We recently announced the release of Windows Azure Virtual Machines, an Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) offering in Windows Azure. I wanted to share my insights into how you can quickly start to use and best take advantage of this service.

Since I helped build it, I will warn you: I do love it!

Virtual Machines Migration Patterns

At a glance, Virtual Machines (VMs)  consist of infrastructure to deploy an application. Specifically, this includes a persistent OS disk, possibly some persistent data disks, and internal/external networking glue to hold it all together. Despite the boring list, with these infrastructure ingredients, the possibilities are so much more exciting…

In this preview release, we wanted to create a platform where customers and partners can deploy existing applications to take advantage of the reduced cost and ease of deployment offered in Windows Azure. While ‘migration’ is a simple goal for the IaaS offering, the process might involve transferring an entire multi-VM application, like SharePoint. Or it might be moving a single Virtual Machine, like SQL Server, as part of a cloud-based application. It may even include creating a brand new application that requires Virtual Networks for hybrid connectivity to an on-premises Active Directory deployment.

What Applications Do you Mean?

As part of the launch of Virtual Machines in Windows Azure, we focused on the support for three key Microsoft applications, shown in Figure 1. We selected these applications and associated versions because of the high customer demand we received for them, either standalone or as part of a larger application. 

 

Figure 1 Applications and Versions

Additionally, these applications represent broad workload types we believe customers want to deploy in the cloud:

1)    SQL Server is a database workload with expectations for exceptional disk performance;

2)    Active Directory is a hybrid identity solution with extensive networking expectations;

3)    SharePoint Server is a large-scale, multi-tier application with a load-balanced front-end. In fact, as shown in Figure 2, SharePoint Server 2010 deployments will include SQL Server and Active Directory.

 

Figure 2 A SharePoint Server Deployment

Getting Started with Virtual Machines for Windows

The easiest way to get going with Windows Azure Virtual Machines for Windows is through our new HTML-based portal. The portal offers a simple and enjoyable experience for deploying new Virtual Machines based on one of the several platform images supplied by Microsoft including: Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Evaluation, Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1, and Windows Server 2012 Release Candidate.

We update these images regularly with the most recent patches to make sure that you start with a secure virtual machine, by default. Further details on getting started can be found here. Once deployed, you can patch the running Virtual Machines using a management product or simply use Windows Update.

Figure 3 The Virtual Machine OS Selection

 

We also wanted to make it easy for you to deploy Virtual Machines using scripts or build on our programmatic interface. Therefore, we also released PowerShell cmdlets that allow scripted deployment of Virtual Machines for Windows. Finally, both the portal and the Command-Line tooling are built on REST APIs that are available for programmatic usage, described here, giving you the ability to develop your own tools and management solutions.

Figure 4 Scripting, Portal and the REST API

How does it work, Really?

The persistence of the OS and data disks is a crucial aspect of the Virtual Machines offering. Because we wanted the experience to be completely seamless, we do all disk management directly from the hypervisor. Thus, the disks are exposed as SATA (OS disk) and SCSI (data disks) ‘hardware’ to the Virtual Machine, when actually the ‘disks’ are VHDs sitting in a storage account. Because the VHDs are stored in Windows Azure Storage accounts, you have direct access to your files (stored as page blobs) and get the highly durable triplicate copies implemented by Windows Azure storage for all its data.

Look for more details on how disks work in Windows Azure in an upcoming post by Brad Calder.

Figure 5 Windows Azure Storage as the disk 

I like to move it, Move It!

You can copy, back-up, move and download your VHDs using standard storage API commands or storage utilities, creating endless possibilities for managing and re-deploying instances. Instead of spending a lot of time to set-up a test environment to quickly destroy it, you can simply copy the VHD’s blob and boot the same set-up multiple times, to then destroy it multiple times. You can even capture running VMs so that you can make clones of them with new machine names and passwords, a process we call ‘capturing’, described here.

This VHD ‘mobility’ also allows you to take your VHDs previously deployed in Windows Azure and bring them back on-premises (assuming you have the appropriate licenses) for management or even deployment. The reverse is possible, as well. Details on how to upload your VHD into Windows Azure can be found here.


 

Figure 6 VHD Mobility in Action

Sounds cool. What should I do first?

The best way to get started with the offering is just to do some experimenting, developing and testing on a Virtual Machine. This means you can deploy a Virtual Machine, perhaps as part of your new free trial and install your favorite server application like SharePoint, SQL, IIS, or something else. Once you are done, you can export all aspects of the Virtual Machine, including the connected data disks and endpoint information, so that you can import it later for further development and testing. 

Use this as a quick development box and try building something. It is easy, and fun! Of course, only a geeky infrastructure guy would call deploying a VM fun. But it sure is fun.

If you have any issues, problems, or questions, you can always find us on the help forums.

- by Corey Sanders, Principal Program Manager Lead, Windows Azure