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Windows Azure Platform Versus Azure Websites Explained

Microsoft has a number of cloud offerings surrounding their “Azure Cloud” that clearly are all related in some way, but exactly how they are all related deserves a proper and simple explanation.  Here is one high-level attempt to help provide some clarity on these things, with a focus on the Windows Azure Websites and how it works in relation to the rest.

Windows Azure grew up over several years with a core purpose: to provide a cloud-server hosting infrastructure built upon the familiar Windows Server operating system, with API’s and utilities that let development companies build cloud applications on top of it (virtual machines, virtual SQL instances, virtual networks, etc).  That is one story.  That is Windows Azure.

A second story begins, as one such software development company started taking a bunch of very commonly used and popular server applications, and rebuilding them to function on this Windows Azure platform in a very scalable multitenant fashion.  As you have guessed, this company was Microsoft Themselves, creating a range of products upon their own infrastructure, which complement the infrastructure but also offer value on their own.  Here are the key players:

Azure Active Directory

Exchange Online

Sharepoint Online

Dynamics CRM online

Azure Websites

The newest of these very cool applications is “Windows Azure Websites”, and it’s really the focus of this article.

Windows Azure Websites let you create an instance from pre-built instances of popular CMS packages including WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Orchard, etc.  Microsoft hosts these websites using a “web server instance” upon the Windows Azure server platform (of course).  There’s lots of details I don’t fully understand about the inner-workings of the instances, but I believe the following are true:  1)  IIS is the web server in each instance,  2) You can’t access the underlying OS for customizations, 3)  Microsoft partnered with ClearDB to provide a super streamlined database provisioning process which is totally free (with limits such as:  up to 1 free database, with a 20 mb database limit, etc etc etc).   Hopefully some other blogger or article cover will go into the gory details for those who need to know.

If you know nothing about Windows Azure portal, and don’t have an account, you can setup your own account to learn the basics without spending any money.  There’s a free tier for a few of the features, but I think you need to enter a credit card to start using websites.  I have two functioning websites on Windows Azure Websites under customers accounts that literally cost $.67 and $.74 last month.   In summary, there’s an “Azure Billing Portal” where you add and purchase and manage monthly subscriptions for Windows Azure components. There’s a free tier for a few things, so you can setup an account to learn the basics without paying any money.  One of the things you can add is a “Pay As You Go” subscription for Azure websites.

Then there’s the “Azure Administration Portal” which is where you do all the technical work, create servers, assign resources, and also create website instances if you’ve added a website subscription.  Once you create a website, you can use the wizard to pick your CMS from the list, or create your own from scratch (haven’t tried this).  The provisioning process has a wizard for specifying your own database information, or just getting a free one from cleardb.  Assuming you use cleardb, it will autocreate that and automatically lync it to your CMS instance.  Finish the wizard, and your website is running at a temporary domain.  Later you can use your real domain in Azure with some simple DNS records. The website starts up, and gives you a very nice admin portal, with great graphs showing traffic (See below), errors, FTP credentials, database connection string, ability to change fundamental server settings like PHP version and other details.

Over the course of the last 8 months, I’ve setup 4 companies with their own Windows Azure accounts, with the sole purpose of hosting their WordPress websites on Windows Azure Websites.  It’s practically free, and they’ve all worked great.  If you know any further gory details of Azure, or have personal experiences you’d like to share, feel free to post the information here if you want.



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