By “cloud computing”, we don’t mean the vague term that’s often applied to consumer services that store your data on a remote server somewhere. We mean actual computing as a service for companies, organizations, and even individuals who want to take advantage of it.
Traditionally, businesses and other organizations would host their own infrastructure. A business would have its own web server (or email server, or whatever) on its own hardware. If more power was needed, the business would have to purchase more server hardware. The business would also have to pay someone to administrate that hardware and pay for a solid Internet connection to serve its customers. Alternatively, there are hosting companies that host your services on some of their own hardware in their data centers, for a fee.
Cloud computing works a bit differently. Rather than run your own hardware or pay for use of some specific hardware in someone else’s data center, you just pay for access to a massive pool of computing resources provided by Microsoft (or Amazon, or Google). This allows you to host web servers, email servers, databases, file storage servers, virtual machines, user directories, or anything else you might want. When you need more computing resources, you don’t have to purchase physical hardware. The “cloud” shares the hardware and automatically assigns the work, as necessary. You pay for as many computing resources as you need, and not a specific number of hardware servers on a rack somewhere.
What can Microsoft Azure Do?
The Microsoft Azure website provides a directory of hundreds of different services you can use, including full virtual machines, databases, file storage, backups, and services for mobile and web apps.
This service was originally named “Windows Azure”, but transitioned to “Microsoft Azure” because it can handle much more than just Windows. You can run either Windows or Linux virtual machines on Azure, for example—whichever you prefer.
Digging through these hundreds of services, you’ll see that you can do practically anything. And for anything Azure doesn’t offer in an easy service, you can set up a Windows or Linux virtual machine that hosts whatever software you want to use. You could even host a Windows or Linux desktop in the cloud on a virtual machine and connect to it remotely. It’s just another way to use remote computing resources.
Microsoft is also using Azure to extend Windows in some important ways. Traditionally, organizations that wanted to have a central user directory and management of their PCs needed to run their own Microsoft Active Directory server. Now, in addition to the traditional Active Directory software that can be installed on a Windows server, an organization can use Azure Active Directory.
Azure AD is the same sort of thing—but hosted on Microsoft Azure. It allows organizations to have all those centralized administration features without requiring them to host their own Active Directory server (and set up the often complicated infrastructure and access permissions needed to make it work remotely).
Much of what Azure does isn’t exclusive to Azure. Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are competing. Amazon Web Services, for example, is the leader in the field—ahead of both Microsoft and Google offerings.