Microsoft Windows Azure and IaaS capability: Free-trial takeaways

Microsoft Windows Azure cloud platform with its built-in IaaS capability has many use cases. IT should use Azure’s 90-day free trial strategically to test out all its features.

Microsoft Windows Azure cloud’s free trial service meant little for IT pros in the past because it was very developer-focused with just PaaS capability. But now, with IaaS capability built into Azure, IT can put every layer of the stack into the cloud during the trial.

Microsoft recently decided to introduce Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) within its Azure Cloud platform. With the 90-day free trial service of Windows Azure, IT can sign up for the complete service and then go on the IaaS preview when deciding whether to buy it.

But understanding what Windows Azure cloud service and its IaaS capability bring to your infrastructure and using the trial effectively is crucial.

How Azure cloud platform’s 90-day free trial works

When IT admins request the right to use the preview, they can expect access within 48 hours.

The addition of IaaS features, along with the existing developer-oriented Platform as a Service (PaaS) capability in Azure cloud makes the trial more worthwhile for not just home developers but also for professionals in large enterprises.

It is important to note that Microsoft advises against using Windows Azure preview for production. Additionally, limitations in the Azure trial mean IT pros should only use the trial to test and understand how Azure and its IaaS capability work.

Key things IT pros should test in the trial are the main features of the IaaS previews as well as SQL Azure to further develop their skills and knowledge.

They should also improve their server skills by taking the upcoming Windows Server 2012 operating system for a test drive in the IaaS offering.

Key updates and IaaS capabilities in Azure platform

The newly introduced Azure IaaS virtual machine (VM) capability allows IT pros to choose what application or service they want to run in a VM at their discretion and cost.

In addition, Microsoft has updated the Azure platform with an improved Windows Azure Platform Management Portal. The tool helps users navigate, build and deploy cloud services easily. The interface of the Azure cloud platform has also become more intuitive and easy to use.

But the most crucial aspect of the updates in Azure is the new built-in IaaS feature.

Microsoft Windows Azure IaaS and its use cases differ massively from traditional virtualisation strategy.

With Azure IaaS, there are key architectural differences between using VMs in in the cloud and how admins use VMs with existing on-premises virtualisation or in their private cloud infrastructure. One major change is that Azure IaaS has predefined and presized baseline images, depending on the size users select when adding storage, cores and so on.

Admins can upload their own predefined virtual hard disk (VHD) with a Windows operating system, but they will not have the exhaustive list of images that are available with other vendors to use and upload.

Storage in the Azure cloud is also different in that virtual machines come with mounted content-based Blob Storage, not the more familiar Fibre Channel or iSCSI. Controlled limits to storage and how IT pros can use storage in the cloud enables optimal performance across the complete cloud infrastructure.

Microsoft has introduced stricter limitations to resource access to protect the capacity in Azure’s shared pool of hardware resources and to ensure that the billing metric can be calculated easily.

Unleashing the IaaS capability in the trial

Admins will see the full benefits of IaaS capability within Windows Azure cloud when facilitating applications and services that scale horizontally across multiple VM nodes.

Running services within IaaS VMs could be more beneficial than running services on Azure PaaS.

Here are some examples of Azure use cases -- something users should look to do with the Azure IaaS platform:

  • running on-premises services which can be scaled horizontally, such as SharePoint or Web services;
  • hosting an OS-level service not available when using the PaaS Azure or a  website offering such as Active Directory, FTP or SMTP services; and
  • running non-Microsoft-based applications and Framework.

Yes, IT professionals can host non-Microsoft applications and frameworks on Azure IaaS as Microsoft allows this capability by including open source services such as Ubuntu, CentOS and Suse Linux within the IaaS VM catalog.

With open source VM availability, admins are not limited to using Azure for hosting services and applications written in Microsoft development frameworks on the Microsoft cloud. Now, they will be able to use IaaS Linux VMs as the supportive base to run applications or services developed in Open source frameworks. One example could be to use Linux VMs for services that are typically Linux-only or more suited to Linux such as a Hadoop cluster.

The openness in Azure cloud may make Microsoft more attractive to developers running code against Azure, who protested previous incarnations of Azure that were limited to Microsoft.

Hybrid Capability

Lastly, Azure IaaS enables users to combine the features of public and private cloud. They can use Azure for cloud bursting from private on-premises clouds. Advanced networking within Azure Connect features allows them to build a Site-to-Site VPN between on-premises and the Azure cloud and make both clouds appear as if they were on the same logical network.

This feature, along with heterogeneous OS support, gives users greater ability to burst into the cloud as and when required for almost all of their typical data centre services.

After understanding the differences between on-premises and Azure IaaS and its use cases, IT pros are in a better position to test the cloud service more effectively in the three-month trial period.

With a free trial of the Azure platform, here’s what you get:

  • 750 hours of compute of a small Azure instance every month
  • Ten shared website instances
  • One SQL database
  • 350 GB storage with 50,000 transactions
  • Unlimited inbound bandwidth but just 20 GB outbound bandwidth

Take aways from the Azure cloud free trial

One word of caution: Read the terms and conditions carefully to see what you are entitled to and what you can use during the trial. In addition, opt for a “zero price limit” on your account so you do not go over the limit and spend money on services without realising it.

After the 90 days, IT pros could feel that Windows Azure has capabilities they are looking for in a cloud service. Note that it is unclear when IaaS capability will become a full blown service, but it’s likely to be before the end of 2012.

Microsoft provides a cost-effective opportunity to take advantage of on-premises services. This will be the first, most-relevant use case for those that have the ability and applications that fit with Azure.

Users with large amounts of equipment for testing and development will find Azure beneficial. Even small businesses or IT pros with a home lab setup with servers clogging up valuable space will find the service useful.

Microsoft Windows Azure IaaS cloud services and the multiple OS types allow you to move your existing VMs into the cloud. But, admins must be cautious and ensure they read the terms and conditions and fully understand the complete cost of running those dev and test services within the cloud.

Daniel Eason is an infrastructure architect at a multinational company and is based in the UK.

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