My First Look at Azure

Azure is a cloud based SQL Server service hosted byMicrosoft and has been available since 2009.  So what makes this news important or interesting to you?

Well, recently Microsoft added Windows and SQL Azure to the Visual Studio MSDN subscription.  That’s right, if you have a subscription to Visual Studio MSDN, you can use create and use small Azure databases for free to test, learn and show others how to run SQL in the cloud.  There are different limitations to how much free capacity you qualify for depending on your subscription level.  The three levels include:

Visual Studio 2010 Ultimate with MSDN
Visual Studio 2010 Premium with MSDN
Visual Studio 2010 Professional with MSDN

I’m not going to list the monthly capacity limits here because you can find them for yourself by logging into your subscription.  Furthermore, who knows, they might change over time.  After all, it is Microsoft.

This free use of Windows and SQL Azure with the MSDN subscriptions are not meant to be used for production systems.  Rather I see them as way to test out the capabilities and determine how SQL in the cloud might be an alternative for some projects rather than purchasing new hardware for every project.  One warning, you must provide information for a valid credit card when you register for your free Azure account.  That may sound a little odd at first, but rather than stop your application dead in its tracks if you exceed the monthly limits, Microsoft will simply start billing your credit card for any usage over the monthly maximum free limits.

While I’ve only started to look into Azure, let me give you some quick impressions.

  • Azure is a great way to hedge your hardware investment using a pay as you go model to growth rather than having to buy your maximum expected capacity right from the get go.
  • Azure removes a lot of the hardware and network support issues you would have to provide for yourself or pay someone else to do for you just to keep SQL running.
  • You still need DBA skills for managing schemas, indexes, statistics and creating queries and stored procedures.
  • You may not need to worry about disaster recovery because Microsoft provides automatic fail-over and growth support as well as making sure that all system and application patches are up to date.

Some things that Azure does not provide are:

  • SQL Agent so there is no automation of jobs in the cloud at this time.
  • No replication, data mirroring or log shipping, but then you are not responsible for hardware or network uptime, Microsoft is.  Don’t you trust them?
  • You do not have access to Profiler to help optimize your processes, but you still can optimize your system via normal SQL best practices.
  • No Reporting Services or Analysis Services yet.  (and I was just getting into Analysis Services for pivot tables.)

Overall, it is worth checking out if for no reason than to get an understanding of how it works.  That’s what I’ll be doing over the summer.  In future releases of Azure I’m sure we will see the capabilities grow.  So getting a better understanding of how SQL in the cloud works now will give you a head start later when you decide it is appropriate for your organization to jump up to the cloud.


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