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Data-driven decision making is the driving force behind the world’s most powerful and successful companies. Naturally, we work hard to gather the information, but storing and managing it is actually the critical element to success (to say nothing of storing it securely and compliantly). Being able to use the data that you have is the advantage you have over your competitors. There are ways to do this. A popular method is through SQL databases. Structured Query Language is a computer-based command language that is used to direct databases. Databases of course are storage repositories for information. The data may be kept on on-site servers or remotely in the cloud. Microsoft Azure SQL Server is an example of a cloud-based SQL solution. Database management system like Azure SQL Server helps to keep the data secure and organised in a manageable fashion. Being able to access the data in a timely fashion is important. The global reach of Microsoft presents an advantage here in terms of service quality, continuity and most importantly, speed. There are three server data centres in the UK, in London, Cardiff and Durham. The proximity of the data centres means you don’t need to wait for the data to transmit between your device and the servers. Latency is almost completely negated compared with other managed SQL services that may be offered in more remote locations.

If you’re looking to transform your business from a simple on-site server setup to a hybrid or cloud-based solution, Microsoft Azure SQL Server may be what you’re looking for. The platform operates with virtual machines hosted in the cloud. Your business can take advantage of Microsoft’s impressive security and processing capability while maintaining autonomy over processes. The Azure SQL Server option leaves the ball in your court, giving you the power to control key decisions about how you interact with your digital space (and when). The more complex version, Azure SQL Database is fully managed, which leaves business owners little to do with daily management of IT administration but less flexibility. Each business will need to decide which option is better suited to its goals. This article focuses on Azure SQL Server because its flexibility and lower price point makes it an attractive choice for many small businesses that want to take their digital platform to the next level without overcapitalising.

To help understand if this set up is right for you, start by understanding what Azure is, where SQL comes into it and how it all ties together to offer solutions for small businesses.

What is Azure

Azure is Microsoft’s cloud universe. It’s hosted on dedicated Microsoft data centres around the world. Azure is a versatile space that can be used and customised depending on the needs of your business. It integrates application services and infrastructure that is used by businesses of all sizes from small operations to global corporations to deliver digital solutions. It supports a number of programming languages, so your build team can use the platform to build, test, deploy and manage applications and databases that suit the needs of your business.

What is SQL

Structured Query Language or SQL is an internationally standardised command language that is used to instruct databases. It can be modified or customised to an extent but generally the language remains standardised across databases. The commands help to elicit workable information from within the data pool. Databases are widely used to store information that needs to be categorised and catalogued for the use of both people and algorithms (many apps require access to large data sources for example, alongside data needed for reports or business snapshots). SQL helps employees quickly navigate and manipulate data so it can be made useful and usable in the workplace. In many cases, the acronym SQL often is used as shorthand for both the command language and the databases themselves. People who are adept at using SQL are highly sought after in workplaces. Knowing how to use and manipulate databases to produce useful and reliable data is almost priceless.

Different Microsoft Azure SQL options

Azure SQL Database

So, what does it mean when Microsoft offers an Azure SQL platform? What benefit does that offer business? The first thing to understand is that Azure SQL Database and Azure SQL Server are two different options available. Azure SQL Database is the highest tier offering. Fully based in the cloud, the Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) delivers completely integrated databasing services in a fully managed environment. It’s entirely managed by Microsoft, it’s dynamically scalable and has many complexities that are available because the platform is intrinsically created and looked after by the company that designed it. SQL Database comes with machine learning potential which is particularly useful for companies that require intensive analysis such as when processing data from IoT sensors and devices. Understandably this level of complexity comes with a significant price tag. Choosing to use Azure SQL Database means you have no need for on-site server hosting or the associated maintenance or on-going costs.

Azure SQL Server

Azure SQL Server, on the other hand, comes in three separate formats. We’re going to focus on SQL Server on Azure Virtual Machines because this is the system that operates most like Azure SQL Database without the substantial overheads. Azure SQL Server for VMs is Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). It operates primarily within the Microsoft Azure cloud like SQL Database, but the functional details are quite different. It’s a pay-as-you-go service that can be stopped or resumed at any time, making it immediately attractive for businesses looking for a reliable testing environment that isn’t required to be live at all times. It is a good choice for businesses that are looking to migrate their on-premises SQL Server setups into a cloud-based environment. The flexibility to maintain aligned on-premises servers with VMs makes transitions very smooth, as the tools and knowledge required to operate them is exactly the same. Where SQL Database is almost completely hands-off, SQL Server for VMs gives a lot more control to in-house IT teams. The database engine is completely in your control, along with the patch, update and management schedule. There is also opportunity to customise the SQL Server database engine itself.

More about Azure SQL Server

Azure SQL Server is a popular option for small businesses. SQL Database undoubtedly prioritises freedom from administration over cost as its main draw card for businesses. Smaller operations may not have that luxury initially and can find themselves willing to take on more of the management and administrative tasks in exchange for a lower monthly fee and slightly modified functionality.

If your business is wanting to develop or test apps that are designed for the SQL Server environment, the virtual machine space is the perfect location. The administration authority required is the same, and the advantage is you can build a highly customised environment to suit your needs.

Migrate existing apps to a cloud environment with little to no changes required. There is no requirement to purchase additional equipment as testing can be conducted in the VM environment. Customisation is a real highlight of this version of Azure SQL. Administrators can easily influence the Server, its performance and maintenance requirements. Updates, patches and other such interruptive processes can be conducted at times that reduce interference with trade. The high availability (99.95% SLA on infrastructure) offers plenty of reassurance. Customisation and configuration can all be done to the exact requirements of the business. The cost of hardware and associated maintenance and upkeep is reduced, although the overall administration time may remain. Test failovers and other disaster recovery processes at times that suit.

The on-premises environment does not need to be entirely closed. It’s possible to create a hybrid environment that brings the on-location servers and the Active Directory Domain together, through the Azure Virtual Network.

As mentioned, it’s possible to shut down the VM resources when they aren’t needed, helping to reduce costs in some cases. This is not the case with Azure SQL Database, as that platform is always on (unless it’s deleted and recreated each time).

Service Level Agreement (SLA)

The SLA refers to the amount of time the platform is guaranteed to be up and performing across an agreed time period. The higher the percentage the more reliable the service. You can rely on Azure SQL to be unavailable for mere minutes across a year, making it an incredibly reliable platform.

For Azure SQL Server VM specifically the 99.95% SLA on infrastructure means that you will need to provide additional support to ensure that your databases always remain available. The SLA is limited to the Virtual Machine, so it does not cover the SQL Server or other processes being run. You must run at least two VM instances in an availability set. It’s possible to customise your environment to include a separate VM with AlwaysOn Availability but this will add significant costs to your database maintenance budget.

Data migration is easy

If you’re ready to take action and start using Azure SQL Server, the migration process is relatively straightforward. If you’re not sure about how to proceed or need certified expert advice you should connect to your local IT support team to help. Qualified engineers can help you understand the requirements and ensure your data is restored safely into the new digital environment.

In the most simple terms, here is how easy it is to start with Azure SQL Server:

  1. Spin up a new Virtual Machine in Azure
  2. Back up your current SQL Server instance
  3. Restore it into Azure

That’s all that you need to do to get started. From there, you have plenty of room to develop and test what you need, when you need it. Remember that you only pay pence per hour for the time the VMs are up, so it’s extremely cost effective. It becomes even more economical if you are able to reduce your capital investment in on-site data storage and hardware because you decide to host your environment in the cloud.

Conclusion

Azure SQL Server offers a tempting and practical solution for small businesses looking to expand their digital environment. Reducing overhead is always an attractive option and hosting virtual machines on Microsoft’s Azure platform is a great way to achieve that. Along with the financial benefits, there are many operational upsides too. It’s a great platform if you have a lot of databases, or they are very large or both. The processing power and speed is impressive, and you can be confident knowing that the platform is secured by Microsoft’s formidable security processes. Feel free to design and test apps in the safety of a Virtual Machine instance. The flexibility of the platform means you can spin it up when you need it and park it when you don’t. Alternatively, if you need your environment up and available you can do that too with a strong SLA giving you reassurance.

Transitioning between wholly on-premises set up and online cloud set up can be bumpy, but the process is almost seamless if you are already using SQL Server in the workplace. There is no requirement to re-architect data, application or presentation layers which saves time money and effort. The performance of the new platform will likely require some small tweaks and changes, but it will result in a powerful and secure platform that can achieve a great deal.

Get ready to explore your business potential with Microsoft Azure SQL Server.

Computers in the City, your Azure SQL Server partner

Computers in the City is London’s longest standing IT partner. With over 20 years’ experience, we can assist you to meet your IT support, digital security consulting and cloud computing needs. Let us help you identify opportunities to use Microsoft Azure SQL Server to advance your business. We’re proud to be local, offering 24-hour support in straightforward language that takes the stress out of IT support.