Exchange Server and Azure: “not now” vs “never”

Wow, look what I found in my drafts folder: an old post.

Lots of Exchange admins have been wondering whether Windows Azure can be used to host Exchange. This is to be expected for two reasons. First, Microsoft has been steadily raising the volume of Azure-related announcements, demos, and other collateral material. TechEd 2014 was a great example: there were several Azure-related announcements, including the availability of ExpressRoute for private connections to the Azure cloud and several major new storage improvements. These changes build on their aggressive evangelism, which has been attempting, and succeeding, to convince iOS and Android developers to use Azure as the back-end service for their apps. The other reason, sadly, is why I’m writing: there’s a lot of misinformation about Exchange on Azure (e.g. this article from SearchExchange titled “Points to consider before running Exchange on Azure”, which is wrong, wrong, and wrong), and you need to be prepared to defuse its wrongness with customers who may misunderstand what they’re potentially getting into.

On its face, Azure’s infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) offering seems pretty compelling: you can build Windows Server VMs and host them in the Azure cloud. That seems like it would be a natural fit for Exchange, which is increasingly viewed as an infrastructure service by customers who depend on it. However, there are at least three serious problems with this approach.

First: it’s not supported by Microsoft, something that the “points to consider” article doesn’t even mention. The Exchange team doesn’t support Exchange 2010 or Exchange 2013 on Azure or Amazon EC2 or anyone else’s cloud service at present. It is possible that this will change in the future, but for now any customer who runs Exchange on Azure will be in an unsupported state. It’s fun to imagine scenarios where the Azure team takes over first-line support responsibility for customers running Exchange and other Microsoft server applications; this sounds a little crazy but the precedent exists, as EMC and other storage companies did exactly this for users of their replication solutions back in Exchange 5.5/2000 times. Having said that, don’t hold your breath. The Azure team has plenty of other more pressing work to do first, so I think that any change in this support model will require the Exchange team to buy in to it. The Azure team has been able to get that buy-in from SharePoint, Dynamics, and other major product groups within Microsoft, so this is by no means impossible.

Second: it’s more work. In some ways Azure gives you the worst of the hosted Exchange model: you have to do just as much work as you would if Exchange were hosted on-premises, but you’re also subject to service outages, inconsistent network latency, and all the other transient or chronic irritations that come, at no extra cost, with cloud services. Part of the reason that the Exchange team doesn’t support Azure is because there’s no way to guarantee that any IaaS provider is offering enough IOPS, low-enough latency, and so on, so troubleshooting performance or behavior problems with a service such as Azure can quickly turn into a nightmare. If Azure is able to provide guaranteed service levels for disk I/O throughput and latency, that would help quite a bit, but this would probably require significant engineering effort. Although I don’t recommend that you do it at the moment, you might be interested in this writeup on how to deploy Exchange on Azure; it gives a good look at some of the operational challenges you might face in setting up Exchange+Azure for test or demo use.

Third: it’s going to cost more. Remember that IaaS networks typically charge for resource consumption. Exchange 2013 (and Exchange 2010, too) is designed to be “always on”. The workload management features in Exchange 2013 provide throttling, sure, but they don’t eliminate all of the background maintenance that Exchange is more-or-less continuously performing. These tasks, including GAL grammar generation for Exchange UM, the managed folder assistant, calendar repair, and various database-related tasks, have to be run, and so IaaS-based Exchange servers are continually going to be racking up storage, CPU, and network charges. In fairness, I haven’t estimated what these charges might be for a typical test-lab environment; it’s possible that they’d be cheap enough to be tolerable, but I’m not betting on it, and no doubt a real deployment would be significantly more expensive.

Of course, all three of these problems are soluble: the Exchange team could at any time change their support policy for Exchange on Azure, and/or the Azure team could adjust the cost model to make the cost for doing so competitive with Office 365 or other hosted solutions. Interestingly, though, two different groups would have to make those decisions, and their interests don’t necessarily align, so it’s not clear to me if or when we might see this happen. Remember, the Office 365 team at Microsoft uses physical hardware exclusively for their operations.

Does that mean that Azure has no value for Exchange? On the contrary. At TechEd New Orleans in June 2013, Microsoft’s Scott Schnoll said they were studying the possibility of using an Azure VM as the witness server for DAGs in Exchange 2013 CU2 and later. This would be a super feature because it would allow customers with two or more physically separate data centers to build large DAGs that weren’t dependent on site interconnects (at the risk, of course, of requiring always-on connectivity to Azure). The cost and workload penalty for running an FSW on Azure would be low, too. In August 2013, the word came down: Azure in its present implementation isn’t suitable for use as an FSW. However, the Exchange team has requested some Azure functionality changes that would make it possible to run this configuration in the future, so we have that to look forward to.

Then we have the wide world of IaaS capabilities opened up by Windows Azure Active Directory (WAAD), Azure Rights Management Services, Azure Multi-Factor Authentication, and the large-volume disk ingestion program (now known as the Azure Import/Export Service). As time passes, Microsoft keeps delivering more, and better, Azure services that complement on-premises Exchange, which has been really interesting to watch. I expect that trend to continue, and there are other, less expensive ways to use IaaS for Exchange if you only want it for test labs and the like. More on that in a future post….



Filed under General Tech Stuff, UC&C

5 responses to “Exchange Server and Azure: “not now” vs “never”

  1. Cristian

    I suppose that if you are looking for mail in the cloud may be Office365 it would be a good solution. But what about Exchange Server High Availability? Suppose that you have only 1 datacenter and want to use Azure to implement a 2nd Exchange Server for a new DAG, and of course another VM for the witness share. As you said for Microsoft is still not supported.

    • robichaux

      Microsoft will eventually support some of these scenarios; for example, they’re already working on FSW support with Azure. Amazon has already started offering Exchange servers as one of their prebuilt workloads, and some adventurous customers are using it even though it isn’t formally supported.

  2. EX_jack

    meanwhile AWS will support Exchange 2013

    • robichaux

      Sure, they will. And I am confident that they’ll do a good job, up to the point where they determine the root cause. If that root cause turns out to be a result of running Exchange in AWS, though, Microsoft is free to stop support at that point. I’m not saying they would, merely that they have that option.

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