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Windows Azure Series – Introduction to Windows Azure

Part 1: A brief overview of what’s possible

I've done a Windows Azure Series together with Mario Szpusta, Software Architect Evangelist at Microsoft Austria on Windows Azure. The Series is in German and I decided to bring it to Cloud Computing Journal. I will modify some of the articles to bring them up-to-date. This series will cover about 15 articles that will be published once a week.

What Is Windows Azure?
Windows Azure is Microsoft's Platform as a Service offering for Cloud Computing. There are three major fields in Windows Azure. Figure 1 provides an overview of the platform.

Figure 1

The three fields are Windows Azure, SQL Azure and Windows Azure AppFabric. There are several other services that are part of each field. Windows Azure is a platform for web applications, SQL Azure is a comprehensive database in the cloud based on Microsoft SQL Server, and Windows Azure AppFabric contains enterprise techniques such as the service bus or access control. The name for Microsoft's cloud platforms is "Azure Services Platform" and Windows Azure is one part of this platform. Nevertheless, most people say Windows Azure and mean all three parts. Let's continue by examining each part of the Azure Services Platform.

Windows Azure
Windows Azure is the platform that allows us to build applications for the cloud. There are several components such as compute, storage, and content delivery. Figure 2 provides an overview of Windows Azure.

Figure 2

Windows Azure Compute allows developers to build cloud-based applications. There are three major Roles: WebRole, WorkerRole and VMRole. The WebRole is designed to build web applications on top of Windows Azure. Possible frameworks and tools are ASP.NET, ASP.NET MVC, and FastCGI such as PHP. The WorkerRole is designed for high-performance tasks such as background processing. A WorkerRole might be used to process tasks from a Wwebsite (WebRole) to decouple applications. The Windows Azure VMRole allows users to upload their images (virtual hard drive, VHD) to the cloud. This enables enterprises to run existing servers in the cloud.

Another major part of Windows Azure is storage. Storage contains three elements: Table Storage, Blob Storage and the Message Queue. I personally like the Table Storage a lot as it's a NoSQL Store that allows enterprises to store large amount of data in a Table Storage without the side-effects of relational databases. The Blob Storage is designed to store large binary objects such as videos, images or documents. Finally, the Message Queue is designed to enable messaging between components. It's useful for scalable and distributed applications in the cloud.

The Windows Azure Virtual Network was launched at PDC 2010 in Redmond. There might be several additions to the product in the future. So far, Windows Azure Virtual Network contains one sub-product called "Windows Azure Connect." Windows Azure Connect allows direct IP-connections between the cloud and on-premise datacenters. This targets interoperability between existing platforms and future cloud platforms. A great feature of Windows Azure Connect is the Active Directory integration. Many companies use Active Directory for their rights management so this gives cloud-based solutions the opportunity to use existing rights for users in the cloud.

The Content Delivery Network is already known by the names "Windows Update" or "Zune Marketplace." It basically replicates data closer to the end user in different regions. The Content Delivery Network is combined with Windows Azure Storage and built for high-performance content delivery in various regions. The Content Delivery Network can be used to stream videos, and distribute files or other content to end users in a specific region.

Currently (January 2011) the last product within Windows Azure is Windows Azure Marketplace. Marketplace allows developers and vendors to sell their products online. This can be done via the app market. Another great product is Windows Azure Marketplace Datamarket that allows companies to buy and sell data. This data can be used easily in different applications.

SQL Azure
SQL Azure is Microsoft's relational Database in the Cloud. It's based on SQL Server 2008. Figure 3 gives an overview on each part of SQL Azure.

Figure 3

SQL Azure is another PaaS offering by Microsoft that is built on top of SQL Server Technologies. The main product is SQL Azure Database, a relational database in the cloud. The benefit of this is that there is no maintenance or installation required. SQL Azure also takes care of the scaling and partitioning. The thing I like most about SQL Azure is how easy it is to calculate the costs compared to other databases.

SQL Azure DataSync is built on top of the Sync Framework. Its main target is to enable data synchronization between different datacenters. SQL Azure Reporting adds reporting and BI functionality to SQL Azure. These two products are not yet commercially available (January 2011) but can be used as a preview.

Windows Azure AppFabric
Windows Azure AppFabric is a middleware for the cloud. It can be used to integrate existing applications and to allow interoperability. Windows Azure AppFabric is also very useful for hybrid cloud solutions.

Figure 4

There are currently five different products in Windows Azure AppFabric. AppFabricServiceBus serves as a reliable way for messaging in service discovery in the cloud. The Windows Azure Access Control allows users to authenticate based on different credentials such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Windows Live and enterprise authentication such as Active Directory.

Caching is often a problem in enterprise applications. If an application needs to scale over more instances, caching is often a bottleneck that might cause some negative side effects. With Windows Server 2008 AppFabric, caching was introduced to solve this problem. This is now also integrated into Windows Azure and solves caching problems between Windows Azure and SQL Azure that might occur with large-scale systems. Integration allows users to integrate existing BizTalk Server Tasks into Windows Azure. Last but not least there are composite applications that can be used to deploy distributed systems based on the Windows Communication Foundation and the Workflow Foundation.

There are a lot of products that come with Windows Azure. In the next couple of month I'll dig much deeper. This article is a brief overview on what is possible. The next article will focus on the Windows Azure Platform where I'll describe the functionality of Windows Azure and the storage capabilities.

•   •   •

"This article is part of the Windows Azure Series on Cloud Computing Journal. The Series was originally posted on Codefest.at, the official Blog of the Developer and Platform Group at Microsoft Austria. You can see the original Series here: http://www.codefest.at/?tag=/azure+tutorial"

More Stories By Mario Meir-Huber

Mario Meir-Huber studied Information Systems at the University of Linz. He worked in the IT sector for some years before founding CodeForce, an IT consulting and services company together with Andreas Aschauer. Since the advent of Cloud Computing, he has been passionate about this technology. He talks about Cloud Computing at various international events and conferences and writes for industry-leading magazines on cloud computing. He is Cloud Computing expert in various independent IT organizations and wrote a book on Cloud Computing covering all topics of the Cloud. You can follow Mario on Twitter (@mario_mh) or read his Blog at http://cloudvane.wordpress.com.

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