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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Benchmarking Azure performance

Are the Azure prices good? I decided to take the bargain-basement machine out for a spin with some Java benchmarks. While Java may or may not be the most popular language used on these machines, Microsoft's extensive documentation includes instructions on building a Java machine for doing computation. They list it alongside C#, Node, and PHP.

The "extra small" machine with 768MB of RAM and a shared core sells for just 1.3 cents per hour or $9.36 per month. That "preview" pricing is cheaper than that of any other cloud machines I've seen -- including Rackspace's 256MB "first generation" machine that sells for 1.5 cents per hour. This isn't an exact comparison because that price only gets you a Linux box. Rackspace's Windows machines are more expensive.

I loaded the latest Oracle JVM onto a Windows Server 2008 R2 image and started up the DaCapo benchmarks. The performance was wildly different from other low-end servers I built at Rackspace and Joyent. The differences between so-called commodity machines continue to surprise me.

The avrora simulation of parallel events, for instance, was more than twice as fast on the Azure machine than on the Joyent or Rackspace boxes, but the Tomcat server benchmark was two to five times slower. The Lucene indexing benchmark was dramatically slower on Azure, but the Lucene search of an index was dramatically faster. All of this proves you have to test your own code on each platform if you want to squeeze out optimal performance.

Should you purchase? The tested speed of the machine may vary according to the individual benchmarks, but the overall results are in the same ballpark. If you're looking for a cheap machine, it's a good price.

I don't know how long Microsoft plans to maintain these preview prices, but they're extremely tempting, especially for anyone who's looking to move code that needs Microsoft's Windows or SQL platform. You can spin up what you need quickly and move your software over without rewriting anything. The prices are also pretty compelling for non-Microsoft users. You can use the most high-profile distributions of Linux and enjoy the same hardware configurations and price points.

Beyond the commodity cloud

The machines and the software running on them may be the heart of the cloud, but Microsoft's Azure platform is more than just Windows machines and Microsoft SQL. You can also purchase various data services through APIs that handle a few of the most common data management jobs that Web developers confront.

The integration is mainly just the bookkeeping. If you purchase the Bing Search Services (the first 5,000 searches a month are free), you get a pointer to a proxy C# class and code that makes the API call. The source code snippet comes with a cute little link that will insert your API key. What you do with the search results is up to you and the C# code you write.

There are at least a dozen different options, including an address checking service that compares the address your customer entered with the officially recognized addresses from the postal service database. Another looks up sales tax rates. A third offers weather data. It's a nice mix that can save you the trouble of building these services yourself.

Windows Azure shows how a company that built a product like Visual Studio approaches the cloud. Microsoft didn't just create a bunch of APIs and shell scripts, but knitted everything together with a clicky Web interface. Rather than use Vi to knit together Unix scripts, you point and click. It's a nice way to advance the platform and make it simpler for people to create scalable websites that offer a full range of services. This budding integration with the Microsoft toolchain is the frosting on the cake that cast the Azure machines with their enticing prices as more than just commodities.

This article, "Review: Windows Azure shoots the moon," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in cloud computing at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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