As part of a recent eLearning course that I presented, I had a chance to get some in-depth experience with Microsoft Azure. Before that I’d kept up with Azure from a news and features standpoint but I admit that I hadn’t had very much hands-on experience actually using it. To build the eLearning content, I needed to dive into the Azure experience with both feet. I wound up setting up Azure IaaS virtual machines (VMs), storage accounts, virtual networks, credentials, and more. While at first I found Azure a little strange, I quickly got the hang of using the Azure Management Portal.

New Azure Portal User-Friendly

A year or so ago, I had used the older Azure portal and I wasn’t impressed, but the new Azure Portal is both user-friendly and intuitive. I went into this project with some trepidation but I came out of it pretty impressed with Azure. I found Microsoft Azure to be usable, capable, and fast. From nothing, I created a fully-functional SQL Server AlwaysOn Availability Group in Azure—complete with a domain, Windows Server 2012 Failover cluster, and two SQL Server 2014 Enterprise edition instances—in a couple of hours—far less time that it would have taken me using my on-premise infrastructure.

Related: Microsoft Announces New Azure SQL Database Tiers

Going into using Azure for this presentation, I was definitely concerned about connectivity and performance. I started out with the most basic questions.

  • Microsoft gave me a test account, but how do I even connect to Azure?
  • How do I access the VMs that I create?
  • What will the performance be like?
  • Are there differences or limitations when running SQL Server in an Azure VM?

In the back of my mind, I also had questions about how this platform would affect the jobs for IT and database professionals. I soon found the answers to these questions.

Just typing in Azure in the browser brings you to the Microsoft sales page, but that wasn’t what I wanted. Instead, you find the Azure management portal at manage.windowsazure.com. From there, you sign with your Microsoft Live ID and then you’re launched into the Azure management portal.

Creating IaaS VMs Incredibly Easy

Like most new things at first, it’s a bit confusing, but it didn’t take long to get reasonably familiar with Azure. The blue (what else?) navigation bar along the right side enables you configure most Azure objects including cloud services, storage accounts, VMs, mobile series, the BizTalk service, and more.

Creating IaaS VMs was incredibly easy using the predefined templates from the Azure VM gallery. There are many different templates. Some templates include just different versions of the Windows or Linux OS. Others include applications like SQL Server, Oracle, SharePoint and Visual Studio. You can literally complete the process of deploying a new VM complete with a ready-to-go version of Windows Server and SQL Server in a couple of minutes. And I do mean ready to go. You don’t need to step through the sysprep dialogs or anything. You log on to the VM and SQL Server is running.

Connecting to the Azure VMs was straightforward. The Azure Management Portal provides a handy Connect icon at the bottom of the screen. Clicking it allows you to save an .rdp file to your desktop which you can use to connect to and manage your Azure VMs. This makes the management a lot like the way I work with our on-premise VMs.

Good Computing Power & Fast Storage

I found the performance of Azure to be very quick. Microsoft is certainly providing some good computing power and fast storage behind these VMs. Was the experience problem free? No. There were some differences especially in the networking area. Setting up VPN links is not familiar territory for most DBAs and Azure has some unique requirements. Networking for virtual networks and Failover Clusters and dealing with static IP addresses were also issues.

Related: Active-Geo Replication Support in Azure SQL Database

One realization that came out of my experience was an awareness that Azure doesn’t eliminate the need for your database and management skills. While Azure made setting up VMs quicker and you didn’t have to worry about hardware, you still needed to know how to configure both Windows Server and SQL Server—at least in the IaaS environment I was using. Your current SQL Server skills are needed to make Azure environments work.

With my recent experiences, I know that I wouldn’t hesitate to use Azure for test and development scenarios—it worked great for that. It was easy to create VMs and using them is almost just like VMs from my own labs. My only concern was that it might be a bit too easy to create VMs—VMs that you might have to later pay for in Azure. It was productive and actually quicker to setup VMs in Azure than in my own on-premise labs.

Azure is Better Than You Think

Would I use Azure for my production databases? Probably not, yet. But for me, that’s mainly because of control and security issues—and of course that infamous last mile problem which in my own case is probably worse than most. Do I think it could work? Yes. I think it could—certainly for web-based applications.

The bottom line: If you haven’t used the new Microsoft Azure, you might want to give Azure a try. Its way better than you think. I will definitely be making more use of it for my development and testing needs.

Related: Microsoft Increases Storage for SQL Databases Hosted in Azure