Skip main navigation

What is Microsoft Azure and what is it used for?

We spoke to tech experts to bring you everything you need to know about Microsoft Azure and the Azure portal.

Microsoft Azure tech engineer configures programme using a laptop computer

Microsoft Azure is behind many of the processes we carry out online – it keeps our transactions secure, our supermarket shelves stocked and our video games running.

But with so many high-tech features, it’s tricky to find tech professionals capable of explaining the basics of Microsoft Azure in plain English.

To help break it down for you, we reached out to Viachaslau Matsukevich, Principal Cloud Architect at software developers Altoros, and Amber Joseph, CEO of the e-learning platform NextWork and the brains behind FutureLearn’s User Management in Salesforce course.

With their expertise, we’ve demystified the basics of Azure – including its important features such as the Azure portal. This article will also direct you to the courses you should take to get a certification in Microsoft Azure, show you examples of how companies are utilising Azure in the real world, and assess how Azure stacks up against rivals such as the Google Cloud Platform.

Already familiar with Microsoft Azure? Here’s how to get your certification

If you’re already up on the basics, feel free to skip ahead to our IT & Computer Science course pages, where we’ve got dozens of Microsoft-accredited Azure courses provided by CloudSwyft. There, you can study Azure and upgrade how your company does business, earn certificates for your CV and enhance your career development.

You can even learn Azure through our Microcredentials, which will give you academic credits that you can use towards attaining a degree.

If you’re undecided on which IT study path is right for you then stick with us and read on.

What is Microsoft Azure?

Still with us? Ok, here we go.

Microsoft Azure is a cloud platform that helps organisations run their businesses.

If the sentence above meant nothing to you, don’t fret, Amber Joseph has decoded it for you.

“’Cloud Platform’ means that it runs on the internet – there’s no need to install or download any software to your own device,” she says.

“And ‘helps organisations run their businesses’ means that it provides a range of tools and services that help with everything a modern business needs. Think about storage, security, back-ups, data analytics, remote access, hosting web applications – even tools for creating mobile apps.”

Using a cloud platform like Azure will speed up the running of your business – no matter what field you’re working in. It is particularly powerful in IT-based sectors like software engineering and DevOps, but as you’ll see in the next section, companies in diverse industries are using Azure to make running the business easier and more efficient.

“Microsoft Azure services are widely used across all industries for running applications, storing and analysing data, software development, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other services,” says Viachaslau Matsukevich.

“Azure provides on-demand computing services, so you can get a virtual machine or application up and running in seconds without setting up and managing physical servers.”

As well as its capability for rapid deployment – helping businesses reach customers faster with new apps and services – Azure is easily customisable, with adaptable systems to modify apps for, whether you work in financial, healthcare or gaming.

Azure’s data analytics tools give you detailed insights into your customer base. Its advanced encryption security methods help you safeguard sensitive data. Azure integrates with your existing Microsoft tools. And its on-demand scalability and flexible pricing allows companies to scale up or down to suit your project or business need.

How are organisations using Microsoft Azure?

To make things clearer, it’s useful to highlight some examples that demonstrate how organisations are using Microsoft Azure in their business contexts. A staggering 95% of Fortune 500 companies use Azure. In theory, it can be used for just about anything you can think of.

Here are some real world examples:

Healthcare

Public and private healthcare providers use Azure features such as mixed reality and artificial intelligence to improve patient outcomes and privacy. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) uses Azure to securely store staff credentials, so that they can move from one NHS organisation to another with ease. The data is stored in the cloud, so there’s no need to transfer it.

Financial services

With privacy more essential than ever, Azure’s security systems are key to financial services providers and their customers, who carry out transactions running into billions of dollars. Customers can tap into Azure’s AI to identify the risk level of a particular investment, without falling prey to possible human bias and error. Azure can also assist employees by automating repetitive processes, giving them more time to focus on important tasks.

Government

Governments – including the US and UK governments – use Azure to manage everything from the military to aerospace projects. Azure protects citizens’ data, supports secure remote collaboration and guards against cyber attacks. In 2021, Microsoft famously won a £5 million contract from the UK government tax agency Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to help it migrate to the cloud – one of the largest data migrations of its kind in the world. With help from the technology firm CapGemini, the entire transaction took place over a single weekend. Expected benefits from the migration include operational cost reduction, faster issue resolution and automation, and improved user response times.

Retail

Azure helps companies to automatically personalise customer experiences and drive sales using analytics. It also keeps supply chains agile, ensuring that retailers have enough stock to meet demand. British retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) switched to Azure after finding that its ageing platform could not keep pace with demand across its 1,400 stores. Azure now drives processes integral to the running of M&S, such as self-service machines and data visualisations.

CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software

Customer relationship management (CRM) refers to the process by which a company manages its relationships with its customers, using data analytics to better serve its client base and drive growth. Salesforce cloud services – the market leader in CRM software – uses Azure to manage their operations.

“Salesforce chose Azure because it is a trusted platform with a global footprint, multi-layered security approach, robust disaster recovery strategy, automatic updates and more,” a Salesforce spokesperson told the TechCrunch website when it migrated its automated digital marketing tool Marketing Cloud in 2019.

Microsoft Azure being used by a business management professional

What is the Azure portal?

The Azure portal is a digital hub that presents all of your applications – databases, web apps, storage, virtual machines, virtual networks and more – on one clear, easy-to-read interface. For those who are not dedicated coders, the Azure portal acts as their main point of interaction with the platform. The Azure portal can be customised for different projects, teams and even individuals.

Azure helps businesses achieve their goals

Azure succeeds precisely because it is unobtrusive. Azure works away in the background so that you can focus on your goals. With a reliable cloud service like Azure, companies can focus on applications and business value rather than everyday mundanities like data centres and server racks.

A public cloud like Azure makes it much easier to get your applications up and running. And because it uses a pay-per-use model, you can scale your operation up or down to meet demand, paying only for what you use.

“Azure provides instant unlimited scalability that is very useful for events such as Black Friday sales,” says Matsukevich.

“Businesses no longer need to spend money on additional servers that will be under-utilised the rest of the year – they get as much computing power as is needed to meet the demand.”

Azure’s massive toolset helps keep businesses on track. In previous projects, Matsukevich has relied on Azure’s DevOps capabilities as a CI/CD (Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery) tool, which allows him to to process multiple code changes simultaneously.

“Azure DevOps is like a Swiss Army knife for deploying applications. It has a built-in version control system and awesome release management,” he says.

With Azure keeping everything stable, streamlined and organised, Matsukevich’s team were free to focus on the pipeline and the deployment of applications.

“By using this tool, we saved a huge amount of engineering time – we no longer needed to maintain servers and workers like we had to with previous generations of CI/CD tools like Jenkins,” he says.

“Also, since Azure DevOps natively integrates with all other Azure services, it becomes much easier to set up and maintain a secure configuration.”

How does Microsoft Azure compare with other cloud platforms?

Today’s burgeoning businesses face a tough choice between competing cloud platforms. There’s the ‘Big Three’ of cloud computing – Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud. And there are dozens of other smaller providers and start-ups.

So how do you choose which one to go with? Well, that depends on what you need and what your priorities are. If you want an established old-timer with a proven track record, AWS – which launched in 2006 – might be the best choice.

“AWS is the oldest and most mature of the three, with the largest number of tools and offerings,” says Joseph.

“Because it’s been around the longest it also has the largest customer base, and is highly trusted as a result. If you’re looking for the largest range of cloud offerings and a wide range of locations around the world, then it’s definitely your best bet.”

But, according to Joseph, the main drawback of AWS is its pricing model, which, he says, can be “incredibly confusing”.

Google Cloud launched in 2008, two years after AWS, aiming to provide a richer set of tools for those using the Google suite and YouTube, with a focus on AI and big data.

“Use Google Cloud if you’re a small business or already heavily invested in the Google toolset – Gmail, YouTube, Google Meet, Drive,” says Joseph.

“However, it has a relatively small global range.”

Azure, meanwhile, has been around since 2010, offering a competitive option for those already using the Microsoft suite of tools and specialising in large-enterprise customers.

“Azure sits as a kind of middle ground between AWS and Google Cloud,” says Joseph, while pointing out that it is more expensive than its two main competitors.

“Use Microsoft Azure if you’re an enterprise-sized company or are already using the Microsoft toolset – Word, Excel, Teams, Outlook. It takes a lot of training to understand, though.”

“Azure is a natural choice for organisations that already have a partnership with Microsoft, since it provides discounts on some services and subscriptions in Azure. It’s also a great fit for companies with heavy Windows-based workloads,” adds Matsukevich.

“Businesses in competition with Amazon are also choosing Azure as their main cloud provider.”

What’s next for Microsoft Azure?

As one of the market leaders in cloud solutions, Azure will keep on innovating, adapting and adding to its suite of tools to remain at the cutting-edge.

“From my perspective, Azure as a Microsoft technology flagship will stay as one of the top cloud providers and will continue to innovate and add more services to its portfolio.” says Matsukevich.

“Microsoft’s commitment to open source will continue to boost software development going forward.”

Final thoughts

Now that you’ve got the fundamentals down, it’s time to take your learning further. Whether you’re just starting your career or switching over from another field, you’ll benefit from FutureLearn’s extensive range of Azure courses, ExpertTracks and microcredentials. The opportunities to learn Azure are endless, from the basics of Azure to advanced applications and AI.

“There’s never been a better time to learn a cloud computing platform,” says Amber Joseph.

“The best thing about these platforms is that they provide an easy entry into the world of tech for those deep into their careers or those who don’t necessarily want to be developers. The hardest thing to do is decide which one – then you’re on your way!”

FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education

Related stories on FutureLearn