SQL to Azure: The Path to Data Modernization

This article has been updated as of June 2020.

You plan to modernize your data strategy but aren’t sure how to proceed.

You know moving your SQL Server setup to the cloud will make your business more efficient and secure. What you don’t know is which options best meet your needs. Most organizations looking to modernize their data platforms want the same things:

  • Less administration
  • Minimal downtime
  • Data backups in a secure location
  • A replacement for dedicated disaster recovery (DR) sites
  • A cost-effective way to scale processing

Microsoft’s Azure Data Platform offers a variety of paths to these objectives.

Guiding Your Data Platform Investment 

On-premises data options need high administrative support and come with dedicated costs. This stems from the need to patch, update and maintain your server platforms. As you move your data off-premises, you realize savings through shared costs and lower admin requirements. And, migrating to a cloud environment introduces the possibility of savings via consolidation, automation, and scaling.

The Azure Data Platform offers two approaches to hosting SQL Server workloads in the cloud:

  • SQL Server installed on VMs and running on the Azure cloud space (Infrastructure-as-a-Service).
  • Azure SQL Database, a virtualized SQL database native to the cloud (Platform-as-a-Service). Within this platform there are two options:
    • Azure SQL Database
    • Azure SQL Managed Instance

Both approaches offer greater cost efficiency, security, and performance. Each fits a different set of business scenarios. More details on this options will follow next.

Which Version of SQL Server 2019 is Right for You?

SQL Server 2019 offers four different editions. The Standard and Enterprise versions cover most business cases. Standard includes rich programming capabilities, security innovations, and fast performance with Big Data Clusters for mid-tier applications and data marts. Meanwhile, the Enterprise version provides higher scalability and resource efficiency for mission critical databases. New, improved features in Enterprise include “Always On” availability groups enhancements and business intelligence, and advanced analytics workloads.

Throughout its product cycles, Microsoft has integrated some key features into the SQL Server product. SQL Server 2019 continues its in-depth security focus.

Other key features:

  • In-memory improvements to enhance retrieval and access performance.
  • Big Data analytics are directly integrated into the core product
  • Big Data Clusters
  • Manage structured and unstructured data
  • Query Store helps troubleshoot query performance by capturing a range of information
  • Fully supported on Linux

IaaS or PaaS? Which Is Right for My Business? 

Whether cost savings, performance or security is your chief concern, the Azure Data Platform covers a wide range of functionalities with Azure SQL Database, Azure SQL Managed Instance and SQL Server on Azure VMs.

So, how should you think of the different services? 

SQL Server on an Azure VM is a fully-featured relational database management system (RDBMS). It allows you to run SQL Server installed on Windows Server VMs running on the Azure cloud. IaaS means you’re able to run applications on a “hybrid cloud” combining cloud-based and on-premises servers.

This model is best suited to rapid app development and quick migration to the cloud. It offers 100% compatibility with SQL Server features and permits you to test and deploy code changes quickly in Azure and on-premises. At the same time, this approach is a good fit for customized environments with some dedicated IT resources. However, automated features limit the need for manual configuration and management.

Within the PaaS offerings, there are two variations: Azure SQL Database and Azure SQL Managed Instance.

Azure SQL Database offers similar functionality to the IaaS model, but with more elasticity and power to scale. This is the ideal choice to support new, cloud-designed applications needing high SLAs and “full-bar” product functionality. It’s suited to organizations without dedicated database administrators (DBAs), or who need more operational support from Microsoft.

Azure SQL Managed Instance allows you to modernize your existing SQL Server applications at scale with an intelligent fully managed instance as a service, with almost 100% feature parity with the SQL Server database engine. Best for most migrations to the cloud.

Where Does Azure SQL Database Fit? 

Microsoft has made heavy investments to make Azure SQL Database and SQL Managed Instance which makes them ready for business-class applications. The solution comes with up to a 99.995% SLA and ensures predictable throughput and performance through new service design points. Point-in-time protection includes geo-restore and geo-relocation. These features prevent the “whoops,” also known as unintended data deletion or alteration, and allow you to scale out to maintain high availability.

Other key features:

  • Multiple dynamically-scaling service tiers and predictable hourly billing.
  • vCore service tiers offers maximum flexibility in choosing compute and memory
  • Flexible “pay for what you use” service model.
  • Elastic database pools allowing dynamic resource-sharing among databases on the same server.
  • Programmatic point-in-time restore with tiered retention policy.
  • Geo-restore opt-in feature allowing recovery to any Azure region.
  • Standard/passive and active geo-replication functionalities.
  • Powerful “Always On” Availability Groups.

Migrating to the Azure Data Platform

There are three principal ways to migrate to the Azure Data Platform.

The in-place upgrade is simple and when complete produces an up-to-date version of SQL Server. This approach has no roll-back strategy, though, and requires that the existing OS remain in place.

side-by-side approach uses duplicate versions of Windows Server and SQL Server. It then migrates the databases from one to the other. This provides for easy testing and roll-back and gives an opportunity to refresh or virtualize the OS if this hasn’t been done already.

Azure migration uses the opportunity to move to SQL Server on Azure VM or to the PaaS model.

It’s also possible to migrate to SQL Server on Azure VM using Always-On Availability Groups, reducing on-premises footprint requirements. This also hedges against equipment and facility issues, serving as a potential replacement for dedicated DR sites.

High Availability/Business Continuity 

Always-On Availability Groups are among the most powerful features in SQL Server 2019. The Standard service tier continues to offer Windows Server Failover Clustering (WSFC) cluster and a basic two node AlwaysOn availability replica.

Enterprise supports for AlwaysOn Availability Group replicas increases to (5 synchronous and up to 9 replicas). The ability to setup any node as “read-only” means you can scale out your reporting needs and offload demand on the primary replica.

Other Azure Data Platform business continuity options:

  • SQL Server IaaS with log shipping enabled
  • Backup SQL Server to Azure storage account
  • Native Geo-replication with Azure SQL DB
  • Full support for SQL Server Always-On Availability Groups

Now to Begin!

With a better understanding of the cloud data options available, you’re ready to map your path forward. We recommend getting on the path to data modernization with an assessment. The Data Assessment provides you with a review of inventoried SQL Server instances and performance monitoring results.  At the same time, you’ll receive a Review SQL Server Modernization examples, including your options for data platform investment, and deploying and maintaining business continuity in Azure.

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