Another Microsoft Azure use case
When I talk to people, being friends, colleagues, people I know from other companies or customers often the question arises if we will be only working in the cloud and getting services en techniques from the cloud at some point. Of course there will be some services that will be held offline I tell them, but more and more technologies and services will transform to one cloud service or another that can be bought. How fast this will happen and when exactly this will be is hard to predict for all kinds of technology that are being used. The fact is that more and more services appear online as a service, making it less needed for services to continue offline.
Ever since the beginning of 2014 I am involved with several movements into the cloud, especially the Microsoft Azure cloud. It started with some conversations and calculating costs for moving to the cloud. After that I was making some designs and also building Proof of Concepts (PoC’s) for development environments, and now I am more often involved with actual designing and building production environments on Microsoft Azure.
Some small companies that had a server rack that needed to be moved to Azure with all its networking components, servers because they had to be renewed. To see if it was cheaper to host the environment within Azure. Within my clientele I see that also the bigger companies and institutions are doing their first steps into the cloud. But, being small or big, every environment has its own challenges.
This blog tells a story about a Microsoft Azure use case that was recently done at a customer. It’s just another use case of infinite possibilities a cloud platform can bring.
The customer I’m talking about is one in the education area with tens of thousands of students and a couple of thousand teachers and other employees. Like any other educational institution there are many lessons given. After years of paper exams, the need for paperless online examination is also there. Practically this could be done on on premise webservers hosting the examination software and exams.
Usually exams are done during some regular periods in a school year and only then these servers have to be available. The servers would only be needed then when exams are being held. After the examinations the servers could be shut down again.
With Microsoft Azure a higher availability, more flexibility and scalability are possible and there has to be only paid when they are actually running. Besides that, there is no need for buying server hardware making less lead-time to get up and running. Also management time, power consumption and rack spacing don’t have to be considered.
The environment contains a couple of hundred laptops being managed by a management server, an Azure virtual network, an on premise VLAN, two RDS-brokers on Microsoft Azure and 13 RDS Session hosts and a VPN site–to- site connection between Azure and the educational institution.
Within Azure several servers types with different hardware can be chosen. The choice for the Azure server types has been made by several tests that were done by playing with all kinds of server configuration types within Azure. The result was that we chose an A11 Azure server that could host 15 user sessions with this customer’s requirements.
The RDS brokers and RDS session hosts are installed with Microsoft Windows 2012R2 with the latest updates and software like for example Adobe Flash Player and Oracle Java for different kinds of multimedia to be played. The RDS brokers and session hosts are part of the het on premise domain of this customer. At this moment there’s no need for a domain controller in the cloud, but plans are there to add one there as well. Networking traffic happens only across the VPN tunnel. On all the servers there is an on premise group policy set that puts for example internet web application of the examination software in kiosk-mode. Also at the examination software’s server is been set that only IP-ranges are allowed to connect to the web servers that provide the exams.
The environment can be seen in the picture below.
A dedicated and private internet connection exist between Azure and the customer’s network by means of a Microsoft ExpressRoute. This is a private connection with guaranteed connection, connection speed and uptime. The connecting clients are laptops that were imaged by Stratodesk No Center Linux clients. On this OS a FreeRDP client is available. The open source way of Microsoft RDP. These laptops are completely hardened. The OS is a lightweight Linux OS, making it easy to deploy and manage. The clients are configured in a way to automatically connect to one of the RDS brokers and then make connection to one of the 13 RDS-servers. They are being managed centrally by a NoTouch Stratodesk management server. This is an on premise server that only manages the on premise examination laptops. Students login with provided credentials and are automatically and instantly connected with an online examination company that hosts the exams to be taken by the students.
Cloud offerings like Microsoft Azure can be used in many ways to help business in many ways. They can be used for small environments or complex (hybrid) infrastructures. The possibilities and advantages of the cloud are infinite. With pricing getting lower and lower of all the services getting services from the cloud gets also more affordable for more companies. Getting services from the cloud is getting more and more a commodity.