Introduction to cloud computing with Microsoft Azure

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What is an enterprise application?

Before we hop into the cloud, let’s talk about who this book is for. Who are “enterprise developers”? In the United States, over half of the economy is small businesses, usually privately owned, with a couple dozen of employees and revenues up to the millions of dollars. The applications that run these businesses have lower requirements because of smaller data volumes and a low number of application users. A single server may host several applications. Many of the business needs for these companies can be met with off-the-shelf software requiring little to no modification.

The minority of the United States economy is made up of huge publicly owned corporations—think Microsoft, Apple, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Best Buy, and so on. These companies have thousands of employees and revenues in the billions of dollars. Because these companies are publicly owned, they are subject to tight regulatory scrutiny. The applications utilized by these companies must faithfully keep track of an immense amount of data to be utilized by hundreds or thousands of users, and must comply with all matters of regulations. The infrastructure for a single application may involve dozens of servers. A team of consultants is often retained to install and maintain the critical systems of a business, and there is often an ecosystem of internal applications built around the enterprise systems that are just as critical. These are the applications we consider to be “enterprise applications”, and the people who develop and extend them are “enterprise developers”. The high availability of cloud platforms makes them attractive for hosting these critical applications, and there are many options available to the enterprise developer.

What is cloud computing?

At its most basic, cloud computing is moving applications accessible from our internal network onto an internet (cloud)-accessible space. We’re essentially renting virtual machines in someone else’s data center, with the capabilities for immediate scale-out, failover, and data synchronization. In the past, having an Internet-accessible application meant we were building a website with a hosted database. Cloud computing changes that paradigm—our application could be a website, or it could be a client installed on a local PC accessing a common data store from anywhere in the world. The data store could be internal to our network or itself hosted in the cloud. The following diagram outlines three ways in which cloud computing can be utilized for an application. In option 1, both data and application have been hosted in the cloud, the second option is to host our application in the cloud and our data locally, and the third option is to host our data in the cloud and our application locally.

The expense (or cost) model is also very different. In our local network, we have to buy the hardware and software licenses, install and configure the servers, and finally we have to maintain them. All this counts in addition to building and maintaining the application! In cloud computing, the host usually handles all the installation, configuration, and maintenance of the servers, allowing us to focus mostly on the application. The direct costs of running our application in the cloud are only for each machine-hour of use and storage utilization.

The individual pieces of cloud computing have all been around for some time. Shared mainframes and supercomputers have for a long time billed the end users based on that user’s resource consumption. Space for websites can be rented on a monthly basis. Providers offer specialized application hosting and, relatively recently, leased virtual machines have also become available. If there is anything revolutionary about cloud computing, then it is its ability to combine all the best features of these different components into a single affordable service offering.

Some benefits of cloud computing

Cloud computing sounds great so far, right? So, what are some of the tangible benefits of cloud computing? Does cloud computing merit all the attention?

Let’s have a look at some of the advantages:

  • Low up-front cost:At the top of the benefits list is probably the low up-front cost. With cloud computing, someone else is buying and installing the servers, switches, and firewalls, among other things. In addition to the hardware, software licenses and assurance plans are also expensive on the enterprise level, even with a purchasing agreement. In most cloud services, including Microsoft’s Azure platform, we do not need to purchase separate licenses for operating systems or databases. In Azure, the costs include licenses for Windows Azure OS and SQL Azure. As a corollary, someone else is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the servers—no more tape backups that must be rotated and sent to off-site storage, no extensive strategies and lost weekends bringing servers up to the current release level, and no more counting the minutes until the early morning delivery of a hot swap fan to replace the one that burned out the previous afternoon.
  • Easier disaster recovery and storage management:With synchronized storage across multiple data centers, located in different regions in the same country or even in different countries, disaster recovery planning becomes significantly easier. If capacity needs to be increased, it can be done quite easily by logging into a control panel and turning on an additional VM. It would be a rare instance indeed when our provider doesn’t sell us additional capacity. When the need for capacity passes, we can simply turn off the VMs we no longer need and pay only for the uptime and storage utilization.
  • Simplified migration:Migration from a test to a production environment is greatly simplified. In Windows Azure, we can test an updated version of our application in a local sandbox environment. When we’re ready to go live, we deploy our application to a staged environment in the cloud and, with a few mouse clicks in the control panel, we turn off the live virtual machine and activate the staging environment as the live machine—we barely miss a beat! The migration can be performed well in advance of the cut-over, so daytime migrations and midnight cut-overs can become routine. Should something go wrong, the environments can be easily reversed and the issues analyzed the following day.
  • Familiar environment:Finally, the environment we’re working on is very familiar. In Azure’s case, the environment can include the capabilities of IIS and .NET (or Java or PHP and Apache), with Windows and SQL Server or MySQL. One of the great features of Windows is that it can be confi gured in so many ways, and to an extent, Azure can also be configured in many ways, supporting a rich and familiar application environment.

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