How to embrace Azure and the Cloud

For the last year, I have been meeting with customers and partners inside and outside the Microsoft ecosystem.

I have talked with friends that are involved, at different levels, with IT whether Dev or Ops.

I have been trying to explain what the public Cloud is, especially Azure, to many different people.

Of course, I have been using the same evolution charts we all seen everywhere to illustrate my speech and explain where I believe we are headed.

What hit me while speaking with all these different people were the recurring themes: I want/need/must start on the public Cloud, but how? Where do I start?

 And very recently I finally found the right analogy, the one that will put your mind at ease, and allow you to relax and tackle the Cloud with some confidence. It has to do with someone reminding me of the Impostor’s syndrome

The full MSDN library

Some of you will remember as I do, the golden days when we had a TechNet/MSDN subscription, and we received every month the full catalog of Microsoft products, on an indecent number of CD-ROMs. I don’t know how you handled the amount of different products, but my approach was usually to fill the provided disc-book with the latest batch, and leave it at that. Occasionally, I would need to deploy a product and would pull out the matching disc.

Did anyone ever tried to grasp what all these products were and how to use them? I would venture to say that we certainly did not.

And yet, that is what some of us are trying to do with Cloud services. We get an overview of the services, quickly skimming over the names and vague target of each service, and we go home. The next day, we are willing to try new things and enjoy the breadth of options we have now a credit’s card away.

And we are stuck.

Let’s take an example, with what is named Cortana Analytics services. I chose this example because it is way out of my comfort zone, and I will not be tempted to go technical on you.

Here what the overview looks like:

When you were on the receiving end of the speech/session/introduction about these services, it all made sense, right?

What about now, do you have the slightest idea of what you could really do with Azure Stream Analytics?

All right, I am also stuck, what now?

And this is where I will disappoint everyone. I do not have a magic recipe to solve that.

However, I might be able to give some pointers, or at least tell you how I try to sort that out for myself.

If you are lucky, you have access to some expert, architect or presales consultant who have a good understanding of one scope of service (Hosting Websites on Azure, PowerBI, Big Data etc.). In that case, you should talk to that person and discuss what customer cases have been published, and try to get some inspiration by describing your current plans/project/issues. This seems to be more adapted to businesses outside of IT where you have a product and customers for it. Innovation around your product, using cloud services and components will probably have a quick positive impact for you company, and then for you.

If you work for an IT company, whether for an ISV, a consulting firm, a Managed Services Provider, things will get more difficult. In that case, what we have found to be helpful was to run a multi-steps proof of concept.

Start by gathering the innovation-minded people in your company. They might not be in your own organization, but can come for different teams and have different jobs. It does not matter, as long as they can help you brainstorm what kind of PoC you could start building.

Then… Brainstorm! Discuss any ideas of application/solution that you could build, not matter how simple or useless.

Then you choose one of your candidates, and start working on building it, using every cloud service you can around it. It can be a complex target solution, that you build step by step, or a simple one, that could get more complex or feature-rich over time.

We went for a simple, but useless app, that made use of some basic cloud components, in order to get the team to build some real know-how. When we had a skeleton application, that did nothing, but was able to use the cloud services we wanted, we gathered again, and discussed the next evolution, where the app was transformed to now be something useful for us.

Start small, and expand

What I really find attractive in this process is that it allowed us to start by just focusing on small technical bits, without being drowned in large scale/app issues and questions. For example, we wanted to have part of the app that showed interaction with the internal CRM/HR systems. We just focused on part of it, the competencies database, which we interrogated and then synchronized to our own Azure SQL database. This topic is not that wide or complex, but it allowed to work on getting data from an outside source, Salesforce, and transform it to fit another cloud service in Azure. With a bit of mind stretching, if you look again at the Cortana Analytics diagram earlier in this article, you can fit the topic in the first two blocks: Information Management, and (Big) Data Store. Our first iteration had just a visualization step added to that, in a web app we built for that. But we also added authentication, based on Azure AD, as you do not provide this information to anyone out there.

Once you are done with your first hands-on experience, start the next iteration, building on what you learned and expand. Do not hesitate to go for something completely different. We discarded 90% of our first step when we started the second. Don’t forget, the point is to learn, not necessarily to deliver!

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