Microsoft's Hybrid Cloud Strategy

Microsoft is building a stronger bridge between Windows Server and Microsoft Azure, but it'll also manage AWS, VMware and OpenStack infrastructure and services.

Early visions of cloud computing saw a day when enter­prises could deploy applications and business services without the need for any datacenter compute, storage and application infrastructure. Back in 2006, Sun Microsystems Inc. introduced the Sun Cloud Compute Utility, comprised of computing for $1 per CPU hour. Obviously, the Sun offering never gained traction, but it arrived around the same time Inc. launched its Amazon Web Services Inc. (AWS) cloud business, which of course upended the traditional datacenter business and created the beginning of today's public cloud services market.

It's perhaps no coincidence never had a software or hardware business to protect. Along with its stomach for razor-thin margins, the company delivered the first sustainable utility compute and storage services. While removing the datacenter is still a pipedream for most established enterprises (many would argue it would be a nightmare), cloud computing has very much taken root in varying forms and scope.

Now cloud technology is undergoing another significant shift in its evolution and's key competitors are hoping what was once an AWS strength -- no legacy business to protect -- will become a weakness, or at the very least help level the playing field. Key infrastructure and application platform providers are developing new software-defined, hybrid cloud infrastructure and services aimed at functioning as the control plane of the datacenter. Among them, Microsoft, VMware Inc., and Citrix Systems Inc. are readying hybrid cloud platforms that enable the use of public and private clouds to build, manage, and provision IT services and deliver applications as a service, even as companies stick to keeping core components -- notably data -- on-premises.

The cloud control planes are the latest effort to bridge the on-premises datacenter with public infrastructure and platform services. It appears they're built with the realization no organization is going to use solely one public cloud to procure infrastructure and applications. The growing shift to Software as a Service (SaaS) and modern apps designed for traditional and mobile device types is expected to compel many organizations to use multiple cloud providers to deliver, secure and manage user access to system resources apps and data. The emerging cloud control planes will let IT do so whether employees are using traditional computers, remote desktops, virtual applications or by accessing modern apps from any device.

Certainly Citrix, Microsoft and VMware aren't the only ones building these new bridges from software-defined datacenters to next-generation public clouds. But when it comes to managing Windows client and datacenter infrastructure, all three will offer major new capabilities to consider.

Revamping the Microsoft Cloud OS
For its part, Microsoft three years ago tried to provide a more consistent platform between Windows Server and Azure with its Cloud OS consisting of Windows Server 2012, System Center 2012 and the Windows Azure Pack. The latter was designed to put an Azure-like veneer on Windows Server. Though a major step forward, the Azure cloud and Windows Server 20012 (and the R2 release), aren't one and the same. Furthermore, Azure and other public clouds have evolved substantially in three years. Consider back in 2012 the Microsoft cloud service was still called Windows Azure -- now it's Microsoft Azure. While the move sounded superficial when Microsoft first announced the change, it has become clearly apparent why Microsoft renamed the service. Azure is not just a Windows-based cloud service.

At its recent Build and Ignite conferences, and the months leading up to those events, Microsoft has outlined planned upgrades to the Azure cloud, which include the Azure Service Fabric. "Service Fabric is a high-control, distributed computing framework," said Scott Guthrie, Microsoft's executive vice president for Cloud and Enterprise, speaking during the Build keynote. "We created it to power our own high-scale cloud services, and we've battle-hardened it over the last several years under extreme loads and super-demanding requirements. It supports the ability to create cloud services composed of both stateless and stateful micro-services. And it has support for hyper scale-out deployments, self-healing and core management, as well as the orchestration of code updates."

Along with that announcement, Microsoft made available the Service Fabric SDK for both Windows and Linux systems. "In addition to supporting Azure, you'll also be able to use it to build great solutions that run in a multi-cloud environment," Guthrie said. Microsoft released Azure Service Fabric on the heels of the release of the Azure App Services, which consist of Web, mobile, BizTalk connectivity and APIs that Microsoft claims easily integrate with SaaS and on-premises systems.

"API Apps allow you to take any existing API, whether it's an API in the cloud or an API on-premises, and project that into App Service adding some simple metadata," explains Omar Khan, Microsoft's director of Azure Engineering. The BizTalk connectors provide the links between on-premises and SaaS apps, he adds. "We have virtual networking in Azure that allows you to connect on-premises resources to the cloud. They also support hybrid connections which is a BizTalk capability that allows you to do app-to-app connection across firewalls. So these API Apps and the Oracle connector or the SAP connector, among others, utilize those connectivity options in Azure to connect to the on-premises resources and then there's a connector piece that you can run on-premises that connects to that API App."

"Service Fabric is a high-control, distributed computing framework. We created it to power our own high-scale cloud services, and we've battle-hardened it over the last several years under extreme loads and super-demanding requirements."

Scott Guthrie, Executive Vice President, Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise Group

Operations Management Suite
Meanwhile, Windows Server 2016 promises to be more Azure-like than its predecessors.

Interestingly, Microsoft hasn't, at least yet, talked up the notion of migration from AWS, VMware and others, but rather has come up with a model that embraces coexistence. Microsoft plans to do this with several new offerings that'll start to appear later this year, such as the new Operations Management Suite (OMS), a new offering intended to provide hybrid cloud management -- and not just for managing Azure. The Web-based console provides deployment, management and integration of public cloud and datacenter services running in AWS, Linux, VMware and OpenStack. OMS integrates with Microsoft System Center, but doesn't require it.

"It gives you that any cloud, any OS, any application and you get orchestration," said corporate VP Brad Anderson, in the keynote presentation at the company's Ignite conference back in May, where he announced OMS. "You get application availability. You get disaster recovery and backup. And you get all of that capability -- again, virtual, physical, public cloud, private cloud, VMware, Hyper-V -- all in one pane of glass."

OMS will consist of various "solution packs" such as malware assessment, system update, change tracking and run book automation, among others, and will use analytics to gather log files and correlate them. These solution packs have "ready-made intelligence" that Microsoft has built that utilizes knowledge from all the log files and analytics data Microsoft has collected, explained Jeremy Winter, Microsoft's principal group manager for System Center and Services, who discussed OMS during an Ignite press briefing.

"Whether it's running on-premises, or sitting in another cloud infrastructure like Amazon or Azure, this is really where we're taking management and making sure that you have that hybrid view in there," Winter said. "It's not something separate, as a separate thing, we think management needs to be brought back together and hybrid should just be part of your overall management." To extend the ability to monitor infrastructure enabling visibility at the transaction level, Microsoft last month acquired BlueStripe Software, an application performance management software provider. Microsoft said it would "discontinue selling the solution in the near term" and work on integrating the BlueStripe technology into OMS and its new Azure Stack.

Microsoft conducted telephone interviews with 600 customers and the surveys concluded that 60 percent said they were ready to start using a cloud-based management-as-a-service offering like OMS, according to Winter. "That was a big jump from where we were thinking," he admitted.

Windows Azure Pack Grows into a Stack
As noted, the Windows Azure Pack when launched three years ago was aimed at giving Windows Server 2012 the ability to look like the Azure cloud. The Microsoft Azure Stack is a much more ambitious effort, company officials explained at Ignite in that it builds on the new Azure Service Fabric and the forthcoming Windows Server 2016, which the company says will provide more seamless connectivity to the public cloud service.

Enabling the improved portability is the fact that Windows Server 2016 will support Docker Inc. containers, its own Windows container environment and a corresponding micro-­services architecture. "We think about Azure Stack as the delivery of the Azure innovation, deployable and manageable on-premises," said Ryan O'Hara, Microsoft's director of program management for private cloud solutions. The notion of Azure Stack, which is slated to appear in the next Windows Server 2016 Technical Preview, is that it will provide consistent Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) services on-premises, he added.

O'Hara emphasized that Azure Stack won't just be an incremental upgrade to the Windows Azure Pack. "Windows Azure Pack is not the full stack implementation of the Azure innovations," he said. "It is a deep effort to replicate a cloud experience, but as you move over to Azure Stack you have a reimplementation of not only the experience, but the underlying services, the management model, as well as the datacenter infrastructure. It really is a rounding out and a completion of what we're learning in Azure in the customer datacenter. From a tenant experience, with Azure Stack, you'll see this based on the new Azure Portal, both GUI experience [and] programmatic experience, allowing you to bring your PowerShell, but also your development tools and developer processes. So you can expect Visual Studio and TFS [Team Foundation Server] to operate seamlessly against Azure Stack as it does against Azure, really just creating a parallel endpoint to deploy your applications."

While Cloud OS and the Windows Azure Pack had too many holes for the liking of third-party cloud services providers, O'Hara is optimistic the new Azure Stack will appeal to them. "It's a very consistent set of experiences, it allows the single Azure ecosystem to be developed to thrive both in the public cloud [and] in the private cloud landscape. Actually, it's a critical value to the ecosystem, and with one Azure ecosystem, it's something that will yield consumption across many, many clouds."

Of course, that remains to be seen when Azure Stack appears in the next Windows Server 2016 Technical Preview. But if it works as Microsoft envisions, it could change the way many IT pros and developers look at cloud computing.

"We think of Workspace as the core engine of the software-defined workplace."

Mark Templeton, CEO, Citrix Systems Inc.

VMware Project Enzo
Just as Microsoft has Windows Server, Hyper-V and the Azure Cloud, VMware has its vSphere virtualization platform and vCloud Air public cloud. The company's new Project Enzo, will be a new platform that the company claims will change the way IT organizations deploy and manage virtual desktop environments. VMware describes Project Enzo as an approach that uses converged infrastructure and vCloud Air to deliver virtual desktop and application services.

"Project Enzo is a new hybrid cloud-scale architecture that is designed to combine the economic benefits of cloud-based VMware virtual desktops and application technology, with the simplicity of hyper-converged infrastructure to transform the IT experience," said Sumit Dhawan, VMware's senior vice president and general manager for Desktop Products and End-User Computing, in a blog post announcing Project Enzo in May. "Project Enzo will enable the unified management of on-premises and cloud-based virtual workspace services (desktops and applications) through a single Web-based portal that will be available as a cloud service on VMware vCloud Air."

VMware released the Project Enzo Technical Preview in May. It consists of VMware Smart Node, which integrates with the new vSphere 6.0 virtualization platform, along with the company's forthcoming new EVO:RAIL and EVO:RACK converged infrastructure releases and with cloud services from vCloud Air partner providers. According to Dhawan, Smart Node provides the intelligent orchestration and automation of such functions as setup, delivery and management tasks when delivering virtual workspaces across hybrid clouds.

It also includes VMware Instant Clone technology, which is integrated with VMware App Volume and VMware User Environment Management, and he claims it lets IT provision and scale up to 2,000 virtual desktops in 20 minutes.

Citrix Workspace Cloud
Citrix has a unique approach to developing its new cloud control plane because it doesn't operate a cloud service. During its annual Synergy conference in Orlando, which took place in May, the week following Microsoft Ignite, Citrix reaffirmed it has no plans to acquire or build its own cloud service. Citrix is staking its future around Workplace Cloud, a platform that aims to ease the design, deployment, orchestration and management of secure work environments for mobile workers.

While virtual desktops and apps account for a small percentage of the workplace computing environments deployed today, their usage isn't trivial. Moreover, it stands to grow in the coming years in new forms, including Desktop as a Service, as workers continue to use more device types, rely more on access from various places, and organizations want to better secure information accessed by employees, contractors and even customers on these new form factors. The growth of hybrid cloud and the move to BYOD policies are also enabling these new environments.

Citrix hopes to make it its new Workspace Cloud generally available this quarter. Citrix CEO Mark Templeton showcased Workspace Cloud at Synergy as the culmination of its effort to bridge public, private and hybrid clouds to the new ways people work with multiple device types. Templeton said the new digital workspace consists of Windows-based PCs, Macs, iPads, Android tablets Chromebooks, new Linux-based systems and even embedded devices that enable Internet of Things-type environments.

"We think of Workspace as the core engine of the software-defined workplace," Templeton said in his Synergy keynote address. "So if you don't do a great job with workspaces across all of those kinds of digital tools, then you're not going to have the engine of the software-defined workplace. And we know that everyone's workspace environment is different." The Citrix Workspace Cloud is based on a cloud delivery architecture based on the company's Blackbeard reference architecture, which provides the service architecture to distribute XenDesktop and XenApp in hybrid cloud environments and RainMaker, which provides the orchestration across servers and nodes.

Citrix Cloud Control Plane
ShareFile, acquired by Citrix in 2011, is a smaller competitor to file-sharing platforms from the likes of Box and Dropbox. But Citrix has spent the ensuing years building on the core ShareFile engine to enable it to become the underlying control plane that powers the new Citrix Workspace Cloud, which the company describes as a management platform for creating mobile workspaces that include desktops, applications and data provisioned in a hybrid cloud environment that could consist of a private datacenter, as well as a public or private cloud.

"ShareFile is built on this amazing architecture, that puts all the complexity of control, including dispensing the user interface and user experience, keeping track of all the security and the traffic, providing the entitlements, encryption keys, doing the customizations, etc.," Templeton said. "But then when it comes to where you store the documents and how the documents get from storage to the device, we get out of the way. It's a profound architecture because it leaves you in control of what matters, your apps, your data and their usage. So learning this control plane architecture was essential in our journey to the cloud."

Lifecycle Manager
A key component of Citrix Workspace Cloud is the Lifecycle Manager, which creates blueprints that ease the migration of earlier versions of XenApp to current releases and providing the ability for IT to deploy them in the new management platform. These blueprints "are effectively groupings of things that you need to do to define whatever workload it is you want to deliver," says Christian Reilly, CTO for the Citrix Workspace. "And then, obviously, the management piece comes after that. I'm not talking specifically about just delivering XenApp and XenDesktop because that's a key short-term focus. The power of blueprints is if you kind of expand that out to two worlds, one in dealing with blueprints that can group together with different parts of the network topology, different bits of the infrastructure that needs to be orchestrated to create an application workload and blueprints that can then provision or talk to Netscaler or other devices to complete the configuration."

Rather than build its own cloud, Citrix is relying on its base of 1,900 cloud services providers to provision Workspace Cloud in any environment, including AWS, Azure and IBM SoftLayer cloud, among others. The control plane itself runs in Azure, but Citrix officials insisted that no customer data or apps touch the control plane, or Azure in particular, unless they want it to.

While building the control plane on ShareFile, Workspace Cloud brings together XenDesktop and XenApp platforms, as well as networking gear such as Netscaler and CloudBridge. Stitching these together gives Citrix the opportunity to bundle -- and potentially upsell its wares -- though Templeton said the architecture allows organizations to plug in their own components, such as Microsoft and VMware hybrid cloud infrastructure. Workspace Cloud is an ambitious effort by the company to move itself forward with a major new platform designed to create and manage secure user work environments tailored around workers' tendency to use multiple and often non-traditional devices to access their Windows environments.

"We will start playing with the beta," said David Enriquez, senior director of information technology for the Miami Marlins. "It looks to me something we could take advantage of such as spring training temporary deployments or if we have to do something at a minor league park or if we have an event at the ballpark that needs infrastructure, but we don't want to put it on our existing infrastructure."

Check Back Next Year
It's too early to say to what extent customers embrace these new cloud control planes and how well they'll actually deliver on their promises out of the gate. "I don't know any company is there yet," says Enterprise Strategy Group Senior Analyst Mark Bowker. "To be honest, the Technical Preview of Azure Stack probably won't be available until the end of this year and Workspace Cloud is something that Citrix is really just starting to test drive now. Let's see next year at this time


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