Demystifying Azure Stack: Is it the right hybrid cloud solution for you?
Many organizations implement hybrid cloud by mixing the existing on-premises infrastructure in their private cloud with a public cloud provider. This approach is complex and problematic because it requires elaborate integrations to obtain key capabilities and demands a working knowledge of multiple platforms.
Many hybrid cloud solutions like VMware Cloud on AWS (VMC) try to alleviate these issues by extending organizations’ current data center investments into a public cloud. While this approach allows traditional applications to leverage the economic and delivery model that the public cloud provides, often it does not sufficiently address the need to run cloud-native applications on premises in a way that is consistent with the public cloud.
This is where Microsoft’s hybrid cloud platform, Azure Stack, differentiates itself.
What is Azure Stack?
Azure Stack delivers the only hybrid cloud platform that is truly consistent with a leading public cloud. It brings the public cloud services required to build and run cloud-native applications into an organization’s on-premises data center for consistent operations and management. This essentially makes it an extension of Azure and allows organizations to consume Azure services virtually anywhere.
Because the same cloud paradigm exists across Azure Public Cloud and Azure Stack, businesses can take advantage of the Azure Resource Manager engine, portal, APIs, and tools to deploy workloads consistently across the environments even though each solution’s underlying infrastructure is different.
Unlike typical clusters in Azure that have hundreds of servers running on Azure-designed commodity hardware, Azure Stack clusters use integrated systems from a small set of hardware partners and can grow to a maximum of 12 hosts.
The software that runs on top of Azure Stack’s cloud-inspired infrastructure includes Windows Server 2016 and its software-defined data center (SDDC) features such as Hyper-V, Storage Spaces Direct, and Microsoft’s software-defined networking (SDN) stack. Azure Stack is only capable of delivering a subset of Azure IaaS, PaaS, and third-party services because it operates on a much smaller footprint.
The value of Azure Stack
The first advantage of Azure Stack is that it offers an abundance of choices. You can purchase it as a fully managed cloud service or as an integrated system.
The managed service option helps your company save on infrastructure, power, cooling, and labor costs because the managed service provider (MSP) hosts the solution in its own data center and assumes full responsibility for all management and operations tasks.
The integrated systems approach helps satisfy compliance and data sovereignty requirements, but you’ll need to manage the solution in your own data center. You will be able to choose your hardware partner, pricing model, and licensing options.
Dell EMC, HPE, Cisco, Lenovo, Huawei, and Wortmann AG offer their own version of the appliance and work directly with Microsoft to continuously ensure the systems can support any new updates. That keeps the user experience consistent with Azure Public Cloud. Because the systems are sealed and tested frequently, they allow your business to reduce risk and avoid the costs associated with downtime that results from security breaches and failed updates/upgrades.
Azure Stack offers pay-per-use (OPEX) and capacity (CAPEX) pricing models:
- Pay-per-use: As its name implies, this extension of the Azure business model means you won’t have to pay for any services until you actually use them. Your organization can take advantage of its existing Azure subscriptions and monetary commitment; expect a single invoice for all services run on Azure Public Cloud and Azure Stack.
- Capacity: Perfect for disconnected scenarios, this model allows you to pay a fixed fee annually based on the number of physical cores in the solution. You can realize additional savings by leveraging your existing on-premises Windows and SQL Server licenses.
Companies that run Azure Stack in their own data center can take advantage of an application-focused public cloud model and the agility, scalability, and availability it provides. This new service model inherits DevOps practices and enables the continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) of applications so your IT department can transition from a traditional, fluctuating cost center to a stable profit center.
The Azure Stack appliance provides dedicated performance and security controls and comes with an out-of-the-box auditing trail for the entire stack. This helps satisfy a variety of compliance requirements, including PCI, HIPAA, and more.
It offers a self-service portal with role-based access control (RBAC) that can be used to deploy customer workloads and enable application portability and consistency across the Azure and Azure Stack platforms. This allows organizations to leverage the same people, processes, and code when they deploy PaaS applications and/or IaaS environments to another Azure Stack region or in Azure Public Cloud.
Because the solution can deliver a single pane of glass that highlights all usage and costs, businesses are able to save money and develop financial incentives.
The challenges with Azure Stack
Despite the benefits, Azure Stack is not suitable for everyone.
The biggest challenge with Azure Stack is that it does not support all Azure services. The current Azure Stack feature set also has a number of drawbacks: a limited amount of instance types, lack of support for IPv6, VNET peering, Point-to-Site VPN and other networking features, no support for managed disks and Azure files, limited support for premium disk, and lower maximum blob and disk sizes. Also, it doesn’t address running traditional applications with a cloudish economic and delivery model particularly well.
It’s important to verify that the products you plan to run on Azure Stack have been certified to work by the application vendor as part of your evaluation process.
Note that while these limitations exist at the time of publishing, Microsoft continually bolsters the platform with new features and updates on a regular basis. You can expect to see updates for Azure on a daily basis, and new software releases for Azure Stack monthly. Check the Azure Stack roadmap to see which features are available, in preview, and in development.
How to maximize Azure Stack
The best way to determine if Azure Stack is right for you is to explore how it can be used.
Azure Stack is a great fit for organizations that want to re-architect their applications using the 12-factor application methodology but for various reasons want to run them on-prem in their own data centers. Three use cases are among the most common:
1. Edge and disconnected solutions
Government agencies, shipping companies, and oil and gas companies, among others, are performing real-time processing at their edge locations, using the Azure Public Cloud at hyperscale for things like aggregate analytics and big data modeling. Disconnected solutions for military and defense agencies allow personnel to be air gapped from the network. Azure Stack enables both scenarios through common application logic across the connected and disconnected regions.
2. Cloud applications that meet varied regulations
Microsoft Azure supports the most certifications and regulations of any public cloud provider. Azure Stack allows multi-national companies to develop and deploy a global application in Azure and place different instances locally in certain regions to satisfy regulatory or sovereignty requirements.
3. On-premises cloud application model
Azure Stack brings cloud services directly to the customer’s data center, so they can begin to modernize their applications while still maintaining a connection to legacy systems that run mission-critical applications that can’t be moved to the public cloud. Once the modernization is complete, the applications can be moved into Azure using the same skills, processes, and programming model without any code changes.
Need help evaluating Azure Stack?
Assessing hybrid cloud solutions like Azure Stack can be time consuming and cost prohibitive for many businesses. SHI can help alleviate these pain points with our free, half-day Azure Stack Awareness Workshop.
If you believe that Azure Stack can meet your needs and accelerate your business goals, our Azure Stack architects will help you examine the available offerings and give you everything you need to make a purchasing decision. Contact your account executive or email us at CIC@SHI.com to get started today.