In-Depth

Restacking Azure Stack

Microsoft's decision to deliver the first iteration of Azure Stack-only-engineered systems from Dell, HPE and Lenovo surprised some customers and partners, but the company believes it will ensure a more consistent and reliable experience.

While Microsoft never gave firm timing on when it would release its Azure Stack software, there was a general expectation it would arrive by December or potentially in early 2017. Even so, Microsoft's recent announcement that the new software designed to let customers and hosting providers run Azure natively in their own datacenters won't arrive before the middle of next year wasn't a huge surprise nor unusual. What caught early testers of the Azure Stack TP1 off guard was Microsoft's revelation that it will only offer the initial release of Azure Stack on pre-engineered turnkey appliances from the three largest server suppliers: Dell Inc., Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Lenovo.

Providing certain solutions on jointly engineered appliances isn't new to Microsoft -- the company's Analytics Platform System and Azure StorSimple backup appliances are current examples. But because Microsoft has offered Windows Azure Pack (WAP) to customers by allowing them to add it on to their existing Windows Server, Hyper-V and System Center environments, early testers presumed the company would do the same with Azure Stack. Indeed, the company in late January released the first (and to date only) technical preview of Azure Stack on servers with storage and network capabilities that met the required specs (see the May 2016 Redmond evaluation of Azure Stack TP1).

"I was very surprised," says Clint Wyckoff, Microsoft Cloud and Datacenter MVP and Hyper-V MVP. "Everything that Microsoft has been leading folks to believe was that it was going to be a solution that anybody could deploy." Wyckoff, who is also a technical evangelist at data protection software vendor Veeam Software, demonstrated Azure Stack back in March at the TechMentor conference in Las Vegas (produced by Redmond magazine parent company 1105 Media Inc.) and was among those who discussed their experiences with the first technical preview. "I thought maybe they'd bake it into a specific version of Windows such as the Datacenter Edition," he says.

For its part, Microsoft emphasizes it has never officially said how and when it would ultimately commercialize Azure Stack, which the company revealed at last year's Ignite conference in Chicago. Technically that's true. Yet Microsoft has said little to suggest it might deliver Azure Stack differently than WAP.

Azure Stack Release Plan
"We've been working with systems vendors on integrated systems for a while now and see this as the best approach to bring Azure innovation to customer datacenters reliably and predictably," said Mark Jewett, senior director of Product Marketing in the Microsoft Cloud Platform division, in a July blog post announcing the partners. Most of the comments responding to his post expressed their displeasure.

"We are a bit disappointed in this move," said a poster who called himself Chris. "We utilize very specific hardware capable of leveraging our high-density datacenter environment to help lower costs and greatly improve datacenter efficiency. To now abandon all of that research and experience to utilize vendors that we currently have no relationship with in order to get access to Azure Stack in our own datacenter is probably something that will have us considering other options."

"This solves the problem of me having to engineer, or retrofit, my Azure Stack racks, and just use the hyper-converged system from whoever the vendor of the day is."

Jeff DeVerter, Chief Technologist, Microsoft Practice, Rackspace US Inc.

Hefty Hardware Requirements
Although Microsoft hasn't announced the system requirements, the WAP-based Cloud Platform System offered by HPE ranges in price from $108,000 to $500,000 (see "Azure Pack: Hyper-Converged"). Given the software-defined networking, compute and storage functionality of Azure Stack, it's not unreasonable to presume it will require beefier hardware. Some of the earliest testers -- large enterprises and hosting providers -- have earmarked spending several million dollars on their Azure Stack deployments. While the move may significantly push up the cost of deploying Azure Stack initially, Microsoft officials say ensuring the first deployments provide performance, reliability and consistency with the public Azure cloud is critical. Jewett tells Redmond magazine the first technical preview showed the inconsistencies in the way testers deployed it.

"One of the important things to focus on is making sure that people are excited by the hybrid vision of being able to have a consistent platform across different types of environments, hosted and public and private, making sure that it goes beyond vision and gets to success. And I think we can mutually agree that there are some examples out there where that has not resulted in success, and so that's where our focus has really been and it has been the learnings in the early adopter program." Jewett says. "Telemetry told us that it was important to deliver the solution this way to avoid that problem. We actually saw numbers behind it."

Given the ambitious idea of packaging and delivering the same software-defined infrastructure and engineering specs that runs the Azure global public cloud, observers say Microsoft has a lot at stake in making sure the first release of Azure Stack outside of its own control measures up. "Overcoming a bad rollout is really difficult, so I can see why Microsoft is doing this to take the risk out of bad rollouts," says Terri McClure, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "Over time, I would expect they will ease up."

New Options over Time?
Jewett isn't making any promises, though he didn't dismiss providing alternatives over time. "In terms of the systems vendors we work with around supported configurations, as well as the flexibility for customers to make their own decisions are where we [intend to] take this ecosystem," he says. "It's really a starting point."

Other early testers, though surprised by the move, believe Microsoft's plan makes sense. Among those with the closest relationship with Microsoft working on Azure Stack is Rackspace US Inc. Jeff DeVerter, chief technologist for the company's Microsoft practice, admits he was surprised.

"It actually helps us in some areas," DeVerter says of Microsoft's plan to offer Azure Stack on appliances. "When we roll out a rack solution into Equinix-type hosting facilities they're completely self-contained -- from the network to the compute to the storage. This solves the problem of me having to engineer or retrofit my Azure Stack racks and just use the hyper-converged system from whoever the vendor of the day is."

A Simplified Approach
Tony Savoy, senior VP and general manager for Managed Hosting and Cloud Services at Hostway Services Inc., which offers WAP-based solutions and also has tested Azure Stack, agrees. "When you have to individually scale the components based on the demand of the particular device, it makes it more complex," Savoy says. Rand Morimoto, a Microsoft Azure MVP and president of Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Convergent Computing, which provides IT development and deployment services, says he's working with a number of very large enterprises and services providers that hope to build and operate Azure Stack-based clouds.

The appliance requirement won't be an issue with them nor will the delay. "It is providing us an opportunity to map out a yearlong skills development process with them," he says. "We've been working with these customers in understanding and adopting the [Azure] Resource Manager [ARM] model for application deploy­ment, and working with Azure (public) and Azure Stack (TP1) to gain depth of expertise around the ARM model."

A Bridge from Pack to Stack
When first revealing plans for Azure Stack more than a year ago, Microsoft said there won't be a migration path from WAP to the new offering and that hasn't changed. But the company is now planning on offering a way to manage both together. "It's quite similar to the transition we've done in [the public cloud] Azure from the classic portal to the new portal," Jewett says. "Many customers still use that classic portal and over time move things over to take advantage of the innovation and capability [of the ARM]. So customers will be able see and manage those resources in one place and preserve their investments with Windows Azure Pack and CPS." Microsoft will likely provide more clarity on how that will work this month, either at or around the time frame of its Ignite conference in Atlanta.

Morimoto says that'll be a relief to his clients. "Without WAP support, there would have been a chasm between the current and future platforms," he says. "But with this planned support, organizations have gained great confidence to continue with CPS until such time Azure Stack is available."

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