Choosing a Microsoft Azure Website Hosting Plan

You can get website hosting from a wide variety of hosting companies for just a few bucks per month. You’ve probably never considered using Microsoft Azure to host your website(s). If not, I think I can tell you about some features of Azure that might convince you to include Microsoft’s solution in your decision making process.

What is a Website Hosting Plan?

Microsoft does not simply give you website hosting; instead, you deploy a website hosting plan. This is actually a Windows Server virtual machine that is running IIS. This virtual machine is capable of hosting a number of websites, depending on the tier that you choose for the deployment. You do not get access to the guest OS of the virtual machine; just like with traditional website hosting, you will use the portal, FTP, and content distribution tools to manage the website(s) that, along with PowerShell of course!
If you have played with websites in the old Azure management portal then you might not have been aware that you were working with website hosting plans that could host multiple websites; it really isn’t that obvious. But the new preview portal does make this value very clear.
I chose to use that word, value, to emphasize the differentiator for Azure website hosting plans. You might get a website for $5/month with some hosting company. Azure gives you a plan that can host 10 websites for free! And when you move up the feature/price ladder, you could get a host plan with 50 GB of storage with unlimited bandwidth and unlimited websites for around $75/month.

Choosing a Pricing Tier

Website hosting plans come in four different tiers:

  • Free: It is limited, but it is free!
  • Shared: Hosted on a virtual machine that you share with other customers. Currently in preview.
  • Basic: A generous set of resources but it lacks some of the scale-out and management features of Standard.
  • Standard: You get all of the features and scalability that Azure website hosting can offer.

A screenshot of Microsoft's Azure website hosting plans
The Azure website hosting plans [Source: Microsoft]
Each tier offers a different virtual machine specification:

  • Small: 1 core and 1.75 GB RAM
  • Medium: 2 cores and 3.5 GB RAM
  • Large: 4 cores and 7 GB RAM

You can change the tier/specification of an already deployed plan. You can run multiple plans and move websites between those plans.

How Microsoft Azure is Different

What exactly do you get with a website for $5/month? Not much really; you get limited bandwidth and data, and a place to dump some HTML files. Azure gives you that … at the lowest level … for FREE. You can do all the usual stuff like having FTP access and monitoring resource consumption (developers can get more from this by embedding code in their sites). But there are many more features that are available as you move up the tier ladder:

  • Hybrid Connectivity: Connect your website to on-premises databases.
  • VPN-to-VNet: Connect websites to virtual network where you are running virtual machines.
  • Content distribution: Use GitHub (cloud or on-premises), Visual Studio Online, Dropbox, and other sources to load content into your sites.
  • Scale-Out: Deploy clones of your virtual machines (and their sites) to enable parallel processing and high availability. This can be automated based on VM resource usage, thus allowing you to offer peak performance and reduce costs when demands are low.
  • Load balancing: No need to buy some pricey hardware; your multiple instances are load balanced automatically.
  • Web jobs: This feature recently went GA, and allows you to run tasks on the virtual machine.
  • Staged publishing: Test your new content before it goes live.
  • Backups: Backup sites and any databases to an Azure storage account. This can be scheduled or on-demand.
  • All the usual stuff: There is support for SSL, dedicated IP, and custom domain names.
  • Content Delivery Network (CDN): Improve the performance of a website for remote users by caching static content in Microsoft’s globally located data centers.
  • Traffic Manager: Deploy a website in multiple Azure regions to get better local performance and geo-redundancy.

When faced with so many enterprise features, a person might foolishly think “Wow! Azure is way too much for my needs”. That small thinking limits your future scalability. You can deploy something small in Azure’s web hosting and grow it, or shrink it, as required. A company can start with a single site, move the site up through differ virtual machine specifications and host plan tiers, scale it out with load balancing to increase capacity and get HA, add CDN to improve global performance, and then deploy the site in multiple regions with Traffic Manager to direct users to the nearest (based on latency) data center. You’ll never be able to do any of that with a $5 site, but you will have the option to grow with Azure. Tell me what investor or company director wants to be told that IT will be restricting their investments growth? That’s why Azure is an interesting choice!

The new Azure portal makes it clear that a website is a part of a plan
Creating a website and plan in Azure [Source: Aidan Finn]

Microsoft Azure, not Windows Azure

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Azure focuses just on the Microsoft stack. It might be powered by Windows Server and IIS, but when you deploy a website, you’ll find many more non-Microsoft images in the Azure Gallery. Maybe you want a bare IIS site, WordPress (powered by PHP and backed by MySQL, Drupal, or one of many pre-packaged third-party or open source solutions? You’ll find a wide array of options covering many developer platforms.

I was puzzled by Azure offering website hosting as a solution, but after spending some time working with the service, I have been convinced by what they are offering. I think Azure is a great web hosting solution for hobbyists and students, small companies, start-ups, web developers (that host sites for their customers), large enterprises that need scale, companies with seasonal peak demand, and even hosting companies that are tired of managing infrastructure.