Windows Azure Use Case: Web Applications

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This is one in a series of posts on when and where to use a distributed architecture design in your organization's computing needs. You can find the main post here: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/buckwoody/archive/2011/01/18/windows-azure-and-sql-azure-use-cases.aspx 

Description:

Many applications have a requirement to be located outside of the organization’s internal infrastructure control. For instance, the company website for a brick-and-mortar retail company may want to post not only static but interactive content to be available to their external customers, and not want the customers to have access inside the organization’s firewall.

There are also cases of pure web applications used for a great many of the internal functions of the business. This allows for remote workers, shared customer/employee workloads and data and other advantages. Some firms choose to host these web servers internally, others choose to contract out the infrastructure to an “ASP” (Application Service Provider) or an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) company.

In any case, the design of these applications often resembles the following:

WebAppsWeb

In this design, a server (or perhaps more than one) hosts the presentation function (http or https) access to the application, and this same system may hold the computational aspects of the program. Authorization and Access is controlled programmatically, or is more open if this is a customer-facing application. Storage is either placed on the same or other servers, hosted within an RDBMS or NoSQL database, or a combination of the options, all coded into the application.

High-Availability within this scenario is often the responsibility of the architects of the application, and by purchasing more hosting resources which must be built, licensed and configured, and manually added as demand requires, although some IaaS providers have a partially automatic method to add nodes for scale-out, if the architecture of the application supports it. Disaster Recovery is the responsibility of the system architect as well.

Implementation:

In a Windows Azure Platform as a Service (PaaS) environment, many of these architectural considerations are designed into the system.

WebAppsAzure

The Azure “Fabric” (not to be confused with the Azure implementation of Application Fabric - more on that in a moment) is designed to provide scalability. Compute resources can be added and removed programmatically based on any number of factors. Balancers at the request-level of the Fabric automatically route http and https requests. The fabric also provides High-Availability for storage and other components. Disaster recovery is a shared responsibility between the facilities (which have the ability to restore in case of catastrophic failure) and your code, which should build in recovery.

In a Windows Azure-based web application, you have the ability to separate out the various functions and components. Presentation can be coded for multiple platforms like smart phones, tablets and PC’s, while the computation can be a single entity shared between them. This makes the applications more resilient and more object-oriented, and lends itself to a SOA or Distributed Computing architecture.

It is true that you could code up a similar set of functionality in a traditional web-farm, but the difference here is that the components are built into the very design of the architecture. The API’s and DLL’s you call in a Windows Azure code base contains components as first-class citizens. For instance, if you need storage, it is simply called within the application as an object.  Computation has multiple options and the ability to scale linearly.

You also gain another component that you would either have to write or bolt-in to a typical web-farm: the Application Fabric. This Windows Azure component provides communication between applications or even to on-premise systems. It provides authorization in either person-based or claims-based perspectives.

SQL Azure provides relational storage as another option, and can also be used or accessed from on-premise systems. It should be noted that you can use all or some of these components individually.

Resources:

Design Strategies for Scalable Active Server Applications - http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms972349.aspx 

Physical Tiers and Deployment  - http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ee658120.aspx

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