Windows Azure – Newbie Notes

WinAzureThis week I dedicated some time to check what Windows Azure is about. Here are some notes I gathered during those days. I have some background in VMware and AWS, so the notes are mostly around the differences between those and Windows Azure that I spotted.

The first thing to note is that single Management Console provides access to all Windows Azure functionality pieces. Here those pieces look like the parts of a whole. In AWS each service actually is a separate service (with some of those services being integrated), and the console clearly reflects that.

Virtual Machines and Virtual Networks
Those are two basic concepts that are much the same between Azure and AWS, besides maybe some terminology differences:

Amazon AWS Windows Azure
Instance Virtual Machine
(Instance) Type (VM) Size
Start, Stop, Terminate Start, Shut Down, Delete
AMI (= Amazon Machine Image) (VM) Images
VPC (= Virtual Private Cloud) (Virtual) Network

My feeling is that similarly named type/size on Azure is much slower than its AWS counterpart, but I cannot prove that with some test results yet.

VM Images
Just like AWS, Azure provides you large set of images to start your VM from. There is no marketplace for 3rd party images yet, but you can create your own images if you need to. Two major differences here are the need to go through all sysprep burden on your own and the fact that the original VM is deleted (sic!) after it was captured as an image. Yet, this may be not that bad to avoid some confusion, considering that original instance is mostly wiped after sysprep.

IP Addresses
Unlike AWS, where internal IP address of an instance within VPC will remain constant for the instance lifetime (that is – until the termination), here both external and internal IP of the VM will not survive the shutdown and will be changed after you turn it on. A possible workaround is to shut down the VM from inside the guest OS and not from the Management Console. This way the VM is considered running by Azure and all VM resources, including IP addresses, are preserved. Note that in this state the VM continues to eat your budget! [ Update (May 2014): Here is a great article on the topic. Also, setting static IP address is now possible via PowerShell. ]

Cloud Service
The concept of cloud service does not exist on AWS, and is not easy to create simple explanations of what it is. The explanation from Microsoft pretends to be complete, but is mostly confusing. There are some better explanations on the net, much more suitable for newbies – for example this one, which explains the concept by giving three examples of cloud services:
1) Small HTML site.
2) Complex 2-tier web application built on ASP.NET and SQL Server.
3) Virtual network with multi-server application cluster and local AD installation.
Each VM lives inside some cloud service, even if it is a cloud service with single VM inside.
Each cloud service has own permanent DNS name under “” domain, short and fully resolvable on the internet, and single public IP address. The IP address will be released after all VMs in the cloud service go down, but the new IP will be associated with the same DNS name after the service will be up again. Each VM in the service will get own externally available ports (so-called “endpoints”), which are mapped to some private ports on the VM itself. Those port numbers do no change, making configuration of various connection managers (like mRemoteNG) static and easy to maintain. In addition, cloud service may be configured to act as a load-balancer for containing VMs, eliminating the need to maintain separate entity for that (like, say, ELB on AWS).

Name Resolution
There are significant differences related to name resolution between Azure and AWS. The build-in DNS service is intended to provide name resolution for virtual machines that reside in the same cloud service only. That is, even if you have two virtual machines that are located on the same virtual network, but belong to different cloud services, you will need to use your own DNS server solution in order for them to communicate directly by hostname. I guess this is one of the reasons for Azure-provided DNS server not being able to perform reverse lookups.
Pay attention that setting own DNS server in Azure is not so straightforward given that internal IP addresses may change over time. [ Update (May 2014): Things have changed. read about it here. ]

Active Directory
Windows Azure Active Directory is not a Domain Controller. You can use it to sync on-premises AD with Windows Azure AD to easily enable SSO, but you can not join computers to Windows Azure AD. In addition, it appears that you cannot delete Windows Azure Active Directory that you don’t need anymore. Well, at least they don’t charge for it. But anyway, if you do need full Active Directory (with Domain Services) in Azure – recall that it requires own DNS server…

Windows Azure Blob Storage is somehow similar to S3 in AWS – but only if you need programmatic access. There is no way to upload files there via Management Console, and I was unable to find third party utils or browser extensions that can do it for you without mandatory registration to their service (and providing them your Azure credentials). [ Update (May 2014): CloudBerry Explorer for Microsoft Azure Cloud Storage seems to do that job perfectly! ]

There is no AWS-like separate “security groups” in Azure. Instead, the same functionality is provided by endpoints that are configured directly on VM level (see my notes on cloud services above). The major drawback of this approach is lack of single place to maintain access rules. However, it makes some sense when you recall that each VM has own public port number for the same protocol.

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