Review: Windows Azure shoots the moon

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

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Tapping the Microsoft toolchain

Building a simple website tests only a small part of what's available. Microsoft offers the largest smorgasbord of treats for enterprise programmers of any of the clouds I've seen -- no doubt because the company is also one of the dominant programming tool creators. Microsoft has connected the services with tools in the Azure platform so that you can create, for instance, a "mobile service" just like you're booting up a virtual server. While the other clouds are selling a commodity machine, Microsoft is trying to take it a bit further.

The integration isn't as seamless as it could be. But while it leaves much of the work up to you, it's neat to click a few buttons and download a Visual Studio project with the scaffolding for storing data in Azure. You must still use Visual Studio to create the app, but Microsoft is trying to make it simpler to create a Windows 8 smartphone app that stores its data with Azure.

What's even more surprising is the iOS tab next to the Windows 8 tab. If you click there, you can download an Apple Xcode project file for your Mac. Your Windows back-end service can also support an iOS app. Microsoft is not just embracing open source code, but the new Borg, the iPhone.

Despite this detour, most of the options and much of the fun are reserved for Windows and Microsoft SQL programmers. You can create a cloud service wrapped around a database with Microsoft's SDK. Then you can deploy it first to the staging server, then push it into production. It's a pretty nice infrastructure. There's quite a bit of depth to the SDK too. It's not possible to cover all of it here, a feeling I often had while experimenting with Azure.

When you create your own Microsoft SQL databases with Azure, you pay by the gigabyte. The databases start at $5 per month per 100MB, but the cost per byte drops quickly. A 10GB database is only $45.96.

It's worth mentioning that you don't need to work with MIcrosoft's pay-as-you-go plan. Microsoft gives fairly substantial discounts (20 to 32 percent) if you make a commitment and pay in advance. Should you go over what you promised to buy, Microsoft bills you for the rest at the standard rates. The monthly commitment deals kick in only when you promise to use $500 worth of services per month.

SQL isn't the only option -- Microsoft remains current here too. If you like, you can house your info in blobs, tables, or queues in a data store that can either be locally redundant or "geo redundant." In other words, it can be replicated in one data center or across the country. The sizes can be pretty big. As an example, 1,025GB of geo-redundant storage costs $128.12 per month. Microsoft will also charge you for each "storage transaction," but these seem fairly cheap. The price calculator quoted me 90 cents for 9 million. Does anyone else offer pricing in cents any longer?

Azure provides an easy way to track the load on your server.
Azure provides an easy way to track the load on your server.
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