I spend my days supporting Azure and SCOM here at Microsoft. When I mention to my SCOM customers that I also do Azure, one of the first questions I get is "how do you learn Azure?" I thought I'd take a little time to share my experiences and recommendations. This isn't a formal plan but rather my thoughts based on my own journey.
When I first heard about "the cloud" it was at MMS 2009 in Las Vegas. My first thought was "this will never work for my company!" but I was wrong 🙂 Azure offers a pricing structure that most organizations can't resist (only pay for what you use, lower operational costs, etc.) combined with short deployment timelines, impressive security compliance (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/TrustCenter/Security/default.aspx), and reliability. Needless to say I don't know of a single organization that isn't considering, if not already using, a public cloud.
First off, don't put pressure on yourself to "learn Azure" or any cloud platform for that matter. The cloud is a vast, ever-changing concept more than a "product" to be mastered. Public clouds cover the entire stack (networking and server hardware thru applications) and very few of us would claim that broad mastery of our on-prem environments. Add to that the fact that Azure is constantly evolving (a good thing!) and you have a moving target. As to that point, with Azure (and as you've probably heard Windows 10) Microsoft is moving away from huge service packs to smaller, more frequent updates. This means no waiting two years for a bug fix, product enhancement, or new feature set. Awesome, right? It also mean things you couldn't do last month may now be possible as roughly monthly new features rollout complete with updates to the Azure PowerShell module. If you are really going into the cloud, you'll want to follow some key blogs (like https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/topics/announcements/) to ensure you always know "what's new." That brings us back to the question of what your goal should be. Personally I think your goal should be to become familiar with Azure, how on-prem solutions would look in the cloud, and where to go for answers when you get stumped.
So you want to start learning, but where to start? With an Azure subscription. Think of a subscription as setting up a line of credit...it establishes a payment method and is used to assign administrator access. For many of us, we can use the monthly Azure credit that comes with our existing MSDN subscription. If you don't have an MSDN subscription, you can get a free Azure trial here: https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/free/. You get a set dollar amount to spend each month; when that runs out your environment is frozen until the next billing cycle begins.
Once you have a subscription, it's time to dig in and try it out. There are tons of how-to blogs so I'm not going to focus on that aspect rather focus on how to make the learning process as painless as possible. Since I have a background in Windows server infrastructure, my first step was to setup a DC and new forest in the cloud (*note there are many Linux images available in Azure too!). This grew into a SCOM 2012 R2 lab which I now use daily.
The key is to build something you will use regularly, isn't a single-point-of-failure (in case you mess it all up or run out of a credits before the month-end), and ties into what you do regularly. If you are in charge of the monthly patch cycle, maybe you test in the cloud first (it only takes minutes to build a IaaS VM). Maybe you are a web guy...I'd setup an IaaS web server and then also do a PaaS website so you can get familiar with the differences, pros/cons of each. Depending on who is paying for this subscription, you can even use it for personal content (family website, photo storage). The objective is to use it fairly regularly so you become comfortable with Azure.
- Try to use as many of the Azure features as possible. I.e. use Azure Backup so you understand how that works, etc.
- Make the most of your free money remember if you're not using it, turn it off (VMs, services). In Azure you pay for resources consumed and an online VM consumes resources 24/7. Turn it off at night and on weekends to save money (there are some good blogs on how to use Azure automation to do this for you).
- Pay attention to PaaS offerings (http://blogs.msdn.com/b/hanuk/archive/2013/12/03/which-windows-azure-cloud-architecture-paas-or-iaas.aspx).. Most people start with IaaS (me included) since that's our comfort zone...the server we can kick. IaaS roughly allows you to recreate your on-prem environment in the cloud, but that leaves you responsible for the OS. If possible use PaaS offerings to take one more layer of support off your shoulders. You want to stop worrying about patches, disk space, OS performance, etc. right? PaaS and SaaS allow you to stop supporting the server infrastructure and focus on the applications and services. While using PaaS isn't possible in all cases (sometimes you need control over OS and application settings that are not exposed in PaaS) but when it's a viable option use it!
Honestly, coming from large servers environments Azure required me to grow my skill set. Remember when I said the cloud covered the entire stack (OSI model)? Most of use have spent our careers focused on a single layer, but Azure presents many layers via a single console to administrators. No longer does the network team setup my subnets, the storage team my SAN disks, and the server team install my OS. Instead when you install your first VM, you need to do all of this! Knowing what to set in Azure (i.e. static IPs that on-prem would have been set via a network device) versus the OS was a challenge for me at first. Most companies will have a few staffers who understand and design/setup the cloud aspect while everyone else just connects to VMs/applications "as usual," so don't let this scare you. And for those in smaller organizations, you may already have the broader knowledge needed!
One last note.... Right now Azure is transitioning from the classic portal (manage.windowsazure.com) to the "new" portal (portal.azure.com). You can think of this as the evolution of the cloud from v1 to v2. V2 (the new portal) has a different backend that allows new features (role-based access!), faster deployment, and scales much larger. Regardless of which portal is used, your resources can talk to each other (https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/documentation/articles/virtual-networks-arm-asm-s2s/). I'd recommend playing in both environments as the classic portal will be around quite a while and the new portal is still rolling out features.
I hope this helps you figure out where and how to start your journey. Good luck exploring this brave new world!