Linux on Azure: What are your choices?

More than a third of virtual machines running on Azure are Linux VMs. Here's what's available.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

If you still think Microsoft is all about Windows, wake up. Corey Sanders, Microsoft's director of Azure Compute, told me at Cloud Foundry Summit in Santa Clara, Calif., one in three Azure virtual machines (VM) run on Linux. On top of that, Sanders continued, over 60 percent of Azure Marketplace images are Linux-based.

As I like to say, "This is not Steve Ballmer's Microsoft." Of course, even Ballmer recently changed his open-source tune. He declared that he "loved" Microsoft porting SQL Server to Linux. These days, Microsoft loves Linux.

Nowhere do you see that more than in the cloud. Microsoft realized years ago that its future profits lay not on the Windows desktop, but in its Azure cloud and services. And, as Sanders said, Linux and open-source are "where the customers are."

So, what choices does Microsoft offer corporate Linux users on Azure?

Well, first you can bring your own Linux distribution. If you really want to, say, run Arch Linux, a popular lightweight Linux, on Azure, you can. Indeed, there's an unofficial guide on how to run Arch on Azure.

No matter what Linux you run, with one exception, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), Microsoft doesn't charge upfront costs or termination fees for Linux VMs. You pay only for the resources you use.

To bring an unsupported Linux distro to Azure, you should follow Microsoft's guidelines for non-endorsed Linux distributions. This is no job for an amateur, but users familiar with managing virtual machines (VM) on the cloud won't find it challenging.

Most people, however, will want to run a supported Linux. Here are your current Linux on Azure choices.

CentOS: This is a RHEL clone. Azure supports CentOS 6.3+ and 7.x+. This comes with no support from Microsoft without an Azure support plan. This distro also has no Red Hat support. Some CentOS images are the creation of Rogue Wave Software, a software development tool company. Rogue Wave offers support contracts for CentOS on Azure.

To run CentOS successfully you'll also need the drivers in Azure's Linux Integration Services Version 4.1 for Hyper-V.

Clear Linux: This is Intel's cloud-specific Linux. Clear Linux is a bare-boned distribution, and it's suited for people who want to experiment with containers rather than to deploy in a business.

CoreOS: This newer Linux is designed from the ground-up for running containers. CoreOS is also a Kubernetes container management leader. Microsoft recently partnered with CoreOS on Draft, a tool to streamline application development on Kubernetes. Azure supports version of CoreOS 494.4.0 on up.

Debian: Debian, yes Debian, the poster-child for free software GNU/Linux, has been running on Azure since 2015. Azure supports Debian 7.9+. 8.2+. and will soon be running Debian 9, the newest member of the family.

Oracle Linux: Oracle's own answer to RHEL runs on Azure with versions 6.4 and 7.0. To run Oracle Linux on Azure you must have an active Oracle license.

Linux survival guide: These 21 applications let you move easily between Linux and Windows

Red Hat Enterprise Linux: You can run your own RHEL 6.7+ or 7.1+ image or use one of Red Hat's. In either case, you'll need a RHEL subscription. RHEL on Azure also requires 6 cents per compute hour.

SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES): SUSE has two kinds of images on Azure. The first, Standard, come with no support. Premium, however, comes with MicrosoFreeBSD 10.3ft support. If Microsoft can't help you, they'll call on SUSE for assistance. You can run SLES 11 SP4, 12 SP+ and the equivalent SLES for SAP variants on Azure. You can also run openSUSE, SUSE's community Linux, on Azure.

Ubuntu: This is the most used Linux on Azure, or on any cloud for that matter. Microsoft recognizes this and gives Ubuntu on Azure perks over other distributions. For example, Azure File Storage for on premise access was first made available on Ubuntu 17.04. Azure also supports Ubuntu 16.04 and higher.

Finally, Microsoft not only supports FreeBSD 10.3, a BSD Unix on Azure, it ported this free-software operating system to Azure.

So, believe it or not, if you want to bridge the gap between Windows and Linux servers, Microsoft and its Linux partners has you covered with its Azure Linux offerings.

Related stories:

Editorial standards