Digging deep into the myriad Azure management tools

Windows Azure carries a reputation of being difficult to manage, but with Microsoft and third parties stepping up with several management tools, it can be difficult to sort through your options.

Since the first release of Windows Azure, Microsoft's primary focus has been to develop a set of tools to ease the management of its resources. The cloud platform has carried a reputation of being difficult to manage, but Microsoft has worked to meet customer needs and provide an application program interface (API) to vendors and developers to extend capabilities. Third-party and open source entities have joined Microsoft in developing...

tools to manage different aspects of Azure with the hope of providing a better management experience. But, with numerous options that all perform different tasks, how can you sort through them? First, divide the tools into three categories: Microsoft native, open source and third-party.

Microsoft native management tools and services

Part of Microsoft's plan to decrease the complexity of managing Azure resources was to offer customers native tools that can help them along the way. There are several available options to use in conjunction -- or separately -- to assist with various jobs.

Part of Microsoft's plan to decrease the complexity of managing Azure resources was to offer customers native tools that can help them along the way.

Windows Azure management portal: The Windows Azure management portal is the primary method for Azure resource management. The portal allows users to manage all aspects of Windows Azure in addition to giving updates on enhancements for testing via its preview page. Microsoft recently launched an updated portal featuring a rich graphical user interface (GUI).

Azure PowerShell: Azure PowerShell is a scripting environment and framework used by most roles and features in Windows server operating systems where almost all Azure resources can be managed. It can be used to perform a variety of tasks, both interactively at a command prompt and automatically through scripts. The main advantage of using Azure PowerShell is that it gives you the ability to automate repeated Azure tasks through PowerShell scripts.

Azure PowerShell is as robust as Unix shell. Its cmdlets perform the same tasks as the Windows Azure management portal and can be used to create, test, deploy and manage services delivered through the Azure platform. A good place to start to learn Azure PowerShell is to explore these cmdlets. Microsoft also maintains a repository of Azure scripts in its Scripts Center.

Azure cross-platform command-line interface: The Azure cross-platform command-line interface offers users open source, cross-platform commands for working with Azure resources. The tool, called xplat-cli, also offers similar functionality to the Azure management portal. While PowerShell cmdlets only work on the Windows OS, the xplat-cli allows non-Windows virtual administrators to interact with Azure resources from a variety of operating systems, including Linux, Windows and Mac.

System Center App Controller. If you have System Center App Controller already installed in your on-premises network, you can connect to your Windows Azure subscription, which allows you to easily configure, deploy and manage Azure virtual machines and services. Using App Controller, you can copy an existing virtual machine to Azure, deploy virtual machine templates to Azure, and manage subscription settings.

Windows Azure Tools for Visual Studio: If you have installed the Windows Azure Tools for Microsoft Visual Studio, you can view blob, queue and table data from your storage accounts in Windows Azure. Server Explorer, which is part of Windows Azure Tools for Visual Studio, gives developers the ability to manage storage accounts you have created in Azure. It also provides the ability to create Azure VMs and use remote debugging of those VMs.

Windows Azure AD Rights Management Administration Tool: Microsoft provides a set of tools to encrypt and assign usage restrictions to content when you subscribe to its cloud services. Rights management helps protect content that is created and exchanged by using Microsoft Office and other applications. If you are an Office 365 customer or if you have subscribed to Microsoft Online Services, you can download the tool to start managing and configuring rights management capabilities for Exchange Online, SharePoint and Office applications.

Windows Azure and Service Management REST API: Software vendors and developers can extend Azure management capabilities by developing software applications using the service management REST API. Azure's REST API provides programmatic access to Windows Azure resources.

Open source options for Azure management

There are several open source extensions of Azure management capabilities that are looking to solve problems by using the REST API to access Azure blobs, tables and queues.

Chef Knife Azure plug-in: Although Azure PowerShell is a core scripting platform language for managing different aspects of Windows Azure, it can only be used on Windows OS and it is not an open source platform. The advantage of an open source platform is that it can be used across platforms and are backed by strong user communities. The team at Microsoft Open Technologies is collaborating with open source DevOps tool Chef to enhance Windows Azure resource management capabilities. Knife-Azure is a plug-in that automates virtual machine (VM) provisioning in Windows Azure. The plug-in allows users to spin up and manage instances directly from the command line, as well as manage, scale and rebuild an Azure environment with ease. Another benefit of the Knife-Azure plug-in is that it offers the ability to create perfect replicas of your production environment for development and testing.

Azure Storage Explorer Tool: Azure Storage Explorer Tool is used to work with and manage Azure storage in the forms of blobs, queues and tables.

Azure Blob Studio 2011: Like Azure Storage Explorer, Azure Blob Studio is a tool designed to work with cloud storage. This tool is a Windows Presentation Foundation application written in Visual Basic 2010 that allows developers to easily manage files on their blob storage service on Windows Azure, for both the local developer account and your own account on the Internet.

Third-party tools to assist in Azure management

Third parties have taken advantage of Azure's management struggles in the past to offer customers more streamlined ways to work with their cloud environment. One of the most prominent of these tools is from Cerebrata.

Using the Azure Explorer tool from Cerebata, you can manage all your Microsoft Azure blobs in one place. You can reliably upload and download blobs with a responsive UI. The tool allows you to transfer blobs among your storage accounts and easily search and filter your Azure blobs.

Next Steps

Major storage providers show support for Azure public cloud

Azure and AWS go head-to-head

This was first published in July 2014

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