Step-by-step: Building a Windows Server instance in the cloud

Setting up a cloud-based instance of Windows Server might be easier than you think -- especially when the hosting provider does most of the work for you.

The cloud is a lot of things. It is applications and services where and when you need them, but it can also be something more tangible -- a Windows Server where and when you need it. Simple. Easy. Flexible. Available anywhere with an Internet connection, and very quick to provision.

That’s why it seems like a good idea to provide a step-by-step walkthrough for actually creating a Windows Server in the cloud. To me, it’s a concept that IT pros should easily appreciate.

“You can do that?” you might ask. Of course! And in only a few minutes of searching I located a Windows Server-in-the-cloud provider in my own Denver backyard (not that its geographic location matters, of course). I asked the provider, Hosting.com, to lead me through the process that any regular customer would go through when requesting a server in the cloud.

As you read through the steps below, pay attention to two important points. First, recognize the sheer simplicity of requesting a new virtual machine (VM) complete with applications and management services. Second, notice the custom nature of the Web interface. Unlike provisioning a new virtual machine inside VMware vSphere or System Center Virtual Machine Manager, this company created a Web-enabled skin over the entire process that integrates application delivery, management services and all the other extras with a credit card interface. The result is impressive.

So, here’s the story.

Step-by-step
One day, Greg the IT professional discovers he needs a server on short notice. Lacking the time to engineer a solution, and then configure it, order and wait for its delivery, Greg simply requests one from an available hosting provider. To do so, he opens a web browser and is greeted with a series of questions like the ones shown in Figure 1. This is the exact website used by Hosting.com for requesting a new virtual server.

Figure 1. Selecting a server in the cloud (click to enlarge)
Selecting a server in the cloud

Greg will need a bit more horsepower than usual for this server, so he requests two virtual CPUs and four GB of RAM. He’ll also need plenty of fast storage, so he asks for 240 GB of Fibre Channel RAID. He then requests Windows Server 2008 R2 as his operating system.

Once selected, Greg clicks Next to view the software packages his provider can automatically provision onto the server for him. He knows this server needs Microsoft SQL Server and Internet Information Services (IIS) 7, so he selects each from the list of software (Figure 2) and clicks Next again. Notice in Figure 2 how each software package comes with both a setup and monthly fee, eliminating the time and effort of acquiring software licensing along with server hardware.

Figure 2. Selecting software packages for a cloud server (click to enlarge)
Selecting software packages for a cloud server

Like any server, this one needs to be backed up and requires regular patching. Both of these are time-intensive activities that Greg doesn’t want to do himself. He’d rather lean on the automations the hosting provider already enjoys, so he opts for the provider to handle the work for him. Figure 3 shows the monthly fee for offloading these services onto the provider’s already-built automations.

Figure 3. Selecting additional services (click to enlarge)
Selecting additional services

He clicks Next again and is greeted with a final screen (Figure 4) showing the virtual machine, software and services he’s requested. That same screen gives him a price that includes both setup costs and recurring monthly fees. By clicking the Purchase VM button he can expect to access a fully-functioning virtual machine in about 45 minutes, according to his Hosting.com SLA. He’ll also get an email from the provider with connection information as soon as the server is provisioned.

Figure 4. Purchasing a virtual machine (click to enlarge)
Purchasing a virtual machine

That’s the process in what is essentially four steps:

  1. navigate to a website
  2. configure a server
  3. add applications and services
  4. purchase and provision the server

In 15 minutes of effort plus 45 minutes of provisioning, he’s gone from nothing to a fully-functioning server instance.

Simplicity + speed is the cloud server value proposition
The power of Windows Server-as-a-service solutions is simplicity. It’s true that building a new server on your own might take several hours, with a few more for installing applications. But as you know, there’s more to the process when doing it yourself, and additional and unspoken steps add unexpected costs and delays. Think about what those steps might be: the time to engineer what physical server you want, the delay in waiting for it to be shipped, the time to un-box it, verify its contents, find rack space, install the physical computer and add the operating system, management tools and applications -- all while ensuring that you aren’t making mistakes.

That’s not to say that every provider’s entire cloud process is fully automated either. Hosting.com Director of Platform Engineering Matt Ferrari told me that their server provisioning is a fully-automated process, resulting in a working server that is accessible from the Internet. Servers that will be part of your local LAN, however, require additional steps. For Hosting.com, there are a few physical-world activities on their (and your) part that are needed to complete the network connection.

Notwithstanding a bit of extra delay in certain circumstances, it’s easy to see how cloud-based services exude this sense of simplicity. Need a server? Click a few times and enter a credit card number. Your server will be ready momentarily. That’s a disruptive force, particularly as these services evolve and grow additional automations over time. Even with the monthly costs, smart businesses are sure to find value in the sheer simplicity of the process.

You can follow SearchWindowsServer.com on Twitter @WindowsTT.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Shields, Microsoft MVP, is a partner at Concentrated Technology. Get more of Greg's Jack-of-all-Trades tips and tricks at www.ConcentratedTech.com.

This was first published in December 2010

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