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Microsoft Unveils Azure Stack HCI Preview Version 20H2

Microsoft announced a preview this week of a revamped Azure Stack HCI product that runs its own operating system, known as "version 20H2."

The HCI part of the product name stands for "hyperconverged infrastructure," which means that the compute storage and networking operations happen on the same server within a cluster. HCI is conceived as a cost-saving measure, enabling the use of off-the-shelf SATA and NVMe solid-state drives, for instance. Microsoft conceives of Azure Stack HCI as being used by organizations to modernize their datacenter technologies. It's also conceived as good for virtual desktop infrastructure uses or for "high performance SQL environments."

Azure Stack HCI Preview
The revamped Azure Stack HCI version 20H2 preview is designed for organizations that mostly want to run virtualized applications on hardware within their own datacenters, while also accessing some Azure services. Organizations are responsible for managing Azure Stack HCI, or they can outsource that task to a Microsoft partner.

The Azure Stack HCI product originally was based on Window Server 2019 technology and licensing. However, with the preview of Azure Stack HCI version 20H2 (signifying release in the second half of 2020), the product now has its own operating system and is based on an Azure monthly recurring subscription model.

Azure Stack HCI version 20H2 also comes with some new features compared with its predecessor, per an "Overview" document. Version 20H2 is said to make it easier to create and update hyperconverged clusters. For instance, it has "a new deployment wizard" for that purpose, which can also add connections to Azure services, "such as Azure Backup, Azure Security Center and Azure Monitor."

The main management tool for Azure Stack HCI is the Windows Admin Center portal. However, it's now possible to use the Azure Portal with the new preview product to view all hyperconverged clusters, alongside the Azure services that may get used.

This week Microsoft also announced the general availability release of Windows Admin Center version 2007, which includes Azure Stack HCI support. Lenovo, Dell and QCT have all released updated extension solutions that work with Microsoft's newest management portal version.

Another new capability in Azure Stack HCI version 20H2 is called "stretched clusters for automatic failover." This capability offers disaster recovery protection for virtual machines (VMs) in multisite clustering scenarios, based on the use of Storage Replica and Storage Spaces Direct technologies. If wanted, organizations can add affinity and anti-affinity rules "to keep VMs and storage together or apart in clusters with multiple fault domains, such as stretched clusters," the overview document explained.

Other new capabilities in Azure Stack HCI version 20H2 include GPU acceleration, BitLocker encryption and faster repairing of Storage Spaces Direct volumes.

As mentioned, Azure Stack version 20H2 is now based on an Azure subscription model, and so it requires an Internet connection to Azure just for billing purposes. The billing is on a "per core" basis. Microsoft's overview document claimed that the "cost doesn't vary with consumption beyond the physical processor cores, meaning that more VMs don't cost more, and customers who are able to run denser virtual environments are rewarded."

Hardware Products To Come
Azure Stack HCI version 20H2 is still at the preview stage, but Microsoft is currently working with its hardware partners to deliver validated products. It's also working with hardware partners to add so-called "integrated systems," which are Azure Stack HCI products that will include preinstalled software, including "firmware, drivers, agents and the operating system." So far, it appears that Lenovo will be the first hardware partner to offer an integrated product, per the announcement.

Microsoft requires the use of validated hardware for its Azure Stack products, which means that organizations have to buy them from one of the companies included in this Microsoft vendor list. That requirement could change in the near future, though, per the announcement:

We are also offering the flexibility of running Azure Stack HCI on existing hardware if it matches our validated node solution. We believe this is an important new change for customers to get the most value out of their current hardware investment.

Three Azure Stack Products
Azure Stack has become an evolving line of three products, although it originally had started out as a single Azure-in-a-box type of appliance. The idea was to permit organizations to run Azure services within their own infrastructures, even using their own hardware, but Microsoft later backed away and required validated hardware. Now, that latter stipulation could be loosening up some.

The three Azure Stack products include Azure Stack Edge, Azure Stack HCI (now revamped in preview form) and Azure Stack Hub. The product to choose depends on the organization's intended use. Here's how that's summarized in the overview document:

  • Azure Stack Edge - Accelerate machine learning workloads and run containerized apps or virtualized workloads on-premises, on a cloud-managed appliance.
  • Azure Stack HCI - Run virtualized apps on-premises, replace and consolidate aging server infrastructure, and connect to Azure for cloud services.
  • Azure Stack Hub - Run cloud apps on-premises, when disconnected, or to meet regulatory requirements, using consistent Azure services.

It's a complex product line, but the product closest to Microsoft's original Azure Stack concept is actually Azure Stack Hub, which lets organizations run Azure services disconnected on their own infrastructure, which could be needed for compliance reasons.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.

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