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Microsoft Is Taking No Chances with Azure Stack Rollout

Some early testers of the Azure Stack Technical Preview were angered last month by Microsoft's decision to say the software will only be offered on integrated systems provided by Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Lenovo. Some say that the move will put the new offering out of their reach. Reading between the lines, it appears quite a few testers of Azure Stack's first technical preview weren't deploying the software properly.

While Microsoft didn't say as much, the company's public explanation last week emphasized how much is at stake. Unlike its existing Windows Azure Pack (WAP), which provides an Azure-like experience with the older Azure portal interface running atop of Microsoft's System Center and Windows Server 2012 R2, Azure Stack is the same software that runs Microsoft's public cloud.

"Azure Stack is Azure in your datacenter," said Vijay Tewari, a principal group program manager, enterprise cloud solutions, in a video posted last week. "What we are really taking is Azure that runs in the massive scale that we have in Microsoft, and we are trying to shrink wrap that and give it to you as customers so you can basically operate Azure Services out of your datacenter on hardware and systems that run in your datacenter."

Nevertheless, numerous customers and partners testing Azure Stack TP1 were vocal in their displeasure with the decision, which they didn't see coming, as noted by dozens of comments on the corporate VP Mike Neil's blog post announcing the rollout plan last month.

"Where is the democratization of Azure Stack by forcing 3 overpriced vendors as turnkey solutions onto your customers? Democratization would be offering the Azure Stack platform as a standalone product offering and allowing your customers to choose their own hardware, support plans, etc.," wrote a poster calling himself Andrew McFalls. "This is absurd, a deal breaker for us and I assume many," added another commenter identifying himself as Kevin Mahoney. "Once again Microsoft refuses to listen to its customers."

Tewari said the move was necessary in order to provide a consistent experience. A single cluster in the public Azure is about 880 servers, and the challenge for Microsoft is to make it so that it can run on a scale that customers can manage, which will start at just four servers. While Microsoft doesn't require WAP on preintegrated systems, it offer as an option via Dell and HPE its Cloud Platform System, which Tewari noted Microsoft updates on a monthly basis. Given the rapid updates of the Azure public cloud, those updates must be deployed properly on Azure Stack in order for customers to get a consistent experience. Likewise, by limiting the initial delivery stack to three partners, Microsoft is ensuring it can maintain control over how the systems are engineered.

"We need a system where we have this continuous validation of all the firmware, all of the software they own, not just initially, but subsequently as the system gets revved up, we provide that in a validated and orchestrated and updated manner to our customers," he explained. "Remember with Azure Stack, it's a full lifecycle product. That means we don't just give you the product and give you the updates and leave it to you as an exercise to apply the updates. We actually do the validation of those updates, and give it you in an orchestrated manner [and] apply those updates, which range all the way from firmware, all the way to all of the Azure services on top, so that they get updated in a manner that your tenant workloads don't go down."

Indeed, many defended the move. Jeff DeVerter, chief technologist for Rackspace's Microsoft practice, admits he was surprised but in retrospect, it will make deploying Azure Stack for its hybrid Azure services.

"It actually helps us in some areas," DeVerter said. "When we roll out a rack solution into Equinix-type hosting facilities, they are 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."

Many suggested the decision was apparently made because some early testers weren't deploying it properly. In a recent interview, Mark Jewett, senior director of product marketing in Microsoft's cloud platform division, hinted that was the case.

"One of the important things to focus on is making sure that people that 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 said. "Telemetry told us that it was important to deliver the solution this way to avoid that problem. We actually saw numbers behind it."

Azure Stack could be the most important new datacenter software the company has offered in years and if early adopters pan it, that could be a huge blow to Microsoft's push to advance its hybrid cloud strategy.

"Overcoming a bad rollout is really difficult, so I can see why Microsoft is doing this to take the risk out of bad rollouts," said Terri McClure, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "Over time, I would expect they will ease up."

Tewari said that's the goal. "As we get more feedback we will expand the diversity of hardware that we run on and eventually maybe even allow customers to run on existing hardware that they own," he said. "But we have to start with system that are well engineered, that are fully validated, with us and our partners so we can really provide that robust experience so customers can be successful with Azure Stack as we go out the door."

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 08/15/2016 at 5:37 AM


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