Microsoft’s Azure Mobile Services: node.js and more in beginnings of easy cloud to device development

Microsoft announced Azure Mobile Services last month and it was mentioned by Microsoft Server and Tools boss Satya Nadella at the launch of Visual Studio 2012, as an example of where Microsoft is going with its “Modern app” vision, continuous services and connected devices (but with a Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 flavour).

Azure Mobile Services is in some ways a reworking of the WCF RIA Services developed to support Silverlight applications, and in fact I swear I saw a reference to RIA Services flash past when I was opening my first Azure Mobile Services project in Visual Studio. It consists of a service type in Microsoft’s Azure cloud combined with a client SDK which is currently for Windows Runtime apps in Windows 8, though the REST protocol used could be called from any client platform.

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Looking at the dashboard for a Mobile Services project in the Azure portal, you can see what Microsoft is going for here. Mobile Services handles authenticated access to data stored in SQL Server Azure. It is designed to be simple and cost-effective to get started, but can be scaled out by moving from a service on a shared host, to a dedicated VM with multiple instances.

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It is easy to think of cases where the cloud component of a cloud plus device app need do little more than authenticate users, and retrieve and update data. Azure Mobile Services also provides for server-side scripts which you can modify to handle validation and other tasks.

I was interested to see that the server-side scripts are written in JavaScript and executed by node.js. Node.js is fantastic, and one of the benefits is that if you have an HTML and JavaScript client, you can use JavaScript both on the client and on the server. On the other hand, I wonder if Microsoft’s community would rather work with C# on the server, which is more mature and more familiar. Scott Guthrie’s introductory tutorial does not mention node.js.

I had a quick go at creating my own Azure Mobile Service. I have only been partially successful so far.

Things started well enough. I created a mobile service and the Quick Start opened.

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Both Guthrie’s blog and the Quick Start wizard in the Azure portal are based on a todo list app. I went slightly off-piste here, deciding instead to create an app to track my articles on the web. I wanted to see how Azure Mobile Services copes with related tables, as opposed to a single table.

I had a frustrating time trying to create the database tables. I had to add my IP address to a firewall rule, enable popups, and deal with connection failures caused by unknown network issues.

Finally I was able to get into the database designers. I created an Articles table joined to a Publications table, with a very few fields.

Next I downloaded an automatically generated Windows 8 app from the portal. I had hoped this would magically work with my data. Unfortunately though, it seems to be hard-coded for the todo list app. If you do not want a todo list, you have to write your own code; and so far I have not had time to figure out from the reference what to do next. I looked at the Get started with data article, and guess what, it is the todo list again.

When you create a database, you can specify simple permissions. The todo list example depends on an application key stored in your app and sent over SSL, to grant permission to read and modify data. I selected authenticated user access instead.

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There is an article explaining how to add authentication, though note that it presumes use of a Microsoft Live ID (the service formerly known as passport). This is perfect in the context of Windows 8 and Windows Store apps, but businesses will want to use Active Directory instead, whether hosted in Azure or Office 365 or on premise. I presume Microsoft will add this at some point though it is not mentioned currently.

My initial conclusion is that Azure Mobile Services shows lots of promise, but that the introductory documentation could be usefully improved, for example not to assume that you want to make a single table todo list app.

In this context the partnership with Xamarin, which is extending the SDK to Apple iOS and Google Android, is excellent news. This makes Azure Mobile Services useful more broadly, and I have a hunch that Xamarin’s support will soon improve the documentation and tutorials. The client SDK is open source and on github.

Note that according to Microsoft’s Kirill Gavrylyuk, in answer to a question from Roger Jennings, Microsoft plans to “roll out full support for iOS and Android including native SDKs soon”, rather than leaving the non-windows support entirely to Xamarin and C#.

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