Starting with Azure

I’ve been meaning to do this, and I finally had the chance recently to start working with Azure. Red Gate is investing in cloud tools, and more development tools, so it’s something I need to work on.

I went to the Azure page, and noticed a “Member Offers” link.


When I clicked through, I could see the benefits. Below this screen shot is the list of stuff you get, depending on your MSDN subscription. You can see the exact benefits on the MSDN benefits page.


I clicked the activate link and was taken to the Windows Live login page. After signing in, I got a page that asked me to create an account. It listed my specific benefits and the requirements for an Azure account.


Since I have a mobile phone and a credit card, I clicked the arrow to proceed. The first thing is to verify your account with a mobile phone. I assume this gives me some sort of two factor authentication as well as a way for them to reach me for billing issues.


After receiving a text and entering it, I was taken to the billing area. I know this freaks many people out, however I’ve had a number of friends use the MSDN subscription trial and not been billed after 5 or 6 months. I’ve had a few that have been billed, but it’s been low amounts, in the $5-10 range. Grant Fritchey (b | t) is one of them, and with all the writing he’s done on Azure, some presentations, and research for Red Gate, he hasn’t had issues.

It’s your career, it’s worth $5 a month. If you find you’re spending more, shut stuff down. I’d give it a try, however, if there is any chance your career will include work in the cloud.


Once you enter a credit card, they’ll get to work.


The welcome screen gives you lots of options. I’m sure I’ll end up here quite often across the next few months as I try to be sure that I’m not running up my cost. I can expense it back to Red Gate, but I do try to spend wisely.


What now? There’s lots of options.


I have a few things in mind, but I’ll probably start with a few light experiments based on some presentations I’ve seen. Buck Woody has a nice set of resources to get me started, and I’ll likely give one of these a try.

The Platform Problem

A fantastic platform. If I had a choice of where to run it.
A fantastic platform. If I had a choice of where to run it.

I really like the idea of Azure providing a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) for applications to be built on. As I’ve evolved in my career, I’ve learned I prefer not to manage individual machines or deal with the complexities of configuring anything outside of SSMS for SQL Server. Working with Hyper-V recently has cemented the idea that I don’t become more productive by dealing with the complexity of the Windows host.

However I can’t see many customers migrating the majority of their applications to the PaaS Azure service for one reason: there’s no competition.

Moving to Azure means placing a big bet that Microsoft will continue to offer the same or more features, more powerful machines, and stability at a reasonable price. Moving to Azure also assumes that you are comfortable working with only Microsoft for the foreseeable future, using their data centers, staff, and products. Any code you write will be specific to Azure.

If you were to use the IaaS services from another vendor, like AWS and their virtual machines, a migration might still require some code changes. However, I’m sure if I contracted for virtual machines from Rackspace or some other provider, I could easily redeploy my application elsewhere. Well, perhaps not easily, but certainly easier than if all my code depended on a platform I can’t run inside my own data center. A platform nobody outside of Microsoft can run.

My view is that Azure is a great platform, and one that could explode in usage. If we have choice.

Microsoft should sell us the code to run inside our own data centers, or at least license it for a number of large providers that might want to offer Azure services. Ultimately the success of the platform depends on people choosing Microsoft because it’s the best choice, not because it’s the only one.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcasts

We publish three versions of the podcast each day for you to enjoy.

An Azure Outage

SQL Azure
Azure was down recently

There was a Windows Azure outage on Feb 29, which resulted in the management service being down for about 8 hours. The actual virtual machines that most customers had were unaffected, but the ability to perform management functions was down for a number of customers.

That’s distressing for customers, and embarrassing for Microsoft, who is spending a lot of resources to promote cloud computing and their Azure services. It lends credence to the fears and concerns of many technology professionals that outsourcing parts of their infrastructure to a cloud provider is a problem.

However is it a big problem? I’ve had outages in nearly every company I’ve worked, often because of problems in the architectures that are built by those same IT people that disparage the cloud. I’ve found that a few outages were from vendor patches, a few from failures, and a good portion were stupid mistakes, often from a lack of testing. We worked hard to fix things, but we often weren’t able to give management much more of an idea when things would be working than a good status page for Azure would provide.

It’s easy to disparage outsourced services as less reliable than in-house services, but I’m not sure that’s true. There is definitely a loss of control, but that comes at a cost savings, and the balance between them is something that each company needs to decide. However I think lots of management might prefer in-house infrastructure for a simple reason: it gives them a specific neck to choke, and possibly replace, when things go wrong.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcasts

We publish three versions of the podcast each day for you to enjoy.

Azure is Down

I saw a note about an outage on Windows Azure, apparently one that’s been going on for seven hours. Once again it seems that February 29 has struck again with a computer issue, and it makes me worry that if we mess with daylight savings time, we might have similar issues in the future.

I went to the main Azure page, and this is what I saw


I wrote about cloud computing today, and higher salaries. While this isn’t good news for the cloud, perhaps it means that salaries will be even higher.

NewSQL Can Save the World

Michael Stonebraker, a database pioneer and researcher, recently said that Facebook’s implementation of MySQL was “a fate worse than death,” and they ought to rewrite their entire infrastructure. I think that analogy is a bit extreme. That statement also shows me that relational databases can scale to some dramatic heights with creative engineering as Facebook as shown with MySQL. I suspect that Facebook could easily use SQL Server and complex sharding of data to power the site if they wanted to in place of MySQL.

Mr. Stonebraker has another solution for the “oldSQL” problem of scaling to very high volumes of transactions while maintaining ACID principles. He has a company that makes VoltDB, a database that lives in memory, complies with ACID principles, and can scale to very high transaction volumes.

Can VoltDB solve the RDBMS scaling issues?

That’s part of a wave of products that are classified as “NewSQL”, or even ScalableSQL, solutions. These databases embrace the power of SQL and even relational databases, but build scalability and high availability directly into the products. It’s interesting to see SQL Azure on the list of NewSQL products, and it makes me think that Azure is much more than just a VM in the cloud running SQL Server. At least I hope it is and includes some scaling features beyond what a single VM can provide.

Running in memory scares me, but perhaps if you expect failure of nodes, and you have some sort of replication of the data among many nodes, it can work. I do worry about the consistency across the nodes and the latency that can affect this, but perhaps these products do a good job of addressing these concerns. I still think a large scale power failure could be disastrous, so I assume these products do write to disk at some point.

I do agree that the relational model can scale, and I’m sure that we will see SQL Server grow to encompass and accommodate the concerns of customers that need to run large scale databases in the future. I’m just not sure how they’ll do it.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcasts

A SQL Azure Customer

Not me, though I’m not necessarily against Azure in principle. I had a friend ask me for a SQL Server hosting provider the other day, saying they had built a web front end, and had a web host, but were thinking to separate out some data to a separate provider. I have no idea why, or what this was.

“Have you looked at SQL Azure?” I queried?

He responded to say he was embarrassed to say he didn’t know what Azure was. I told him that I wasn’t completely sure myself, but it offered SQL Server almost as a web service, and it might work for him.

“$9.99/mo for a 1GB database? I’m in” was what I heard a bit later. I did caution him to be careful of transactions and transfer. Test locally was my advice.

We’ll see how he likes it. I’ll follow up in a few weeks and see what he thinks.

The Cloud is Nothing Special

In the news this week, there was a major announcement. Buck Woody (blog | @BuckWoody), longtime Microsoft employee and favorite speaker of many in the community, bought an iPad. That in and of itself, with Buck’s frequent touting of Microsoft products, is amazing, and Buck wrote about it on his blog, noting that Windows Azure is platform independent. He even has a picture of a NASA app, something built on Azure, running on his new toy.

This week, SQL Azure finally gets its own web site, showcasing SQL Server in the cloud. I know lots of DBAs, and IT people in general might be down on computing in the cloud, but I’m not. I think that there are some problems, some applications, that will benefit from cloud computing. Not every instance of SQL Server should be moved to the cloud, but some will work better in the cloud. If nothing else, being able to use cloud services is another evolution of the hosted environments that so many small companies use today. You can get the services you need without the need to do as much administration or setup.

For most of us, the services that we might use on the Internet are platform independent. We don’t care that Facebook uses Cassandra, or Google uses BigTable, or that TractorByNet uses whatever technology they use. We just want our particular service to work, and it doesn’t mattter what the underlying technology is.

I think it’s the same with cloud computing. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if it’s Azure, EC2, or some other service. Just like Brent Ozar views virtualization, I would bet that some of the time a cloud service is “good enough” to use.

The DBA Financial Analyst

The DBA job is somewhat nebulous, with a variety of skills being needed, and the mix of those skills varying from company to company. As companies look to save money, and look to perhaps go with cloud computing or other types of hosted environments, are DBAs going to need to also perform financial calculations?

I was reading a post on SQL Azure recently that talked about the cost of indexes. Not performance, or space, but actual real dollars and cents cost since indexes take up space and you are charged by the space you use. Adding extra indexes, or adding columns to indexes, or adding covering columns, can cost you real money if you have any large scale of resources.

So does that mean that in addition to trying to determine what changes you can make to code to improve performance, or what new features might make sense to your applications, you need to also run some financial ROI calculation on the choices? Maybe PowerPivot was released just in time for all those virtual systems that might charge by the byte or cycle.

As a DBA, I’ve had to budget, and try to determine  how to spend funds for hardware, balancing out choices for RAM v disk v CPU, and even comparing secondary servers for read-only scale out against a larger single server. However I typically don’t have to compare the cost of features in my analysis.

I’ve sometimes wished I could pay for just one feature, and it’s starting to look like that might be something that could happen in the cloud. While the possibility if mix and match features intrigues me, the extra work to add cost to my calculations along with performance makes me think the cloud might be more trouble than it’s worth.

Steve Jones