Mark, myself and others had many discussions over the past few weeks around Azure Stack, the future of the private cloud, and the innovation happening around us daily. The goal was to write a realistic blog on the future with Azure Stack. These are our views and opinions, not those of Microsoft or our employer.
THE WORLD OF IAAS
The current world of IaaS is providing a solution to the problem all businesses have faced, stagnant productivity and innovation within departments because there was a big dependency on the IT department. There was a need for working with the ‘Cloud model‘, self-service, usage, automation, etc. A lot of vendors have jumped on this opportunity and created solutions to fit this need, public and private cloud IaaS offerings. While Amazon had the first public cloud IaaS offering, Microsoft and Google followed quickly. Funny thing to note is that all vendors first started with PaaS and SaaS before launching their IaaS services, they all concluded the world was not ready for a PaaS and SaaS world yet. Microsoft also provided software to create your own private IaaS offering based on Windows Azure Pack and the System Center Suite.
With IaaS we can offer tenants to deploy services independently without intervention of the IT department.
WHAT PROBLEM IS AZURE STACK SOLVING?
During my participation at the airlift of Azure Stack in March 2016 we’ve seen how many people within Microsoft are involved. It seems like Microsoft is going all-in with the new ‘on-premises must-have’ called Microsoft Azure Stack.
We’ve seen that the IaaS innovation solved a big problem that we were facing, what problem is Microsoft trying to solve with Azure Stack?
- The issues we encounter daily with our infrastructure
- The ask for a PaaS and SaaS world
1. The issues we encounter daily with our infrastructure
At release, Azure Stack will be delivered as a fully “Integrated System” or “Turn-key System”, allowing you to literally turn the power on and you’re ready to go. All hardware components are selected for you and tested thoroughly, everything works as expected. Even updates on software and hardware are taken care of (see comments of Vijay Tewari here). This new way forward takes away the control from the infrastructure, but also makes sure the IT department can focus on more innovative things than maintaining the systems. The roles within IT departments are shifting this way to a DevOps way of working. This is a tough bet from Microsoft since they are promising a lot here. Although this may raise significant concerns, this is the only way Microsoft can guarantee an operational Azure in your datacenter.
This approach is also likely to scare people afraid for a “vendor lock-in”, but once you have decided to go for a particular vendor you can always setup another region (in same physical location) with a different vendor. You will not have to use one vendor over multiple Azure Stack installations / regions.
2. The ask for a PaaS & SaaS world
We can conclude that Azure Stack at the state of General Availability (GA) cannot replace the ‘legacy’ infrastructure IT Professionals are familiar with. There are a lot of features we can provide these days, with for example Azure Pack, to tenants which we cannot offer with Azure Stack, yet.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” –Henry Ford
With Azure Stack, Microsoft is aiming for the higher goal, and is looking ahead 2-5 years from today.
Although everything seems to be oriented on IaaS today, the future of IT infrastructure will end up more and more on PaaS and SaaS, whether we like it or not. Tenants want to consume services and do not want to have to worry about the infrastructure, e.g. let the IT department setup a VM with SQL. Azure Stack is providing a solution for PaaS and SaaS services on-premises.
The PaaS and SaaS offering in Azure Stack is a game changer.
Think about it, what other on-premises solution is going to provide your tenants the PaaS and SaaS services available in a public cloud like Azure?
AZURE STACK NEEDS TO CATCH UP
It’s weird to state that a product needs to catch up while it is not even released yet, but we’re probably missing a bunch of features in Azure Stack at General Availability (mid-CY 2017) for IaaS services.
The Windows Server team did an amazing job and made a lot of progress with Windows Server 2016, lots of cool new features that will get you excited and contribute to the software defined datacenter concept. That does not mean all features within the new version of Windows Server are automatically supported within Azure Stack nor Microsoft Azure. Windows Server and Azure (Stack) have separate development paths, Azure Stack and Azure are both lagging behind on the features that are already available in Windows Server 2012 R2 (GEN2 VMs, Remote Console, Hot Add/Remove, …) and will be in Windows Server 2016 (Nested Hyper-V, Shielded VMs, …).
The Azure team has some tough tasks to do before we can enjoy the features we would like to see:
- Update the Azure infrastructure to Windows Server 2016
- Develop code for Azure to support Windows Server 2016 features
- Develop code to support native Azure features in Azure Stack
Now, that are some intensive tasks… only imagine the number of physical servers running in Azure that need to be upgraded.
Since Azure Stack is depending on Microsoft Azure’s code base the Azure development team has to catch up first to provide us those features through Azure. This code will then be implemented in Azure Stack to also support the “new” features. The support of native Azure features like “Azure Automation” would be a great help to all of us.
Please understand that Azure Stack is not a separate product where Microsoft will invest in to support a specific feature like they did with Azure Pack, Azure Stack = Azure.
I’m confident that the Azure Development teams will catch up fast and we will get the needed IaaS features, next to the staggering PaaS and SaaS services it already provides out-of-the-box.
MAYBE AZURE STACK ISN’T FOR YOU
Are you servicing the type of company with exotic infrastructure and you need specific hardware? Maybe Azure Stack isn’t for you. Want to build your own servers and choose your own firmware and drivers? Same story, but hopefully one day, Microsoft will bring out a DIY. Need to have the IaaS features that are available today through Azure Pack? They will come, but not at GA.
Many have already pronounced System Center dead, what if Azure Stack isn’t what you’re looking for? Based at the latest release notes, System Center isn’t lagging behind and supports all features that Azure Stack is built on; Software defined Compute (Hyper-V), Software defined networking (Network Controller), software defined storage (Storage Spaces Direct).
With the release date of Windows Server 2016 and System Center 2016 in sight, we’ll see how it will serve our needs.
Microsoft announced they will support for Azure Pack as well for some time:
Azure Pack + Windows Server 2012 R2 + System Center 2012 R2 – June 2017
Azure Pack + Windows Server 2012 R2 + System Center 2012 R2 (Extended Support) – 2022
Azure Pack + Windows Server 2016 + System Center 2016 – 2022
The support of Windows Azure Pack is directly tied to the support of System Center.
For IaaS and a few SaaS offerings (Database as a Service, Websites) Windows Azure Pack it is probably enough. If you want to offer more, you’ll have to look forward to the release of Azure Stack.
Now let’s hope Microsoft will support the ‘Azure Pack + Windows Server 2016 + System Center 2016′ also ’till 2020 or further.
WHY DO IT YOURSELF?
So you do not want to setup and maintain Azure Stack but you still want to provide IaaS, PaaS and SaaS to your tenants? Ever thought about consuming Azure Stack in the hosted cloud using a pay-per-use scenario? As seen on Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), there are already some service providers preparing their Hosted Azure Stack offerings. This approach will tackle the number one issue with public clouds, your data is stored ‘somewhere’, but also many others. What difference would tenants experience except from different namespaces (endpoints / URLs) for PaaS and SaaS services?
If company policies allow this, you can always consider to mix and match between IaaS from on-premises and PaaS and SaaS from the public cloud or service provider. Or just IaaS from the service provider and PaaS and SaaS from Azure. Many ways lead to Rome, welcome to the new hybrid Microsoft world.
COST & SUPPORT
Everything above is observed from a technical point of view and is not considering a very important aspect: Cost. Very little is known about the licensing of Azure Stack and the pricing from the hardware vendors. The costs will be the key factor to decide to go for Azure Stack or not.
Another important part of the package is the customer support. Who are you going to call when your Dell hosts cannot reach your Lenovo hosts? I suspect Microsoft is going to provide the same support as they did with the Cloud Platform System (CPS) and will act as a support organization for the entire solution. Hopefully Microsoft announces some more details on this on their upcoming event Ignite in late September 2016.
Thanks for reading, as always comments and opinions are appreciated 🙂