Free Azure services for non-profits

Microsoft already offers steep discounts on enterprise software and services, such as Office 365, Power BI, and Dynamics to eligible organizations. Last year they also began offering $5000 a year in Azure credits to nonprofits.

IMPORTANT UPDATE. A reader notes below that this has changed to $3500 a year as-of September 2018.

How does this help your organization?

Azure is Microsoft’s online infrastructure platform. Organizations use Azure to host websites and apps, databases, and entire Windows servers. This means that your services run on Microsoft’s servers in their datacenters, cutting out the need for investments in servers (or ongoing server management in many cases). This can save an organization thousands in one-time expenses for new hardware and configuration, and even more by reducing ongoing costs.

Small organizations in particular benefit from better reliability than they could otherwise afford. Many services include automatic backups and are cheaper than hiring someone to maintain a physical server. The services are also much more flexible: instead of purchasing new hardware to run a service, you can simply add an Azure service, and then stop it when it is no longer needed. You only pay for services that are running.

Managed services: simplicity and reliability

In my opinion, some of best uses of Azure are the managed services, such as Azure SQL Database or Azure Web Apps. Say you need to run a database (SQL) server. The old way would be to set up a computer as a server, which involves purchasing hardware, installing and configuring Windows and the database service. You then have to manage (patch, patch, patch) the server, and make sure it’s backed up at least nightly. Even using virtual server involves a high level of management.

Instead, you can sign up for just a database service. No server to maintain. No patches to apply. Any configuration is done through a web-based control panel. If all you need is a small database, there is no reason to set up a whole server: it’s overkill and less reliable. And — it’s backed up every five minutes.

Small organizations are also prone to overloading servers — why, after all, would you run your database and file servers on different computers if you’re using a fraction of the capacity? Fast forward a few years and your growing organization is one hard drive fault away from complete shutdown. With Azure, you have separate services that grow with you. Need more capacity? Just upgrade your plan. Need to downsize? Just as easy.

It’s not just for the big guys

Larger organizations can more easily afford the staff to take advantage of services like Azure, but even small organizations can see benefits. Even if you need to hire someone to set it up (as you would with a physical server in your office), the ongoing costs will be cut while reliability and availability will be improved. This is particularly the case with $5000 a year in free services — a better deal than Amazon’s AWS, which only offers free services for the first year.

September 2018 update: the credit is now $3500 a year.

I work at an organization with nine full-time employees. Azure allows us to run one of our databases in the cloud, making it available outside of our physical office and reducing the complexity of our IT systems.

How to get started

Microsoft has a website devoted to their free and reduced-cost offerings for nonprofits:

There is a bit of a process to verify that your organization is a nonprofit. You will need to sign up for an Azure account, or if you already have one, link your your account to the free subscription, but the steps are fairly straightforward.