Design Microsoft Azure Infrastructure and Networking

  • 6/23/2015
After presenting a brief introduction of Microsoft Azure datacenters, this chapter from Exam Ref 70-534 Architecting Microsoft Azure Solutions focuses mostly on IaaS. It introduces tools and services for managing compute and network resources. In addition, it discusses design considerations and patterns to orchestrate these resources into complete solutions.

What is the cloud? Among all the possible definitions, one captures the essence of the cloud in the simplest way: “The cloud is a huge pool of resources that supports a variety of services.”

The foundation of the cloud is a large pool of storage, compute, and networking resources. A key value proposition of the cloud is that you can acquire any amount of these resources at any time, from anywhere, without needing to worry about managing any underlying infrastructures. And when you are done with these resources, you can return them to the cloud just as easily to avoid the unnecessary cost to keep them around.

You can run services on top of these resources. Some of the services give you access to the infrastructure, such as virtual machines (VMs) and virtual networks—these services are called Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Some of the services provide support for building your own services in the cloud—these services are called Platform as a Service (PaaS). On top of IaaS and PaaS run Software as a Service (SaaS), which handle all kinds of workloads in the cloud.

After presenting a brief introduction of Microsoft Azure datacenters, this chapter focuses mostly on IaaS. It introduces tools and services for managing compute and network resources. In addition, it discusses design considerations and patterns to orchestrate these resources into complete solutions.

Objectives in this chapter:

  • Objective 1.1: Describe how Azure uses Global Foundation Services (GFS) datacenters
  • Objective 1.2: Design Azure virtual networks, networking services, DNS, DHCP, and IP addressing configuration
  • Objective 1.3: Design Azure Compute
  • Objective 1.4: Describe Azure virtual private network (VPN) and ExpressRoute architecture and design
  • Objective 1.5: Describe Azure services

Objective 1.1: Describe how Azure uses Global Foundation Services (GFS) datacenters

To serve more than 1 billion customers across more than 140 countries and regions, Microsoft has built huge datacenters that have a combined total of more than 1 million servers. These datacenters are strategically placed at different geographic locations and are connected by high-performance fiber-optic networks. They provide continuous supports to more than 200 cloud services, such as Microsoft Bing, Office 365, OneDrive, Xbox Live, and Azure platform.

Managing enormous resource pools is not an easy task. Microsoft has invested tremendous resources to build reliable, secure, and sustainable datacenters. The team that manages and runs Azure infrastructure is called Microsoft Cloud Infrastructure and Operations (MCIO), formerly known as Global Foundation Service (GFS). This objective goes behind the scenes and reveals how these datacenters are designed, built, and maintained.

Azure’s global footprints

Azure is available in 140 countries and supports 10 languages and 19 currencies. Massive datacenters at 17 geographic regions provide scalable services to all Azure customers around the globe. For example, Azure Storage stores more than 30 trillion objects and serves on average in excess of 3 million requests per second.

Regions and datacenters

Azure operates in 17 regions. Each region contains one or more datacenters. Table 1-1 lists current Azure regions and their corresponding geographic locations.

TABLE 1-1 Azure regions and locations

Azure region


Central US


East US


East US 2


US Gov

Iowa Iowa

US Gov

Virginia Virginia

North Central US


South Central US


West US


North Europe


West Europe


East Asia

Hong Kong SAR

Southeast Asia


Japan East

Saitama Prefecture

Japan West

Osaka Prefecture

Brazil South

Sao Paulo State

Australia East

New South Wales

Australia Southeast


Be aware that in some texts the terms “regions” and “locations” are often used interchangeably. A datacenter is also sometimes referred as a facility. Azure doesn’t have a formal concept of “zones,” although a zone roughly maps to a datacenter or a facility in some contexts. For example, Azure Storage provides Zone-Redundant Storage (ZRS), which maintains three copies of your data across two to three facilities within a single region or across two regions.

Another concept regarding compute resource placements is the Affinity Group. Affinity Group is a way to group your cloud services by proximity to each other in an Azure datacenter to minimize communication latency. When you put your services in the same Affinity Group, Azure knows that they should be deployed on hardware that is close to one another to reduce network latency.

Regional differences

Not all Azure regions provide the same set of services. As a new service is being rolled out, it might at first become available only at a small set of regions and then become available across all regions. Some regions have additional constraints. For example, the Australia regions are available only to customers with billing addresses in Australia and New Zealand. For a complete region/service cross-reference table, go to

Azure is available in China. However, you might have noticed that China is not listed as one of the regions in Table 1-1. This is because Azure in China is independently operated by 21Vianet, one of the largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in China. Your Azure subscriptions provisioned for the China region cannot be used for other regions. The reverse is also true: your subscriptions outside the China region cannot be used for the China region.

Azure’s multilanguage support is not tied to specific regions. You can choose your Azure Management Portal language as a user preference. For example, it’s perfectly fine to use a user interface (UI) localized in Japanese to manage resources around the globe. However, many Azure objects don’t allow non-English characters in their names or identifiers.

Designing cloud-scale datacenters

A single Azure datacenter can be as big as three large cruise ships placed end to end and host tens of thousands of servers. This level of unprecedented scale brings additional challenges in datacenter design and management. A radically different strategy is needed to design and operate cloud-scale datacenters.

Embracing errors

Cloud-scale datacenters use commodity servers to reduce cost. The availability of these servers is often not as high as the more expensive ones you see in traditional datacenters. And when you pack hundreds of thousands of servers and switches into the same facility, hardware failures become the norm of day-to-day operation. It’s unimaginable to remedy these failures individually. A different approach is needed.

Traditionally, datacenter designs focus on increasing Mean Time between Failures (MTBF). With a few servers available to host certain workloads, each of the servers is required to be highly reliable so that a healthy server can remain online for an extended period of time when a failing server is being repaired or replaced. With commodity servers, such long MTBF can’t be guaranteed. However, cloud-scale datacenters do have an advantage: they have lots of servers. When one server is failing, its workloads can be directed to another healthy server for recovery. This workload migration mechanism makes it possible for customer services to recover from hardware failures quickly. In other words, cloud-scale datacenters focus more on Mean Time to Recover (MTTR) instead of MTBF, because, in the end, what customers care about is the availability of their services, not the availability of underlying hardware.

Due to the sheer number of servers, such workload migrations can’t happen manually in cloud-scale datacenters. To bring MTTR to its minimum requirement, automation is the key. Errors must be detected and handled automatically so that they can be fixed with minimum delays.

Human factors

When it comes to following rules and avoiding mistakes, humans are much less reliable than machines. Unfortunately, humans have the ultimate controlling power over all machines (or so it seems in the present day). Looking back a bit, some of the massive outages in cloud-scale datacenters were caused by humans. As the saying goes, to err is human, and such mistakes will happen, regardless of what countermeasures have been put in place. However, there are some key strategies that can help cloud-scale datacenters to reduce such risks.

Abundant training, rigorous policy reinforcement, continuous monitoring, and auditing form the foundation of an error-resilient team. However, using privileged accounts still has its inherent risks. Azure adopts polices such as just-in-time administrator accesses and just-enough administrator accesses. Microsoft staff doesn’t have access to customer data by default. When Microsoft personnel need access to Azure resources for diagnosing specific customer problems, they are granted access to the related resources for no more than a predetermined window. All activities are carefully monitored and logged. At the same time, Azure also encourages customers managing their accesses to resources to follow best practices by providing tools, services, and guidance such as Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) multifactor authentication, built-in Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) with Azure Resource Groups, and Azure Rights Management.

Automation is undoubtedly one of the most effective means to reduce human errors. Azure provides several automation options, including Azure Management API, Azure PowerShell, and Azure Cross-Platform Command-Line Interface (xplat-cli). In addition, Azure also provides managed automation services such as Azure Automation, which is covered in Chapter 6. In terms of automating resource state management at scale, you can use first-party solutions such as Custom Script Extension and Windows PowerShell Desired State Configuration (DSC), or use integrated third-party solutions such as Puppet and Chef.

Trust-worthy computing

Although the adoption of the cloud has been accelerating, many organizations still have doubts when it comes to handing their valuable business data and mission-critical workloads to a third party. Cloud platforms such as Azure need to work with the highest standards and greatest transparency to build their credibility as trust-worthy business partners. This is a challenge not unique to Azure, but to the entire cloud industry.

It is the policy of Microsoft that security, privacy, and compliance are a shared responsibility between Azure and Azure’s customers. Azure takes over some of the burden for implementing operational processes and technical safeguards, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Physical security and continuous surveillance.

    Azure datacenters are protected by physical barriers and fencing, with integrated alarms, cameras and access controls. The facilities are constantly monitored from the operations center.

  • Protection against virus, malware, and DDoS attacks.

    Azure scans all software components for malware and viruses during internal builds and deployments. Azure also enables real-time protection, on-demand scanning and monitoring for Cloud Services and VMs. To prevent attacks such as DDoS, Azure performs big data analysis of logs to detect and respond to intrusion risks and possible attacks.

  • Activity monitoring, tracing and analysis, and abnormality detection.

    Security events are continuously monitored and analyzed. Timely alerts are generated so that hardware and software problems can be discovered and mitigated early.

  • System patching, such as applying security patches.

    When patch releases are required, they are analyzed and applied to the Azure environment based on the severity. Patches are also automatically applied to customer guest VMs unless the customer has chosen manual upgrades, in which case the customer is responsible for patching.

  • Customer data isolation and protection.

    Azure customers are logically isolated from one another. An Azure customer has no means to access another customer’s data, either intentionally or unintentionally. We cover data protection in more detail in Chapter 2.

On the other hand, Azure provides tools and services to help customers to realize their own security and compliance goals. A good example is data encryption for Azure Storage. Azure offers a wide range of encryption options to protect data at rest. Azure also provides a Key Vault service to manage security keys. However, it’s up to the customers to make appropriate choices based on their security and performance requirements. The customers must decide which technologies to use and how to balance between security and performance overheads. Furthermore, customers need to utilize security communication channels such as SSL and TLS to protect their data during transition.

To help customers to achieve compliance goals, Microsoft has developed an extensible compliance framework by which Azure can adapt to regulatory changes. Azure has been independently verified by a diverse range of compliance programs, such as ISO 27001/27002, FISMA, FedRAMP, HIPPA, and EU Model Clauses.

Sustainable reliability

Each of the Azure datacenters hosts a large number of services. Many of these are mission-critical services that customers rely on to keep their businesses running. There’s a lot at stake for both Microsoft and its customers. So, the very first mission of Azure datacenter design is to ensure infrastructure availability. For critical infrastructural components such as power supplies, Azure builds multiple levels of redundancies. Azure datacenters are equipped with Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) devices, massive battery arrays, and generators with on-site fuel reserves to ensure uninterrupted power supply even during disastrous events.

These extreme measures incur significant cost. Azure datacenters must be carefully designed so that such additional layers of protections can be provided while the total cost of ownership is still well controlled. Microsoft takes a holistic approach to optimize its datacenters. Instead of focusing on optimizing a single component, the entire ecosystem is considered as a whole so that the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) remains low without compromising efficiency.

As a matter of fact, Microsoft runs some of the most efficient cloud-scale datacenters in the world with Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) measures as low as 1.125. PUE is the ratio between total facility power usage and IT equipment’s power usage. A lower PUE means less power is consumed to support day-to-day facility operations such as providing office lighting and running elevators. Because such additional power consumption is unavoidable, A PUE of 1.125 is very hard to achieve. For comparison, the industry norm is about 1.8.

Last but not least, Azure datacenters are environment-friendly. Microsoft is committed to reducing the environmental footprint of its datacenters. To make these datacenters sustainable, Microsoft has implemented a comprehensive strategy that involves every aspect of datacenter design and operation, such as constructing datacenters using recycled materials, utilizing renewable power sources, and pioneering in efficient open-air cooling.

Since its first datacenter was constructed in 1989, Microsoft has never stopped innovating how datacenters are designed and operated. Four generations later, Azure datacenters are looking forward to the next new generation of datacenters—and they’re just on the horizon—which will be even more efficient and sustainable. The benefits of these innovations are passed to Azure’s customers and eventually billions of end users around the world.

Designing for the cloud

The unique characteristics of cloud-scale datacenters bring both challenges and opportunities to designing your applications. On one hand, you need to ensure that your application architecture is adapted for these characteristics so that your application can function correctly. On the other hand, you want to take advantage of Quality of Service (QoS) opportunities that the cloud offers, allowing your applications to thrive.

This section focuses on the first aspect, which is to ensure that your applications function correctly in cloud-scale datacenters. Chapter 4 discusses how to improve QoS in the cloud.

Datacenter maintenance

Azure performs two types of maintenances: planned and unplanned. Planned maintenance occurs periodically on a scheduled basis; unplanned maintenance is carried out in response to unexpected events such as hardware failures.

Planned maintenance

Azure periodically performs maintenance on the hosting infrastructure. Many of these maintenances occur at the hosting operation system level and the platform software level without any impact to hosted VMs or cloud services. However, some of these updates will require your VMs to be shut down or rebooted.

You can configure VMs on Azure in two ways: multi-instance and single-instance. Multi-instance VMs are joined to a same logical group called an Availability Set. When Azure updates VMs, it guarantees that not all machines in the same Availability Set will be shut down at the same time. To ensure your application availability, you should deploy your application on an Availability Set with at least two VMs. Only multi-instance VMs qualify for the Service Level Agreement (SLA) provided by Azure.

Single-instance VMs are stand-alone VMs. During datacenter updates, these VMs are brought down in parallel, upgraded, and brought back online in no particular order. If your application is deployed on a single-instance VM, the application will become unavailable during this maintenance window. To help preclude any problems, Microsoft sends email notices to single-instance customers, indicating the exact date and time on which the maintenance is scheduled, as shown in Figure 1-1. Thus, if your Availability Set contains only a single VM, the availability of your application will be affected because there will be no running instances when the only machine is shut down.


FIGURE 1-1 A sample maintenance notification email

Unplanned maintenance

Unplanned maintenances are triggered by unexpected physical infrastructure problems such as network failures, rack-level failures and other hardware failures. When such a failure is detected, Azure automatically moves your VMs to a healthy host. When multiple VMs are deployed in the same Availability Set, they are allocated to two Fault Domains (you can read more on this in Chapter 4). At the hardware level, Fault Domains don’t share a common power source or network switch, so the probability of two Fault Domains failing at the same time is low.

Azure’s autorecovery mechanism significantly reduces MTTR. In traditional datacenters, recovering or replacing a server often needs a complex workflow that can easily take days or even weeks. By comparison, Azure can recover a VM in minutes. Regardless of how short the window is, the VM is still restarted. Your application needs to be able to restart itself when this happens. Otherwise, although the VM is recovered, your application is still unavailable.

Azure Cloud Service has a built-in mechanism to monitor and recover your application process. For applications deployed on VMs, you can define endpoints with load-balanced sets. A load-balanced set supports custom health probes, which you can use to detect if your application is in running state. Load-balanced sets are discussed further in Objective 1.3.

Datacenter outages

No cloud platform is immune to some large-scale outages caused by natural disasters and occasionally human errors. Microsoft has adopted a very transparent policy that shares very thorough Root Cause Analysis (RCA) reports with customers when such outages happen. These reports disclose the exact cause of the outage, no matter if it is because of code defects, architecture flaws, or process violations. Microsoft works very hard to ensure that the mistake is not repeated in the future.

Cross-region redundancy is an effective way to deal with region-wide outages. Later in this book, you’ll learn technologies such as Azure Traffic Manager and Service Bus paired namespaces that help you to deploy cross-region solutions.

Service throttling

The cloud is a multitenant environment occupied by many customers. To ensure fair resource consumption, Azure throttles service calls according to subscription limits. When throttling occurs, you experience degraded services and failures in service calls.

Different Azure services throttle service calls based on different criteria, such as the amount of stored data, the number of transactions, and system throughputs. When you subscribe to an Azure service, you should understand how the service throttles your calls and ensure that your application won’t exceed those limits.

Most Azure services offer you the option to gain additional capacities by creating multiple service entities. If you’ve decided that a single service entity won’t satisfy your application’s needs, you should plan ahead to build multi-entity support into your architecture so that your application can be scaled out as needed.

Another effective way to offset some of the throttling limits is to use caches such as application-level caching and Content Delivery Networks (CDNs). Caches help you not only to reduce the amount of service calls, but also to improve your application performance by serving data directly from cache.

Service security

With the exception of a few read-only operations, Azure requires proper authentication information to be present before it grants a service request. Azure services supports three different authentication strategies: using a secret key, using a Shared Access Signature (SAS), and using federated authentication via Azure AD.

When a secret key is used, you need to ensure that the key itself is securely stored. You can roll out a protection strategy yourself, such as using encryptions. Later in this chapter, you’ll see how Azure Key Vault provides an efficient, reliable solution to this common problem.

SAS is a proven way to provide detailed level of access control over entities. With SAS, you can grant access to specific data with explicit rights during given time windows. The access is automatically revoked as soon as the window is closed.

Azure AD is discussed in depth in Chapter 2.

Objective summary

  • Azure serves more than 1 billion customers out of 17 global locations. Azure runs more than 200 online services in more than 140 countries.
  • A key strategy to improve service availability in the cloud is to reduce MTTR. Workload is reallocated to healthy servers so that the service can be recovered quickly.
  • Automation, just-in-time access, and just-enough access are all effective ways to reduce possible human errors.
  • Azure datacenters take over some of the responsibilities of infrastructure management by providing trust-worthy and sustainable infrastructures.
  • Your application needs to be designed to cope with service interruptions and throttling. In addition, your application needs to adopt appropriate security policies to ensure that your service is only accessed by authenticated and authorized users.

Objective review

Answer the following questions to test your knowledge of the information in this objective. You can find the answers to these questions and explanations of why each answer choice is correct or incorrect in the “Answers” section at the end of this chapter.

  1. Which are the effective ways to reduce human errors?

    1. Sufficient training
    2. Automation
    3. Just-in-time access
    4. Reinforced operation policy
  2. Azure has been independently verified by which of the following compliance programs?

    1. ISO 27001/27002
    2. FedRAMP
    3. HIPPA
    4. EU Model Clauses
  3. Which of the following VM configurations qualifies for availability SLA?

    1. Single-instance VM
    2. Multi-instance VMs on an Availability Set
    3. Single-instance VM on an Availability Set
    4. Two single-instance VMs