Our first commercial site live on Windows Azure!

I’m not in the habit of “infomercial” blog posts, but I do feel the need to share our excitement at converting our first commercial website to run live on Windows Azure. Check out www.fasttrac.co.uk – it’s not much to look at, but it works hard helping people complete their remortgage transactions, and consistently takes about 10,000 visits per month. I see that remortgaging is rife as homeowners and the buy-to-let brigade scramble to protect themselves from risk of interest rate rises.

So, what’s the big deal? Well, here’s where we were: the site and its SQL database ran (well) on a single physical server in a datacentre in Maidenhead. It is reasonable kit – Dell R200, Dual Core, 2GB RAM, mirrored SATA hard disks, 100MBit/s Internet connection, but it’s getting on a bit. We had a disk failure recently, and although there was no service loss at the time, the server did need to be shut down and restarted several times when the datacentre staff replaced the disk, and they used an old disk. We had been getting more and worried about supporting this server, especially as we had no practical way to back up the growing pile of data in the form of both files on disk and in the database. I had come up with some Heath-Robinson scheme using bits from the Windows 2008R2 Storage Server to publish VHDs stored on our on-premise Hyper-V server as iSCSI targets and mounting them on our hosted server, but although it worked, it took a while to get working, and took ages, and ate bandwidth and local storage space. And given we’re on ADSL (even with ADSL2+ Annex M giving 1.9 Mbits/s upstream), goodness knows how long our restore time would have been. Not the best then. Oh, and over the last few years I have piled hundreds of hours of administration time in, the worst being transitions from one server to another as we upgrade hosting package or change providers. So let’s summarise where we were hosting our customer’s business critical website:

  • Minimal backups
  • Aging tin
  • Multiple services running on the same server – criticised by the Penetration testers
  • Need for downtime for hardware repairs
  • Unknown time to recovery after an incident
  • Manual intervention required for maintenance
  • We were fully responsible for all software installation, configuration and maintenance: firewall, users & passwords, IIS, SQL, patching, etc.

Now, Cloud V1 fixes some of these problems. The so-called Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) offerings give you one of more Virtual Machines which float around on a sea of hardware. This should immediately eliminate the hardware issues, and if they offer sufficient protection, the the backups as well. So consider the IaaS scorecard:

  • Minimal backups
  • Aging tin
  • Multiple services running on the same server – criticised by the Penetration testers
  • Need for downtime for hardware repairs
  • Unknown time to recovery after an incident
  • Manual intervention required for maintenance
  • We were fully responsible for all software installation, configuration and maintenance: firewall, users & passwords, IIS, SQL, patching, etc.

Pretty cool huh? But that’s not enough. I’ve spent a life doing both software development and systems administration, but I’ve cost to realise that development is productive, whereas administration is a cost. Cloud V2 or Platform as a Service (PaaS) offers to automate all my administration, leaving me to develop all day. Given that we’re a Microsoft shop, we are clearly looking for ways to run our Microsoft code, so Windows Azure, the Microsoft PaaS cloud offering was the clear strategic way forward.

Now consider the PaaS scorecard:

  • Minimal backups
  • Aging tin
  • Multiple services running on the same server – criticised by the Penetration testers
  • Need for downtime for hardware repairs
  • Unknown time to recovery after an incident
  • Manual intervention required for maintenance
  • We were fully responsible for all software installation, configuration and maintenance: firewall, users & passwords, IIS, SQL, patching, etc.

Fantastic! Ignoring technicalities, it’s a no-brainer compelling platform, and one we’re now promoting heavily. In fact, there are other ancillary benefits:

  • Easy scale up of compute power
  • Effectively infinite scale out of compute power
  • Effectively infinite storage capability
  • Pay as you go

These are serious points. We’re running www.fasttrac.co.uk on “Extra Small” virtual machines (“Computer Instances”), but there’s a whole range up to 8 cores and 14GB RAM. And you can have as many as you want (or can afford). And you only pay for each hour they’re part of your configuration. And you can change the configuration on the fly. Looking at storage, we have a couple of clients with large libraries of PDF files which they have to host on the internet in order to get the bandwidth required to provide a good download experience for their users. When our server was running out of disk space, we were faced with some stark and expensive choices for our clients: get dedicated hosting, or buy a connection to the iSCSI SAN operated by our hosting provider. In contrast, the storage system in Windows Azure is effectively infinitely large, and you pay as you use. It’s important to get a sense of scale here: Microsoft charge less than 10p per gigabyte per month, so 100GB of PDFs is under £10/mo, and if your business can’t afford that, shut it now. But at the other end of the scale, there are companies with $5m/mo storage bills. They have a lot of data!

So, from a business point of view, Azure makes sense to the IT department and the Finance department. Enough said.

Next time I’m going to walk through some of the technical choices we were faced, and how we did the migration in steps to minimise risk and maximise benefit.

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