Azure Stack will become Microsoft’s flagship hybrid cloud platform later this year. In the run-up to general availability (GA), Microsoft Azure has been releasing Technical Previews (TPs) of the platform that can be downloaded and tested. The TP is essentially a Proof of Concept (POC) vehicle for learning and demonstrating Azure Stack prior to GA in mid-2017. The latest—TP3 announced March 1, 2017—includes new features and updates to existing ones. TP3 will be the last Azure Stack preview prior to GA.
The Azure Stack hybrid cloud platform aims to recreate the Azure public cloud experience behind the enterprise firewall. Azure services—Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service—available to users of the Azure public cloud can also be delivered from within the enterprise data center. For application users, the Azure Stack enterprise-side portal is the same as the public cloud portal.
Microsoft is also critically aware of the needs of application developers deploying to hybrid clouds as well as IT operations staff tasked with managing hybrid cloud environments. Azure Stack aims to build a strong foundational bridge between development and operational teams. Application developers can use a write-once, deploy-to-Azure Stack application delivery process. Development can occur on either the private or public side and put into production on either side as well because of its consistent application development environment. IT operations can then manage application user support and lifecycles from that point forward.
While the series of Technical Previews have been available for download and test on customer-supplied hardware, the GA version will only be available in the form of a purpose-built system. To acquire Azure Stack, customers will need to choose among the four current integrated system partners announced to date—Cisco, Dell EMC, Lenovo and HPE. The announcement of others may follow later this year.
Upon GA, Microsoft will make sets of Azure services available on-premises to customers. These services can be roughly divided into two categories—IaaS and PaaS.
Azure Resource Manager is an aggregation point for the management of multiple cloud resources such as VMs, storage, networking, servers, databases, etc. Using ARM, administrators can simplify deploying, managing, monitoring, updating and deleting multiple cloud resources. ARM also includes templates. A single template for application deployment can also be used testing, staging and final production.
Azure Stack defines two types of users: cloud administrators (providers) and tenants (application users). Cloud administrators provide and manage services as well as responding to alerts. They interact with Azure Stack through an administrative portal that is backed by a separate instance of ARM. Tenants consume services but can also be given the ability to provision, monitor and manage the services they have subscribed to. The tenant portal provides a self-service experience for the consumption of Azure Stack services.
As mentioned, Azure Stack is sold as a pre-integrated, turnkey hybrid cloud system available from Cisco, Dell EMC, HPE and Lenovo upon GA. Hardware is purchased directly from the hardware vendor who will also include hardware support and installation services. Hybrid cloud IaaS and PaaS services are billed on a fee-for-consumption basis by Microsoft Azure as if the services are running in the Azure public cloud. Existing Windows Server and SQL Server licensing agreements between the customer and Microsoft can be applied. Metering for services is applied as follows:
|Base VM||Per vCPU/min|
|Windows Server VM||Per CPU/min or Base VM fee + apply existing license|
|Azure Storage (blob, table, queue)||Per GB with no additional transaction fee|
|Azure App Service||Per CPU/min|
|Azure Functions||Per GB-sec execution time and per million executions|
Because Azure Stack can only be acquired as an integrated solution from an infrastructure partner, customers will first have to decide if a problem should be resolved by Microsoft (Cloud Services Support) or the infrastructure partner (Systems Support). However, the goal is to offer a consistent support experience coupled with a coordinated escalation and problem resolution process so no matter which side the customer initially reaches out to, the problem will be resolved.
From the standpoint of the Azure Stack solution itself, Microsoft has released additions and enhancements to the Technical Previews in TP3. These include:
Microsoft will add Azure Functions, VM Extension syndication and multi-tenancy sometime between now and final GA. New workloads such as Blockchain, Cloud Foundry, and Mesos templates will also be added within this timeframe. Microsoft states that it will continue to refresh TP3 until GA in mid-2017.
As enterprise IT pushes cloud computing strategies forward, most envision a hybrid cloud end state—one that integrates public clouds with private cloud resources. Public clouds are great for simplicity and agility. But control, customization and cost are perceived to be issues for certain critical applications that can be solved with a private cloud. Hence, the hybrid cloud. No matter where enterprise users go, the hybrid cloud can offer simplicity and agility of the public cloud with the customization and control of the private cloud.
We believe that the significance of Azure Stack—Microsoft’s strong entry into the hybrid cloud arena—can’t be understated. Microsoft Azure is the fastest growing public cloud—faster than Amazon Web Services (AWS). Azure Stack will assure the continuation of that forward momentum by allowing Azure services to emanate from behind the enterprise firewall. Upon GA, Azure Stack will become the hybrid cloud appliance that all others will be compared to.