Differentiate with Azure Stack

Introduction

Many exciting things happened since my two lengthy blogs about the changing cloud landscape, the business aspect and how Azure Stack fits in. Shortly after, I went to the US representing a large HSP at the Azure Stack airlift in Bellevue near Redmond. The airlift provided a large amount of information and covered every aspect of the product. They overwhelmed us with deployment, hardware management, servicing and business model topics.  After three days engulfed in a wealth of information, it was pretty clear that just delivering an Azure-in-a-box without utilizing its full (competitive) potential would not cut it. Every angle and every guideline must be followed to deploy it as intended. It is much more than a technical product, it is rather a commercial product for larger businesses and service providers to be monetized correctly. It delivers a new Hybrid cloud consumption model accompanied with new cloud offerings supplemented by new managed services  opening numerous possibilities and new ideas and inspiring new ways of thinking about IT.

Next, next, finish, fail

What I’ve learned throughout my journey is that large amount of time and resources is required to align Azure Stack with your organization or customer needs, certainly if you look at it from a service provider perspective. It is something that needs heavy investment hardware-wise, business-wise and knowledge-wise. Management and administrator actions, hardware and software wise normally done by Azure personnel and individual teams behind the services now have to be done by you. Think about what that entails for your organization. Simply deploying Azure Stack without understanding the business side of the product and what (technical) problem or challenge you are trying  to solve will result in utter failure. I encourage everyone considering Azure Stack to watch the Ignite sessions covering the business and application scenarios. Technical sessions are also covered there; if you do not have the time to watch them all, then read this blog made by Hans Vredevoort where he recaps his third day at Ignite. It summarizes the deployment and architecture involved to operate Azure Stack in your own data center.

Think about which technical challenges you want to solve with Azure Stack,  try to grasp it’s business model, do your cost calculations and determine the resources you have available before you decide if you want to use Azure Stack in your own data center (on premise/private), hosted in the hosted cloud or in a dedicated private cloud deployed by a service provider. Luckily, there are consultancy parties and service providers who can advise and help make the right decision. In the meantime, let me provide some guidance and share my thoughts about the integrated system, the cloud model and how to differentiate by using Azure Stack.

Integrated system

Many people were disappointed when Microsoft made the announcement that Azure Stack is being delivered as part of an integrated hardware system. For good reason. It was indirectly advertised and understood by many as the new ‘Windows Azure Pack’ (WAP). Allowing you to deploy it on own hardware and customize every aspect. We understand now that WAP is a different product as you can see on the business orientated comparison cheat sheet we made here. It is more flexible and customizable when you use it with existing traditional infrastructure components compared to Azure Stack and solves other scenarios in a different cloud and licensing model.

One interconnected system

Azure Stack’s unexpected six-month delay indicated that there is a large amount of work to be done before Microsoft can deliver it as a complete, stable and trustworthy product. That also means that if they want to deliver it on time as a stable system, a system which is essentially Azure worthy, they have to cut-down resource intensive processes. No way that they have the time and resources to validate different hardware components, the interoperability with each other and guarantee it is stable enough without disrupting the whole stack. They have to keep the validated hardware subset as small as possible if they want to reach a faster time to market. This way of servicing, certifying and supporting the physical layer is a far less complex and time intensive task. These physical hardware components are more intertwined than ever with the software-defined layers running on them. In particular, when you use the hyper-converged model, a software-defined storage solution as ‘storage spaces direct’ shares software-defined networking and compute resources. The types of disks you are using in the system and the IOPS performance generated by them directly impact the network card and processor performance. For example, an all NVME disk setup generating millions of IOPS requires you to size your environment using the correct hardware components to deal with such violence travelling through your stack.

One Microsoft hard way road

Not only a faster time to market pushed Microsoft into the integrated hardware direction. If you ever deployed or did some ‘Windows Azure Pack’ (WAP) troubleshooting then you know that it can be a quite long and daunting task, it requires outstanding expertise. And even if you went through all that you still don’t know if future hardware and software components you add to your WAP will work with each other. You have to do the mixing and matching yourself, which results in a bigger chance of customer impact compared to an integrated and validated system.

That is just seen from a customer perspective; we can determine Microsoft’s perspective, which is much more complicated and resource intensive. They had so much trouble supporting various customer environments to a point that they had to talk with hardware vendors about specific firmware running on certain kind of hard drives to solve their customer issues. With new software-defined networking and storage technologies where resilience and redundancy is handled by Azure Stack things get more complex, hardware components such as a raid controller providing traditional disk redundancy must be configured differently. They learnt from all that and concluded that if you want to deliver a turnkey stable solution, then every piece of code including firmware and hardware functionality has to be compatible with the software-defined layers on top. Any mismatch compromises the whole solution. Bill Gates with his famous ‘blue screen of death’ can attest to that, but back in those days it was just a single computer. In this day of age with hardware and software layers interconnected, it’s your software-defined data center hosting a state of the art cloud platform with all your customers. Fine if you’re freewheeling with a couple of nodes, I guess … However, it’s a whole different world when you’re dealing with a couple of racks or operate a sub-hyperscale cloud service provider environment.

One ecosystem, one brand

Azure Stack represents Azure and is just Azure! In other words, Microsoft provides you a part of Azure in your own data center. They have to ensure the same experience and reliability customers already have in public Azure, by upholding the same reputation and reliability customers are accustomed to. Azure Stack clouds therefore must align with Azure’s ecosystem, innovation, servicing and brand wise.

The same public cloud experience has to be ensured in other clouds or it indirectly affects the ecosystem. Azure Stack environments lagging to far behind of Azure’s update policy will not be supported anymore because consistency and compatibility across cloud services and tools has to be maintained. This way Microsoft can provide customers a true consistent Hybrid experience with Azure services, no matter which cloud they are using. The underlying hardware is an important integrated piece of the solution and tightly coupled with the software-defined layers on top. Any misalignment causes impact on the entire solution, compromises the reliability of Azure’s ecosystem and more importantly, damages the business of your customer.

Private or hosted

Big guy

We can conclude that deploying Azure Stack yourself and aligning the business can require a large capital investment. This depends on the initial deployment, but we can assume that a game changing product such as Azure Stack, which can be instantly extended by adding physical servers, will over time grow beyond a rack and eventually ends up as a large investment. This well-thought investment is often reserved for larger companies with in-house IT departments where local Azure Stack deployment makes more sense. Most of them already consume public cloud services like Azure and directly profit from all the added benefits when they are able to consume the same services with dedicated resources locally in their own private cloud. A dedicated private cloud serviced by a local cloud service provider could also be an option when an investment in hardware, data center capacity or staffing is too costly for them.

Small guy

For companies without a huge IT budget or resources who simply cannot deploy and maintain such an environment are not left behind. They are able to consume the same Azure services with a pay-per-use subscription more locally at a cloud service provider in a shared hosted cloud or dedicated private cloud. A provider who already made these large investments. Why try to do it yourself when you can benefit from their guidance and expertise. Cloud service providers not only provide Azure services more locally, but also deliver a range of new offerings and managed services with it, which is something Azure public will not provide. Providing customers finished managed services so end users can innovate and IT has the stability and control that is required in their operations. Cloud service providers or cloud consultancy parties are also able to help customers with their Hybrid cloud consumption journey, interconnect their Clouds and give expert advice. For example, advice in how to deploy certain workloads and how they can move applications from traditional infrastructure to ‘Infrastructure as a Service’ (IaaS), ‘Platform as a Service’ (PaaS) or to Software as a Service (SaaS). Supporting and educating customer IT staff, helping them with their IT transformation. Not only a technical transformation but also a cultural one, opening up new opportunities, ideas and a new way of thinking about their business. This initiates a technological shift from the traditional IT infrastructure model to a Cloud consumption one.

It’s a new model

If you look at clouds today the two models below are in essence the difference between private and public clouds. For most private clouds it’s all about the infrastructure, public cloud is all about the service and application. This changes when you bring cloud software from the public cloud to private and hosted clouds. Suddenly the public cloud model is available in other clouds.


Traditional model

The traditional model facilitates in resolving custom traditional IT processes, and each application belongs to designated custom-built enterprise grade servers. It is a viable and proven model for the majority of applications and currently acceptable in industry. It has its purpose and solves many issues IT faces today. However, technology changes rapidly, now more than ever, by being influenced by hyper-scale advancements made in the public cloud. In this new age of apps, the old way of deploying infrastructure is causing friction because IT is not moving as fast as businesses desire.

Cloud consumption model

Apps are overwhelmed with unprecedented innovation or ‘digital transformation’ occurring around us. Innovations fueled by big software and cloud companies automate every process to run their clouds as efficiently possible at unimaginable scales. They all run in a cloud (consumption) model running on industry standard white box or open-compute servers where it’s all about the loosely couple applications or micro services. Being untied from servers, they are moved up the ladder by clever software now managing these servers and tied to a cloud service instead. This automated cloud service now consumes resources from the servers it controls underneath.

The cloud model is geared for speed; the server is no longer the center point. It allows the IT department to go deep on the cloud model, transitioning to DevOps practices. Practices inherited from this cloud model easily allow IT Pro’s and Developers to automate their infrastructure and application deployments with code. Knowledge and investments otherwise spent in IT infrastructure is now spent in making use and adopting new cloud technologies that would otherwise be untouched in a traditional model, holding back innovation. IT department knowledge and expertise are evolving and used more efficiently in the cloud model, which allows them and the company to move faster. This results in more innovation, new technologies and faster release cycles delivering more and better products. DevOps being a buzzword for many, finally has become mainstream for many IT teams undergoing the cultural shift by transitioning to the cloud model for their IT. It allows them to embrace agile development and increasing efficiencies across the IT organization. For many companies and certainly larger software companies, they need innovation to counter competitive threats and increase growth to survive. The only way to do that effectively is in a cloud (consumption) model which removes the burden of configuring and managing any infrastructure components, which lets them focus on the business value of the application. In addition, they can reinvent their product by using new applications, services and technologies inherited from the Cloud model, and they can create an even more innovative, complete and versatile product ready to compete in the changing market.

Hybrid, Private, Public or Hosted Cloud. Look at its model and the solution it brings to your organization.

Differentiate

How to differentiate with Azure Stack? You are already differentiating yourself from the rest of the pack by exploring its abilities and how it can resolve your business challenges. Bringing the Cloud consumption model with all its services from public to private or hosted clouds has never been done before. There are numerous benefits as a result. Azure Stack brings Azure IaaS, PaaS and SaaS services to your cloud in a cloud consumption model. Leveraging these foundational public cloud services with additonal services complementing them in a local cloud consumption model gives companies a large advantage above competitors who are still using the traditional model. Connect public Azure to your Azure Stack cloud and differentiate even more by having a true consistent hybrid Cloud enabling many new scenarios.

Instead of boring you with large amount of text (which I’m good at), let’s do something new and highlight Azure Stack’s benefits in several important categories.

Business

  • Only hybrid cloud platform that is truly consistent with a leading public cloud.
  • Offers foundational (IaaS) services and PaaS/SaaS services where customers and IT gradually transition to.
  • Instant compliancy for international and industry-specific compliance standards by placing your workloads on Azure or Azure Stack services.
  • Out the box auditing trail for the complete stack conforming to Hipaa, PCI, Fedramp and more.
  • Very powerful reseller model. Delegated (downstream) providers enable resellers to offer your Azure Stack services to their customers.
  • Create unique offers per region. Providing different services per region, mixing and matching the underlying resources and associated performance. Tailored to your customer or business.
  • Choose or mix a shared or dedicated environment. Hosted versus private.
  • Agility of a flexible, speedy and elastic cloud.
  • Transfer from capital infrastructure cost (capex) to operational costs (opex) by using a pay-per-use cloud model.
  • Monetize Azure Stack using chargeback data generated by the customizable billing meters. Bill customers or internal departments.
  • Deliver additional services, build your catalog through the marketplace using a custom resource provider or existing ISV marketplace content.
  • Provide your own unique intellectual property (IP) and SLA’s with your offers.
  • Provide customers or internal organization with one transparent bill for their cloud consumption in Azure and Azure Stack.
  • Benefit from Power BIBusiness Intelligence’ data based on Azure Stack offers, subscription, resources, services and platform usage. Find out how customers user their subscriptions and how you can improve your offerings.
  • Connect your commerce and backoffice system to Azure Stack API’s. Generate valuable data and orchestrate provisioning.
  • Control and reduce shadow IT Developers already adopting Azure or doing shadow IT elsewhere can now safely switch to locally controlled Azure services.
  • Save on server licensing costs by using Microsoft Azure cloud on-boarding benefits.
  • Use or offer new higher-level managed services made possible with a (hybrid) cloud model like advisory and security services.
  • Enable and onboard new customers otherwise restricted to their older traditional IT model. Offer them a stepping stone to a local Cloud model when public is one step to far.
  • Monitor and track usage through the portal or API’s in one uniform way across clouds, analyze the data and enhance your application or product offering with it.
  • Companies are able to cut down costs by having a single pane of glass detailing all usage and costs. They are now able to develop for financial incentives instead of the usual technology incentives.
  • By using agile DevOps practices IT transitions towards a stable profit center instead of the traditional fluctuating cost center.
  • Pricing and licensing model and how that works with hosters is still under development.
  • Support is being worked out but it will be a joint venture with Microsoft and OEM partners.

Hybrid

  • Extend your environment to Azure or to other Azure Stacks in a different rack, room, datacenter, city, country or continent!
  • Cross premises and stack to stack connectivity with site-to-site VPN.
  • Connect your existing Azure Pack (WAP) environment with the WAP connector and manage WAP IaaS through Azure Stack.
  • Create true Hybrid cloud apps by using load-balancing across two locations.
  • Hyper-Scale to Azure when you need more capacity in case of an event. Only pay for the resources used, no capital costs.
  • Geo-graphical benefits. Host compute frontends in Azure in multiple regions, host backend data locally in Azure Stack.
  • Use and mix storage, compute and network capacity where it makes sense.
  • Hybrid identity with Azure AD and onpremise AD.
  • Benefit from a consistent disaster-recovery and backup plan offsite with instant fail-over to another region.
  • Provide Azure services more local to companies where latency and jitter to public or to the internet in general is a big issue.
  • Azure Stack as a mobile datacenter at remote oil rigs, hospitals, factories, ships and airplanes. They all need disconnected scenarios and are able to sync with public or other clouds when connected.
  • Flexibility to instantly switch workloads to Azure or other Stacks.
  • Benefit from the data sovereignty and regulation options provided with a consistent Hybrid Cloud. Place data and workloads in Clouds complying with company policies.
  • Dev-test in Azure Stack or on the free one-node PoC and publish into production on Azure or Azure Stack.
  • Applications and solutions developed on Azure can easily be relocated in another location than the public cloud. It provides an insurance policy for companies embracing public cloud but don’t want to be stuck there.
  • Use storage accounts to provide file storage via a file share or blob endpoint over HTTPS.
  • ISV develops marketplace or app solution that spans Azure and Azure Stack. For example, a LB solution from KEMP, Docker Datacenter, Cloud Foundry or any virtual network appliance solution.
  • Hybrid monitoring of Azure and Azure Stack assets with OMS from multiple Azure regions.

Consistency

  • Consistent portal experience and developer/admin tools for every (Mac OS X/Linux/Windows) platform.
  • Consistent administrative and cloud service API’s, that work the same way in any cloud. Customers can now invest heavily in automating development, deployment and operation activities knowing that they will not have to be rewritten.
  • Infrastructure or application deployment templates for any environment, no matter where you run your test, staging or production environment.
  • RBAC, usage and audit capabilities are standardized across all cloud services and work the same way.
  • ISV’s can create solutions that work the same way on public and private.
  • Use existing third-party marketplace items developed for Azure by Microsoft partners in Azure Stack’s marketplace
  • Microsoft guarantees the consistency between clouds with regular update release cycles, so you don’t need to spend resources attempting to do that on your own.

Infrastructure

  • Pick your own hardware setup (even with an integrated system), beefy CPU’s and speedy NVME disks.
  • Oversubscribing is under your control. It allows you to choose the hardware components and determine their performance and how that translates to the storage and compute resources you provide to your tenants.
  • Design your network setup, align the tor switches and your own aggregated switches with your network.
  • The network is local to you, no fee for network traffic, low latency, great performance.
  • Use Express Route for a dedicated high-performance and secure connection to Azure, traffic doesn’t go through the Internet.
  • Benefit from the new super-fast ‘storage spaces direct‘ SDS solution (VSAN equivalent) using ReFS. It allows you to create your own mix of higher capacity and faster physical local to the server.
  • Instant resource expansion by adding a physical server to the Azure Stack scale unit (cluster). Retire/remove servers from the scale unit the same way.
  • You are able to start small with only 4 servers at GA.

Functionalities

  • Hyper-converged using software-defined networking and storage in Windows Server 2016
  • Load-balancing (SLB) and distributed firewall brought from Azure to Azure Stack
  • Brings the power of the new Microsoft software-defined networking, delivering technologies like VFP, OVSDB, VXLAN, BGP, NAT, network security groups (NSG), iDNS, user defined routes, packet direct, Switch Embedded Teaming (SET).
  • Benefit from Infrastructure as Code (IaC), deploy or export your environment as code.
  • Azure Stack’s Cloud model enables true agile DevOps practices
  • Use higher level PaaS services like the App, Container or Service Fabric services and benefit from true cloud elasticity, scalability and agility.
  • Developers want clean code and deploy their apps instantly to finished services without infrastructure or software component dependency hassles.
  • Continuous innovation, falls in line with release cycles in Azure, newest services and pre-validated non-disruptive software and hardware updates at cloud cadence. Update entire stack with one single button.
  • Monitoring, health status and resource consumption overview through portal and API.
  • Differentiate your Stack with unique IP/solutions using ARM templates.
  • Use existing community made quickstart ARM templates from GitHub to rollout your environment and get to know ARM.
  • No disruption to tenant availability or experience, unlike Azure, Azure Stack is using live migration, no more VM downtime scheduling.
  • Provides MySQL and SQL DB as a service.
  • Use new Web apps, Mobile apps, API apps. Use MySQL, PHP or deploy WordPress and other web-enabled applications from a template or from the App gallery.
  • Create custom ‘Resource Providers’ under the Azure Stack admin context and provide your own custom services with Azure Stack.
  • Use Azure Site Recovery (ASR) as a migration path.
  • Use Azure AD or Active Directory with ADFS as your identity source.
  • Additional Azure services such as Service Bus, Azure Backup service supplementing core IaaS and PaaS services will over time come with Azure Stack.
  • Make use of multiple fault domains (clusters) in one region.
  • Leverage OMS, DSC, Docker and custom script VM extensions as a method for deploying software and configuration in an automated way into your VM’s.
  • VM Self-service diagnostics; VM redeployment, Serial Output, screen capture, VM local user password reset.

Conclusion

I hope I could shed some light what it takes to rollout an Azure Stack environment, why an integrated system is important, and how the new cloud consumption model benefits to the organization and how you can differentiate yourself using that model with Azure Stack. Please let me know if I missed some benefits in the differentation section. If you want to know more about the Cloud landscape in general, the high pace of innovation around us and which role Azure Stack and PaaS services plays in all of this, then read my blogs I released a couple of months ago at ww.ruudborst.nl.

Please do not forget to watch the Ignite sessions and please reach out if you want to discuss these exciting developments with me. I love to interact and share my Azure Stack insights with others.

 

Thanks to Darryl van der Peijl for reviewing.

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Ruud Borst

About the author

Ruud Borst works as a Cloud Architect at 'KPN - internedservices', the biggest telecom and ICT company of the Netherlands. With over more then 15+ years experience in the Microsoft Cloud business he can be seen as an old but lively veteran. Started with MPS as his first Microsoft provisioning platform for hosting services and having built several (PowerShell) provisioning systems, he now works on the next generation Cloud platform, Azure Stack. He's very enthusiastic about Microsoft's Hybrid Cloud proposition, the challenges it solves and how it will affect customers and IT in general.

Contact:
Email: ruud@ruudborst.nl
Twitter: @ruud_borst
LinkedIn: https://nl.linkedin.com/in/ruudborst
Technet: https://social.technet.microsoft.com/profile/ruud%20borst/

  • Vassilis

    A question will MAS be only deployed using hypercoverged architecture supported by windows server 2016 ?

    • Mark Scholman

      For the GA timeframe, yes. About the future, I don’t know yet what eventually will be supported and made available. Also note that Azure Stack is being shipped as an integrated system by vendors HPE, Dell, Cisco and Lenovo. So there is no Do It Yourself (DIY) except for the Microsoft Azure Stack Development Kit which is your own implementation on your own server.

      • Vassilis Zografos

        So MAS will target enterpises initially leaving out service providers as Hyperconverged Architectures can not guarantee VM performance (CPU power is utilised by both the VMs and the Storage). Is that correct?

        • Mark Scholman

          No not completely, in production environment network performance is using RDMA (CPU offloading) to optimize traffic for storage. the overhead on CPU is nearly zero.