In a significant reveal today, Microsoft’s public cloud platform, Azure, gained a major new feature: Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Scott Guthrie, Microsoft Corporate Vice President for Windows Azure, delivered a live presentation of new Azure features in a global streaming event on June 7, 2012 (see Figure A). Put simply, Microsoft now has a competitive entry in the commodity public cloud market along with Amazon, Rackspace, and others, where you can rent Virtual Machines (VMs) by the hour and by the month.

Figure A – Microsoft CVP Windows Azure Scott Guthrie presents Meet Windows Azure.

The news that infrastructure-class VMs were going to be available from Microsoft’s Azure platform was expected, but the reveal today had surprising timing, was fittingly low-key, and contained a few nice surprises. Key highlights include the new persistent Windows Azure VM capabilities, including Windows Server and Linux support; virtual networking between Windows Azure and your on-premises infrastructure; and a new Windows Azure Management Portal (see Figure B) for easier application management and monitoring.

Figure B – Creating a VM using Quick Create at the new Azure portal.

The IaaS VM from Azure

VMs inside Azure have been available as a variant of web and worker roles for about a year. These VMs were not IaaS grade because they did not offer persistence of particular VM instances. It was necessary to deploy cloud-aware, resilient applications to achieve high availability, because a particular VM instance could “reload” following an Azure host failure. This resulted in the VM being rolled back to its initial state, losing all changes and customizations since the VM was deployed. The new Azure VM offering features persistent storage, and opens the door to running IaaS VMs in Azure.

Azure’s previous limited VM role supported only the Windows 2008 R2 SP1 operating system (OS), and you had to upload your own OS image as a virtual hard drive (VHD). While nice to use your own image for some scenarios, 30-GB and larger uploads of VHDs to Azure could take many hours. With the new IaaS VMs, you use pre-configured OS images that are ready to go inside Azure. Also, your OS selections are not limited to Windows 2008 R2 SP1, but now include several Linux distributions as well as the Windows 2012 Server release candidate (RC). With the new Azure VM offering, it was announced that you can still upload your own VHD (“VM portability”) as well as using the preconfigured images.

Price looks good
I was really curious to know if IaaS VMs, with their persistent storage, were going to be priced similar to the previous Azure VMs with non-persistent storage or if they would be more expensive. The great news is that the new, better VMs cost about the same! Figure C is from the new Azure sign-up website where you can move sliders to calculate the cost of your VM. This small VM with a 225-GB C: drive and a 250-GB D: geo-redundant drive costs about $100 a month.

Figure C – Estimating the monthly cost of an Azure VM with geo-redundant, persistent storage.

You can get started with Windows Azure with a 90-day free trial. A Windows Live ID and credit card are required for proof of identity. There is no obligation to purchase at the end of the free trial. At the end of the trial, any further usage will be charged at the standard rates. As an incentive, if you elect to continue using Windows Azure after your free trial period, you will receive up to 10 Azure Web Sites at no charge for an additional 12 months.

Remote connection from on-premise to Azure

A stumbling block to creating hybrid clouds that extend from on-premise networks to public clouds can be network connectivity between those locations. This feature is needed, for example, to allow on-premise and cloud computers to all participate in the same Windows domain. Microsoft announced a compelling solution to this dilemma: Azure Virtual Network.

With Azure Virtual Network, you can extend your on-premises networks into the cloud with control over network topology, including configuration of IP addresses, routing tables and security policies. This is done using your current VPN technology, when you set up Azure Virtual Network, you specify your current VPN provider and Azure integrates routing seamlessly. No software or modifications are required to on-premise computers to extend your network into Azure.