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Understanding Windows Azure

Part 2: A look inside the Windows Azure datacenters

To understand Windows Azure and the Azure Services Platform, it's necessary to understand how the Microsoft Datacenters work. This article provides an overview of how Microsoft Designs their datacenters and why the Generation 4 Datacenters are so revolutionary.

The Building of Datacenters
Microsoft has been building data centers for a long time. One of the best-known services Microsoft offers is Windows Update, which delivers updates as part of their content delivery network all over the world. But this is not the only product Microsoft's Datacenters are famous for. Other important products are Windows Live Messenger, Hotmail and Windows Live ID. Windows Live Messenger is one of the largest IM software and Hotmail is a frequently used e-mail software. Microsoft authorizes millions of users every day with their Live Services, which is used for Hotmail, Messenger and numerous other services. As you can see, Microsoft has experience building datacenters, but so far hasn't sold products like Windows Azure.

Microsoft's G4 - Generation 4 - Datacenters
Microsoft Research did a great job of improving their datacenters especially how they build them. Microsoft calls this the G4 - Generation 4 Datacenters. They have an industrial design - components are standardized, which lowers the cost and enables the vendors to use templates when designing their servers for Microsoft. Generation 4 Datacenters are basically built-in containers - yes, exactly those containers that we think about when we think about ship containers. There are major advantages to this design. Imagine a datacenter needs to be relocated. Microsoft would only need a couple of trucks and some property and the relocation is almost done. The main advantage to this design is that server vendors such as HP or Dell know exactly what the server racks should look like by adding them in a container. If a Datacenter needs to grow, a Generation 4 Datacenter just adds some additional containers to the existing ones. In addition, Microsoft focused on building standard tools for the cooling system so that local maintainance workers can easily get trained on the systems. It's important to note that the Generation 4 Datacenters aren't only a containerized server room. What Microsoft does with the Generation 4 Datacenters is that they improve the entire live-cycle of how the data centers are built and work. This gives Microsoft some additional benefits such as faster time-to-market and reduced costs.

How Microsoft Datacenters Help Protect the Environment
The term "Green IT" has been around for a while. Microsoft takes this term seriously and tries to minimize the energy consumption of their datacenters. For Microsoft this is not only the possibility of lowering the energy and cooling costs but also to protect our environment. With the Generation 4 Datacenters, Microsoft tries to build the containers with environmentally friendly materials and to take advantage of "ambient cooling." The last one focuses on reducing the amount of energy that needs to be invested to cool the server systems by taking advantage of the datacenter's environment. There are a couple of best practices and articles available on what Microsoft does to build environmentally friendly datacenters. I have included some links at the end of the article.

For an overview of Microsoft's Datacenter Design, this video that explains how Generation 4 Datacenters are built.

Security in Microsoft's Datacenters
Microsoft has a long tradition of building datacenters and operating systems. For decades, Microsoft had to face hackers, viruses and other malware that tried to attack their operating systems. More than other vendors, Microsoft learned from these attacks and started to build a comprehensive approach to security. The document I refer to in this article describes Microsoft's strategy for a safe Cloud Computing environment. Microsoft built an online services security and compliance team that focuses on implementing security in their applications and platforms. Microsoft's key assets for a safe and secure cloud computing environment are the commitment to trustworthy computing and the need for privacy. Microsoft works with a "privacy by default" approach.

To secure its datacenters, Microsoft holds safe datacenters certifications from various organizations such as the ISO/IEC and the British Standards Institute. Furthermore, Microsoft uses the ISO/IEC27001:2005 framework for security. This consists of the four points "Plan, Do, Check, Act."

If you want to go deeper into this Topic, I recommend you read "Securing Microsoft's Cloud Infrastructure."

What Happens with the Virtual Machines?
Figure 1 explains exactly what is going on in a Windows Azure Datacenter. I found this information in David Lemphers's blog, where he gave an overview of what happens in the datacenter. First of all, the servers are started and a maintenance OS is downloaded. This OS now talks to a service called "Fabric Controller." This service is in charge of the overall platform management and the server gets the instruction to create a host partition with a host VM. Once this is done, the server will restart and load the Host VM. The Host VM is configured to run in the datacenter and to communicate with other VMs on a safe basis. The services that we use don't run in the host VM. There's another VM, called the Guest VM, that runs within the host VM (the host VM is booted natively). Since we now have the VMRole, every guest VM holds a diff-store that will store the changes that are made to the virtual machine. The standard image is never modified. Each Host VM can contain several guest VMs.

Resources

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This article is part of the Windows Azure Series on Cloud Computing Journal. The Series was originally posted on Codefest.at, the official Blog of the Developer and Platform Group at Microsoft Austria. You can see the original Series here.

More Stories By Mario Meir-Huber

Mario Meir-Huber studied Information Systems at the University of Linz. He worked in the IT sector for some years before founding CodeForce, an IT consulting and services company together with Andreas Aschauer. Since the advent of Cloud Computing, he has been passionate about this technology. He talks about Cloud Computing at various international events and conferences and writes for industry-leading magazines on cloud computing. He is Cloud Computing expert in various independent IT organizations and wrote a book on Cloud Computing covering all topics of the Cloud. You can follow Mario on Twitter (@mario_mh) or read his Blog at http://cloudvane.wordpress.com.

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