Microsoft Releases Windows Azure BizTalk Services, Other Offerings

Microsoft recently beefed up its Windows Azure offerings, making some services generally available and others available as "previews."

The Windows Azure services that hit "general availability" (otherwise known as a commercial product release) included the "application access" add-on to Windows Azure Active Directory (WAAD), BizTalk Services and Traffic Manager. Microsoft announced those service rollouts in a Windows Azure blog post in late November.

Developers and IT pros also got some Windows Azure functionality improvements. Microsoft added improvements to its Mobile Services and Notification Hubs services. It also added a BLOB storage capability for tracking application log data plus a storage-metrics alert feature. Those changes are outlined in a very detailed blog post by Scott Guthrie, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Server and Tools Business.

These Windows Azure product launches were temporarily overshadowed by a Microsoft services outage. The company claimed that the outages weren't due so much to a Windows Azure failure, but rather were associated with a DNS failure that affected Microsoft's online services.

Application Access General Availability: The WAAD service reached its general availability status back in April, but its add-on projects have been at various stages of release. One of those add-on projects is called "application access," and it's now enterprise ready, although Microsoft offers its capabilities at no cost. The application access feature allows IT pros to tap a gallery of applications that are preintegrated with Windows Azure for single sign-on access. The gallery now houses more than 500 such applications, including Office 365, Google Apps and apps. IT pros can provision users, assign apps to them and get basic security reports regarding app access. Users of the preview version of application access will get upgraded automatically to the general availability product version, without having to take any actions, according to Microsoft.

WAAD Premium Preview: Windows Azure Active Directory is a no-cost service that Microsoft offers, but Microsoft also announced that it has released a preview of its "Premium" WAAD offering. The premium version is designed for enterprises with "more demanding needs on identity and access management," per Microsoft. Some capabilities of the premium version include "group-based provisioning," as well as "access management to SaaS applications," plus the ability for end users to reset their cloud application passwords. The password reset capability in the preview just works for cloud-based passwords right now, but Microsoft plans to add this capability for premises-based passwords, too, in a later release, according to a blog post by Alex Simons, director of program management for Active Directory. The Premium version also features security monitoring and reporting that Microsoft claims is based on "machine learning." For instance, it shows unknown source logins and multiple login attempts across different geographical areas. The Premium preview is free to use for now. Microsoft indicated that it plans to disclose pricing for the Premium product about 30 days before the end of the free trial period, but it's not clear when that will take effect.

BizTalk Services General Availability: BizTalk is Microsoft's enterprise service bus technology for integrating business processes. The Windows Azure platform-as-a-service (PaaS) version of BizTalk was last available as a preview release in June but it's now ready for commercial use. Microsoft also offers BizTalk Server 2013 for premises installations, which was released in March. It's also possible to run it in a virtual machine as part of the Windows Azure infrastructure-as-a-service capability, which is called "BizTalk Server 2013 in Windows Azure Services," a service that reached general availability back in April. The newly released PaaS-based BizTalk Services is notable for being wholly maintained and managed by Microsoft as a "dedicated per tenant" offering. BizTalk Services includes preintegrated support for SQL Server, Oracle, SAP and Siebel solutions. Microsoft added some usability improvements, too. The provisioning process now automatically creates "ACS namespace and self-signed certificates." The "Backup-Restore" function is supported. Lastly, Microsoft added business-to-business and electronic data exchange capabilities to the Basic and Standard service offerings. Microsoft offers BizTalk Services in four editions, as described at this page. Pricing for the new service will be in effect on Jan. 1, 2014, and those using the preview will get upgraded automatically to the commercial version, according to Microsoft.

Traffic Manager General Availability: The Traffic Manager service is integrated into the Windows Azure Management Portal and can be used to group and optimize cloud services regionally. It also can be used to improve the availability of applications by setting up traffic failovers. Application performance can be optimized by routing traffic to the closest application instance. According to Guthrie's post, "Traffic Manager works by applying an intelligent routing policy engine to the Domain Name Service (DNS) queries on your domain names, and maps the DNS routes to the appropriate instances of your applications." The service was last updated in July but it is now ready for commercial deployment, with a "three nines" (99.9 percent uptime) service level agreement guarantee, with pricing listed here. The Traffic Manager service will be free to use until Dec. 31, 2013, after which the new pricing takes effect. Those using the preview will get upgraded automatically to the commercial service in January.

Developer Improvements: Guthrie's blog post outlined many new Windows Azure advances for developers. A new preview release of the Windows Azure Monitoring Service Library lets users "configure alerts and autoscale rules for your services." Supported .NET classes in the Monitoring Service Library preview currently include "MetricsClient," "AlertsClient" and "Autoscale Client." Additionally, Microsoft's Mobile Services on Windows Azure now supports using Xamarin for coding Android and iOS mobile applications in C#. Lastly, the Notification Hubs push notifications service now can be debugged in the Windows Azure Management portal via a new "Debug" tab. Microsoft also plans to change the pricing on the Notification Hubs service, which will take effect on Dec. 15. It plans to remove limits "on the number of Active Devices allowed" as part of that Notification Hubs service pricing change.


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