Managing and Updating Custom Azure VM Images

When you create a Virtual Machine in Azure, you do this from an image. The Azure gallery contains quite a few images with Windows, several flavors of Linux, and some with middleware such as BizTalk Server, SharePoint Server, and Oracle WebLogic. When updates are available for the operating system or middleware, the images are updated so you don’t have to install the updates yourself after creating a new VM. This is great, because updating can take quite some time. Instead, you can go straight to adding your own software and configuration. In a typical environment this is what costs the most time, regardless of whether this is for development, test, or production purposes. You can speed that up by using scripts and desired state configuration through PowerShell DSC, Puppet, or Chef. Another option is to create custom images with your own configuration. This is particularly effective in scenario’s where you need to be able to create additional VMs quickly, for instance when ramping up a test team, or adding developers to a team. Even if you script it, post-configuration of a VM created from the gallery can take quite some time. Installing Visual Studio including updates, needed SDKs etc. can easily take 3-4 hours, and more complicated setups even longer.

Image Types

In Azure you can use two types of images, generalized images and specialized images. The difference between the two is very signifcant.

Generalized images have been stripped of computer specific information such as computer name and system identifier (SID). This ensures (virtual) machines provisioned from that image are unique. It also means that you need to provide it with a new set of credentials to access the VM. The images you get from the gallery are generalized images. You generalize a Windows image with sysprep, and a Linux image with the waagent command. The biggest problemof doing this, is that some software doesn’t work well after you’ve created a VM from a generalized image, because the software configurationis based on some computer specific information. For SQL Server for instance you need to take some additional measures, as explained in Install SQL Server 2014 Using SysPrep. Another example is SharePoint, which will only work if you don’t run the Sharepoint Products and Technologies Configuration (PSConfig) Wizard before creating the image. Basically this means you can install SharePoint, but you can’t configure it yet.

Specialized images on the other hand are basically just a copy of the original virtual machine. If you provision a VM based on such an image, you basically get a VM that is an exact copy of the original, including the name, SID, etc. For a single machine environment, this is not much of an issue. However, in a virtual network and with computers linked to a directory, it is an issue if multiple computers have the same name.

Creating Images

How to create an  image has been described in numerous places. This step-by-step guide tells you in detail how to do it for both Windows and Linux VMs. I’ll summarize the steps for both image types, so you have an understanding of the steps involved. Be aware that when you create a custom image, the image is stored in the storage account you created the VM in. In addition, any VM you create from the image will use the same storage account. This has two important consequences:

  1. You can only create a VM in the region where the image is stored. If you need it in other regions as well, you need to copy or recreate it there.
  2. You need to be aware of the limits of a storage account. These are listed here. The most important is the 20.000 maximum for Total Request Rate. This basically boils down to a maximum of 20.000 IOPS per storage account.
    Note: these limits apply to regular storage the limits for Premium Storage are different.

Creating a Generalized Image

  1. Create a VM in Azure based on the gallery image of your choice.
  2. Configure the VM to your liking. Keep in mind that some restrictions apply, as discussed earlier. If you’re unsure, check whether the software you install can survive the generalization process.
  3. Generalize the image (see the step-by-step guide for details).
  4. When generalization is done, the VM will be marked as Stopped in the Azure Portal. You can then do a Shutdown in the Azure Portal, so it won’t incur any more charges.
  5. Capture the image. Make sure you select the option I have run Sysprep on the virtual machine as shown below.Capture Image

Note that after you’ve captured the image the VM is gone.

Creating a Specialized Image

  1. Create a VM in Azure based on the gallery image of your choice.
  2. Configure the VM to your liking.
  3. Shutdown your VM.
  4. Capture the image. Do not select the option I have run Sysprep on the virtual machine.

After the image is captured,you can start the VM again, and continue using it.

Using Custom Images

You can select the images you created by creating a VM from the gallery. One of the gallery items is My Images, as shown below. You also see that the image information tells you whether the image is Specialized or Generalized.

Choose Image

When you select a Generalized image, the process of creating a VM is pretty much the same as with an image provided by Azure. The major difference is that you can’t select the storage account, and you can only select the region (or affinity groups or virtual networks in that region), in which that storage account is located. The same applies when you select a Specialized image, but than you also can’t provide the credentials of the administrator account. That is the same as in the VM the image was created from (so you need to keep that information somewhere).

Keeping Images Updated

Keeping specialized images up to date is easy. You create one VM that you only use as a base. VMs you run in your environment are actually a copy of the base VM. The base VM is turned off most of the time.You just fire it up when you need to apply updates. When you’ve applied updates, you shut it down again and capture an updated version of the image. This is particularly useful in scenarios where there is a single machine that may need to be redeployed at some point. A good example is a production environment in which you want to keep a working copy around of a VM, so you can quickly go back to a working state if the running VM breaks.

If your environment is more complex and you need generalized images, the process is slightly more involved. You still create a base VM as explained above. But then you need to take some additional steps.

  1. Capture the base VM as a specialized image.
  2. Create a new VM from the specialized image (VM 2).
  3. Generalize VM 2.
  4. Create a generalized image from VM 2 (which deletes VM 2).
  5. Delete the specialized image.
  6. Update VM 1 when needed.
  7. Repeat steps 1 through 5 to create an updated image.

Ad. 5: Alternatively you can delete the VM instead, and create a new VM based on the specialized image instead. My experience is that it is easier to keep the base VM around.

You may wonder why you just wouldn’t delete the base VM, and create a VM of the specialized template to perform updates in. The reason is that you can only generalize (Windows) VMs two times, so after the first update, you can’t upate and generalize again. By keeping around the base VM, you’re Always generalizing for the first time.

You typically don’t want to perform updates in the production environment. This is mostly a networking issue, except for the storage account limits discussed earlier. If you have your acceptance environment setup in the same Azure subscription, but in a different VNET, you can update in the acceptance environment, and then promote to the production environment. Remember that because everything is tied the same storage account, this also means the storage account is used for both your acceptance and production environments. Whether this is an issue depends on your specific requirements for acceptance and production environment.

Alternatively you can create a separate “Update VNET”, in which you only perform updates. and lastly you can copy images from one storage account to another, even if these are not in the same subscription. In that case you have to copy the underlying blobs, and make them into an image. How to do that is explained here.

One thought on “Managing and Updating Custom Azure VM Images

  1. CNenad

    Hi :) Nice blog.

    I have expiriance, after generalizing Azure VM with installed Win Svr Tech. Prev (VNext) that my customized account and profile inside VM is deleted (only left second non customized account under which I’ve run sysprep). That behaveour is different from Win Svr 2012/R2 and 2008 R2.

    Best regards

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