Review: Windows Azure shoots the moon

Microsoft's cloud wows with great price-performance, Windows toolchain integration, and plenty of open source options

A long time ago in a century slipping further and further away, Bill Gates compared MSN with the exploding World Wide Web, saw the future, and pivoted nicely to embrace the Internet. A few decades later, someone at Microsoft looked at the cloud and recognized that the old days of selling Windows Server OS licenses were fading. Today we have Windows Azure, Microsoft's offering for the cloud.

Azure is a cloud filled with racks and racks of machines like other clouds, but it also offers a wider collection of the building blocks enterprise managers need to assemble modern, flexible websites. There are common offerings such as virtual machines, databases, and storage blocks, along with not-so-common additions such as service buses, networks, and connections to data farms address verifiers, location data, and Microsoft's own Bing search engine. There are also tools for debugging your code, sending emails, and installing databases like MongoDB and ClearDB's version of MySQL.

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All of these show that Microsoft is actively trying to build a system that lets developers easily produce a working website using the tools of their choice. Azure is not just delivering commodity Microsoft machines and leaving the rest up to you -- it's starting to make it simpler to bolt together all of the parts. The process still isn't simple, but it's dramatically more convenient than the old paradigm.

Not-only-Windows Azure

The Azure service is a godsend for those who are heavily invested in Microsoft's operating systems. Many of the big clouds offer only Linux or BSD machines. Rackspace charges 33 percent more to build out a Microsoft Windows server, but Azure rents a Windows machine at the same bargain rate as Linux.

Did I say the same as Linux? Yes, because Microsoft is fully embracing many open source technologies with Azure. You can boot up a virtual machine and install a few of the popular Linux distros like Ubuntu Server 12.04 or OpenSuse 12.1. There aren't many choices of open source distros, but Microsoft has chosen a few of the more popular ones. They cost the same as the standard Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2012 offerings.

Microsoft's embrace of open source is on full display with Azure. The company is pushing PHP, Node.js, Python, Java (if you consider Java open source), and even MySQL. Well, that's not exactly true. You can create running versions of Drupal or WordPress, and Azure will set up MySQL back ends for you. If you go to the SQL tab to start up your own SQL database, you can provision an instance of Microsoft SQL Server, but there's no mention of MySQL. That's because Microsoft is letting a third party, ClearDB, deliver MySQL. It's one of a dozen or so extras you can buy.

The websites with Drupal or WordPress are among many options available. Microsoft will let you have up to 10 free ones with your account. Then you push your HTML or PHP to them with Git, and the server does the rest. (Notice the embrace of Git too.)

These free options are come-ons. If your website takes off and you start getting traffic, you can upgrade to shared services or full, managed machines that can be load balanced. The documentation is a bit cagey about what happens as you start fiddling with the Scale control panel, but you get better guarantees of service and less throttling. If you move over to the Reserved setting, you get dedicated virtual machines with resource guarantees. This is a pretty simple way to build and test a website before deploying it for production.

Your list of Azure virtual machines and services can grow pretty quickly.
Your list of Azure virtual machines and services can grow pretty quickly.
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