Microsoft adds load balancing as Azure availability stutters

A storage outage affected users in Asia, Europe and the U.S.

Microsoft struggled this week with multiple performance problems on its Azure cloud platform, while it also made the hosted load balancing service Traffic Manager generally available.

Microsoft's public cloud had a rough time over the past seven days, as the compute, management, SQL database and storage services were all affected.

The storage service was the hardest hit, suffering a full service interruption that started at 10:22 p.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on Thursday and affected users in Asia, Europe and the U.S. Microsoft fixed the issue in about an hour. The problem seems to have had a knock-on effect on SQL database import and export functionality, whose performance was affected in the same regions at the same time.

Microsoft didn't immediately reply to questions about what caused the problems, or if the company is doing anything to improve reliability. An outage that takes down a service across the world is considered serious.

When it comes to downtime, cloud services are no different from regular data centers: outages will happen so enterprises have to be prepared. According to Microsoft, one way to lessen the impact of outages on Azure is to use Traffic Manager, which became generally available on Thursday.

It allows enterprises to do load balancing of traffic across multiple hosted Windows Azure services; if one goes down another can take over. They can run in the same data center or across different ones located around the world. In addition to better availability, Traffic Manager can be used to improve responsiveness by sending users to the closest data center, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft has also added BizTalk and a free version of Active Directory to the list of generally available services on Azure.

With Windows Azure Active Directory, IT staff can manage user access to cloud-based applications such as Office 365, Box, GoToMeeting, Dropbox, Salesforce.com and others. It also lets users access the services without having to log in to each one separately.

Microsoft is also working on Windows Azure Active Directory Premium, which is currently available as a public preview. It is built on top of the free version, but adds features such as group-based provisioning and lets users reset their passwords.

BizTalk Services makes it possible to extend on-premises applications to the cloud. It offers out-of-the box integration for SAP, Oracle EBS, SQL Server and PeopleSoft, and users can also connect with any HTTP, FTP or REST data sources, according to Microsoft.

Enterprises that have been using the previews of Active Directory, Traffic Manager and Biz Talk will be automatically transitioned to the generally available versions, and the new pricing for the latter two will take effect on Jan. 1.

Traffic Manager will then cost from US$0.75 per million DNS queries per month when choosing a pay-as-you-go plan. BizTalk Services is offered in four tiers: Developer, Basic, Standard, and Premium, which will cost between $0.13 and $8.06 per hour, again on a pay-as-you-go plan.

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