Using Azure VMs for long-running jobs

From time to time I have to perform long-running deployment jobs against remote environments (usually Office 365), and I’ve hit upon the idea of running these from virtual machines hosted in Azure.

For example, today I had to push new master pages to 800 site collections in SharePoint Online, and the client requested I begin the deployment after hours. Now, pushing 1600 master pages (2 per site) via remote code takes somewhere around four hours; there’s no way I’m staying at the office until 9PM just so my laptop could stay running while I babysit that deployment.

Using an Azure Virtual Machine allows me to begin the deployment process on the remote machine, shut down my laptop, drive home, and have dinner with my family, all the while the deployment is running happily in Azure. I thought I would share the process and specifications I use for my machine and also share some tips for using Azure VMs in this fashion.

As an MSDN subscriber (thanks Rightpoint!) I have access to an Azure subscription with $150 of credit per month.  That amount lets you do a TON of stuff in the PaaS space, but when using virtual machines the dollars add up really quick, so  it pays to be smart and careful about how to spin up and use these machines.

Creating the machine

Azure comes with a wide variety of pre-configured virtual machines with operating systems and certain software packages (“workloads” in cloud lingo) off the shelf.  I needed a VM with Visual Studio 2015, and happily, a number of Visual Studio-powered VMs are available out of the gate. A search for “Visual Studio” on the Azure Portal yields the selections:

vm-1

In my case, I wanted the mature 2015 version of Visual Studio, I needed the Azure SDK, and I had no use for a server OS, so I chose:

vm-2

On the Create Virtual Machine blade I set up some basic settings:

Basics

vm-3

 

A few points here:

  • You’ll set up your admin credentials on this screen. You can’t use a “typical” admin user name like “administrator” or “admin”. However, the username “derek” works just fine. Passwords need to be at least 12 characters as well.
  • You’ll be prompted to select either an SSD or a normal hard drive “HDD”. Keep in mind that SSDs are going to cost more, but if your work requires a speedy disk, that option is available.

Size

Click “View All” on the Size blade and you’ll see a bewildering array of choices, many of which seem startlingly similar, for you to select, along with an estimated cost per month of the compute resources this baby will consume, assuming it runs constantly.

There’s a lot of nuance between the different VM series, and frankly I’m not the best person to explain it all.  But I ended up choosing the D2_V2 Standard for my machine:

vm-4

For more information on Azure VM size choices and what it all actually means, check out the documentation.

Now, 108 bucks per month is nearly 3/4 of my entire Azure allotment, and when combined with all the other stuff I have running, would easily put me over the spending limit on my account. But we have ways to mitigate this and bring the total spend to a small fraction of this, which we’ll get to momentarily.

Settings

I won’t go into screen-shotting the rest of the wizard, but on the following screens you get to configure a few other settings on your machine. There’s a bunch of stuff you probably don’t need to worry about for dev/deployment machines (like high availability and diagnostics) but you’ll want to understand the networking part at least. Your machine will be part of a (virtual) subnet on a (virtual) network, and you’ll have an NIC with a public IP address.  You can configure a dynamic or static public IP address, although keep in mind there is a cost associated with a public IP address.

Accessing your machine

Once your machine is finished provisioning, you can access it in the Azure portal, and you’ll see a “connect” button at the top of the Overview page.

VM-5.jpg

Clicking the Connect button will download an RDP file to your computer, which you can use to remote into your machine.  If you’ve set up the IP address as dynamic, you’ll probably need to do this every time you access the machine as those IP addresses are not “sticky” in my experience, at least across reboots.

Managing your machine (and your money)

The machine I set up costs over a hundred dollars a month to run, and naturally I don’t want to use up all of my cloud bucks on a single resource.  Fortunately, Azure VMs are only billable when “allocated”, and we can de-allocate them when not in use. Note that a machine can be stopped but still “allocated” and this pertains to the method with which the machine was shut down. To be specific, DO NOT shut down the machine from within the machine itself (Start -> Shut Down). Instead, shut down the machine using the Azure Portal (or the Cloud Explorer, or Azure PowerShell).

In other words –

vm-6

When your machine is fully de-allocated, you want to see this in your VMs listing:

vm-7

This way you know it’s not accruing charges.

If your machine is only in an allocated state when it’s being used, you’re only going to get charged for those hours. That D2_V2 machine works out to about 20 cents per hour, so if I ran it ten hours a month, it would only cost me a couple bucks a month. If I were to use it as my everyday dev machine, eight hours per day, 20 days a month, it’s still around 32 dollars a month – easily manageable within my Azure subscription limit and the other PaaS stuff I have going on. Or, I could spend a little more and get access to a beefier machine, for example, maybe this one:

vm-8

Sure, I’d run out of hours after four days (or 12 eight-hour days) but think of how productive I’d be!

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