An Introduction to Windows Azure (Part 2)

This is the second article of a two-part introduction to Windows Azure. In Part 1, I discussed the Windows Azure data centers and examined the core services that Windows Azure offers. In this article, I will explore additional services available as part of Windows Azure which enable customers to build richer, more powerful applications.

Additional Services

1. Building Block Services

‘Building block services’ were previously branded ‘Windows Azure AppFabric’. The main objective of building block services is to enable developers to build connected applications. The three services under this category are:

(i) Caching Service

Generally, accessing RAM is much faster than accessing disk, including storage and databases. For that reason, Microsoft have developed an in-memory and distributed caching service to deliver low latency, high-performance access, namely Windows Server AppFabric Caching. However, there are some activities, such as installing and managing, and some hardware requirements like investing in clustered servers, which have to be handled by the end-user.

Windows Azure Caching Service is a self-managed, yet distributed, in-memory caching service built on top of the Windows Server AppFabric Caching Service. Developers will no longer have to install and manage the Caching Service / Clusters. All they need to do is to create a namespace, specify the region, and define the Cache Size. Everything will get provisioned automatically in just a few minutes.

Creating new Windows Azure Caching Service

Additionally, Azure Caching Service comes along with a .NET client library and session providers for ASP.NET, which allow the developer to quickly use them in the application.

(ii) Access Control Service

Third Party Authentication

With the trend for federated identity / authentication becoming increasingly popular, many applications have relied on authentication from third party identity providers (IdPs) such as Live ID, Yahoo ID, Google ID, and Facebook.

One of the challenges developers face when dealing with different IdPs is that they use different standard protocols (OAuth, WS-Trust, WS-Federation) and web tokens (SAML 1.1, SAML 2.0, SWT).

Multiple ID Authentication

Access Control Service (ACS) allows application users to authenticate using multiple IdPs. Instead of dealing with different IdPs individually, developers just need to deal with ACS and let it take care of the rest.

AppFabric Azzess Control Services

(iii) Service Bus

Windows Azure’s Service Bus allows secure messaging and connectivity across multiple network hierarchies. It enables hybrid model scenarios, such as connecting cloud applications with on-premise systems. The Service Bus allows applications running on Windows Azure to call back to on-premise applications located behind firewalls and NATs.

Service Bus Diagram

Migrating from an on-premise Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) framework to the Service Bus is trivial as they use a similar programming approach.

2. Data Services

Data Services consists of SQL Azure Reporting and SQL Azure Data Sync, both of which are still currently available as Community Technology Previews (CTP).

(i)  SQL Azure Reporting

SQL Azure Reporting aims to provide developers with a service similar to that of the current SQL Server Reporting Service (SSRS), with the advantages of being in the cloud. Developers are still able to use familiar tools such as SQL Server Business Intelligence Development Studio. Migrating on-premise reports is also easy as SQL Azure Reporting is essentially built on top of SSRS architecture.

(ii) SQL Azure Data Sync

SQL Azure Data Sync is a cloud-based data synchronization service built on top of theMicrosoft Sync Framework. It enables synchronization between a cloud database and another cloud database, or with an on-premise database.

SQL Azure Data Sync

(from Windows Azure Bootcamp)

3. Networking

Three networking services are available today:

(i) Windows Azure CDN

The Content Delivery Network (CDN) caches static content such as video, images, JavaScript, and CSS at the closest node to users. By doing so, it improves performance and provides the best user experience. There are currently 24 nodes available globally.

Windows Azure CDN Locations

(ii) Windows Azure Traffic Manager

Traffic Manager is designed to enable high performance and high availability of web applications, by providing load-balancing across multiple hosted services in the six available data centers. In its current CTP guise, developers can select one of the following rules:

  • Performance – detects the location of the user traffic and routes it to the best online hosted service based on network performance.
  • Failover – based on an ordered list of hosted services, traffic is routed to the online service highest on the list.
  • Round Robin – equally distributes traffic to all hosted services.

(iii) Windows Azure Connect

Windows Azure Connect supports secure network connectivity between on-premise resources and the cloud by establishing a virtual network environment between them. With Windows Azure Connect, cloud applications appear to reside on the same network environment as on-premise applications.

Windows Azure Connect

(from the Windows Azure Platform Training Kit)

Windows Azure Connect enables scenarios such as:

  • Using an on-premise SMTP Server from a cloud application.
  • Migrating enterprise apps which require an on-premise SQL Server to Windows Azure.
  • Domain-join a cloud application running in Azure to an Active Directory.

4. Windows Azure Marketplace

Windows Azure Marketplace is a centralized online market where developers are able to easily sell their applications or datasets.

(i) Marketplace for Data

Windows Azure Marketplace for Data is an information marketplace allowing ISVs to provide datasets (either free or paid) on any platform, and available to the global market. For example, Average House Prices, Borough provides annual and quarterly house prices based on Land Registry data in the UK. Developers can then subscribe and utilize this dataset to develop their application.

(ii) Marketplace for Applications

Windows Azure Market Place for Applications enables developers to publish and sell their applications. Many, if not all of these applications are SAAS applications built on Windows Azure. Applications submitted to the Marketplace must meet a set of criteria.


To conclude, we have examined the huge investment that Microsoft is making and will continue to make in Windows Azure, the core of its cloud strategy. Three fundamental services (Compute, Storage, and Database) are offered to developers to satisfy the basic needs of developing cloud applications. Additionally, with Windows Azure services, (Building Blocks Services, Data Services, Networking, and Marketplace) developers will find it increasingly easy to develop rich and powerful applications. The foundations of this cloud offering are robust and we should continue to look out for new features to be added to this platform.


This article was written using the following resources as references:

This post was also published at A Cloud Place blog.

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