Windows Azure users can use hard drives to import and export data

The new service for transferring data offline matches similar services from competitors like Google and Amazon Web Services

Microsoft is offering Windows Azure customers the facility of transferring their data offline to and from Azure storage accounts using hard disk drives.

The company launched Monday a preview of the import and export service that provides built-in support for BitLocker disk encryption, which enables users to encrypt data on the hard drives before they send it.

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The service provides an efficient solution for importing large amounts of on-premise data into Windows Azure Blobs or exporting Windows Azure Blobs, the company said in a post. Windows Azure Blob storage is a service for storing large amounts of unstructured data that can be accessed via HTTP or HTTPS.

Users don't have to worry if the disks are lost or stolen in transit because only users will have the key to the encrypted data, wrote Scott Guthrie, a Microsoft corporate vice president in the company's server and tools business, in a blog post. The company is shipping a drive preparation tool to make it easier to set up the encryption on the hard drives, he added.

Once the hard drives reach a Windows Azure data center through FedEx, they will be uploaded to a storage account. Empty hard drives can also be sent to the center to export data. Import and export jobs can be set up and managed using the Windows Azure management portal or the REST interface.

Offline import and export is faster, helps cut costs and reduces dependence on network bandwidth for massive amounts of data, Guthrie wrote.

Microsoft's competitors like Google and Amazon Web Services already offer similar services.

The service from Microsoft is currently offered at $40 per storage device under a 50 percent discount during the preview period. The company does not charge a data transfer charge between the device and Azure storage within the same data center.

The service, being previewed in the U.S., only supports 3.5-inch SATA II hard drives. Hard drives above 4TB are not supported during the preview, and no more than 10 drives can be processed per job, the company said. The import/export service only operates in a few regions of the U.S., so that customers with storage accounts in parts of the U.S., Europe or Asia have to ship their drives to supported data centers in the U.S., and the shipment must originate from within the U.S., according to Microsoft.

Microsoft announced last week the general availability release of Windows Azure HDInsight, which it described as a fully compatible Hadoop service that allows users to provision and manage Hadoop clusters for big data processing in Windows Azure.

This week, Windows Azure also introduced more features such as a Virtual Machine gallery that can be used to create new VMs in the cloud and the free use of Web Sockets with Windows Azure websites. It also introduced a new billing alert service that sends email alerts when the customer's bill crosses a certain predefined level.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's email address is john_ribeiro@idg.com.

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