Microsoft announces features and performance improvements for many Azure services

The latest round of Azure features will make it easier to move existing business workloads and processes to the Microsoft cloud

Azure Active Directory lets users change their local password through the cloud, using security questions or multi-factor authentication

Azure Active Directory lets users change their local password through the cloud, using security questions or multi-factor authentication

Microsoft announced updates to many Azure services this week, previewing new services and moving others from preview to general availability as full working versions.

For those running virtual machines (VM) in the Azure cloud, there are now two ways of using SSDs to improve performance. In addition to the D series virtual machines that use SSD for a temporary disk that caches only data the VM is currently using, to speed up things like NoSQL database workloads or SQL Server caching, Microsoft is previewing Premium Storage using SSDs on its new DS series VMs.

With Premium Storage, users permanently attach one or more SSDs to their VM to get up to 32TB of fast, low-latency storage for running workloads like SQL Server, Oracle Database, MySQL, SAP Business Suite, Dynamics and other applications that need such high I/O speeds that they couldn't normally be run in the cloud.

Individual Premium Storage disks deliver up to 5,000 IOPS and 200MBps throughput with less than 1 millisecond of latency, which can be aggregated to over 50,000 IOPS by combining multiple SSDs. Azure automatically keeps three replicas of Premium Storage data in the same region and users can also snapshot the data into Azure Standard Storage for geo-replication.

For users who prefer to use the Azure SQL Database service instead of running SQL Server on Azure themselves, many of the SQL Server 14 features are now available in preview, including the in-memory column store that puts each column on its own set of disk pages. So, loading information from just a few columns won't mean loading the whole table. This is designed for analytics and data warehouses, and offers the same level of 100x performance improvements SQL Server 2014 customers have seen on their own servers.

SQL Azure Database also now has more options for building database applications using T-SQL Windows functions, the .NET common-language runtime and change tracking, plus more tools for workload management, including parallel queries, table partitioning, online indexing and rebuilding indexes larger than 2GB, with more monitoring and troubleshooting views. With these features, migrating existing SQL Server applications to SQL Azure Database is much more feasible.

Microsoft has also announced several other features designed to make it easier to move in-house systems to the cloud. The Azure RemoteApp service, for running Windows desktop applications that can be accessed from Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices, is now generally available, costing from $10 per user per month for the Basic service that runs single apps or $15 for the Standard service that can run Office.

Connecting to the cloud

Two key Azure Active Directory features for connecting business infrastructure to the cloud are now available. Azure AD Proxy enables remote access to Web applications (including Outlook Web Access and SharePoint) running on servers via Azure, with single sign on, just like the cloud services that can already be managed for single sign on through Azure AD, and with support for multifactor authentication, including smartphones.

Azure AD Sync can be used not just to keep usernames and passwords in sync between AD and cloud services like Office 365, but also for self-service password resets without needing to set up a password management service. By turning on the new Password Write-Back option, users can change their passwords in the online portal and have it sync back to their AD automatically so they can use it everywhere.

A new option is in preview to add security questions for password reset, instead of using email, text or phone calls.

Also in preview are Administrative Units, that use PowerShell to set up groups to control who has administrative privileges for specific features and users. Microsoft says this is a feature many large customers have asked for.

Smaller customers have been asking to buy Azure AD Premium online, rather than as part of an Enterprise Agreement and users can now buy it as a service through Office 365. It will be offered as a service to purchase on the Azure portal in the coming months.

Other Azure features are also becoming more useful for smaller businesses. Previously, the Azure Site Recovery service needed to use System Center Virtual Machine Manager for automating failover and recovery to Azure instead of a user's disaster recovery site, making it only suitable for enterprises. Hyper-V replication from Windows Server 2012 R2 direct to Azure, without running System Center, is now possible. Users can also test failing over to Azure without taking local servers down.

Microsoft announced minor improvements (to several other Azure services. Changes to the Azure Search portal make it easier to create and tweak search indexes for Web and mobile applications, plus there's support for searching in 27 languages. Users can now bulk upload JSON documents to the Azure DocumentDB NoSQL document database. And the Live Media Streaming service used by many broadcasters to stream the 2014 Winter Olympics and World Cup is now generally available for streaming any event live, using Flash and HTML5 video, including iOS and Android support.

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