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Getting Started with Windows Live Admin Center

The latest version of Windows Live Admin Center is flush with new features, including an enhanced SDK, support for email optional domains, and the creation of up to 500 default member accounts.


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hen developing with Windows Live services, you open your application to a whole new world of software integration. In this fascinating realm of mash-up mania, developers can find tools for adding maps, searches, video, chats, and even social networking services directly into their applications and ultimately right into their users' browsers. The benefits of adding services like Virtual Earth and Silverlight Streaming are obvious—you can create dazzling content and facilitating rich user experiences. Yet services like these are still limited to specific contexts within your program. They are perfectly wonderful for beefing up the user experience in web sites, but wouldn't it be great if the folks at Microsoft provided a service that helps you administer user accounts and customize services around your web site? Well indeed they have, and its name is Windows Live Admin Center. Windows Live Admin Center (formerly known as Custom Domains) is a service provided by Microsoft that allows users to create domain-specific Live ID accounts. Up until this point you've likely spent a lot of time reading about Live services that work within your web sites or web-enabled applications. Admin Center marks a subtle shift from these services, representing one of the few features of Windows Live that works around your application. On the surface its purpose is simple: allow users to create Live ID usernames within your site's URL. For example, if you are the owner of a domain named coragi.com, you could register that domain name with Windows Live Admin Center and, through it, create Live ID accounts with names such as BigJon@coragi.com or Sheila2388@coragi.com. After the domain is registered, webmasters have the ability to administer these accounts directly, adding names, removing users, and performing basic account maintenance as they see fit.

I know what you're thinking: So what? Most webmasters with only a moderate amount of experience know how to create accounts like this on their own. After all, most hosting services already provide the administrative features and mail services needed to create an almost limitless list of domain-specific accounts. Who needs yet another service to do this for you? At first, I thought the same thing. However I soon learned that the power behind Windows Live Admin Center lies not in the simple creation of accounts, but rather in the power that drives Windows Live ID and in the power of service integration and site federation.

The power behind Windows Live Admin Center lies not in the simple creation of accounts, but rather in the power that drives Windows Live ID and in the power of service integration and site federation.
Consider what a Live ID really is. It is a key that identifies a user to literally thousands of Live-powered web applications. Since Windows Live ID supports a single sign-on model, each Live ID account is not only unique, but recognizable across all Live-powered applications. Likewise, a Live ID account is a means of entry to other Live services. A single Live ID account comes with all of the Windows Live features, including a page on Live Spaces, an account on Live Expo, search macros, personalized alerts, a chat account, and lots of other tools and features of Live that compliment your online content.

Still, Live ID has its limitations. If your web site requires users to have a Live ID to access your site the accounts aren't entirely user friendly. They have non-descriptive domain suffixes such as @hotmail.com or @live.com that prevent users from identifying with your application. Sure, users have access to free email, but of course the email is branded as Hotmail, again preventing users from identifying with your service. And of course, there is the not-too-subtle separation of services that keeps a webmaster at arm's length from account maintenance. Even though you might be consuming Live ID and, with it, allowing people to log into your application, you have no ability to administer the accounts themselves.

New users can create new accounts that look and feel like a local domain account, but that are actually fully functional Live IDs.
Here is where Windows Live Admin Center shines. Admin Center is a service that bridges those otherwise awkward disconnects between your application and Windows Live, resulting in a powerful compromise that facilitates customization while allowing users to take full advantage of the Live ID model. Instead of accounts with hotmail.com names, each corresponds to whichever domain name you choose to register. Instead of hosting your own mail services and authentication servers, Microsoft does it all for you. What's more, Live IDs created using Admin Center aren't subject to many of the expirations and maintenance rules that apply to a normal Live ID account. The accounts you create are yours to manage and control.


Online Registration and Account Administration
The best way to familiarize oneself with Admin Center is to jump right in and register an account. First time users should begin by clicking the "Get started" button located towards the bottom of the page. This begins the wizard-like application that helps guide users through the setup process.

 
Figure 1. Getting Started: Enter your Domain Name or purchase a new one.
The first thing you'll need to have to begin using Admin Center is your own domain name. Thus, the first page of the wizard allows you to either enter an existing domain name (that you own) or select an option for purchasing a new one (see Figure 1). Managing a domain name requires some understanding of registrars and general web concepts and falls outside of the scope of this article. Microsoft has partnered with a handful of public registrars, such as Melbourne IT and Register.com; however, developers should feel free to use whatever registration service they prefer. If you click the link labeled "I need to purchase a domain," you'll be given a choice of roughly four registration services from which to choose (offered in English only, other languages will not have this option), and then the Admin Center registration process stops. Inevitably you'll be forwarded back to this initial page with a valid domain name to continue.

In this example I have purchased the domain name "coragi.com," so I will enter that name into the text field at the top of the page and click "Continue." Notice that I did not change the default mail setting: "Set up Windows Live Hotmail for my domain." This newer option that comes with later versions of Admin Center allows advanced webmasters to forego the automatic mail service that accompanies an Admin Center account. Since the email that comes with each account is a popular feature, leave that setting alone for now. The next few pages require users to sign in with a valid Windows Live ID and to agree to the terms of use. The Live ID you choose to associate with this account will be the same account you'll use when administering your accounts through the API. Remember it, because you'll need it when sampling the API. Be sure to read through each of the terms, and then click the "I Agree" button to continue.

 
Figure 2. Administration Page: Here's the Admin Center's online administration page.
If this is the very first time you are logging in you'll likely see some warning messages indicating that your account status is "Pending DNS Configuration." You'll need to go into your domain host's administration page (or wherever you keep your DNS records) and add an MX DNS entry pointing to the MX address listed with the status message. Once you've done that, your Admin Center account should look like Figure 2. Headings such as "Administrator Status" and "Mail" indicate the Admin Hotmail account status, and whether there is a valid DNS entry for your Hotmail service.

In the upper left-hand side of the page you'll find a small navigation menu through which you can access some features of your account. Create a new member account by clicking the "Member Accounts" link, and then clicking the "+ADD" button at the top of the page. Enter the requested information. Remember that your domain name gets appended to each name you enter into the "Account Name" field. For example, adding the name "Mike" into your Add-Members page creates an account with a user name of Mike@coragi.com. Each account you create is a valid Live ID account. You can experiment with them by going to other Windows Live sites such as Spaces.live.com and log in using the new account name.

You can use the Custom Addresses feature to create domain-friendly URLs that point to individual Spaces pages, search macros, a collective email account, and more.
Adding and removing Live IDs from your domains is just one of a few cool features of Admin Center. If you're looking to take advantage of other services in the Windows Live family but you don't want to give up your own domain URLs, take a gander at the Custom Addresses section. This tool lets you map domain friendly CNAME entries and sub-domains to other Live services such as Hotmail, Live Spaces, and Live Maps. For example, say you want users to be able to come to coragi.com and click a link that shows a map of Philadelphia with a pushpin over 1500 Market Street. You want the link to read "maps.coragi.com," because that's simple to remember—but you want the user to be taken to Live Maps directly. With Admin Center, it's easy! Simply click the Custom Addresses link in the navigation menu, select "maps" from the drop-down list, and then click the Add button.

In the subsequent pop-up window, enter the CNAME entry that you would like your site to use (in this case "maps"), and then enter the address as you would have typed it into maps.live.com. You'll need to go into the host site or where you administer DNS entries and add a CNAME entry for maps.coragi.com (which should point to go.domains.live.com). Now when you enter maps.coragi.com into a browser, a Windows Live map appears with the focus directly over Center City, Philadelphia, as shown in Figure 3. You can use this feature to create domain-friendly URLs that point to individual Spaces pages, Search Macros, collective email accounts, and more.

 
Figure 3. Integrating Live Maps: A Custom Address pointing to a specific location on maps.live.com.
One more feature worth mentioning is the co-branding link. Admin Center is all about integrating your site's content seamlessly with the various services and tools inherent to the Windows Live family. By utilizing Admin Center's email services, you provide your users with an almost limitless amount of mail space while never having to worry about hosting or email account management. Of course, it might help if the email page users logged into bore some relationship to your site? When you click the co-branding link, that's precisely what you'll get. Most basic users will be able to see a link to customize the header. This option allows you to upload a small web site image or logo that will be visible on the headers of all co-brandable pages in Windows Live. As Microsoft expands this capability, you'll be able to subtly layer in other elements of your web site's look and feel to maintain the semblance of a single-site user experience.

There are other customizable features available through Admin Center. Some of these features allow you to open your membership model to users interested in creating their own Live IDs (see the sidebar "Open Membership"). Other features may be available only to certain types of Admin Center memberships. Everything I have covered so far pertains to those features available to any web site interested in federating with Windows Live Services; however, other offers that cater to different interest groups may provide different or additional features. Live@edu is one such special offer, allowing schools to outsource their email and online services for students and alumni. Interested parties should visit http://www.liveatedu.com. Other offer types such as Live@net allow network operators to offer enhanced email services to their broadband subscribers. In fact, the web site you just registered, coragi.com, technically falls into the offer known as CommunityBuilder. The point is that Admin Center comes in several different flavors, some of which might offer more features and tools you'll want to explore. You can find more information on special interest offers here.

Editor's Note: This article was first published in the "Windows Live" edition of CoDe Focus Magazine (2008, Vol. 5, Issue 2), and is reprinted here by permission.



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