Cheat sheet: Windows Azure

Stormy clouds or new horizons?

Azure: is that blue or purple?
More a bluey-purple I'd say… oh, and a cloud-based computing platform Microsoft announced in October 2008.

So what does that mean then?
It's essentially a hosted computing and storage service, run from Microsoft's own datacentres and accessed by customers via the internet.

Tell me more…
Well, Windows Azure basically lets organisations boost the computing resources they have at their disposal without having to buy new servers - an approach also taken by Amazon's EC2 and S3 services.

Imagine if you want to launch a new application or support one that's adding millions of users very quickly - instead of having to buy extra kit to support those services yourself, you can run the service on Azure and let Microsoft's servers provide the extra processing grunt, while an Azure tool called the Fabric Controller allows users to scale their application to cope with any extra upsurges in traffic.

The uses for Azure go beyond web applications though: businesses could use it to carry out high-intensity computing tasks such as financial calculations or batch video processing.

What about storage?
On the storage side you could move your data - corporate databases and the like - onto Azure, meaning it's accessible from any web-enabled device on any operating system and you aren't bearing the storage burden yourself. And you don't need to use Microsoft-developed applications to work with your data in Azure either, which is significant.

How so?
Well it shows Microsoft is becoming less obsessed with keeping its technology closed and is prepared to let people develop applications from other vendors within its ecosystem, as well as encouraging interoperability.

So what's in it for me?
As with most cloud computing technologies, the main selling points revolve around flexibility and cost. On the flexibility side, hosted services make it far easier for businesses to scale their computing needs up and down than on-premises tech, as computing power is provided on an on-demand basis.

On the cost front there's obvious potential for savings from running applications on someone else's servers - there's no need to buy in extra hardware and the supplier foots the energy bill.

So what else is Microsoft doing with this Azure cloud computing malarkey?
Windows Azure is actually one part of a wider set of technologies called the Azure Services Platform (ASP). Like Azure, the other services that form the ASP are designed to allow businesses and developers to carry out various software tasks and computing processes beyond the confines of their corporate firewalls.

What can you use the Azure Services Platform for then?
Developers can build applications using .NET Services, test, debug and distribute them across the web with relatively little need for in-house computing support - similar to what offers with its platform.

The other ASP services include: SQL Services, which is for working with relational data storage and querying; and Live Services, which is a set of technologies for handling user data and application resources to help with the building of social applications. Live Services includes things such as Mesh Services, which synchronises data across devices and applications, as well as ways to build functionality around identity, presence and search.

There are also plans to bring SharePoint and Dynamics CRM onto ASP to provide extensibility to the two applications.

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