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PDC: HP Startup Tests Windows Azure Cloud Platform

A startup company called MagCloud.com is currently using Windows Azure, the new Microsoft "cloud operating system" supporting software as a service applications and storage. MagCloud.com's experience in migrating to Microsoft's services was described on Wednesday at the Professional Developers Conference, held this week in Los Angeles.

MagCloud.com is a magazine print-on-demand Web portal wholly owned by Hewlett-Packard. Launched in mid-June, MagCloud.com specializes in niche magazine publishing, handling all of the messy prepress and mailing details at around $4 for a 20-page magazine, plus shipping costs. The company's services are currently available at the beta stage.

"By combining digital printing capabilities with Web-based services, we actually had the opportunity to completely reinvent the magazine publishing ecosystem online," said Andrew Fitzhugh, chief technologist at HP MagCloud.com. "You may not know this, but magazine publishing -- and publishing in general -- is really not a very modernized business. It hasn't been transformed by the Web yet."

MagCloud.com currently helps to publish a magazine on athletics produced by Stanford University, a Philippines travel magazine and some photography magazines, among others. One of the big sellers hosted by MagCloud.com is Ruby on Rails Developer Magazine, Fitzhugh said.

The HP startup had already existed as an online operation before integrating with Microsoft Windows Azure services in a prototype deal. One of the goals of MagCloud.com's IT personnel was that the migration to the cloud would take place without having to rearchitect MagCloud.com's existing system.

The company ultimately was able to accomplish moving part of its operations, mostly the front end, onto the Microsoft Windows Azure platform in two engineering weeks' time, Fitzhugh said.

The MagCloud.com front end consists of an ASP.NET MVC application with its own SQL Server local database, which stores user settings.

Another part of the architecture is the MagCloud.com platform, which has its own database and an asset store containing PDFs and rasterized image files used in magazine printing. MagCloud.com runs its operations using Windows Server 2003.

For the prototype rollout with Microsoft Windows Azure, MagCloud.com identified the front-end, settings database and assets store as "low pain" items to move.

"We are talking [with Microsoft] about moving the front-end and settings database and assets store database up into the cloud," Fitzhugh said. He added, "We didn't redesign anything in MagCloud to do this, really. It was relatively straightforward."

Fitzhugh described some of the changes MagCloud.com made to connect with Microsoft's services.

"To adapt the user settings database, we had to move from calling LINQ to SQL against our database running in SQL Server to essentially calling LINQ to Astoria against the table stores in the cloud," he explained. "On the platform, we had to change from making API calls -- which essentially created, read and wrote files to the local file store -- to APIs that did the same with blobs in the blob storage in the cloud. It's actually quite simple."

MagCloud.com also wrote a utility to move all its existing data, or a snapshot of it, from the production system to the cloud storage. That migration took about half of a day to do, Fitzhugh said.

All of this demonstrated that MagCloud.com could eventually move all of its operations to the cloud. Fitzhugh said that the reason that MagCloud.com isn't doing that today has to do with the MagCloud platform database.

"We have reasonably complicated schema," Fitzhugh said. "And we have fairly complex data access patterns that just aren't well suited for the cloud data storage."

As a startup operation, MagCloud.com hasn't been able to estimate its persisting costs going forward in wholly using cloud-based services, Fitzhugh said.

One additional matter of note during the talk is that Windows Azure has some management facilities for IT admins that help them manage data stored in the cloud. A new software development kit called "CloudDrive" lets you access and manage blob storage in the cloud using the PowerShell command-line interface.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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