Windows Azure: a very difficult concept explained

Since the announcement of Windows Azure, codenamed "Red Dog" as discovered by my colleague Mary-Jo Foley, at PDC 2008, I have felt an element of doubt hanging over the service, simply because I didn't know enough about it. This post will explain everything you need to know about Azure - what it is, why it's there, what can be done on it and why students should utilise it.

Since the announcement of Windows Azure, codenamed "Red Dog" as discovered by my colleague Mary-Jo Foley, at PDC 2008, I have felt an element of doubt hanging over the service, simply because I didn't know enough about it. This post will explain everything you need to know about Azure - what it is, why it's there, what can be done on it and why students should utilise it.

I'm doing this for mere selfish reasons - to help get my head around this vast mess of services. Mary-Jo has done a brilliant job in reporting the news as and when it happens, and I'd like to studentify it into one single, easy to read post.

Both me and Mary-Jo sat down and discussed Azure, and she (once again) talked me through the ins and outs of the entire concept, in this easy-to-listen-to podcast.

What is Azure?

Windows Azure is an operating system which you cannot see, feel, touch or buy. It runs entirely in the cloud and is designed in mesh format - so you don't have one great big operating system, rather it's spread to individual users. Using cluster computing (where each server in the datacenter is linked and connected to one another), Windows Azure is a thick layer which runs on a number of existing Windows Server applications, to create one large ecosystem of services.

When you sign up to use Windows Azure, you "select, buy and start using" the cloud operating system.

  • Windows Azure is the operating system which runs the clustering.
  • Windows Azure wouldn't be able to run without the layer of existing applications.
  • These services are Live Services (Live Mesh), SQL Services, SharePoint Services, .NET Services and Dynamics CRM Services.
  • All of these are run from datacenters spread over the entire globe, linked together by individual servers.
  • Each individual server spreads its memory and network load with others, "meshing" together the resources into one big network of computing power.

Why is it here?

Two answers to this, but the main one is to compete with Google and Amazon. Both companies have their infrastructure already setup so Microsoft are jumping on the bandwagon, so it makes sense Microsoft shift over to the cloud market.

Microsoft is "selfishly" using the service to provide a whole load of its own wares and products. With Microsoft's hosted online services, such as Exchange Online, SharePoint, Dynamics CRM and now ForeFront, these are all built and placed on top of the Azure platform to make available for everyone.

On the other hand, it's also different to other companies' approaches, by opening up the platform for anyone and everyone to use it as a mechanism for providing content, services, storage applications.

What can be done with it?

Well, it won't make you a cup of tea, nor will it give you a foot massage at the end of a difficult day. However, try and consider this. Applications that you would normally create on Windows for Windows, would be built, compiled, debugged and then packaged up. It'd then be rolled into an installation package, uploaded and provided by a link on a website.

Now, it'll still be available as a link on the website, but it'll allow better automatic updating, and run entirely in the cloud. Essentially, the application that'll be displayed on your screen will be nothing more than a looking glass; a light client which lets you play with the in's and out's of the service, like putting a transparent bowl into a sink of washing-up.

A lovely thought, really, isn't it?

So, running Windows applications would be as normal, except in the cloud. This means less processing and memory storage on your computer. With this, it'll provide storage for the application (such as your settings and suchlike), and could be used as an alternative to SkyDrive.

Why should students use it?

Because it's the next generation of computing, and as of yet, is free. You simply can't lose with this, and ultimately this will be the next step for Microsoft when they start rolling out their new virtual operating system, Midori.

Mary-Jo has all the coverage you could possible ask for, when it was classified as a codename and onwards from when the name Azure was announced.