In-Depth

Create the Elastic Datacenter with Windows Server, System Center and Azure

Avoid the traditional on-site datacenters and servers with Microsoft's next-generation, software-defined, scale-out hybrid computing architectures.

One day running your own datacenter will be as rare as producing electricity on-site. While IT pros have heard this refrain for decades, that day remains way out into the future. Still, it's now possible to run an enterprise without having any servers, storage, networks or software on-site. Indeed, it's now rare for most startups to build large datacenters. Now they turn right to the cloud for most of their IT when launching new businesses. Yet very few -- if any -- established enterprises have shut down their datacenters and even the most progressive of enterprises don't plan to anytime soon.

Even so, that journey has begun. Anywhere you turn enterprise IT is rapidly moving toward cloud architectures based on software-defined datacenters (SDDCs). Though still lacking in true convergence and automation, many of the pieces are now available to let enterprises build scale-out, or elastic, infrastructures and platforms. Increasingly, organizations will be able to deliver IT as a service using a combination of their own datacenters bridged with the public cloud. This combination is often referred to as hybrid clouds, which enable these elastic software-controlled architectures. Some of the largest of enterprise IT organizations are moving toward becoming their own services providers delivering infrastructure and platform services to lines of business.

Like it or not, this transition is now well under way. Every major supplier of hardware or software has already taken major steps to transition their offerings to the cloud or to deliver self-service IT. Microsoft famously went "all-in" to the cloud four years ago when former CEO Steve Ballmer proclaimed a cloud-first strategy for the company moving forward. If it sounded like a fad at the time, current CEO Satya Nadella ultimately won the top job in Redmond a few months ago largely for his technical and business acumen in architecting Microsoft's enterprise cloud strategy.

Nadella emphasized Microsoft's core vision "is to thrive in this world of mobile first, cloud first going forward," at last month's Build conference in San Francisco, addressing 5,000 developers and IT pros. "That notion of writing to the cloud design point where you have your data tier built for scale-out means you want to be able to partition your data for scale-out. You want to make your middle tier stateless so that you're both resilient to failure and you can also really scale."

"There is going to be more ubiquitous computing everywhere and there's going to be ambient intelligence everywhere."

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO

Why is that important? "There is going to be more ubiquitous computing everywhere and there's going to be ambient intelligence everywhere," Nadella said. There's universal agreement organizations will increasingly over time look to these hybrid cloud architectures -- those that use internal datacenters and elastically burst to public cloud services for capacity and throttle-down as needed.

Shifting to Elastic IT Architectures
The allure of hybrid cloud computing is it enables enterprises to become more responsive to rapidly changing business conditions, while at the same time letting IT deliver the infrastructure it needs in a more agile manner with usage-based pricing that can be attached to the specific line of business. But to get there, enterprise IT organizations need to shift from monolithic systems to elastic architectures with the quest to deliver IT as a service to their business units.

To provide this elasticity, IT must be able to deliver compute, storage and networking in a virtualized resource pool with improved automation, orchestration and the ability to scale in either direction. That's why Microsoft calls the System Center-Windows Server combination Cloud OS, the same name Cisco Systems Inc. and Hewlett Packard Co. have for their converged offerings. The notion of elastic computing based on this so-called Cloud OS has become more feasible with the latest 2012 R2 release of Windows Server, System Center and the Microsoft Azure public cloud service. The Windows Azure Pack also provides a common view of this entire environment within System Center.

One early adopter of the Microsoft Cloud OS model is New York-based ABM Industries Inc., the largest United States provider of facility management services ranging from HVAC repair, security and landscape maintenance. ABM, which has more than 100,000 employees and nearly $5 billion in annual revenues, has built a hybrid cloud using Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012 R2 and the Azure public cloud service.

Using components such as System Center Virtual Machine Manager and App Controller, as well as the Windows Azure Pack, ABM can quickly move workloads from its datacenters to the Azure service. "It gives us that elasticity on-demand model," says Andre Garcia, assistant vice president for global infrastructure services at ABM. "We can move resources [off-premises] when the need arises."

This elasticity is also aiding in the company's aggressive global expansion, Garcia says. "We're looking at leveraging the cloud to establish infrastructure and software services to parts of the world that we don't have resources," he says. "We want employees, customers and partners to have the same experience whether they're U.S.-based resources or U.K., Germany, etc."

ABM is primarily using the Microsoft Cloud OS, though its global DNS distribution is provided by Amazon Web Services, via its Route 53 service for distribution, redundancy and to boost performance. A custom-written revenue-generating geo-aware app helps track labor resources using Bing Maps. It leverages Microsoft SQL Azure and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) services, according to Garcia.

"It's quite an elaborate and complex application, which is why we're bringing Azure and Web services to communicate our internal work orders," he explains. "We're also federated; users can log in with their Google account, Facebook or their corporate Active Directory account. It's pretty cool." Only a few hundred people are using it now but that will increase to several thousand by summer.

While Azure is providing the scale-out infrastructure for a key business application, only 1 percent of ABM's compute relies on the public cloud. That will quickly jump to 10 percent by this summer as the company moves off Microsoft Exchange to Office 365, with similar plans down the road for Lync. ABM also plans to quickly move to a hybrid SharePoint architecture where some of its servers remain on-premises and other functions are provided via Office 365.

"We want to make sure what we do is controlled and runs right."

Andre Garcia, Assistant Vice President for Global Infrastructure Services, ABM Industries Inc.

Within a year, Garcia estimates 15 percent of ABM's infrastructure will use the public cloud with the rest remaining on-premises. "Before we allow any of that cloud stuff to actually get away from us, we want to make sure we do a good job of implementing the right processes and policies and automating this as much as possible. We want to make sure what we do is controlled and runs right."

Will ABM eliminate all of its datacenters and move entirely to the public cloud? "No," Garcia says. "We won't be 100 percent cloud at least for the next five years. I don't know that anyone will." Any enterprise running business-critical operations with an elastic, hybrid architecture such as ABM are early in the adoption curve, experts say.

Cloud OS Implementations Begin
Rand Morimoto, a Microsoft MVP and president of Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Convergent Computing, says only in the past six months have customers started to commission design plans for architectures based on Cloud OS, with a handful actually starting to implement these new infrastructures.

"It's still relatively new for organizations to jump in with both feet, being they have a fairly substantial investment in their existing on-premises infrastructures; but I think in the next six to 12 months, we're going to see a movement toward software-defined datacenters and very much built on the Microsoft stack," says Morimoto, who will be talking about best practices in implementing hybrid clouds at this month's Microsoft TechEd 2014 conference in Houston. "The big advantage Microsoft has and the reason lots of organizations are pursuing this is Windows Server 2012 R2, with the new Hyper-V stack, provides the ability to flip to Azure and manage it with the newest capabilities in System Center."

Windows Server 2012 R2 and Virtual Machine Manager consist of what Microsoft describes as an end-to-end network virtualization solution. It consists of the Windows Azure Pack for Windows Server, a tenant-facing portal to create virtual networks spanning Windows Server 2012 R2 and Azure; Virtual Machine Manager to centrally manage these virtual networks; Hyper-V Network Virtualization to create the infrastructure to virtualize the network; and Hyper-V Network Virtualization gateways, linking virtual and physical networks. App Controller lets administrators move workloads between Windows Server and Azure (see "Move Workloads Among Private Clouds," ). "Virtual Machine Manager builds the VMs and App Controller is what lets you burst to the cloud," Morimoto says.

The Windows Server 2012 R2 gateways support the draft Network Virtualization using Generic Routing Encapsulation (NVGRE) standard, proposed by Microsoft, implemented in Windows Server 2012 and supported by key third-party providers including Arista Networks Inc., Broadcom Corp., Cisco, Dell Inc., Emulex Corp., F5 Networks, HP, Intel Corp. and others. Since NVGRE is IP-based, any third party can implement it, experts say, but there's a similar competing spec championed by VMware Inc. and supported by some of the previously mentioned players called VxLAN, which stands for Virtual eXtensible Local Area Network.

The NVGRE-based Hyper-V gateways provide the integration of the SDDC and the public cloud, explains Phillip Moss, managing partner at NTTX Select, a U.K.-based Microsoft Gold Partner and hosting provider. His company provides hybrid cloud computing services offering a combination of its own infrastructure, Azure and customer datacenters.

"Now that we have these multi-tenant RMS [Root Management Server] gateways with R2, we have these hybrid clouds on our platform for our customers that are part of the customers' address space," says Moss, who claims NTTX has the only SDDC based on the Microsoft 2012 R2 stack. "The customer is then able to build IPSEC tunnels back to [on-premises]. Then, of course, it's very friendly infrastructure for them because everything understands the IPSEC tunnels. They understand the subnets running inside over their hybrid clouds inside their infrastructure. They understand Windows-based networking and they understand Windows-based routines. It reduces the barrier to entry for our customers because they understand the platform is built on Windows, a methodology they understand and can buy into. They convert quite rapidly."

Software-Defined Networking (SDN)
IT organizations, of course, never remove existing infrastructure unless it's outlived its use to make room for new technology, and that doesn't change with the new Cloud OS and SDDC architectures now emerging. "The value proposition is as they replace and they have new projects to deploy, software-defined networking reduces the cost of doing that and dramatically increases the agility of the solutions," says Moss. Over time, it will incrementally reduce the reliance on any specific networking vendor's hardware, Moss and other experts say.

"To us, software-defined networking is a mechanism by which our customers and we, ourselves, enable greater agility, greater flexibility, and greater scale, and to be able to do this in a cost-effective manner," says Microsoft Group Program Manager Rajeev Nagar, who oversees the Windows Datacenter Networking and Platform team and is on the board and technical steering committee of the Open Daylight Project, a consortium of vendors aiming to create SDN interoperability (read more on Open Daylight).

Like everyone else, Nagar says the implementation of SDN-based hybrid clouds is still in its initial stages. "The whole software-defined networking space is still in its infancy in terms of customer adoption," he says. "It's disruptive, it encompasses process change, it's a different way datacenters are built up and deployed. It's not even funny anymore, but if you talk to three industry pundits about their definition of software-defined networking, you'll get perhaps six answers. It's whatever you want it to be. Customers get confused and they're cautious. Because there's confusion out there, it almost prevents, at least hinders, our customers benefiting from all of the capabilities that software-defined networking would enable for them."

Still, experts say Microsoft is going down the right path in terms of its Cloud OS-hybrid cloud strategy, support for SDNs, and the holy grail of letting IT organizations deliver infrastructure and applications as a service to the lines of business. "More and more end users are looking to turn their IT department into a service broker," says Torsten Volk, an analyst at Boulder, Co.-based Enterprise Management Associates Inc., a consulting and research firm specializing in systems and network management. "The Microsoft solution offers many of the key components that are necessary to achieve this goal, with a certainly unmatched degree of integration between the operating system, hypervisor and cloud controller."

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