In a previous article, I covered Microsoft’s announcement that public cloud platform Windows Azure was now making available infrastructure grade virtual machines (VMs). These VMs would have persistent storage and will compete with other Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) public cloud providers like Amazon and Rackspace. Azure Virtual Network, a means to connect on-premise computers with Azure VMs using a BYOD IPSEC tunnel, was also announced. The new service is still in a trial period (“IaaS  preview”), with a free trial for the public, and a discounted price for existing Azure customers.

How to participate in the Azure IaaS VM trial

You can get started with Windows Azure infrastructure VMs with a 90-day free trial (see Figure A for the sign-up page). If you already have an Azure subscription, and you purchased Windows Azure compute hours in the last year for Azure Platform as a Service (PaaS) VMs, during the IaaS preview your IaaS hours are billed just like a PaaS VM with the only change being that Microsoft bills you for two-thirds of the actual hours you use. This is because IaaS is not in full production support and Microsoft wants to give customers a discount.

Figure A – Current Azure subscribers and Trial only users start here.

This also makes it simple for someone to use existing purchased compute hours to run IaaS VMs. The situation may change when IaaS comes out of preview, but for the preview period Microsoft uses the same compute hours for both PaaS and IaaS. That is a good deal since IaaS VMs are actually much more valuable to the infrastructure architect. The new IaaS VMs have persistent, geo-redundant virtual hard disks, with the distant storage member hundreds of miles away in a second Azure datacenter on the same continent. PaaS VMs are really just ephemeral (differencing) disks that exist only in one Azure datacenter per VM instance.

Migrating an Azure subscription to IaaS

As the admin of a current Azure subscription, I wanted to start developing on the new IaaS VM as soon as possible, so I opened a ticket with Azure PaaS support to answer some questions. I wanted to find out what I had to do both to move my current subscription to the new model and make sure that new VM instances would be of the IaaS type. It turns out the production PaaS and the IaaS trial services are administered by different teams, and to service my request, I had to post to the Azure VM Forum at Microsoft.

The Microsoft Azure staff quickly replied to me in the forum and made it clear how to proceed. I went to the same 90-day free trial like anyone else and requested to participate. Within 48 hours I had an email from Windows Azure: “Congratulations! Your subscription has been activated for the Windows Azure Virtual Machines and Virtual Network preview.” Virtual Network connections are free during preview, while each connection is expected to cost about $36 per month in production for a 24×7 connected site. During the preview of IaaS VMs, Microsoft does not offer a service level agreement for availability and does not recommend deploying production services.

The new Azure IaaS portal

Those who have worked with Windows Azure for the last year are familiar with the Silverlight-based Azure Management Portal. The welcome email also contained a link to a completely new Azure user portal site. See a previous article for screenshots of the ‘old’ portal, which really had its roots as a developer tool, an extension of Microsoft Visual Studio. Silverlight having to load, then pull data to populate each pane of the portal was slow and clunky. The new portal abandons Silverlight, pulling content from Microsoft’s Ajax Content Delivery Network. It loads quickly and has a clean, Metro-style interface that is intuitively organized on IaaS building blocks, quite different from the PaaS focus of the previous Azure portal.

Once I was logged into the new portal, I was able to click the ACCOUNT link in a drop-down ribbon shown in Figure B. From there I was able to associate some of my existing Azure subscriptions with the new Azure IaaS trial. The cloud service and storage accounts shown (named ‘extended1′) were created with Azure PaaS and carried over into Azure IaaS. I had deleted my PaaS VM instances before moving the subscription to Azure Iaas trial, so now I am ready to create my first Azure IaaS VM and plan on doing so quite soon and sharing the experience.

Figure B – The new Windows Azure portal available now for IaaS trial customers.

Bottom line: To get experience with the new Azure IaaS VMs and Azure Virtual Network, you must start using the new portal, and to get access to the new portal, everybody begins with requesting a free trial.