With its latest additions to Azure -- highly elastic SQL Server databases with end-to-end encryption, and an upgrade to Microsoft's storage appliances to make them more cloud-friendly -- Microsoft is giving business two more reasons to move existing work to the cloud.
It's all in line with Microsoft's multipronged mission with Azure: Make it an appealing place to put things, give people fewer excuses not to do so, and take cool stuff built with the cloud and give it back to customers in some form.
Building the 'base
At first glance, SQL Server 2016, the latest version of Microsoft's flagship on-premises database, might not look like part of Microsoft's growing cloud efforts. Most of the new features that'll catch the attention of enterprises are expansions of the previous edition's analytics and in-memory processing features.
In-Memory OLTP, introduced in SQL Server 2014 for speeding up performance with individual tables at a 30-fold rate, now works with a broader array of applications, including operational analytics. PolyBase, a feature originally devised for SQL Server Parallel Data Warehouse, allows Hadoop data to be linked to a table in SQL Server and queried with conventional T-SQL.
But the truly important and strategic new features in SQL Sever 2016 involve Microsoft's hybrid plans for Azure -- namely, allowing an enterprise to make its local SQL Server installation a bridge into Azure and back again. Stretch Database, the main embodiment of this idea, allows individual tables to be extended into Azure; historical data can automatically be shuffled out to the cloud, while commonly accessed data can remain local and readily available.
Some organizations are less worried about the logistics of moving data to or from the cloud than protecting it. For them, Microsoft has another new SQL Server feature, Always Encrypted, to wrap data in encryption both at rest and in transit between Azure. The customer keeps the key, and encryption "happens transparently inside the application, which minimizes the changes that have to be made to existing applications," according to Microsoft.
The user version of SQL Server will receive more features originally developed in Azure -- an extension of Microsoft's expressed philosophy that Azure's feature set will over time be put back into its customer's hands in new forms.
A place for your goods
If you're running SQL Server, you'll also want a good way to store the data crunched with it, and the storage should complement the bridge-to-the-cloud philosophy. To that end comes an update to the StorSimple 8000 Series hardware appliance.
Originally released by Microsoft in late 2014 (after Microsoft acquired its makers), the StorSimple series was designed to keep commonly used data locally and migrate less-used data to the cloud. The idea was sound, but the pricing was the stickiest wicket. Microsoft's changes to StorSimple's software layer firm up the value proposition: Support for FIPS-compliant Azure Government storage and Azure Zone Redundant Storage, and connectivity with Amazon S3 and OpenStack-based clouds.
That last item may be driven by customer demand. After all, who wouldn't want a hardware storage appliance with built-in two-way syncing between common cloud environments? But such an appliance can also serve as a bridge out of other clouds and into Azure, so future feature sets could revolve around accelerating the transition.
Microsoft's plan for Azure has long been to make it more than simply another cloud play. Instead, the company wants Azure to be the bridge by which business that have committed to Microsoft, but not the cloud, can extend themselves from the former to the latter. It's also a work in progress, and the pieces arrive a few at a time, so the process is likely to continue for years.
Also, it's becoming more likely that Microsoft will emphasize the features that have been battle-tested in Azure. One Azure-level feature Microsoft ought to provide for SQL Server is akin to the procedural protections for decryption it recently brought to Office 365, where it's impossible to decrypt data without multiple parties consenting to the operation. Such reassurances should help Microsoft tip the scales toward Azure.