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Create an Azure Virtual Machine

An Azure Virtual Machine is a simulated computer (also known as a guest) hosted within a physical computer (also known as the host).  Virtual machines have been around for decades but the technical capabilities have advanced greatly over recent years and they are now a significant commodity in hosted infrastructures.  A virtual machine behaves like an actual physical computer but it shares the physical pool of resources, the memory, buses, processing power and storage, with other virtualised infrastructure.  The end user can connect to their virtual machine and it will have the same look and feel as if it was a physical computer.  The host computer runs a very specialised, reduced operating system (called the hypervisor) which takes care of the security, sharing and scheduling of all the guest operating systems on top of it.

The Azure Virtual Machine allows IT architects to create a network that will build success for the business. It means that the organization can easily set up temporary and therefore cost-effective environments for development and testing or they can transfer business-critical applications from on-premises servers to more advanced, reliable and economic hardware.  It allows organizations to try new ventures in a safe way; trying out new operating systems such as Linux or open-source application software.  It allows businesses to stretch and flex in a ‘fail fast’ way; if the business project or need is no longer relevant, then it can be switched off or even deleted without leaving redundant hardware.

Azure Virtual Machines are created through the Azure portal, which can be found at https://portal.azure.com or through programming interfaces such as PowerShell.  The simplest way to create an Azure Virtual Machine is using the portal; a browser-based user interface for interacting with Azure. It’s a straightforward process to create and configure Azure Virtual Machines and there’s even a Quick Start so that your Virtual Machine is up and running within minutes.

The difference between an Azure Virtual Machine and an on-premises Virtual Machine is that, in Azure, the IT architect does not control the host machine or its operating system.  All of the configuration is done through the cloud operating system, whether through the browser or the portal. In this example, we will create a new SQL Server Virtual Machine in Azure, using an image from the Azure gallery.

  1. Log in to the Azure portal at https://portal.azure.com using your Azure subscription account.
  2. On the Azure portal, click New.
  3. The portal opens the New window.  Select the Compute option and then select the option See all.
  4. In the search field, type SQL Server 2017, and press ENTER.
  5. To see the relevant options, click the Filter icon, and select the image for Windows SQL Server, which will be published by Microsoft.
  6. Select the image named SQL Server 2017 Developer on Windows Server 2016.
  7. Under Select a deployment model, ensure that Resource Manager is selected.
  8. Click Create.
  9. There will be a number of options for configuring the Virtual Machine, such as its size, location, and security information. Once you have selected the relevant options, select Deploy. The Virtual Machine will take a few moments to deploy.

Once the deployment has completed, you can connect to the VM remotely using Remote Desktop Connection on your PC or in the case of our SQL Server installation, through the SQL enterprise tools.


Azure Virtual Machine Types

When creating an Azure Virtual Machine, you will be presented with a wide choice of codes from A0 to M128s.  These represent the intended use and configuration of your virtual machine; basically, how many cores, RAM and storage it includes but there are other intricacies to this as well. Your choice depends on the workloads you want to run on the virtual machine. The most important thing is that you understand what the virtual machine will be used for. Once this decision is made, the IT architect can select the series and the size of virtual machine.

How does the process of Virtual Machine selection differ from sizing on premise Virtual Machines?  The machine will need as much RAM, CPU and disk as your operating system and applications will consume and in this respect, the selection of Azure Virtual Machine is identical to the process of selecting the sizes and configuration of on-premises physical or virtual machines currently.

One key aspect of Virtual Machine selection that is different, however, is that the Azure cloud environment allows the IT architect to scale. With some restrictions, you can scale your virtual machine up to a more powerful instance or down to a less powerful and cheaper virtual machine.  Azure Virtual Machines also offer high availability (HA) via scale-out.  For the on-premises architecture, this would require densely packed hardware and the IT team would have to take care of the Virtual Machine hosts, networks and storage whilst also thinking about redundancy and ensuring that the virtual machines were running at all times. Azure is different because the cloud takes care of that work for the IT team and offers high availability as part of that process.

Azure allows organizations to be cost-effective by setting up a group of smaller machines which share workloads and can be turned on or off according to demand or on a timed schedule.  Effectively, Azure charges for the compute power you are using when the virtual machines are turned on and doesn’t charge for virtual machines that are turned off.  The organization is only paying for any persistent storage or networking of the virtual machines when they are powered off, but not for unused compute power.

 

Selecting a Virtual Machine Size

To select the correct Virtual Machine series, the IT architect will need to know the intended workload. Each virtual machine type is optimised to run a different workload, so it’s essential that this planning is done first. For example, if you are looking for a virtual machine that can work with Big Data solutions, then the organization should select a virtual machine from the High Performance Compute VM series. At the time of writing, Microsoft offers six virtual machine types:

General Purpose – Balanced CPU-to-memory ratio
Compute Optimised – High CPU-to-memory ratio
Memory Optimised – High memory-to-CPU ratio
Storage Optimised – High disk throughput and IO
GPU – Specialised virtual machines for heavy graphics rendering and video editing
High Performance Compute – Fastest, most powerful CPU with optional high-throughput network interfaces (RDMA)
Once the series has been selected, the IT architect can choose the virtual machine size.

 

Selecting a Virtual Machine Size

One key piece of advice to note is that if the organization believes that they may need to move up to another larger virtual machine in the future, then it is best to check that the larger machine is available in the same hosting region (e.g. UK South, West US) as the original virtual machine. Otherwise, the organization will have to move the virtual machine to the new region.  Although it’s not an onerous task to move a virtual machine from one region to another, it is best to avoid if possible.

The following table will help the IT architect to identify the correct size of virtual machine for the requirements.

 

Table of Azure virtual machine types

 

To summarise, choosing an Azure Virtual Machine is a crucial part of the transition to cloud.  There is a good choice available and you have the ability, with some restrictions, to switch in the future as your needs change.


The Azure Pricing Calculator

The Azure Pricing Calculator, located at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-gb/pricing/calculator helps you to predict the estimated monthly Azure bill for any Azure workload.  Once you have Azure services running, the Azure Portal helps you to monitor actual costs that you have incurred.

 

Screenshot of the Microsoft Azure Pricing Calculator
Figure 1 Azure Pricing Calculator website

 

The Azure Pricing Calculator helps you understand the costs of moving your technical estate to Azure, and to estimate pricing once your data and applications are in Azure.  The calculator allows you to view the price for different sizes and configurations of your Azure Virtual Machines in terms of the machine’s CPU, memory, storage, location and hours in use.  You can add any combination of Azure services to the calculator and view the pricing for complete solution.  This allows you to make better decisions on your move to the cloud by expediting the cost component of the decision.

The calculator is also useful in determining if you have all of the crucial resources in place for a successful migration to the cloud as relevant Azure services will be suggested when you add a component.  For example, if you add a virtual machine, you will typically require storage so the calculator helpfully adds that component into the pricing.

Since the Azure Pricing Calculator allows you the mix your configurations before you make your purchase, the cloud migration process becomes clearer.  This facility is particularly critical when the technical estate of the cloud infrastructure is in a constant state of change.  Microsoft Azure has monthly releases of new updates and new features.  This flexibility means there are a lot of different choices that can be made and the calculator not only helps you plan for your costs but can even reduce them altogether by helping to overcome the challenge of comparing your existing costs with the impact on cost of moving to Azure.

Azure has a great deal of choice but, in some ways, too much choice can be a difficult problem to have!  The Azure Pricing Calculator helps navigate the complexities of the Azure migration and choose the optimal configuration and pricing for your environment.  By proactively playing with the Azure Pricing Calculator, you can simulate various scenarios amongst the various Azure instances, types and features that are available.

Often, it can be perceived that organisations need to move all of their estate to the cloud but in reality, this is not always the case.  When onboarding your technical and data infrastructure to the cloud, it can be a good idea to start small in order to set yourself up for success.  The Azure Pricing calculator can help you to price up different scenarios to help you to navigate hybrid architectures as well as full cloud architectures.


Introduction to the Azure Portal

Microsoft Azure is a cloud computing platform and infrastructure created by Microsoft and the Azure Portal is one way for administrators to work with the cloud-based services and resources that are held in Azure.  It’s extremely straightforward and as it’s browser based, doesn’t require any new client software to be installed.

The portal can be found at portal.azure.com and it is sometimes known as the Azure Resource Manager or ARM for short.  The Azure Portal allows users to conduct a range of activities in Azure including creating and browsing resources, configuring settings for services such as Virtual Machines and monitoring the resources while they are in operation.

Due to the range of activities available on the portal, a detailed description is beyond the scope of a brief article but the main activities of the portal are very easy to use.  To log in to the Microsoft Azure portal, open a browser and navigate to https://portal.azure.com.  Log in with your Azure subscription account or if you don’t have one yet, you can set one up using the link on the portal page.

Once you are logged in, you can see the Azure dashboard.  There is a good search facility, which means that developers and IT architects can find what they need quickly.  You can also see your account information at the top right-hand corner.  The portal itself is free to access and does not incur any cost to use.

It’s possible to bring your existing knowledge to bear on Azure.  For example, the portal has its own Bash functionality and you can deploy JSON templates and your existing web apps via the portal. Azure offers a wide range of varied services on the portal but everything is located in one place.  This unified approach means that people can find what they want quickly, rather than having to use different interfaces or applications for different things.

Like most administrative tasks, once your Azure deployments are established, well-known and documented, it’s more likely the Azure API or PowerShell interface will be used to provide ongoing automated operations and functions.  For example, a PowerShell script to spin up a new instance of a pre-configured virtual machine with SQL Server for the marketing team who want to store some results of a campaign.  This is straightforward to include as part of your operations workflow rather than expect an IT administrator to log into the portal and create the virtual machine.

From the Finance perspective, you can access billing information through the portal so that it’s possible to keep an eye on costs for each service.  User rights can be set to allow IT administrators access to the Azure services but not the subscription or billing information and vice versa for finance users.  The Azure portal uses Power BI to provide context and clarity to the billing information as well as other types of data such as service and maintenance information.  From the users’ point of view, this means it is easy to port experience from the Azure portal onto Power BI, which is another interesting and useful data visualisation and reporting technology from Microsoft.

To summarize, the Azure portal is a unified window into Microsoft Azure.  It’s an easy, one-stop-shop to everything Azure.