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First look at Windows Azure

Microsoft's vision of a Windows-only cloud is ambitious, but too many features are currently still in beta

By Tom Henderson and Brendan Allen, Network World
June 20, 2011 06:08 AM ET

Network World - There's "the cloud" and then there's Windows Azure.

We tested the available production-level features in Microsoft's platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering, and found that Azure is similar in many ways to what already exists in the cloud sky.

But there are some key differences. Azure is homogeneously Windows-based. And big chunks of Azure are still in beta or "customer technology preview."

Microsoft turns Windows Azure into cloud-based supercomputer

Three main components of Azure are currently available: Windows Azure 2008/ 2008 R2 Server Edition Compute Services, Windows SQL Azure instances, and storage facilities. These components are sewn together by Microsoft's AppFabric, an orchestration system for messaging, access control and management portal.

However, none of the Windows Azure instances are currently capable of being controlled by Microsoft's System Center management system. They can't be touched by an organization's Active Directory infrastructure today — only by beta, pre-release features. Instance availability through mirroring or clustering is currently unavailable, too.

Overall, it's far too early to recommend Windows Azure. The architectural diagram looks very interesting, and while some pieces appeared ready in testing, big chunks of the Azure offerings aren't ready for enterprise use. (See how we tested the product.)

What You Get — Today

Windows Azure provides production application support through Windows Azure 2008/2008 R2 Server Edition Compute services, Windows SQL Azure, and several forms of data storage. Customers can buy these services in graduated instance sizes, and deploy them into various geographies, and different Microsoft data centers within some of the geographies.

What's available today is a subset of the grander Windows Azure future architectural road map. Buying into the Azure vision may turn out to have great value in the future, and the pieces that are running today worked well, but they don't satisfy the wide number of use cases associated with IaaS or PaaS.

Another component of Microsoft's PaaS push is Azure Marketplace, where developers can buy, sell and share building blocks, templates and data sets, plus finished services and apps needed to build Azure platform apps. The DataMarket section's offerings are limited, while the apps section isn't commercially available yet.

Microsoft intends to expand the limited Azure Marketplace offerings with both community and also marketed development tools, Azure-based SaaS third party applications, and other business offerings. Ostensibly third-parties will replicate and offer the Azure model to clientele from these and other sources.

Virtual machine roles

Windows Azure components are defined by roles, currently Web Roles and worker roles (based on IIS and .Net functionality), which can run against SQL Azure database instances. The deployed processes are managed through AppFabric, whose functionality exists inside the Azure resource pools as a management layer and messaging infrastructure.

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