Thursday, December 16, 2010

Travels through Europe with Windows Azure

I've been traveling through Europe this week spreading the good word about Windows Azure and have had a great time (some photos below). Although I've been to Europe many times, it had been almost ten years since my last trip and I was going alone, so I planned it carefully.

My schedule is tight: immediately after delivering Azure training in Los Angeles I am off to the airport to catch a flight to Germany. The weather reports for Europe have not been encouraging: blizzard-level snow storms, roads and borders closed, hundreds of flights cancelled, thousands of passengers stranded, and (my favorite) a shortage of de-icing fluid for aircraft. Not sure what to expect on the other side, I boarded my Lufthansa flight.

Service on board the Airbus 340 was terrific, though flight attendants kept assuming I spoke German at first because I look German (however, my German is limited to the dining menu!). If there was bad weather the pilot handled it so well no one noticed. My business class airline seat was so full of features it would not have looked out of place in a science-fiction movie and came with a 10-page, full-color user guide. It had power, a table, sophisticated positioning controls, a reading lamp, an eyeglass holder, a shoe-holder, a fantastic video system, and converted into a full bed (perhaps the most important feature). My only disappointment was that the AC power was limited to 75 watts, not enough to power my laptop which is admittedly the largest laptop in the world. I'd hoped to work on my Azure book and was limited to just a few hours of battery life. Next time I'll bring a small Netbook with long battery life.

Looking down on the blanket of clouds from 39,000 feet reminded me of how global and all-encompassing cloud computing is. The plane had a monitor showing a visual display of our flight path, and in our approach to Europe I was delighted to see we flew directly over Dublin, Ireland and then Amsterdam, Netherlands—home of 2 Windows Azure data centers! I waved…

Arriving in Munich airport, I was wondering if my recently-acquired Windows Phone would work in Europe. Alas, my phone was unwilling to recognize a signal. My backup plan was to buy a local pre-paid phone for the week at the airport, but to my surprise this was not available. So I went through the week without phone service, relying on email when I was online in hotel rooms or on-site at training centers.

Munich is the third largest city in Germany and one of the most influential. It is also the capital of the area known as Bavaria. If you recall the 1968 film "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", the castle in the movie is an actual castle in Bavaria. I have a personal connection to the area as my grandfather was from Bavaria.

I stayed at the Sheraton Arabellapark Hotel which I really enjoyed. Although I didn't have time to check it out, the hotel is well-known for having a pool and spa up on the 22nd floor. The 66 Grill Restaurant in the hotel was out of this world: I enjoyed every meal. If you're ever staying in the Arabellapark area of Bavaria this is a good place to stay, especially if you are a Foodie like me. The lavish breakfast buffet, included with your room, includes delicious breads, pastries, eggs, sausages, cheeses, fruits, and of course great coffee. I probably did in my diet with all the eating but everything was too good to pass up trying. Lunch and dinner were equally tasty. I particularly enjoyed trying cream of pumpkin soup with curry, local sausages and mustards, and various veal and beef dishes. If you haven't experienced them, it is difficult for me to convey to you how good basic things like bread and coffee are from this area as well as specialty dishes like goulash and spaetzle--don't miss trying them if you ever have the opportunity.

The trip to Germany would not have been complete without apple strudel, which I found at Paulaner's Wirsthaus and Biergarten. This is in the Westin Grand, a hotel across the street from the Sheraton that looks to be very high class.

Apple strudel to die for

The Windows Azure training class I taught had close to 20 people. In introducing myself I shared my personal connection to the area and apologized for the language barrier and "for being an ignorant foreigner" (this drew laughter).

Introducing myself as an ignorant foreigner

The attendees were very friendly and we enjoyed ourselves as you can see from this picture—see how happy Windows Azure makes you? Most of the attendees were new to Windows Azure but we had an expert in attendance, fellow Windows Azure MVP Christian Weyer, who was very helpful. This area of Germany is known for its hospitality and I certainly felt it!

Munich Azure training

This was an expensive trip: the dollar isn’t worth much right now when exchanging currency. My $600 became only 400 euro. I had to make sure I used credit cards for everything including taxis (no problem as long as you confirm this before starting your trip). Speaking of taxis, I had a fun experience on my first day trying to get to the Munich training center from my hotel. Getting into the cab, I showed my driver the address telling him "I think this is nearby". He looked at the address and told me to get out of the cab! --because the location was right around the corner. Ignorant foreigner, indeed!

After completing the event in Germany I flew mid-week to Amsterdam for a second training session in the Netherlands (also known as Holland). Whereas it had been snowy and cold in Munich, I was surprised to land in sunny, almost balmy conditions in the Netherlands. I was cheered to see many windmills (including some modern ones) on my taxi ride to the hotel. The nice weather didn't last long though: cold, rain, and snow were soon upon us. The snow was amazingly thick: it looked more like feathers than snowflakes.

Heavy snow beginning to fall in Nieugewein, Netherlands

The Netherlands Azure class also went very well, held in the city of Nieugewein, where we also had close to 20 in attendance. A number of the attendees had travelled from other countries including Belgium, Portugal, and Austria. You can see from these photos that this group was also friendly, fun-loving, and fond of Windows Azure. Among my new friends is ASP.NET MVP Kris van der Mast.

Netherlands Azure training

Since I live in California, I naturally host many of my Windows Azure demos in the San Antonio, Texas data center and I’d been a little worried about performance and reliability accessing them from Europe. I was pleased to see everything worked great and performed well. I also needed to take care of a production problem with one my Windows Azure applications while in Europe, and my being abroad presented no problems: when your applications are in the cloud, troubleshooting problems and updating deployments is equally easy no matter where you happen to be.

In Europe they have these really cool coffee machines everywhere that can give you just about kind of coffee drink you want and are fully automatic. Just punch in the drink you want--espresso? cappuccino? something else?--and additives such as cream or sugar, and it is instantly prepared for you. Many of these are vending-machine size and serve more than one person at the same time. If you're used to frequenting Starbucks like I am, these machines--often free to use if you're at a business location--are addictive. There was even one at the Munich airport that was free to passengers.

Just about everyone I met in Europe spoke English so I had no trouble getting around and communicating. I really enjoyed my visit and the opportunity to make new friends and get them started on cloud computing with Windows Azure. However, I’ll also be very glad to come home this weekend—the family and I have been missing each other and it’s almost Christmas!