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Getting Started with the Cloud: Microsoft Windows Azure

Getting Started with the Cloud: Microsoft Windows Azure
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Getting Started with the Cloud: Microsoft Windows AzureGetting Started with the Cloud: Microsoft Windows Azure

Windows Azure started as a platform as a service (PaaS) provider but now offers infrastructure as a service (IaaS) as well. With this article, Windows Azure becomes the latest platform we cover in our ongoing IaaS Buyer's Guide.

In spite of its name, this is not a Windows-only IaaS; you can just as easily run Linux virtual machines as would Windows Server instances.The compute and storage services in Windows Azure are typical of what you will find in most IaaS providers but with the ease that you can create a SQL Server database reminds us we are on a Microsoft platform.

You also have ready access to virtual networks, service buses, and non-relational storage platforms as well.  

Getting Started with Windows Azure

Microsoft offers a 90-day free trial to Windows Azure and an easy to use management console so there is no excuse for not giving this IaaS provider a try.If you have a Microsoft online account (e.g. Hotmail, Skydrive, etc) you can use that to work with Windows Azure.

Once you make your way through the usual credit card validation and service agreements you land on a streamlined management console.  Microsoft has one of the better IaaS management interfaces with a high-level view of all your active resources, wizards to walk you through multi-step processes, and a log display that is there when you need it but does not get in your way most of the time.

The PaaS roots of Windows Azure are clear from the management console. In addition to managing virtual machines and storage objects, you can deploy code to application servers (called Cloud Services in the Windows Azure parlance), create databases, and launch messaging queues.  When it is time to create a virtual machine you have the option of “Quick Create” or a wizard guided creation. 

With the quick create option you just need to specify a DNS name, an image, a machine size, a password, and the location of the data center you’d like to use.You have the option of ten operating system options including several Windows Servers, Ubuntu, CentOS, and SUSE/openSUSE.There are four machine options:  1 core with 1.75 GB of memory, 2 cores with 3.5 GB of memory, 4 cores with 7 GB of memory, and the extra large option with 8 cores and 14 GB of memory.  Microsoft has six data centers in the US, Europe and Asia to choose from. 

The wizard-guided process for creating virtual instances has some other options, including the ability to specify an availability zone.  The availability sets are virtual machines running in different fault domains. If there is a failure in a rack’s power source or network switch, your application can continue running on another virtual machine in the availability set.

You can create both relational databases and block storage structures from the storage option on the control panel.Block storage structures are accessed through.NET classes and LINQ or a REST API and you can organize your data in block storage in blobs, tables or queues.  The table features allows you to work with key-value pair organized data, similar to Amazon’s Simple DB or DynamoDB.Queues are similar to Amazon’s Simple Queue Services (SQS). 

The Windows Azure SDK provides a programmatic interface to these services. Of course the SDK works with .NET but Java, PHP, Node.JS and Python developers won’t have to switch tools either. There are Windows, Linux and Mac versions of the SDK.

The cost of virtual machines varies by size.Prices start at $0.013/hour for the extra small virtual machine and increase up to $0.64/hour for the extra large option. The pricing is the same for both Windows and Linux operating systems.Storage starts at $0.093/GB for locally redundant data and $0.125/GB for up to 1 TB of data per month. The storage charge is based on the average daily amount of data stored during the course of a month. 

Locally redundant data is stored within a single sub-region while geo-redundant data is stored in two sub-regions within a region.In addition to the data storage charges, there is a marginal charge for transactions, $0.01 per 100,000 transactions.

Dan SulivanDan SulivanDan Sullivan is an author, systems architect, and consultant with over 20 years of IT experience with engagements in systems architecture, enterprise security, advanced analytics and business intelligence. He has worked in a broad range of industries, including financial services, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, software development, government, retail, gas and oil production, power generation, life sciences, and education.  Dan has written 16 books and numerous articles and white papers about topics ranging from data warehousing, Cloud Computing and advanced analytics to security management, collaboration, and text mining.

See here for all of Dan's Tom's IT Pro articles.


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