What admins need to know about Windows Azure services

Much has been said about what Microsoft's cloud platform means for developers. As for admins? It could be a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Microsoft is famous for saying it’s "all in" with cloud computing, and for developers, there’s been a lot of information,...

code and features to sink their teeth into. But as an IT administrator, the cloud represents something outside of your boundaries -- something your company pays for, but you don’t directly control.

The truth is, there hasn’t been a lot of really good messaging around what Windows Azure means for IT professionals. So let’s take a look at the Azure lifecycle from an IT perspective and try to piece together how the worlds of cloud computing and IT departments come together.

First, understand the essentials of Azure
Windows Azure, put very succinctly, is an environment run by Microsoft that lets developers create applications that will run anywhere without worrying about things like specifying hardware, dealing with demand, or acquiring management teams to take care of the bells and whistles. Azure basically abstracts the layers of service provisioning and computer management from the developer, so he or she can write an application to the Azure platform but not be concerned with resources, machines, state, and so on.

Companies supposedly benefit because you only pay for what you use (i.e. the time Microsoft’s resources are used on your company’s behalf), which minimizes capital costs to run your Internet-connected applications.

The Azure platform consists of three main parts:

  • The fabric. The fabric is basically a network of all the Microsoft machines that are dedicated to running the Windows Azure platform. Now I hesitate to use the term “network” because within the Azure feature set is the ability to set up virtual networks between Azure instances and virtual machine roles. For now, however, picture the fabric as the vast swath of machines in Microsoft’s data centers across the world that are dedicated to servicing the platform.
  • The storage. Storage in Azure can be represented by tables, queues and binary large objects (BLOBs), as well as a unique feature called Windows Azure Drives.

    Tables are simply containers used to hold structured data, much like what you’d find in a traditional database. Queues are useful as messaging components where an application can place a message on a queue and then remove it to act on the contents of the message at a later time -- in effect, enabling asynchronous communication. Finally, storage can contain BLOBs, which can be anything from media, images, text, documents, programs, or anything else you can imagine. The Windows Azure Drives feature essentially lets you mount NTFS volumes like disks, so IT pros are likely already familiar with how this works.

  • The APIs and SDK. This is the layer that developers work in; the hooks to the customizations that run on the underlying fabric that allow apps to seamlessly work across all of Windows Azure. (Think about it -- part of an application might be running on a machine in Redmond while another thread from that same application might be running in Chicago. That would be a nightmare to program against in any other situation, but with Azure, the distance is abstracted away.)

Azure responsibilities for IT pros
Even with the cloud taking care of a lot of the heavy lifting, IT pros and admins have to set up and deploy those custom-developed applications and constantly monitor their health. They also need to forecast and manage the demand for the applications, both customer-facing and internally-facing, that are hosted on the Azure platform. Finally, admins need to make sure data is secured, access is secured and the applications and data are backed up -- just like with on-premise systems.

IT pros also need to set up and configure the application in Windows Azure, mainly using the Azure control panels and utilizing technical support as necessary. In addition, the applications themselves usually don’t self-manage (unless your development team is a class above the rest of the planet), so as with on-premise line of business applications you still have to administer that code as well.

The only part of the equation that Windows Azure changes is in the area of personnel resource usage. With Azure in play, administrators are freed up from managing industry hardware and software and are proportionately available to manage and enhance the service delivery and quality of IT specific to their businesses. (Since when has Active Directory been a profit center, for instance?) Therein is the exact appeal for the business decision maker of Windows Azure and why you’re probably going to hear about it very soon, if you haven’t already.

Of course, Microsoft’s not the only game in town here; both Amazon and Google offer similar services and platforms on which to develop, run and manage applications. Therefore it’s best to understand how the various cloud computing platforms can affect your role and responsibilities as an IT professional.

The cloud is here to stay, so bring your umbrella.

You can follow SearchWindowsServer.com on Twitter @WindowsTT.

Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker residing in Charlotte, N.C. Jonathan's books include RADIUS, Hardening Windows and recently Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual.

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