As with most Microsoft products, the first version of Windows Azure was not ready for prime time, but it has evolved in the past couple of years. More features were recently added to Windows Azure, and its revamped interface makes it much easier to use. One notable feature unveiled at this year’s TechEd conference is Windows Azure Web Sites. Here’s a look at what this new feature brings to the cloud offering.

New interface

Windows Azure’s management portal interface has been revamped, and it’s now called the Web portal. The new design uses HTML5 and works well on almost any device. In addition, command-line management tools are available. The links on the left side of the portal provide access to various features of the cloud–the contents of the list depend on the services enabled with your account. Figure A shows the simple interface for a Windows Azure account.
Figure A

The Windows Azure Web portal provides access to all features. (Click the image to enlarge.)

The plus (+) NEW link at the bottom left of Figure A allows you to create new instances of the item selected in the portal. Figure B displays the options presented when you select Web Sites and click +NEW.
Figure B

Working with Web Sites within the Windows Azure Web portal. (Click the image to enlarge.)

The screen in Figure B displays options to create a new site since I don’t have any existing sites; otherwise, a list of current sites is presented. There are three options for creating a new site:

  • Quick Create allows you to create an empty site. Basically, it creates a container for your sites; you populate the container via the various publish methods.
  • Create With Database allows you to create an empty site with a database backend (SQL Server instance). This can be an existing database server or a new instance.
  • From Gallery allows you to create a new Web Site using one of the many packages available; some of the options are Drupal, Joomla!, Umbraco, and WordPress, and more will be added. Figure C shows the Umbraco package selected.

Figure C

Creating a new Umbraco Web Site. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Figure D shows the new Umbraco-based site created within my Windows Azure instance.
Figure D

The new site appears in the portal once it’s created. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Figure E shows the site loaded for the first time. The site’s performance leaves a lot to be desired–it took several seconds to load the first time, while subsequent requests were very fast, which is probably due to caching. It makes me wonder about constant site updates.
Figure E

My new Windows Azure hosted Umbraco-based site loaded for the first time. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Umbraco is a .NET-based solution, but Windows Azure does not limit customers to Microsoft technologies. In addition to the standard HTML/CSS/JavaScript interface options, the documentation states that you can use PHP and Node.js to build robust applications. The inclusion of open source solutions like WordPress is a great example of a non-Microsoft solution. It will be interesting to see if other languages are added to the Windows Azure Web Sites feature since there are Windows Azure SDKs available for other languages like Java and Python.

Deployment options

There are a number of options for deploying a Web application to Microsoft’s cloud. Windows Azure allows developers to use Git and Team Foundation Server or FTP and Web Deploy tools. Web Deploy is a client-server tool for synchronizing content and configuration with IIS. Basically, it lets you continuous deploy changes to a web application via tools like Visual Studio (it must be at least the 2010 version with the June 2012 Windows Azure tools update) and WebMatrix.

There is more Windows Azure deployment information available online. If you are comfortable with a command prompt, Microsoft provides command line options for deploying to Windows Azure. Also, Cloud9 seamlessly integrates with Windows Azure.

Give it a test drive

The Windows Azure Web Sites feature is currently in preview or beta mode. Microsoft is providing a 90-day free trial of it, along with the complete Azure platform. You can sign up and take the entire cloud environment for a test drive online (registration requires a credit card).


The Windows Azure platform has tested my patience since it was introduced at TechEd a couple of years ago–it has always seemed overly complicated when compared to other cloud platforms such as Amazon’s EC2. The Web Sites feature is a welcome change–it is relatively easy to use, you can have a site up and running within minutes, and the new interface is much more user friendly and intuitive. I used the Web Sites feature as a test bed for a client application; the next step is to use it as a production platform.

Do you use Windows Azure? If not, what cloud platforms or services do you prefer? Share your thoughts and experiences on the subject with the TechRepublic community.

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