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Keeping Up with Windows Azure Changes

Microsoft has been improving Windows Azure so aggressively that developers can struggle to keep up. That was the message from Applied Information Systems CTO Vishwas Lele, who explored recent additions to Microsoft's cloud platform during a presentation at the Visual Studio Live! Las Vegas conference last week. "The number of services that are being added is amazing," Lele said, encouraging developers to take a targeted approach to using the Windows Azure. "When you look at the cloud, think of the pieces that might help you."

Lele in his talk highlighted several areas of interest for developers, including Windows Azure Mobile Services support for Android and HTML5 Web clients, and updated Active Directory integration that lets IT departmentsgrant employee access to Windows Azure subscriptions using Windows Azure Active Directory or Office 365 identities.

Big data capabilities also got a boost with the HDInsight Preview, which allows developers to access Hadoop clusters running on Windows Azure. And the Windows Azure Portal received numerous enhancements, including the ability to monitor Windows Azure Web sites and cloud services from locations around the world, added Service Bus configuration and blob storage.

Lele highlighted advances in the mobile space, including new support for PhoneGap and mobile Web apps, and updates to Windows Azure Mobile Services. Lele explained Mobile Services by saying: "If you're trying to write a mobile application and you want some kind of a database that stores some information, you want to service-enable that layer, you want notifications to want some kind of identity management -- essentially all the things that I've described, you can sum it up as it's a back-end in a box."

He noted that scheduler capabilities were also added to Mobile Services. When asked by an audience member why it was preferable to use Mobile Services instead of HTML5, Lele said that, in addition to device support, "the other reason you want to use it is, you're actually not writing any back-end code. What Mobile Services is doing is giving you a ready-made, REST-based API that you can invoke to communicate with [your] data."

Active Directory integration was also highlighted in Lele's presentation. Previously, Lele noted, users had to use their Windows Live ID to log in to the Windows Azure Portal, and there was no two-factor identification available for Windows Azure. "With Active Directory integration, you can actually project your Active Directory credentials up to the Windows Azure Portal," Lele said. "So you can now say, 'Person A from Active Directory, Person B from Active Directory, owned by an organization, will be able to log in to the Windows Azure Portal.'"

Lele noted that Windows Azure Active Directory is highly reliable because it can fail over to other datacenters. It also supports the Graph API and other hard-to-support protocols such as WS-Federation.

The HDInsight Preview, another recent addition, allows developers to get into the big data game with its Hadoop and Hive integration. "You can download the Hive ODBC driver, and then run big data analysis in the cloud," Lele explained. "Then, using Excel and Hive -- once the data comes out of the Hadoop cluster -- you can use Excel to further slice and dice that data." These capabilities will give developers visibility into large data sets, Lele said, allowing them to analyze and "mine that data for patterns."

Another platform enhancement Lele discussed was the introduction of Windows Azure Media Services, which allows developers to bring secure, encrypted "digital media assets," such as video, through the cloud and into SharePoint and other sites.

"There's a REST-based API that's available, and you can invoke it from any platform," Lele explained as he demoed a Media Services-hosted video running on a SharePoint site. "The Media Services team gives you an SDK, which allows you to write applications for iOS and Android, so you can consume it from those devices as well."

As Lele described these and other enhancements to Windows Azure, he emphasized that, to make the most of all these capabilities, developers must take advantage of the automation capabilities in the cloud.

"Cloud computing is based on two premises: One is that it is a consumption-based model. You only pay for what you use, you turn things off you don't use. That necessitates automation," Lele said. "Number two, you can take advantage of the low cost [derived from cloud providers using lower-end hardware], but at the same time not be impacted by the hardware failures. [So] automation is key to being successful in cloud computing."

Hand-in-hand with automation is the Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) capability that Windows Azure has provided since June 2012. Lele noted that IaaS allows developers "to provision hardware resources using an API," and eliminates the error-prone process of capacity planning. "It's important for developers to understand [IaaS] not understanding the options that are available to make your applications more fault-tolerant, you're not taking advantage of them in designing your applications," Lele said.

Posted by Katrina Carrasco on 04/01/2013