cloud storage, data archiving, and fast disaster recovery. The solution replaces traditional backup processes with the concept of “cloud snapshots” that automate the process of creating copies of data remotely in the Azure Storage Cloud.

With our data securely backed up in Microsoft Azure Cloud Storage our town has a couple of options. They can purchase a second StorSimple appliance and deploy it at their co-location facility or they can use a virtual StorSimple appliance in the Microsoft Azure Cloud to quickly bring data or a virtual machine back online resulting in a significantly faster recovery time compare to tape storage.

Our town has realized additional benefits by pursuing this solution. Beyond the backup capability, the StorSimple device provides “bottomless” storage. With three tiers of data storage capability (SSD, HDD, and Cloud) the device intelligently transfers data from higher cost/higher performing storage (SSD) to lower cost HDD and eventually Azure Cloud Storage. This happens automatically based on usage characteristics and other criteria. Further, with the deduplication and compression technologies in the device our town has been able to reduce the total amount of storage space needed to protect its data.

There are other approaches that can be implemented as well using Microsoft Azure Cloud Storage, but with the StorSimple device it provides a significant step forward for cities and towns that have struggled to keep up with the ever growing demands for storage. Every town that has considered implementing a cop-cam officer mounted video camera solution will immediately face significant data storage and backup needs and StorSimple can play a key role in managing these costs.

As a partner with BlumShapiro Consulting, Michael Pelletier leads our Technology Consulting Practice. He consults with a range of businesses and industries on issues related to technology strategy and direction, enterprise and solution architecture, service oriented architecture and solution delivery.

The Business Value of Microsoft Azure – Part 2 – Active Directory

This article is part 2 of a series of articles that will focus on the Business Value of Microsoft Azure. Microsoft Azure provides a variety of cloud based technologies that can enable organizations in a variety of ways. Rather than focusing on the technical aspects of Microsoft Azure (there’s plenty of that content out there) this series will focus on business situations and how Microsoft Azure services can benefit.

There are many risks that businesses and governmental entities face when it comes to data loss. Most have taken steps to do things like encrypt hard drives, enforce password change policies and limit the use of consumer oriented applications like Facebook. However, one the biggest gaps that exist has emerged as a result of the prevalence of Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions. These cloud based systems require little to no IT involvement to get up and running. A consequence of this ease of deployment is that countless new opportunities for compromise emerge.

Let’s take something like a file sharing service. Whether it’s Dropbox, box, or some other solution, an individual in an organization can quickly set it up with a username and password and begin sharing files inside or outside the organization. In most cases this isn’t carried out by a nefarious user with malicious intent. Rather, it’s set up to address a specific business need. Perhaps it’s a new product catalog and price list that’s too large to send to distributors via email. While this sounds good on the surface, let’s fast forward six months…

Six months after the service has been in use there are now a couple dozen fellow employees using the service, all with an individual username and password. The CIO finally becomes aware of this because he gets a link shared with him from one of his employees that takes him to a file in a box account. He immediately spots a problem – what happens if one of these employees leave?

  1. We don’t know that they are using the service
  2. We can’t terminate their access
  3. We have no ability to enforce any password complexity or change frequency requirements

Now, there are a variety of solutions to this problem. First, the CIO could disable access to box and prevent users from using the service. OneDrive for Business, part of Office 365 could be implemented as a secure, enterprise alternative. However, what if the CIO didn’t want to take away this service, but have more control over it. Is there a solution?

Enter Microsoft Azure Active Directory. Microsoft Azure Active Directory provides a variety of services to the enterprise that can help our CIO. First and foremost is the Access Panel portal for Single Sign On (SSO) based access to SaaS applications. This allows the CIO to configure access to box so that the user actually uses their standard Active Directory credential to authenticate against box. This also means that when that employee leaves or is terminated and their Active Directory account is disabled…so too is their access to box!

In addition to the Access Panel, another key feature is something called Azure Active Directory Cloud App Discovery. This service allows a small agent to be deployed to an end user workstation which allows for access to various cloud services to be monitored. This is a huge benefit to IT organizations because they:

  • Get a summary view of the total number of cloud applications in use and the number of users using cloud applications
  • See the top cloud applications in use within the organization
  • See top applications per category
  • See usage graphs for applications that can be pivoted on users, requests or volume of data exchanged with the application
  • Can drill down into specific applications for targeted information
  • Can view which users are accessing which apps
  • Can easily proceed to integrate an application with Azure Active Directory

There are many other reasons for organizations to look at Azure Active Directory, but this is the first one that pops into mind whenever I think about security risks and simple ways to reduce exposure while still providing end-users with access to the productivity applications they desire.

As a partner with BlumShapiro Consulting, Michael Pelletier leads our Technology Consulting Practice. He consults with a range of businesses and industries on issues related to technology strategy and direction, enterprise and solution architecture, service oriented architecture and solution delivery.