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What we learned at our Windows Azure Regcast

Hands-on configuration

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On 10 October QA’s Matt Bishop became the latest and the bravest techie to enter El Reg studio for a hands-on session.

Bravely ignoring advice never to work on stage with children or real-time internet feeds he did both, sitting alongside the Reg’s Tim Phillips for an hour of breakneck live Windows Azure configuration.

Why, some of you had speculated, should you need a guide to setting up point-and-click cloud services?

The number of questions we didn’t have time to answer at the end of our session showed how rich the environment is becoming and how much there is to know about Windows Azure.

If you want to live the moment (and maybe configure along with Matt), you can find the on-demand version here. For now here is a quick summary of what we covered.

PaaS still going strong

Our Regcast highlighted Windows Azure’s IaaS capabilities but most users will still want to road-test a few standard PaaS applications. So let’s start there.

When you sign in to the Windows Azure portal, the first item on the menu is “Web Sites”. If you have an existing URL, you simply enter the URL and Windows Azure will upload the data and the application. If you are starting from scratch, clicking the "New" button bottom left brings up what Microsoft calls the Gallery of Apps.

Setting up a WordPress platform took about 30 seconds: pick a URL, specify which servers you want it hosted on (Windows Azure offers two locations in Europe, for example), specify whether you want to restrict multi-tenant mode, have more than one instance or allocate more processor resource, and that’s about it. It is all point and click.

Matt notes that this is the heritage of Windows Azure as distinct from Amazon Web Services.

While Amazon has more tools for some own-build functions at the moment, Windows Azure is built around the idea of a hybrid data centre: it assumes its customers will put some apps in the cloud and some in the data centre, and that they desire little difference in the way they are set up or configured.

Windows and Linux virtual machines

More of Windows Azure’s recent updates (one of the advantages of running a cloud service is that you can add new features every few weeks) extend its IaaS capability. Remember the detail of how to do this are in the Regcast (or in the Windows Azure Training Kit plus more demos), so this is an outline only.

First, setting up Windows virtual machines is predictably straightforward and familiar. The second item on the menu in the portal is “Create VM” and the Gallery in this case lists the virtual machines you can create, from the obvious – Windows Server 2012 – to many different Linux images.

If you want to set up an Ubuntu or CentOS server, for example, the Linux images were created in partnership with the distributors.

Setting up a Windows Server is mostly a case of filling in a few simple boxes – though there is contextual help if you don’t quite know what you are assigning a name to or which resources you are dedicating.

One element it asks you to fill in that causes confusion is your “Cloud Service”. This is a container for your virtual machines that sets the security boundary. Two virtual machines in the same Cloud Service can ping each other.

It is not much more fiddly to set up a Linux server because the images exist in the repository. If you want to set up a fully configured Linux server and save yourself some time, then there is also a list of community supplied images which you reach by clicking on "Images, VM Depot".

Unlike the basic virtual machines they are not checked by Microsoft, but many are supplied by reputable expert sources.

Depending on the applications and the access control that you want to set up, you are going to want to open more ports at this point.

Storage

It is a bit more complicated to set up virtual hard disks in Windows Azure, but still quite intuitive. Click on your virtual machine and to the right of the “Add” button at the bottom of the screen is a communications button. It looks a bit like this: “><”.

Click that to download an RDP file and look at your disks. They are stored in triplicate and sparsely so you pay only for the storage that you use.

Attaching a new disk is not too hard. There is a chain icon to the right of the “New” button along the bottom of the screen which provisions the disk. Right click to initialise it (quick format, because if you write to the disk with a full format you are going to pay for all the useless data you have just written).

Matt used PowerShell to upload a hard disk from his own drive to the virtual machines. If you are PowerShell-literate, any of this can be done using scripts, but in this case it is just a couple of commands.

But here is a catch: once the disk is uploaded, it still needs to be configured. Go to the “Disks” tab to create it by selecting the disk data that was uploaded, and ensure that Windows Azure recognises it as a disk and whether it has an OS on it.

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