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TechnologyOct 30, 2012

Windows Azure Websites – An Enterprise Solution For Enterprising Individuals

Forrest Kyle

There has been a lot of marketing, tweeting, blogging, and general online rumbling about Microsoft’s massive cloud offering, Windows Azure.  It may have sounded to you like some behemoth, enterprise solution that would be analyzed, adopted, and implemented by CIO’s with million dollar IT budgets and  expansive infrastructural needs.  These notions can tend to push Azure out of your mind as some big abstraction that has nothing to do with you.  Not so!  With Azure Websites, Microsoft has put the scalable, robust, modern power of Windows Azure at the fingertips of enterprising individuals who wish to build and deploy websites.

Too many times, I’ve seen a friend or colleague’s personal website suddenly explode in popularity due to a poignant blog or other timely content, but then vanish as throngs of eager visitors swamp his/her provider.  He/she then spends the next several hours on the phone, looking for other hosts, and praying that those who received “503” server errors will come back later when it has all been sorted out.

This is why I chose Azure Websites for my hosting needs.  Azure Websites allow developers to quickly and easily deploy their sites to a scalable environment backed by enterprise power, but tagged with a price that is affordable.

After I made the decision to go with Azure Websites, I signed up for a free 90-day trial.  This can be a great option for most people, because it allows you to test, develop, and deploy to a live environment.  However, the domain name is limited to <yournamehere>.azurewebsites.net.  So, I decided to upgrade my plan to the paid Shared Instance plan so that I could use a custom domain name.  This plan allows you to share a multi-tenant instance of a virtual machine (VM) running in Azure, and removes all CPU, memory, and networking limits associated with the free trial.  (Note: The free trial is limited to 10 websites serving up to 5 GB per month of content.)  If I ever become a huge celebrity, I would want to upgrade to the Reserved Instance plan, which provides a dedicated, single-tenant VM.  Scaling this will give you multiple dedicated VM’s and you’ll feel the raw power of Azure launch you into the big leagues of cyberspace.

Since I upgraded my account, I still receive a 90 day “preview mode”, with reduced pricing.  At my current scale, I pay about $9.36 per month for up to 5 GB of content being served.  From there, it is the standard “pay as you go” rates for Azure.  (See https://www.windowsazure.com/en-us/pricing/calculator/ for details.)  When my preview ends, the standard rate is about $14 per month.

Hopefully, this explanation has provided you with a big picture view, but I should point out that it took me less than five minutes to go from conducting a web search for Windows Azure, to my site going live online.   I can’t emphasize enough that the experience was very smooth and user-friendly.  I submitted my personal details, waited about five seconds while Azure established my subscription, and was then promptly escorted to the nice looking Azure portal.  Given that my subscription was new, the portal was very sparse, and so I clicked “CREATE A WEBSITE” and was greeted with the following:

I chose to create a blank site, but Azure Websites offers many great templates to really accelerate the process of getting your site off the ground.  Below is just a small sample of the offerings available out-of-the-box.

This makes it tremendously simple to deploy a fairly sophisticated website in a matter of minutes.

I entered my domain name, and 30 seconds after activating my subscription I was staring at this:

That is my website!  Or at least, it was at the time.  I was eager to start uploading code and seeing my vision come alive on the web.  Azure Websites offers several convenient deployment methods – from WebDeploy, FTP, GIT, to TFS.  I decided that, for my purposes, FTP was sufficient.

To use FTP, you should first note that your deployment credentials are not set by default.  You need to first set them up.

This takes just a moment.  I was then able to FTP using FireFTP in FireFox.  I built my site, FTP’d the content up to Azure, and I was live with absolutely no fuss.

Azure provides a nice dashboard for monitoring your site.

Clicking the “Monitor” option gives you the same usage graph as the dashboard, but with additional information below and customizable metrics.  If there is anything to be learned from your site’s functionality, Azure will find a way to tell you about it!  (In the graphic below, I have added the red box to highlight the button which allows you to add new metrics to the monitoring interface.)

Currently, my website is not receiving heavy traffic.  However, if I suddenly become the flavor of the month on the internet, I can handle the sudden load by clicking on the “Scale” menu option.

This gives me a nice little control panel from which I can control my site’s ability to handle load.  No phone calls to support, no frantic demands for more server space, and no last second searching for a better provider.  Just slide the bar and let Azure handle the rest!

If you’re not a .NET developer, don’t worry about it!  Azure Websites has full support for PHP.

All in all, I was surprised by how simple and convenient the experience was.  I honestly set aside a whole day to fiddle with a complicated monstrosity that I had imagined Azure to be, and yet five minutes later I was uploading code to a live site.  It was actually pretty awesome.  I am paying a bit more than I would if I had sought out the cheapest possible hosting solution on the web, but every time I login to the Azure portal, I smile and think to myself, “totally worth it.”

If you have questions concerning Azure Websites or Azure for the Enterprise,  Contact us or visit our Technology Solutions overview for more information.