As a benefit for attending the online (and free!) Ignite conference this year, Microsoft have rewarded delegates with some discount prices on “select digital downloadable products” at the company store. Amongst the X-box games there’s also a great deal on the Office Family subscription.
This post will discuss the exam and some of the learning resources I used. Just in case your looking for a brain-dump, sorry- I’m not going to be giving out example questions I remembered from my test paper, or even “I had 7 questions on PowerShell, 4 on Application Gateways, and 3 on Custard Flavours”. That’s not allowed, and it’s not really helpful for anyone honestly trying to pass the exam.
Stepping up from Fundamentals
Unsurprisingly the questions were definitely a natural step-up from the AZ900 Fundamentals exam I took last year– and the content here felt more focused on admin tasks- less of the general “Cloud Computing” viewpoint.
This is to be expected as the exam is for the next level up on the qualification ladder, but it also fit’s in with Microsoft’s role-based qualification mentality. In the past there were more product based exams – “Learn everything about Windows Server 2012” for example – but this has been replaced with a “Learn everything you need to be an Infrastructure Admin” or a “Security Engineer” or “Data Engineer” approach. Check out this chart for details of the current certification offerings and how they fit these roles.
Earlier in June I sat the official 4-day course (M-AZ104), hosted by Global Knowledge. The trainer, myself, and the 17 other students, were all connected online as the in-person classroom options are not available at the moment. This method works- and I took plenty of notes – but it’s not quite the same as all being together in-person. For starters, we had to provide our own biscuits!
In post-exam hindsight I think the course probably covered all the material, but perhaps not all of the topics were covered to the depths of the exam. So in addition to hands on experience, I supplemented my notes from the training with lab work and using other materials to reinforce areas I felt weaker on. I used some of the following:
Microsoft Docs- Thomas Maurer has collated a good list of the relevant pages here.
My exam had a couple of case study type questions, where you’re given a number of questions around a common environment/problem description. This was followed by a big “normal” multiple-choice section in the middle, and then an extra surprise case study bit at the end (I guess for about the last 10 questions or so). There’s plenty of time to do the test, but watch out and manage your time carefully as you can’t go back to the previous sections once you move on.
From memory, all of my questions were multiple choice, or “put these items in order” kind of questions. There is no lab environment in this exam.
Content wise, it was a real spread across everything on the syllabus. In particular make sure you know the proper Azure terms and where they apply- your Availability zones vs Availability sets for example. It would be easy to lose marks by picking the wrong one in a given situation, or even choosing an answer containing a term that doesn’t even exist.
AZ104 succeeded AZ103 as the exam for this qualification and the main points of new content on the syllabus I spotted were around Containers (Azure Container Instances and Kubernetes Service) and Web Apps (including App Services and App Service Plans). Most of the AZ103 learning material is therefore still valid, but make sure you check the updated list of skills required. I think a basic generic understanding of Kubernetes/Docker/Containers would also be worthwhile for that section.
Thanks to the COVID-19 situation, I took this exam from home- not something I’ve done before as I’ve usually gone along to the local testing centre. Here’s a few tips if you’re planning on doing the same:
Find a space at home that’s nice and free of clutter. You can’t have your “Azure for Dummies” poster on the wall and techie books lying around. Also, remember no-one can walk into, or be overheard in, your exam space during the test.
Ensure you have a stable network connection- so you might want to kick the kids off Netflix. I also ran a long ethernet cable out from my broadband router to the room I was taking the test in to avoid wi-fi hiccups.
Prior to the exam (with Pearson) you’re offered a chance to test your environment. It makes sense to do this on the day of your exam, but be aware that it takes some time as you’re not only testing the network/ webcam/ microphone but also going through the process of taking and uploading photos of your testing space – you’ll have to repeat that bit prior to the exam itself.
If you’re planning on taking AZ-104 soon I hope this all helps, and good luck!
Microsoft released an 87 page “Book of New” listing the announcements from this weeks Ignite Conference and right at the top is Azure Arc. It’s not just alphabetical order that put’s this new product here, in my opinion this is a real step forward by Microsoft towards fulfilling the early promise of their Azure Hybrid Cloud model.
Arc’s first feature provides the ability to run Azure data services – Azure SQL Server and friends- on any platform, be it on-premises, on an edge device, or in the public cloud. We saw VMware advertising this from their point of view in the VMworld Europe keynote this week. Bringing Platform-As-A-Service to your own platform, or those at another cloud provider, is an interesting concept and vital to the idea of a true hybrid environment where you can run any app on any cloud.
Whilst Azure stack provided “Azure consistent hardware” in your datacentre, Azure Arc continues this journey – in essence expanding what “Azure consistent” means to the customer in terms of data services.
Azure Arc also extends the security, governance and management from Azure into other environments – coming back to a single architecture.
For me this is the key feature of this technology. With Azure Arc sitting at the heart of the Azure Hybrid model we’re one step closer to that utopia where the datacentre is abstracted away in the same way that virtualisation abstracted away the server hardware. You can do this abstraction in the public clouds, but there are still workloads that have regulatory, financial, or technical reasons for staying on-premises (or even a different public cloud) and until now managing these alongside Azure has meant two different platforms.
Previously Azure Stack (and to a certain extent Azure Stack HCI) came close to providing this true hybrid functionality for Microsoft but there was still a disconnect- you have to visit a separate Azure portal to manage your on-premises Azure Stack “Region” for example.
In the Arc environment, an Azure agent is deployed to non-Azure VMs (or physical servers) and then they appear on the Azure Portal as a regular resource. Policies can be applied and compliance audited (remediation is expected in the “next few months”). The people in your Security Team who got excited about what was possible with Policies in Azure can now apply the same policy features to VMs in your datacentre and from the same interface.
As I implied above, this is still a journey in progress and I believe Microsoft have further to travel down this roadmap, but this is definitely a big step along their way and provides very useful features now and promise of an even brighter future.
As you would expect, there’s a number of recorded sessions at Microsoft Ignite 2019 covering this new product following it’s announcement in the keynotes. If you’re interested in finding out more I would suggest starting with BRK2208 : Introducing Azure Arc. Azure Arc is currently available in Preview and usable from the portal today.
For over a year now I’ve been using Microsoft’s To-Do application to manage and organise my tasks. This has probably been the longest I’ve stuck with a personal task manager for some time, and I believe the app has just the right amount of features for me, sitting somewhere between Outlook tasks and a more in-depth project management/ planning application. In this post I will discuss how I use the app; you might find To-Do is something you want to check out, or if you’re a current user you might find new ways to use it.
To-Do is not a heavy duty time management application, but it does allow you to manage personal tasks, set due dates or reminders, and have sub-steps if required. For example the “Deploy new Server” task might have “Buy Server”, “Rack Server”, “Configure Network”, and “Install Hypervisor” as steps.
I use the one application for both work and personal tasks, using lists to categorise these but not having a separate application to go to for my non-work tasks. This helps me balance my time focused on the job against my personal time. I believe Work-life balance isn’t just about not working in personal time. When done properly doing some personal activities in work time is balanced against when you have to work in personal time. For example I might answer the odd work email when sat on the couch in the evening, but I won’t feel guilty about instant messaging my family from the office. Microsoft To-Do has a number of features that will help here, not least “My Day”.
My Day is possibly the best feature in To-Do, and can be used similarly to a Work In Progress (WIP) panel on a Kanban board. Tasks from the different categories can all be assigned here, giving me a list of what I need to accomplish next, rather than being overwhelmed by a much longer list. This also allows me to mix those personal and work related tasks – I need to check my VMware licenses today, but I also need to book an appointment at the optician (who won’t be answering their phone when I get home tonight).
When using My Day I set the sort order to put the tasks flagged as important at the top. These are the things I’ve marked that must get done- further down the list are the lower priority things I’d like to get done today, but might not.
When starting up To-Do in the morning it offers me the “For Today” listing, so I can pick the tasks I need in my list at the start of today. These may be items passed over from the day before, one’s I’ve had reminders set for today, or emails I’ve flagged and tweets or websites I picked up the evening before for follow up. With To-Do installed on my Android phone I can quickly share from the other apps, for example Twitter or Chrome to automatically create new tasks for my list.
Looking at how my task-lists have evolved, I have general “Tasks” for work related items and “Personal” for non-work ones. I also have a “Learning and Finding Out” list for all those educational links I want to fit in, and a “Blog” list for blog post ideas.
In addition to the general work list I have “Delegated/ Parked with Others” for where I have a task which I’ve subsequently passed onto a colleague but want to check back in on progress- things I don’t want to totally disappear from my radar just because someone else is doing the work. I also have a list here for “Project Ideas”; these are those ideas which aren’t quite a task yet, a list of “wouldn’t it be great if we could do x?” or “should we be looking at implementing y?”.
As To-Do is a single-user viewpoint it’s important that it works well with the other work management tools I’m exposed to- project management, collaboration, and service-desk apps can’t just be ignored. My method here is to take those support calls and project actions and add them to my To-Do list, this way I can manage my own time. It’s important to remember that progress updates and documentation need to be recorded in the correct systems, but the use of To-Do as a simple tick list works well for me here.
As someone who has flipped between task management apps and their paper equivalents I’m impressed that I’ve been using To-Do for so long, so if you’re on the lookout for a personal task manager I’d recommend giving it a try. If this app interests you, Microsoft has more details here: https://products.office.com/en-gb/microsoft-to-do-list-app
In a recent Datanauts podcast Chris Wahl was discussing Azure and Azure Stack with fellow Rubrikan Mike Nelson and Microsoft’s Jeffrey Snover (If you haven’t already, you can check out the podcast for yourself- Datanauts #148). Jeffrey made some interesting observations about the changes in alignment of some of the major IT vendors over time (this discussion runs from 25min to 29min into the podcast).
He detailed how the big players (DEC, IBM etc) had started with a “vertical” alignment by building their own chips, boards, operating systems, and applications. This was followed by a dis-integration where the industry shifted to a “horizontal” alignment- chips from Intel/Motorola , Operating Systems from Microsoft/Sun, and applications and services coming from a wide range of vendors. He goes on to posit how cloud vendors are turning the industry back towards a vertical alignment, and gives the example of how Microsoft are designing their own chips (FPGAs, NICs, servers , the new “Brainwave” chip to accelerate AI etc) right through to software; all to create the Azure Cloud.
This idea got me thinking about how this is happening elsewhere in the industry, and what the future might hold.
This realignment can be seen across the major IT manufacturers- in recent years Dell- traditionally just a client and server PC vendor- has formed Dell Technologies, picking up tech such as Force10’s network, EMC’s storage, and VMware’s hypervisor. This now puts them in that vertical alignment of controlling their own enterprise stack from the client device through the network to the server hardware and the hypervisor sat on it. In an on-premises setup Dell can provide the infrastructure from the end of the user’s fingers to the start of the Operating System or Container.
Amazon have started from the other direction- AWS as a cloud provider owning their own chipsets. servers, storage, and networking. They own the datacentre end of their customers today, but how long is it before we see the successors to the Kindle Fire devices and Alexa-connected displays being pushed as the end-user device of choice. Everything between the user and the application would then be in their single vertical.
We see similar activity from Google. Their cloud platform stretches down to their Android and ChromeOS operating systems, the Chrome browser, and even into hardware. Although (similarly to Amazon) the endpoint devices are today largely aimed at the consumer market, as the commoditisation of IT continues there’s nothing stopping this leaking into the enterprise.
However, these vertical orientations are not to the exclusion of horizontal partnerships and we’ve seen a lot more of that over recent years. For example VMware partnering with AWS, IBM, and Microsoft and Google for Cloud provision, or Dell-EMC powering the on-premises Microsoft Azure Stack, or IBM providing their software on Azure.
So will this continue, and what does the distant future hold? Looking far into the tech future is always guesswork, but if I had to bet I’d suggest that this alignment model will eventually swing back as these sort of things always seem to go in cycles. The verticalisation (new word?) will carry on for the next few years but over time the customers demand more choice and (in enterprise at least) less of the perceived risk of “vendor lock-in”. Eventually this leads to a tipping point, fragmentation of the stack and a turn back towards that horizontal alignment we are moving away from today.
Thanks Datanauts for the inspiration behind this, and #Blogtober2018 for convincing me to do more long-form opinion posts.