Microsoft Azure Review

Windows Azure Basics (part 2 of n)–networking

In my previous post on Windows Azure Basics, I tried to introduce you the cloud computing concept and explain the Windows Azure Platform with not so technical terms. It is time now to get over the networking. What is happening behind the scenes? What we can or cannot (currently) use?
Lets first take a look at the following picture, which tries to show almost complete Windows Azure hosted service:

Here are the terms/abbreviations you see on the illustration:
  • LB – Load Balancer. It is the Windows Azure software Load Balancer, which routes the Internet traffic to and from your hosted service;
  • VIP – virtual IP address. This is the internet facing public IPv4 (currently) network address for your hosted service. You have to pay attention to it, as you only have one single internet facing IP address per hosted service;
  • DIP – direct IP address. This is an internal subnet IPv4 network address that each single instance of your roles has. You have one of these DIPs for every single instance, and there is only one per instance. This IP address in internal subnet and cannot be used to directly access a specific instance from outside the Windows Azure hosted service. You can, however use this address for internal communication between instances of your roles within the whole Windows Azure deployment (hosted service)t;
Any Windows Azure Hosted service is considered a closed environment, meaning that no Internet traffic is routed to your service, unless you explicitly say so (we will later understand how)! And not only that, but any single instance is considered a closed environment. That means two things:
  1. The LB (Load Balancer) will not route any Internet traffic to the instances of your roles;
  2. The Windows Firewall of all your instances is set to default block everything (Effectively blocking even communication between different instances in a single deployment);
Of course the hosted service can access the Internet.
Couple of words on protocols. Currently the Windows Azure hosted service only supports the TCP/IP stack of protocols. Meaning that you can only have TCP traffic to/from/within your instances. UDP is not currently supported (thus excluding  IPSec also). What about web roles? Well, web roles are using HTTP protocol, which essentially lives over TCP. HTPS is also supported, because it also relies on TCP/IP. I very often see questions on whether sending/receiving mails is supported in Windows Azure, and the answer is yes. Before all, SMTP, POP(3), IMAP protocol families are all stacked over TCP. So we can have everything within the TCP stack, and (yet) nothing on the UDP stack (no SMB, no IPSec, no RTMP, etc).
Now, how can we route the Internet traffic to our instances in Windows Azure. The platform introduces an entity called Endpoint.
Endpoint is a combination of protocol type + port number, which effectively expose your instance to the internet at the given port number. What about protocol types? Well, currently you can only choose from “tcp” and “http/https”. There are two kind of endpoints: Input Endpoint and Internal Endpoint.  While the Input Endpoint will expose your instance to the Internet, by routing all Internet traffic on selected port to your instance, the Internal Endpoint will only open communication between instances in a single deployment.
Side note: you maybe already noticed that I am using “instances” more often then “roles”. I hope that you’ve read my first post and already know the difference. The key difference is that the instance is the actual VM (Virtual Machine) where your code lives, while the Role only defines the “footprint” for what to be instantiated on the Virtual Machine.
The catch. There is always a catch, and the current one is on the constraints put on the Endpoints:
  • You can have a maximum of 25 Endpoints per hosted service (Input + Internal);
  • You define your endpoints by a Role! Meaning that two different roles cannot share a single Endpoint;
  • All your Endpoints within a Hosted Service must be unique. Meaning that you cannot have an Input Endpoint (i.e. “EndpointWeb") serving HTTP protocol on port 80 for one Role and have another Input Endpoint (i.e. EndpointWebMVC) serving again HTTP protocol on port 80 for another Role. Here I stress that we define Endpoints at Role level, so every instance of this role will have the endpoints defined;
Behind the scenes: When you add a Web Role in your cloud project, the Visual Studio Tools for Windows Azure automatically create an HTTP endpoint on port 80 for your WebRole. It is named “Endpoint1” (but this might change in the future). Having in mind last of the constraints, if you add a second WebRole to your cloud project, a new Endpoint (Endpoint2) will be automatically created with protocol HTTP and port 8080! So be aware of that fact and do not let it surprise you Winking smile
Something more on Windows Azure networking – the LB (Load Balancers) do not use sticky sessions. That means that every single request is routed on its own. So and end user can open a page on your website hitting Instance 0 of Web Role (check the illustration at the top), that page may create several AJAX requests and all AJAX request will go on their own route. Any of the requests may either hit Instance 0, but they may also Instance 1, and so on. That requires us to build a fully stateless applications. The application logic shall be fully operational and aware that some user’s requests may end up in one instance, other in other instances. So we have to always use a common storage (Azure Storage or SQL Azure or AppFabric Caching service) for all the data that needs to be persisted across user’s requests.
Remote Desktop? Yes, it is supported! Remote desktop operates on port 3389 over TCP protocol. Again the catch: Be aware that enabling a Remote Desktop for all your roles in your deployment (which just a checkbox), will automatically create an Input Endpoint for your service. This affects the total number of Endpoints per service (remember, it is 25)!.
What about sending mails, again? As I already wrote, the common mailing protocols are supported (SMTP, POP, IMAP), however Windows Azure does not provide a “Email-as-a-service” service. Luckily enough, a great collaboration was announced, and every Windows Azure subscription receives a complimentary free account on SendGrid with a limit of 10000 e-mails monthly (I think, this you can check Winking smile). So you can use the SendGrid service to send your application / service e-mails. You get it for free for the first 10k e-mails in the month. If your needs exceed this limit, you can upgrade your account for a very reasonable price!
Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.
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