How to create a virtual network with Azure Connect

If you are trying to establish a virtual network between machines located in disparate networks, you can either use VPN, Virtual Network or Azure Connect. If you want to establish a connection between machines located in Windows Azure, you should consider using the Virtual Network service. If you want to establish a connection between local machines and Virtual Machines in Windows Azure, you may be able to use your existing VPN device (assuming you have one), as long as the device is supported by Microsoft. If the VPN device you are using isn’t supported, or if you are trying to create a virtual network between machines from disparate networks (such as machines located in another cloud provider), you can use Azure Connect. This blog post explains how Azure Connect can help you create virtual networks between multiple servers in the cloud, various servers in different cloud environments, and on-premise.

Note: Azure Connect is currently in Technical Preview.

About Azure Connect

Let’s do a quick review of Azure Connect. This technology implements an IPSec tunnel from machines to to a relay service located in the Microsoft cloud (Azure). So in essence, Azure Connect doesn’t provide a point-to-point connection between machines; the network communication is tunneled through the relay service. The relay service in turn offers a mechanism to enforce basic communication rules that you define through Groups. We will review this later. You could network two or more VMs in the Azure cloud (although you should consider using a Virtual Network if you go this route), or servers in the Azure cloud and other machines in the Amazon cloud for example, or even two or more on-premise servers located in different locations for which a direct network connection is not an option. You can place any number of machines in your topology. Azure Connect gives you great flexibility on how you want to build your virtual network across various environments. So Azure Connect makes sense when you want to:

  • Connect machines located in different cloud providers
  • Connect on-premise machines running in different locations
  • Connect Azure VMs with on-premise (if you do not have a VPN device, or if your device is not supported)
  • Connect Azure Roles (Worker Roles, Web Roles) with on-premise servers or in other cloud providers

The diagram below shows you a high level network topology that involves machines in the Windows Azure cloud, other cloud providers and on-premise. You should note that the only required component in this diagram is the Relay itself. The other machines are optional (although your network is useful only if you have two or more machines involved). Relay agents are currently available in three geographic areas: US, Europe and Asia. You can change which region you want to use in the Windows Azure management portal.

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High Level Network Topology With Azure Connect

Azure Connect Agent

Azure Connect establishes a virtual network and creates virtual adapters on your machines; these virtual adapters communicate through the Relay using IPSec. This is achieved by installing an agent (the Azure Connect Agent) on all the machines you want in your network topology. However, you do not need to install the agent on Worker Roles and Web Roles; that’s because the agent is already installed for you. Any other machine, including Virtual Machines in Windows Azure, needs the agent installed.  To install the agent, simply go to your Windows Azure portal (http://windows.azure.com) and click on Networks on the bottom left panel. You will see a list of subscriptions under Connect. If you select a subscription, you will be able to click on the Install Local Endpoint icon on top. Clicking on this icon will begin the download and installation process for the agent.

Activating Roles for Azure Connect

As previously mentioned, you do not need to install the Azure Connect Agent on Worker Roles and Web Roles because it is already loaded. However, you do need to activate them if you want the roles to participate in your network topology. To do this, you will need to click on the Get Activation Token icon. The activation token must then be copied and placed in the configuration file of your roles. For more information on how to perform this step, visit MSDN at http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsazure/gg432964.aspx.

Firewall Rules

Note that specific firewall rules must exist to allow the agent to communicate through the Relay. You will need to allow TCP 443 and ICMPv6. For additional information, please visit MSDN at http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsazure/gg433061.aspx.

CA Certificates

You can optionally require agents to sign their activation request with the Relay using a trusted certificate issued by a Certificate Authority (CA). Click on Activation Options to learn more.

Groups

To create your network topology you must first create a group. A group represents a logical container of endpoints (or machines) that can communicate through the Relay. You can create multiple groups allowing you to manage network communication differently. For example you could create a DEVELOPMENT group and a PRODUCTION group. To add an endpoint you must first install an agent that will create a virtual adapter on the machine on which it is installed (as discussed in the previous section). Once you have created a group and installed the agents, the machines will appear in the Windows Azure management portal and you can start assigning machines to groups. The next figure shows you that I created a group called LocalGroup and assigned two machines (both on-premise) to that group.

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Groups and Computers in Azure Connect

As I mentioned previously you can allow these machines to establish a network connection. To do this, you must enable the Interconnected option in the group. The following diagram shows you the definition of the group. In this topology I chose to include local machines only, but I could also add worker roles and web roles in the Azure Roles section (you must first activate your roles, as discussed previously). You could also add other Groups, allowing you to manage inter-group communication.

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Defining a Group in Azure Connect

Testing the Connection

Now that my agents have been installed on my two machines, the group defined and the Interconnected option checked, I can test the connection between my machines. The next screenshot shows you that I sent a PING request to DEVLAP02 from DEVDSK02. The PING request was successful. Note however that the time is in the hundreds of milliseconds on average. That is to be expected because the machines are connecting through the Relay located in the cloud. Going through the Relay introduces an extra hop in the communication chain, so if your systems rely on high performance, you may want to conduct some basic performance tests.

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Sending a PING Request Through The Relay

Conclusion

As you can see, creating a network topology between machines using the Azure Connect service is simple. It took me less than five minutes to create the above configuration, including the time it took to install the Azure Connect agents on the two machines. The flexibility of Azure Connect allows you to create a virtual network between disparate environments, as long as your operating systems are supported by the agent. For more information on Azure Connect, visit the MSDN website at http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsazure/gg432997.aspx.

About Herve Roggero

Herve Roggero, Windows Azure MVP, is the founder of Blue Syntax Consulting, a company specialized in cloud computing products and services. Herve's experience includes software development, architecture, database administration and senior management with both global corporations and startup companies. Herve holds multiple certifications, including an MCDBA, MCSE, MCSD. He also holds a Master's degree in Business Administration from Indiana University. Herve is the co-author of "PRO SQL Azure" from Apress and runs the Azure Florida Association (on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=4177626). For more information on Blue Syntax Consulting, visit www.bluesyntax.net.

Special Thanks

I would like thank those that helped me figure out how Azure Connect works:

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