Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Microsoft Azure

When I first heard about Microsoft Azure, I thought it was yet another feeble attempt by Microsoft to get in on the hype with a subpar product just to get the foot in the door. I have to admit, though, that I was pleasantly surprised. Shockingly, Azure is a robust, well designed cloud platform that may yet prove to be better than some of its competitors.

In a nutshell, Azure encompasses three products.

  • Windows Azure
    • Compute: Virtualized compute based on Windows Server
    • Storage: Durable, scalable, & available storage
    • Management: Automated, management of the service
  • SQL Azure
    • Database: Relational processing for structured/unstructured data
  • .Net Services
    • Service Bus: General purpose application bus
    • Access Control: Rules-driven, claims-based access control

Essentially, Azure provides the complete cloud computing stack that allows developers to write their own applications on top of it. The self administration interface is simple and intuitive. Depending on the services you are using, it allows you to allocate your server or database capacity, hook in the service bus, and configure your application in minutes.

The Windows Azure platform introduces the Web and Worker roles. This is the implementation of a similar pattern used in WCF that decouples the network transport from the component logic. The Web role allows the applications to accept incoming requests via a variety of protocols supported by IIS. The Worker role cannot accept any direct requests from the Internet but instead can receive messages from an internal Azure queue hosted by SQL Azure. Under the covers, Web and Worker roles run in their own instances of Microsoft VM engine. All the queues and communication protocols can be configured via the control panel.

SQL Azure is no less impressive. It allows you to store data directly in the cloud in three different forms:

  • Blobs
  • Tables
  • Relational
All of these operations are exposed through RESTful services and are really easy to use. For relational data, complete databases can be hosted in the cloud and applications can access them directly whether they themselves are hosted in the cloud or a private datacenter.

The .Net Services platform provides a couple of services – access control and message routing. Access control serves the identity validation, transformation, and federation purposes. This is all based on the rules defined through the control panel. The service bus part of the platform does what you would expect any ESB to do – service endpoint registration and access, message transformation and routing, and improved security.

Even though Azure is still a relatively immature platform, it holds a lot of promise. Microsoft has finally hit the mark. Some risks still need to be addressed, however. The typical cloud computing concerns remain – security, privacy, longevity, etc. Additionally, a platform like Azure may cause some issues for IT departments that need to adhere to regulations like Sarbanes Oxley, SAS 70, and others. Division of responsibilities, following IT governance processes, quality control, and other sticky situations may keep CIOs and other IT managers up at night. These things will eventually work themselves out through maturing the Azure platform or enhancing the IT processes. Despite the drawbacks, I believe Azure is a viable and solid platform for “cloudizing” your applications.