As the IT community continues to adopt more cloud offerings, cloud services vendors are expanding their portfolio of product offerings to meet the needs and desires of their clients. One prime example is Microsoft Windows Azure.

Previously, Windows Azure was purely a Platform as a Service (PaaS) offering, providing storage, compute, relational database services, and so on. Compared with other cloud vendors that offer Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), such as Amazon with Amazon Web Services (AWS), Windows Azure's PaaS-based design meant that you couldn't create a virtual machine (VM) from a library of VMs and then install any applications and services that you wanted on it. Fortunately, this is now changing.

Just as I did in "Getting Started with Windows Server on Amazon Web Services ," in this article I focus on getting a Windows Server 2008 R2 VM running on Windows Azure's IaaS offering and connecting to it via Microsoft RDP. Getting started with Windows Azure IaaS is easier than you might think -- and very cost effective. At the time this article was written, Microsoft was offering a 90-day trial of Windows Azure.

First Things First

The first thing you'll need is a Microsoft account, which you probably already have. Formerly known by other names such as Windows Live ID and Microsoft Passport, these accounts are commonplace if you've done just about anything with a Microsoft website. If not, you can head over to http://account.live.com to get one.

I already had a Microsoft account that I planned to use, so I was able to skip this step and simply go to the Windows Azure website. Once there, I clicked the inviting Free trial button in the upper-right corner of the site. From there, I read about the free trial offering and clicked try it free to get started. I then signed in with my Microsoft account and was prompted to create an associated Windows Azure account for my 90-day trial. I was required to enter a major credit card number in case my usage went beyond the trial limitations. I also needed to provide a telephone number to receive a phone call or SMS message with a one-time authorization code. Likewise, I needed to enter my billing information. If you've bought anything over the Internet in the past decade, this will all be familiar to you.

After entering my information, I received a message indicating that my Windows Azure subscription was being created. After approximately 5 minutes I received an error message stating that a feature couldn't be activated. I was at first unsure how to proceed, so I went back to the Windows Azure website and attempted to log in. Fortunately, I was still able to access the Azure portal, as Figure 1 shows. But it wasn't the Modern UI (formerly known as Metro) style that I was expecting. I had been viewing some Azure-related videos earlier and they all had a different UI, which apparently is still in a preview stage. Switching to the preview portal was easy: I just clicked Visit the Preview Portal at the bottom of the page.

Figure 1: Creating the Azure Portal
Figure 1: Creating the Azure Portal 

Configuration

Once bathed in Modern UI goodness, as Figure 2 shows, I was unable to find any way to create my new VM. I was expecting to see a Virtual Machines link on the left of the page but did not. I elected to click the large New button on the bottom of the screen and from there found out that the VM offering is still in a preview phase as well. However, signing up for the VM preview was easy, too. I clicked Try It Now next to Virtual Machine and Virtual Networks.

Figure 2: Modern UI Portal
Figure 2: Modern UI Portal 

Access to the preview program was limited, and I had to wait approximately one week before I received an email stating that I now had access. (Be aware that you might or might not have a wait time, and that it might vary, depending on your individual circumstances.) After gaining access, I clicked the Virtual Machines link on the left side of the Azure portal and was told that I had no VMs, as Figure 3 shows.

Figure 3: Starting Without VMs
Figure 3: Starting Without VMs 

I clicked the Create a Virtual Machine link and was presented with an easy-to-follow screen for creating my new VM, as Figure 4 shows. I gave the VM a DNS name of testvm-md.cloudapp.net, selected a Server 2008 R2 SP1 image from August 2012, set a password, and changed my location from West US to East US, because I'm on the East Coast of the United States. (For those of you using Windows Server 2012, that OS is also available.) I left the size set as Small; I didn't expect to go beyond the limitations of one processor core and 1.75GB of memory for this test VM.

Figure 4: Creating a New VM
Figure 4: Creating a New VM

After clicking Create Virtual Machine, I received a message stating that the VM was "Starting (Provisioning)." While this was occurring, I poked around the Azure portal and noticed that the necessary Windows Azure storage for my VM was being created automatically. I also examined my new VM from within the portal and was able to see details such as the number of cores assigned, Azure storage being used, DNS name of the VM, IP addresses, and so on. After 3 to 5 minutes of waiting, I noticed that the newly created storage was online. Shortly thereafter I received a message that my VM was "successfully created." The VM's state was then listed as "Running (Provisioning)." I waited for the status to change to "Running" before eagerly clicking the inviting Connect button at the bottom of the page.

Clicking this button downloaded an RDP file that was preconfigured to connect to testvm-md.cloudapp.net on the standard RDP port 3389. Double-clicking the RDP file to run it, I was prompted to enter the password for the Administrator account that I had created earlier. After accepting some certificate warnings -- which I was expecting to see, because this was a test VM and I hadn't configured any third-party certificates (or any certificates, actually) -- I was logged on to the VM and was greeted with the familiar Server Manager screen, seen after an installation of Server 2008 R2.

After exploring for a few minutes, I logged off from my VM by using the Start, Log Off option. I then shut down the VM in the Windows Azure portal. The VM's state changed from "Running" to "Stopping." Shortly thereafter, I received a message stating that the VM was successfully shut down but would still incur charges because it would continue to consume resources (e.g., storage, IP address). Because I created this VM only to test Azure, I elected to delete the VM, its Virtual Hard Disk (VHD -- found within the Disks area of the Virtual Machines link), and the underlying Azure storage that was automatically created. Because my DNS name of testvm-md.cloudapp.net was no longer tied to a VM, I found it sitting within the Cloud Services area and deleted it, as well.

Check It Out

Even though this part of Windows Azure is still in a preview phase, I came away impressed with Microsoft's IaaS offering. Compared with AWS, I found getting going quickly on Windows Azure to be far more straightforward, and I believe other IT pros will agree. Although Windows Azure overall isn't currently as full-featured as AWS, there's much potential in this IaaS offering and I encourage you to check it out. Getting started is easy and (currently) free. As more of IT focuses on cloud services, this is an area that you'll want to be familiar with and explore sooner rather than later.