14. December 2008
Last week I attended 2 sessions about the new Microsoft platform in the cloud: Microsoft Azure Services Platform. The first was held by David Chappell and the second by Clemens Vasters. Two great speakers. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see Clemens complete talk, because I had to catch a flight back home, but hopefully I got the main content of his talk.
In this blog post I’m going to ask and answer some questions by the help of these two sessions + the additional study I’ve done around this topic.
Disclaimer: The answers I provide below is based on my current knowledge of this platform and might not be correct now or in the future, though I’ve spent a fair amount of time making sure it is.
What is it?
It’s a platform where you can deploy and manage new services or even complete web applications into the “cloud”, in addition to make use of existing services already provided by the platform. This is often referred to as cloud computing. Today the Azure platform contains the following services: Windows Azure (the platform), Microsoft .Net Services, Microsoft SQL Services and Live Services. Microsoft SharePoint Services and Microsoft Dynamics CRM Services are also mentioned in relation to the platform. All of these services make up the Microsoft Azure Services Platform. By reading these names you may see the potential naming confusion? When you say Azure, do you mean Windows Azure or Azure Services Platform?
Now you may ask, what is it really? From a simplified developers perspective it’s a platform on the internet (the cloud). Instead of hosting your web application/service on your local server, you publish it into the cloud. In addition it gives you access to the services you need to build a multi-tier architecture. From another perspective it’s big monster of a datacenter providing you with a lot of data power (virtual Win 2008 servers) to do your stuff, giving you the option to scale up and down at will or dynamically.
How committed are Microsoft to this platform?
As committed as they’ve never ever been before with anything as far as I can remember! They invest heavily in the technology and infrastructure needed to support this platform. By heavily I mean they’ve told the marked that this is such a huge investment that it will highly impact Microsoft’s money bin. As an example of this, here’s a short description of what they’re doing with their datacenters needed to host this beast:
Every datacenter is set up of a grid of physical and virtual computers. These computers are delivered by HP and Dell and some in preconfigured shipping containers ready to be plugged in. I don’t mean the computers are ready to be plugged in, but the containers! What Microsoft then does is put a bunch of these containers close to a power plant (for obvious reasons), plug all the containers in and they’re up and running. At least that’s how it was described to me :-) The applications, services, data etc you have put into this cloud is distributed across many VM’s, meaning if a VM or server (hosting VM’s) goes down, it’s not a problem. There is always some VM on some server holding your data. Actually the shipping containers I mentioned are remotely managed and MS never enters any of these containers for maintenance. If a computer goes down and does not come up again, it just stays down. If this happens to a certain number of servers within one container, the whole container is disconnected from the grid and sent back to HP or Dell to be fixed, without affecting any of the applications or services! This little story told by Clemens Vasters really says a lot of the scale on this monster!
Can I take my existing application and deploy it to the cloud using Azure Services Platform?
The short answer is: no. The longer answer is: you might in the future. First of all the platform is still in Beta, but beside from that David Chappell says: “Azure Services Platform today targets the next Facebook”, meaning it’s highly scalable and can support a lot of users. To support this level of scalability there are some compromises to be made. On Azure this is (among other things) how you store and access data. Using a plain SQL server with relational tables and ADO.net would just not scale/perform. Thereby they decided to implement a different solution where the data are stored hierarchically and data is exposed via a RESTful interface using a LINQ like query language. Unless your application have this type of data implementation today, you would have to rewrite your data access and data layer. But don’t take my (or David’s) word for it, check out this video about table storage (which you would think is normal relational tables, but it’s not) from MS and you can make up your own mind: http://wm.microsoft.com/ms/msdn/azure/scalablestoragetables.wmv. Note though that in this video they’re using Windows Azure Storage and not SQL Services, but the same is true for SQL Services.
If I can’t deploy my existing app to Azure Services today, what CAN I do?
The obvious thing is to wait and hope Microsoft will add support for relational tables allowing you to use existing SQL Server data implementations, but the Azure Services Platform is much more than a place to have your application and data. Your (local) application might want to interact with services in the cloud to enhance your existing application. I find the Service Bus to be especially interesting, or even the Access Control Service. This is only from my perspective and within the enterprise domain where I work. If you work with a more consumer oriented domain, you might find the Live Services interesting. Note that you don’t have to use the complete platform to make use of Azure Services. You can of course select the ones giving you value for you particular domain.
What’s the difference between Microsoft SQL Services and Windows Azure Storage?
First of all these two services looks very similar today and one might think why have both? My impression though is that Windows Azure Storage is going to remain much the same, but SQL Services are going to expand quite a bit (reporting, analytics, synchronization etc). Clemens offered this simplified analogy: “Think of Azure Storage as the registry on Windows, and think of SQL Services as your SQL Server.”. Another important difference is that Azure Storage is not built on existing SQL Server technology, but SQL Services is. Another interesting thing pointed out by David is that none of these services use SQL!? They use a RESTful interface with a LINQ like query language. He offered one explanation to this: SQL within MS means SQL Server :-)
What’s the Access Control Service and is it limited to only Azure apps?
The Access Control Service is “Microsoft’s humble attempt” to support as many access control providers as possible, so that this service will become a common place to perform identification. They state that “No one is willing to take this responsibility, so we have to” :-) Just think of it. How many providers of access control do we have today? Google, Microsoft, Amazon all have their own personal identity services on the internet. In addition there are a lot of others like Active Directory, Novell eDirectory, Apple Open Directory etc. What if this service would support the majority of these? Then you could use this service to do the access control for your system being in the cloud or not, and the end user could use his provider of choice. For more information about the Access Control Service check out the MSDN site: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-gb/library/dd129876.aspx (note that this url might be quickly outdated).
By choosing the Azure Services Platform, will I be locked in by that platform?
By “locked in” I’m here going to assume you mean if you can move your cloud application away from this platform and on to another if you want to. Taking into account the current providers of cloud platforms we have today and the current services they provide, my impression is that you will be locked in. Just because of the simple fact that no one else is supporting .Net like Microsoft do. Hey, wait a minute… What if I use Amazon’s EC2 which gives me a Windows Server 2008 and a SQL Server, can’t I then move to that platform? That environment support .Net just fine. Well, it depends… :-) If you’re using the Azure Storage or SQL Services, you can’t cause it’s just not a plain SQL Server. It seams like the common thing to do among cloud services providers is to create their own data access solutions (or even programming languages like SaleForce.com have done), meaning you will be locked in on that. If you’re not using the data storage solutions you might not be.
Why should I be afraid of being locked in anyway? I’ve already chosen Microsoft as my technology provider. Yea, but now you’re also locking onto your host. If your host (in this case MS) decides that the solution you’re running in their environment should be increased by a cost of 500% and you can’t afford that, what do you do? Find another cloud provider?
However, one interesting thing to note about Azure Services Platform is what MS says about programming languages. They want (though they don’t do today) to support many other languages like Eclipse, Ruby, PHP and Python. Google only support Python, SalesForce only support their own language Apex, Amazon basically provide you with VM’s (Linux and Windows) leaving you to choose. Another interesting aspect is that MS seams to be very open about what and how they’re doing things.
People are talking about the Web Role and the Worker Role. What’s that all about?
The Web Role and the Worker Role is part of the Windows Azure fabric (see separate section for more fabric info). Microsoft says:
A web role is an ASP.NET web application that may be accessed via an HTTP or HTTPS endpoint. Web roles run in integrated pipeline mode on a hosted IIS7 web core.
A web role is a web application accessible via an HTTP and/or an HTTPS endpoint. A web role is hosted in an environment designed to support a subset of ASP.NET and Windows Communication Foundation technologies.
A worker role is a background processing component. It does not accept inbound network connections.
A worker role is a background processing application. A worker role may communicate with storage services and with other Internet-based services. It does not expose any external endpoints. A worker role can read requests from a queue defined in the Queue storage service.
A service may consist of a single web role, a single worker role, or one of each.
When you create Azure projects in Visual Studio, you select which Role you want your project to be (or both). As described above the main difference between the two is that the web role allow incoming traffic, while the the worker role does not.
What’s “The Fabric”?
The Fabric, or more accurately Windows Azure fabric, is the operating system that the services run on. Again from MS:
The Windows Azure fabric offers an Internet-scale hosting environment built on geographically distributed data centers. This hosting environment provides a runtime execution environment for managed code. The fabric handles load balancing and resource management and automatically manages the life cycle of a service based on requirements established by the owner of the service. The developer includes with the service code specifications for the service topology, the number of instances to deploy, and any configuration settings. The fabric deploys the service and manages upgrades and failures to maintain availability.
To try to simplify (in my words): Below the fabric you’ll find a lot of VM’s. On top of the fabric you’ll find Compute and Storage. The fabric host .Net and take care of networking stuff.
What if I’m not going to build “The next FaceBook”, is this still something for me?
Absolutely. Even though the architecture behind it all is built so that it can handle the next Facebook, it does not mean you can’t use it for an enterprise solution which have less than 1000 users or an application you want to share with your friends. It will be interesting though to see if MS will provide us with different data models, so that we don’t have to use a really scalable one, when we will never need it, also allowing us to port existing solutions onto their platform.
What’s it going to cost?
No one knows. At least not outside of Microsoft. We do however know some thoughts they have around the pricing model(s). It does not look like they’re going for a “simple” price model as e.g. Amazon which charge per hour. They will probably use a combination of CPU, network, storage and transactions(data) to calculate the price. More details can be found here: http://www.microsoft.com/azure/pricing.mspx (note that this url might quickly become outdated).
Who else out there offer cloud services?
According to David Chappell; Amazon, Google and SalesForce.com are the leading providers today. All of these provide different solutions and pricing models.
Will everybody now deploy their apps to the cloud?
Not now, but I defiantly see this as a very attractive hosting model in the future, and for some it is already today with services provided by e.g. Amazon. I would think it’s especially interesting for startups that does not have the resources (money and knowledge) to set up a datacenter for hosting their solution.
Hi, this is your mom. Do I need to know what this is?
No. You together with the rest of the world not running an IT company or doing programming can happily not care and just use whatever services that will be provided through this platform without you knowing. Btw mom, you don’t have to read my blog if you don’t want to ;-)
Where’s Hello Cloud?
It’s here: http://wm.microsoft.com/ms/msdn/azure/hellocloud.wmv
..and implemented here: http://hellocloud.cloudapp.net/
Are any of the material from the sessions you attended made available for the public?
You can find David Chappell’s presentation here: https://cid-88b5769d9bbdf846.skydrive.live.com/self.aspx/Offentlig/Azure%20Services%20Platform–Chappell.pdf