After writing about the use of Cloud services in Education a couple of times this week, here's another bit of info - how to get yourself onto the Cloud for free.

The story so far: Moving to the Cloud allows you to build more scalable and lower cost IT services for students, staff and parents. It's relevant whether you are a software developer wanting to develop a new application (or update an existing one), or you're an IT developer in a school/TAFE/university and you need to deploy a new application (like an online test, or a parental feedback system). The examples we're seeing, using Microsoft's Windows Azure allow developers to build, test and deploy an application in the Cloud very quickly, at very low cost. Basically, Windows Azure is a massive bank of servers, deployed in our data centres, that you rent to run your application, and which use .NET and SQL. You programme using the same techniques you use for apps for your own servers.

There are some differences to running a Cloud service - for example, instead of ordering servers, licences and services, you simply sign up for a Windows Azure service using your credit card. Are you suddenly thinking: "Hold on, you want me to give you my credit card?". Yup, that's how it works. It's basically a service that you buy online, so like everything from eBay to Amazon, it's suddenly the land of the credit-card-consumer. In education and business, that can be tricky - we don't all wander around with a corporate credit card in our pockets. Your boss may not even have a way of repaying you for buying computing power on a credit card!

So I was interested to see that the Windows Azure team have come up with a way of demonstrating the value to your boss, without first having to dip into your personal bank account. Phew Smile

There's an introductory offer for Azure now which allows you to build and deploy apps, and get the computing power you need free until June. Basically, you can grab 750 free hours of an Azure 'Extra-Small Instance' - basically a virtual single processor Windows Server 2008 R2 server with 20GB of storage - without having to hand over any money (normally, you'd pay 5 cents an hour for this). Although you're only saving $37, what you're really getting is the chance to play with Windows Azure, and build something to wow your boss, without having to load the $37 on your own credit card. And hopefully, you can then demonstrate just how much money you'll save them. The table of Windows Azure costs makes interesting reading - if you wanted an 'Extra Large' server, with 8 processors, 14GB of RAM and 2 terabytes of disk, you'd pay less than a dollar an hour.

(And a final bonus, if you want to read stories of other people moving to the Cloud with Windows Azure, take a look at this very fancy web page, where you can see a pile of case studies in very, very visual way)