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I should have known better honestly.  I’ve had one strike with cloud billing catching me by surprise and I’m not sure why I’m shocked it happened again.  This time, however, I thought I really did plan it out, pay attention to things and asked what I thought were the right questions.  Unfortunately I didn’t get the full answers.  This time I was stung by my shiny new SQL Azure service choice.

UPDATE 12-APR-2012: Based on comments I've received I feel the need to clarify that I'm not bashing Azure or cloud services in general here.  I don't think anywhere I indicated Azure was a crap product or that I hated it at all.  In fact, I indicated I was completely happy with the service offering.  My frustration was *only* with the fact that the pricing was unclear to me based on how I researched it...that is all and nothing more.  As many have pointed out, cloud services like Azure are extremely important in the marketplace and the ability to scale real-time with minimal effort is an exceptional feature.  *FOR ME* I currently don't have those needs so I couldn't justify the charges beyond what I had planned...that is all, nothing more.  My experience with SQL Azure was a positive one as a product.  Quick setup, familiar tools to manage, worry-free database management, great admin interface and a reliable data storage solution.  My architecture, however, just didn't prove ideal currently with my site not being in Azure as well.  When VM roles come out of beta I will be sure to evaluate moving sites there and plan better.

A while back I heard about the change in price for some Windows Azure services and the one that piqued my interest was the SQL Azure.  At the time it hit me right as I needed to move around some of my hosting aspects of my site.  The lure of the $5/month SQL Azure database (as long as it was < 100MB) was appealing to me.  The SQL server aspect of my site has always been a management headache for me as I don’t want to have to worry about growing logs, etc.

Stung by marketing

I followed the announcements to the http://www.windowsazure.com site and read the descriptions of the services.  I was immediately convinced of the value and heck, it was a service from my company so why shouldn’t I give it a try and support it?  When I began to set it up, however, there were questions being asked during setup and I started to get concerned.  I asked around about if this $5 fee was really the only fee.  I didn’t want to get surprises by things like compute time.  Perhaps I wasn’t asking specific enough questions, but all answers I got was that signs pointed to yes, that would be my only fee.

NOTE: As of this writing yes I am a Microsoft employee, but this is my own opinion and I realize that peoples’ expectations and results vary.  This is only my experience.  I’m not only an employee but also a customer of Microsoft services and in this instance a full paying customer.  No internal benefits are used in my personal Azure hosting accounts.

Yesterday I learned that wasn’t the case.  I received my first Azure billing statement and it was way more than I expected.  Yes my $5 database was there as expected, but also was suddenly “Data Transfer” charges of $55.

Trying to make sense of billing

I immediately tried to make sense of this billing.  I immediately remembered that I had created a storage account as well for a quick test and perhaps I forgot to disable/delete that service.  I logged into the management portal and saw that my storage account was properly deleted and nowhere to be seen.  But how to make sense of these charges from the past week then?  Luckily Azure provides detail usage download data so I grabbed that.  The CSV file I download did indeed provide some detail…perhaps too much as some of it I couldn’t discern, namely the one piece that I had hoped would help me: Resource ID.  This ID was a GUID that I thought pointed to a service that I used.  It did not, or at least that GUID was nowhere to be seen on my Azure management portal.

I contacted the billing support immediately to help.  I was able to talk with a human fairly quickly which was a plus.  The gentleman explained to me that I had a lot of outgoing data leaving the Azure data centers and that was the source of the costs.  He asked if I knew if anything was connecting to my SQL Azure instance externally.  Well, duh, yes it was my site!  He went on to explain that this constitutes “Data Transfer” and I’m billed at a per GB rate for any data that leaves the Azure data center. 

I took a deep breath and asked where this was documented in my SQL Azure sign-up process.  We walked through the site together and he agreed that it wasn’t clear.  After being put on hold for a while, I was assured I would receive a credit for the misunderstanding.  Unfortunately for Azure, the damage was done and they lost a customer.

Where the failure occurred

For me the failure was twofold: me for not fully understanding terms and Azure for not fully explaining them in context.  I say “in context” because that was the key piece that was missing in my registration of my account.  Let me explain the flow I took (as I sent this same piece of internal feedback today as well) as a customer once I heard the announcement about the SQL Azure pricing changes:

  • I received notice of updated SQL Azure pricing
  • I visited the site http://www.windowsazure.com for more information
  • I clicked the top-level “PRICING” link provided as that was my fear
  • I was presented with a fancy graphical calculator.  I moved the slider up to 100MB and confirmed the pricing on the side (no asterisks or anything)
  • I notice a “Learn more about pricing, billing and metering” link underneath the calculator and click it to learn more
  • I’m presented with a section of 10 different options all presented at the same level giving the appearance as unique services.
  • I choose the Database one and again read through and confirm the charge for the 100MB database option.
  • I click the “More about databases” link to double-verify and am presented with another detailed description of the billing

Not once during that process was context provided.  Not at any of the steps above (3 different pricing screens) was there context that additional fees could also apply to any given service.  Data transfer, in fact, doesn’t even describe itself very well.  As I was assured in asking folks involved in Azure about my concern on pricing, this “Data Transfer” wasn’t brought up at all.  I’m not sure why at all it is listed along side services and almost presented as a separate service as it appears all Azure services are subject to data transfer fees.  This is not made clear during sign up nor marketing of the pricing for each service.  SQL Azure should clearly state that the fees are database *plus* any additional fees resulting from data transfer.  Heck Amazon does this with S3 which also makes it so confusing to anticipate the cost of billing there as well…but at least it is presented that I need to factor that into my calculation.

I’m to blame, so why am I whining

I said I’m to blame as well for not understanding better what I’m getting into.  It is unfortunate because I really did like the service and felt an assurance of more reliability with my database then I had before.  The management portal was great and the uptime and log management was something I didn’t have to think about anymore. 

So why, you might ask, am I complaining about a service fee for something that was providing me value? 

NOTE: You may ask why I didn’t just move my site within Azure as well so that no data would be leaving the data centers.  This is a fair question, but unfortunately my site won’t run on any Azure hosting services and additionally I manage a few sites on a single server so it is cost prohibitive to have multiple Azure hosting instances for me right now.

Well it is simple.  I’m not made of money.  This blog has no accounting department or annual budget and such, I have to be smart about even the smallest cost.  I already have sunk costs into the server that hosts this site as well as a few others.  A $5/month database fee was nothing and justifiable easily with the value I was getting and the minor additional cost.  $50 (and growing) just wasn’t justifiable to me.  It was already at the same cost as my dedicated server and just no longer made sense for my scenario here.  In this instance I’m the “little guy” and need to think like one.  Perhaps cloud services are not for me.

Summary

So what did I learn?  Well, I really need to understand bandwidth and transfer data better for the sites I have.  Unfortunately this isn’t totally predictable for me and as such if I can’t predict the cost then it isn’t something that I should be using.  If you are considering these types of services regardless of if they are from Azure or Amazon (or whomever) you need to really plan out not only the service but how it will be used.  Don’t be lured by those shiny cost calculators that let you use sliders and show you awesome pricing but don’t help you estimate (or alert you) to that some of those sliders should be linked together.

I think Azure (and other similar services) have real customer value…there is no doubt in that.  For me, however, it just isn’t the time right now.  The services, based on my configuration needs, just don’t make sense.  Had I had a clearer picture of this when signing up, I wouldn’t have been in this situation of frustration.  Choose your services wisely and understand your total usage of them.  For me it currently doesn’t make sense and I’m moving back to a SQL Express account on my server.  Yes I’ll have to manage it a bit more, but my costs will be known and predictable.

Hope this helps.

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