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Partners weigh in on Azure management tools

Partners give their take on a range of Azure management tools that are offered by Microsoft, third-party vendors and the open source community.

With Azure, Microsoft has set its sights on competing with Amazon Web Services in the highly competitive cloud provider space. It appears to be making progress: The company joined Microsoft in the Leaders quadrant of Gartner's May 2014 Cloud Infrastructure as a Service Magic Quadrant.

And as the cloud platform has matured, an increasing number of Azure management tools have become available. The tools are not only developed by Microsoft, but are also available from third-party vendors and the open source community. Depending on the type of function they perform, partners have views on which tools are important and which are the most effective.

Microsoft's tools differ from the open source and third-party tools for managing an Azure environment in that they "lack the more innovative and efficient capabilities of partner firms,'' observed Terry Hedden, CEO of CloudGuru, a firm that advises vendors and distributors around their channel relationships and that advises value-added resellers (VARs) and managed service providers (MSPs) looking to increase their revenue.

"Third-party tools tend to leverage best practices from other vendors and provide a more robust solution to cloud management,'' he noted. Another way they differ is perhaps the most noteworthy: They tend to be vendor-agnostic and could continue to work effectively for a client, even if they move to another cloud vendor, Hedden said. For example, they can facilitate managing multiple clouds from multiple vendors or transitioning compute between cloud providers, he explained.

The most common classes of tools that CloudGuru recommends to its clients relate to monitoring or management, Hedden said. "Microsoft's tools are far more robust than they were even 12 months ago, but lack some of the more advanced features," he said. "I have also found that outsourcing some tasks to third parties is better than building the capabilities internally."

Nintex, a provider of workflow tools to automate business processes, is mostly using management and monitoring tools from Microsoft for Azure management, with help from third-party providers, said Mike Fitzmaurice, vice president of product technology for Nintex. The company also uses SQL Azure for data storage, which "behaves like a boundary-free database," based on what the user pays for.

Nintex is also using Azure Management Studio from Cerebrata, primarily for monitoring, to make sure all services are running, he said. "It is really good at giving us the ability to manage storage blobs, cables and queues -- pipes that take messages on one end and send messages on the other" for guaranteed delivery between services, he explained. Nintex carefully monitors storage and RAM being used and is planning to spend more time monitoring the overall network throughput. "We aren't at this point monitoring for runaway network traffic because we've taken a lot of care to build our app to reduce it [proactively],'' Fitzmaurice said.

Companies should be making "intelligent decisions" if they don't want an app to consume a lot of resources, and "management and monitoring aren't enough,'' he maintained. "You have to give some thought to how you've written the app in first place.'' They also shouldn't rule out open source tools for Azure, Fitzmaurice added. The most important tools for Nintex are the ones that monitor uptime, he said.

Microsoft is embracing the concept of DevOps and how that works from a tool perspective.
Jacob SaundersCTO at 10th Magnitude

Microsoft recently announced the new Preview Portal for Azure and will provide further details on general availability at a later date, according to a spokesperson. 10th Magnitude, a full-service cloud consulting firm focusing on software development, infrastructure migration, automation and management, is using the portal in beta right now and considers it to be an important rollout, said Jacob Saunders, CTO.

"That's going to be where Microsoft rolls out new services first," he said. In late September, Microsoft rolled out monitoring, alerting and role-based access control features, and "the exciting thing about that is it allows for more granular control of management access permissions." That would give a client the ability to manage some aspects of its cloud service, but leaves the core actions up to 10th Magnitude, he said.

One of other new features he said 10th Magnitude has seen in the portal is the ability to control SQL Server AlwaysOn. "This new high-availability model is now controllable from the portal and [we] haven't been able to do that before,'' Saunders said.

But the most exciting development among Azure management tools they've seen is the integration of Chef, an open source scripting tool to automate configuration changes in a Windows environment, Saunders said. Whether it's deploying completely new servers or managing software or configuration of software, Chef allows the DevOps approach to be used, he said.

A subcomponent of Azure PowerShell called DSC (Desired State Configuration) now integrates with Chef as well, "so we're seeing Microsoft tools playing nicely with Chef on the deployment side and that's a very exciting development," Saunders said. "We're not sure where that path will end and whether Microsoft will build something similar to Chef or integrate Chef further, [but] the most important thing is Microsoft is embracing the concept of DevOps and how that works from a tool perspective."

Besides PowerShell, 10th Magnitude is also using Azure Management Studio from Cerebrata to manage both its own Azure environment and its clients, Saunders said. For managing storage in Azure the company is using Azure Storage Explorer and a tool called CloudBerry, which allows 10th Magnitude "to peek into Azure storage and to use that for debugging purposes and [to] understand what objects are stored there."

In conjunction with Cerebrata's Azure Management Studio, 10th Magnitude is also using a backup scheduling tool for SQL Azure from Red Gate, which Saunders said has "a long history building add-on tools for SQL Server.

"One of the challenges we've had with SQL Azure is that SQL Server Agent is not part of SQL Azure," so it can run on-premises, but on a cloud platform, SQL Azure has to be used on a virtual machine, he said.

For clients, Cloud Guru recommends different tools from different sources based on individual needs. Puppet (an open source IT configuration management tool) and Chef agents are offered in Azure IaaS, and tools from CloudBerry Lab and New Relic are also very useful for clients looking to manage Azure, Hedden said. Some clients tend to use Microsoft's paid tools like System Center, PowerShell and Azure Automation. Some of the more advanced clients directly integrate via Azure's API, he said.

Where Microsoft's tools lack certain features or capabilities needed, tools from third-party vendors and the open source community ably fit the bill, the partners said.

"The channel has a track record of leveraging the best in vendor tools and creating innovative solutions to issues the vendor doesn't see or believe are issues that need to be addressed,'' Hedden concluded. "If you think about it, that is why the technology space has such an effective ecosystem."

Next Steps

Read the guide for cloud management tools for beginners

Learn about 10 essential DevOps tools beyond Chef and Puppet

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