I just set up two new servers. From start to finish, the process took a mere 30 minutes, and I never had to plug in a network cable, create installation media, enter a product key, or figure out where to get a public IP address.

I also didn't have to find a power outlet, because both of these servers, along with a Windows 10 desktop I deployed at the same time, are running in the Microsoft Azure cloud.

Although I've had an Azure account for a few years now, I haven't used it for much except building an occasional website. So it was quite a surprise when I revisited Azure recently and discovered how easy (and inexpensive) it's become to build an Azure VM.

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If you're curious, you can sign up for an Azure account and get $200 of free, no-strings-attached credit to kick the virtual tires for the first month. That's a worldwide offer, by the way, good in 140 countries.

Spoiler alert: It's actually pretty hard to spend that much credit in just one month. A dashboard like the one shown in Figure A lets you track how much credit you've used, in real-time.

Figure A

Figure A

With that credit, you can have the Azure Resource Manager build a virtual machine using one of a seemingly endless number of templates. Most Windows Server editions are available in Azure as ready-made virtual machines. (See Figure B for a small sample of the available images.)

Figure B

Figure B

The two I built today used Windows Server 2016 Core with Containers, Technical Preview 4, and Windows Server Essentials running on Windows Server 2012 R2. It literally took 90 seconds to enter the required information for each one--username and password for your admin account, a name for the VM, and another name for the resource group that includes storage, networking, and computer resources.

The final step is choosing a machine size. As in the physical world, the more memory and computing power you throw into a machine, the more it costs. The price estimates shown in Figure C assume that a machine is running at a constant workload. I could have chosen a configuration from the Basic Tier but instead built a virtual server using the D1_V2 Standard configuration shown here, with SSD storage and a Xeon. It's been up and running 24/7 but mostly idle, and I've spent only pennies a day on it.

Figure C

Figure C

All those server VMs include the licensing cost of the server software, which can be significant if you look at what you'd pay for, say, the latest release of Windows Server Datacenter Edition. You can also run non-Windows operating systems, including many flavors of Linux, as well as machines running Oracle database software, Cloudera Enterprise Data Hub (a commercial distribution of Hadoop), and every imaginable variation of Visual Studio.

SEE: Research: Hybrid cloud - deployment, drivers, strategies and value

If you have an MSDN subscription, you have options not available to pay-as-you-go customers. In particular, you can run Windows 10 Enterprise (or Windows 8.1 Enterprise) in a preconfigured VM. If you don't have an MSDN subscription, you'll need to bring your own license and build the VM yourself.

From within the Azure Portal, you can manage a VM you've created by using its Settings panel, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D

Figure D

The buttons at the top of that panel allow you to start or stop a VM. After you've burned through your first month of free credit, you'll probably want to get in the habit of shutting down test workloads you're not actively using. It might be only a few cents per hour, but those pennies add up.

And for connecting to a Windows-based VM, all you need is the Remote Desktop client (available on every edition of Windows, as well as OS X and mobile devices). Clicking Connect From Settings downloads an RDP file that you can double-click to make a connection.

All in all, the experience of running a Windows VM on Azure is pretty painless. In my next column, I'll look at some subscription options that include surprisingly generous Azure monthly credits.