The Microsoft family of hosted cloud services known as Azure is testing 2 new services that could prove to be killer apps — moving infrastructure into the cloud. Azure files provide a simple Windows file share based storage that can be accessed by multiple Virtual machines running inside Azure. Azure Remote Apps, also in beta testing, allows you to create virtual machines that run line of business and custom applications over a remote desktop connection as if the applications was installed directly on your computer from anywhere in the world.
Azure Files uses a technology called SMB to share files the same way you share files now on your local network on a file server or network attached storage device. Before Azure Files you had to use Azure Disks to provide storage to your VMs running inside Azure. Azure Disks could only be accessed by a single VM at a time and then you had to share the files from inside the VM. Azure Files allows multiple VMs access to the same storage so they can share data and files. It is even possible — though not very straight forward and a little difficult to set up — to directly access this storage from your local network over a VPN connection using a feature called ExpressRoute in Azure. If it becomes easy to store and access files in Azure using technologies like SMB that small businesses understand this could make Azure a great storage platform for infrequently accessed files and documents.
Remote App allows you to pay a monthly fee for users to access Azure desktops from anywhere in the world and run your applications just like you do in the office. For my accounting folks out there imagine hosting your audit software like Engagement CS on a server in the cloud and being able to run the application like you were sitting in the office connected directly to your server and not in some disconnected mode with only the client data you took with you. Well, we can do that now but it requires Remote Access licenses and servers or desktops that need hardware and Windows licenses to run. With Remote App the licenses for the server and Remote Access are included in the monthly user fee. It integrates with your existing on site infrastructure and can even allow remote desktops access to your onsite infrastructure in a hybrid configuration. This service is free while it is in beta testing, and I have yet to see any pricing for when it finally goes live but if it is in the $4-$5 range per user this could be huge for small and medium businesses with lots of users who need to work remotely.
I believe that more and more of our technology will move to the cloud and that very soon small and medium businesses will have almost no infrastructure in their offices. The savings and predictable cost of cloud services like Azure combined with the highly available, powerful infrastructure within the cloud will soon give small and medium businesses like yours access to the same power and resources as large enterprises while still allowing your business to be nimble and efficient through the strategic use of technology. The new services that Microsoft is testing and bringing to Azure only strengthen my belief in the cloud for small business in the very near future.