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SQL to Azure: The Path to Data Modernization

Microsoft | Posted on September 4, 2017 by Arun Kirupananthan

You plan to modernize your data strategy, but aren’t sure how to proceed.

You know moving your SQL Server setup to the cloud will make your business more efficient and secure. What you don’t know is which options best meet your needs. Most organizations looking to modernize their data platforms want the same things:

  • Less administration
  • Minimal downtime
  • Data backups in a secure location
  • A replacement for dedicated disaster recovery (DR) sites
  • A cost-effective way to scale processing

Microsoft’s Azure Data Platform offers a variety of paths to these objectives. Our recent webinar focused on SQL Server on Azure Virtual Machines (VM) and Azure SQL Database.

Watch the webinar here:

Guiding Your Data Platform Investment 

On-premises data options need high administrative support and come with dedicated costs. This stems from the need to patch, update and maintain your server platforms. As you move your data off-premises, you realize savings through shared costs and lower admin requirements. And, migrating to a cloud environment introduces the possibility of savings via consolidation, automation, and scaling.

The Azure Data Platform offers two approaches to hosting SQL Server workloads in the cloud:

  • SQL Server installed on VMs and running on the Azure cloud space (Infrastructure-as-a-service).
  • Azure SQL Database, a virtualized SQL database native to the cloud (Platform-as-a-service).

Both approaches offer greater cost efficiency, security, and performance. Each fits a different set of business scenarios.

Which version of SQL Server 2016 is right for you?

SQL Server 2016 offers four different editions. The Standard and Enterprise versions cover most business cases. Standard includes basic analytics and reporting. It also presents the ability to stretch using hybrid options. Meanwhile, the Enterprise version provides higher scalability and resource efficiency. New higher-end features in Enterprise include “Always-On” availability groups and “Always-Encrypted” security.

Throughout its product cycles, Microsoft has integrated some key features into the SQL Server product. SQL Server 2016 has an in-depth security focus. The “Always-Encrypted” feature secures the data stream from point to point. Row-level security and data masking functions provide powerful, granular security for multi-tenant environments.

Other key features:

  • In-memory improvements to enhance retrieval and access performance.
  • Mobile BI technology from Microsoft-acquired DataZen enables scaling across mobile platforms.
  • Stretch Database lets you scale legacy data stored on-premises to Azure SQL DB.
  • Big Data analytics are directly integrated into the core product.
  • Query Store helps troubleshoot query performance by capturing a range of information

IaaS or PaaS? Which Is Right for My Business? 

Whether cost savings, performance or security is your chief concern, the Azure Data Platform covers a wide range of functionalities with Azure SQL Database and SQL Server on Azure VMs.

So, how should you think of the different services? 

SQL Server on an Azure VM is a fully-featured relational database management system (RDBMS). It allows you to run SQL Server installed on Windows Server VMs running on the Azure cloud. IaaS means you’re able to run applications on a “hybrid cloud” combining cloud-based and on-premises servers.

This model is best suited to rapid app development and quick migration to the cloud. It offers 100% compatibility with SQL Server features and permits you to test and deploy code changes quickly in Azure and on-premises. At the same time, this approach is a good fit for customized environments with some dedicated IT resources. However, automated features limit the need for manual configuration and management.

Azure SQL Database offers similar functionality to the IaaS model, but with more elasticity and power to scale. This is the ideal choice to support new, cloud-designed applications needing high SLAs and “full-bar” product functionality. It’s suited to organizations without dedicated database administrators (DBAs), or who need more operational support from Microsoft.

Where Does Azure SQL Database Fit? 

Microsoft has made heavy investments to make Azure SQL Database ready for business-class applications. The solution comes with a 99.99% SLA and ensures predictable throughput and performance through new service design points. Point-in-time protection includes geo-restore and geo-relocation. These features prevent the “whoops,” also known as unintended data deletion or alteration, and allow you to scale out to maintain high availability.

Other key features:

  • 3 dynamically-scaling service tiers and predictable hourly billing.
  • Flexible “pay for what you use” service model.
  • Elastic database pools allowing dynamic resource-sharing among databases on the same server.
  • Programmatic point-in-time restore with tiered retention policy.
  • Geo-restore opt-in feature allowing recovery to any Azure region.
  • Standard/passive and active geo-replication functionalities.
  • Powerful “Always-On” Availability Groups.

Migrating to the Azure Data Platform 

There are three principal ways to migrate to the Azure Data Platform.

The in-place upgrade is simple and when complete produces an up-to-date version of SQL Server. This approach has no roll-back strategy, though, and requires that the existing OS remain in place.

A side-by-side approach uses duplicate versions of Windows Server and SQL Server. It then migrates the databases from one to the other. This provides for easy testing and roll-back and gives an opportunity to refresh or virtualize the OS if this hasn’t been done already.

Azure migration uses the opportunity to move to SQL Server on Azure VM or to the PaaS model. In our webinar above, Microsoft SQL MVP Steve Thompson illustrates the platform’ integrated capability to do this.

It’s also possible to migrate to SQL Server on Azure VM using Always-On Availability Groups, reducing on-premises footprint requirements. This also hedges against equipment and facility issues, serving as a potential replacement for dedicated DR sites.

SQL Stretch Database is a hybrid solution for secure migration of cold data to Azure on a table-by-table basis. It’s effective for lowering on-premises storage and maintenance costs while keeping legacy data online and accessible through smart querying.

High Availability/Business Continuity 

Microsoft has introduced the always-on availability feature to replace database mirroring. Always-On Availability Groups are among the most powerful features in SQL Server 2016. The Standard service tier covers two-node failover, while Enterprise supports multiple nodes for clustering (3 synchronous and up to 8 replicas). The ability to setup any node as “read-only” means you can scale out your reporting needs and offload demand on the primary replica.

Other Azure Data Platform business continuity options:

  • SQL Server IaaS with log shipping enabled
  • Backup SQL Server to Azure storage account
  • Full support for SQL Server Always-On Availability Groups

Now to Begin!

With a better understanding of the cloud data options available, you’re ready to map your path forward. We recommend getting on the path to data modernization with an assessment. The SQL TechCheck provides you with a review of inventoried SQL Server instances and performance monitoring results.  At the same time, you’ll receive a Review SQL Server Modernization examples, including your options for data platform investment, and deploying and maintaining business continuity in Azure.

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