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Microsoft Azure: Cloud for the rest of us

Cloud computing is great. Yet anything beyond Dropbox, OneDrive or iCloud can be daunting for those of us who aren't IT professionals. While Amazon is the market leader at selling cloud services to business, you couldn't describe setting up a server or a website on Amazon's AWS EC2 as easy.

On the other hand, there's nothing scary about getting started with Microsoft Azure. Microsoft has created a cloud computing service that makes creating a server as simple as setting up a Word document.

Moving to the cloud


Sooner or later a small business grows to the point where it needs servers. In the past that meant buying hardware. Today it means monthly payments to cloud services.

Everything physical servers do — and then some — can be moved to the cloud. Corporations run enterprise systems in the cloud. Banks run in the cloud.

For a small business, the cloud can run virtual networks, handle storage, run web apps or databases. It can also host websites.

Cloud hosted services have two advantages over running your own server:


  • First, you don't have to guess how much computer you need before committing your money. With cloud services you can buy the bare minimum then pay extra to buy more capacity.

  • Second, cloud hosted services are managed for you. You won't have to hire, train people or learn to deal with the hardware yourself.


Cloud advantage


Another advantage of cloud computing is you're not left with a white elephant on your hands if your needs change. Better still, if you need something new, say you decide to host a new website, adding that to your existing account is next to no trouble. Or at least that's how it should work.

One thing that bothers me is running a small business web site. There are cheap virtual servers, but my experience has not been good. In particular, cheap hosts can't handle large traffic spikes.

I doubt I'll go down that path again. Wordpress.com hosts my site despite the drawbacks and restrictions because it's reliable and scales well when the crowds turn up on my doorstep.

Spiky traffic


My latest project — don't worry you'll hear about it soon enough — needs a website that may see traffic spikes. So I decided this would be a good moment to test small business hosting from the two biggest names in cloud computing: Amazon and Microsoft.

To test I set up two small websites. One on Amazon EC2 and another on Microsoft Azure. Both test sites are on free services for now. I used Amazon's free tier and a 30-day trial account on Microsoft Azure. If I had to pay for either service, the bill would come to less than NZ$20 a month, that's not much, only fractionally more than I'd pay an NZ web host.

It took less than five minutes to get a WordPress site running on Microsoft Azure. The hardest part was filling in credit card details and waiting for the two factor authentication to call back on my phone.

Simple Microsoft Azure, EC2 not so easy


The Azure process is dead simple, it requires little computer knowledge. Anyone able to work a Windows computer could set things up using a familiar Microsoft-style wizard which steps you through the process. The only hiccup I met was not being able to log-on to an Azure server late on a Saturday evening. I tried again the next morning and whipped through the process.

Azure has an app gallery with ready to use applications. It took a just couple of clicks to find and install WordPress. Once that was done, I need to update WordPress to the latest version — it had only appeared in the last couple of days. And from that point on, I was up and running.

Amazon EC2 is harder to use. There are no wizards and Amazon offers little help. In the end I found a tutorial on using EC2 to set up a blog using Ghost and stepped through the process. It took almost 30 minutes — at least five times as long as the time needed to set up an Azure site. That set the tone for the entire Amazon experience.

Be warned, while Amazon's headline prices are a little lower than Azure, there's a danger you'll get nickel and dimed to the point where you could easily end up spending more money. There's barely any free customer support, but Amazon will sell you a support plan and so on.

Little handholding from Amazon


Everything about dealing with Amazon is harder than Azure — at least from an everyday user point of view. Although I found there was nothing too daunting, that's more because I've spent years writing about technology and know where to go for help. I'm certain EC2 would be a breeze for computing professionals and geeks, it's not somewhere I'd send the average small business owner without lots of handholding.

Direct performance comparisons between the two services are hard. My Amazon account has been running seven months and according to Pingdom, has never gone offline. My Azure account is just days old, so I can't really compare. On the other hand Azure seems more responsive than EC2, but that could just be the user interface or the transit to a nearer server than the USA where my EC2 account is located and not something in the underlying system.

Microsoft has most things right with Azure. It's no accident the company's new CEO Satya Nadella comes from the company's cloud division.

Azure does for cloud computing what Microsoft Office does for desktop productivity. It offers all levels of users an easy way into a set of technologies that can be as deep and complex as you wish. There's a lot in both Azure and Office for professionals, but the rest of us can use them too.

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