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You may have heard of Microsoft Azure, spoken about in IT circles with words such as SQL, .Net, and software-as-a-service (SaaS). It all sounds like something from outer space. Well, Microsoft Azure is not just for rocket scientists – it is the perfect cloud platform for any business owner small to large.

What is it in a nutshell?

Azure is essentially a cloud-based platform with a variety of offerings, but they can be grouped into two main functions:

  1. Data storage and sharing (SQL)

A business that makes use of enterprise resource planning (ERP), business intelligence (BI) or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) will have to store an enormous amount of data. Traditionally this required businesses to buy a great big server box and plug it in. Azure removes the need for this server because it essentially hosts millions of gigabytes of data in the cloud. So all of a business’s data sits in a secured online environment and is accessible through an Azure login portal that can be managed to allow certain people to access and share specific files related to the business. Therefore, no fancy server rooms with expensive IT infrastructure and air-conditioning are needed. Azure also has its own built-in BI solution to organise this data and perform market research.

  1. Application and website development (.Net)

Azure is the perfect cloud-based platform that allows developers to develop applications on any platform, in any code, including mobile applications. Many business models are dependent on an application for efficiency, and sometimes these apps are at the very heart of the business. For example, an airline is dependent on an online booking system that runs through an application, allowing customers to pay online, or via their mobile phone, and chose seats.

It is also essential for the modern business to have an online presence. Azure offers website development and hosting (.Net). If you’re a small business that needs to set up a website and run applications in the cloud, there are a lot of things to keep in mind, including the operating system, network, storage and ability to scale as more people start using your product or service. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a single platform that took care of all of this so that you can focus on your business?

The benefits of Azure

Cost benefits

The main benefit of anything that sits on the cloud is that it saves costs. Purchasing servers are expensive and they have to be installed by professionals and serviced every few months. There is also the risk of them being destroyed in a fire or robbery. When your server is in the cloud you don’t have to worry about the set-up costs. The licensing fee can also be paid monthly and you only pay for what you need as you need it.  Windows Azure pricing is based on consumption with a per-hour fee that’s dependent on the size of the services and storage used. So, for example, you run a car rental service and your business is paper-based, but as it grows it becomes too complicated to record all your customer’s details, dates, bookings and invoices in a ledger. So you want to create an application that can manage bookings online. However, your IT specialist informs you that this application needs 7GB of memory, 7 Terabytes of software and considerable SQL (database storage) services. If this were to be hosted on a physical server it could cost between US$10, 000 – US$15, 000 as an upfront payment for the entire server, which you may not even use half of. Then there are extras for a warranty and servicing. The IT manager will have a hard time justifying this to any shareholders. But, with Azure you can subscribe to a three month trial, making it much easier for the IT manager to accurately project costs on a monthly basis and justify the spend to the company.

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Kaakpelma Yelpaala, founder of access.mobile in Uganda, developed his new business application, Clinic Communicator, on Azure. The application stores patient data and sends automatic updates to their phones, reminding them when to take medication or come back for a check-up. “The cloud allows us to scale our solution across many countries in a very cost effective manner. Through this scaling approach and our Uganda based software team, we are able to make the product very affordable, thus lowering the barriers to entry from a cost perspective for hospitals to use our system.”

Security

Windows Azure is 100% safe. For those who may be concerned about cloud security and hackers, bear this in mind: Microsoft’s core business is productivity and platforms, with cloud being a fundamental central service of the company. Therefore, its focus on the latest safety methods is paramount and the company has a wealth of resources at its disposal to keep your cloud hosting platform safe!

Familiarity

Azure is based on Windows, which most people know so there’s virtually no time needed to train staff, and you can take advantage of the well-established support structure within Microsoft and its 20, 000 plus partner network across Africa.

Craig Taylor, CEO of Cojengo, a livestock management application built on Azure says: “Microsoft’s tech is going in the right direction and Windows Phone is the fastest growing platform in Africa. Azure was a key part of the puzzle and made it easy to collect, sort and disseminate all the data. With Azure it was pretty simple, that was never the tricky bit.” Cojengo allows farmers to upload data via their Windows smartphones so that vets in the area, which are few, can be better prepared with the right resources and visit several farmers in the same area. It also allows farmers to access information on veterinary services to help them diagnose and treat animals themselves. All data is stored on Microsoft Azure and shared with stakeholders to keep everyone informed. This can then be used for disease surveillance purposes and reporting in almost real time.

Credits: Dele Akinsade who is the Microsoft Lead for Server and Tools Business Group for Sub-Saharan Africa.