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Hybrid IT is about to get interesting – introducing Azure Stack (part I)

Azure Stack

Hybrid cloud, and by extension hybrid IT, is here to stay.

Few companies will use pure public or private cloud computing and certainly no company should miss the opportunity to leverage a combination. Hybrids of private and public cloud, multiple public cloud services and non-cloud services will serve the needs of more companies than any single cloud model and so it’s important that companies stop and consider their long term cloud needs and strategy.

Providing insight into the future of cloud computing is something that Pulsant has a lot of experience in and our focus on hybrid IT and hybrid services allows us to see where the adoption of public and private cloud benefits our customers’ strategies and requirements.

Since so much of IT’s focus in the recent past (and in truth, even now) has been on private cloud, any analytics that show the growth of public cloud give us a sense of how the hybrid idea will progress. The business use of SaaS is increasingly driving a hybrid model by default. Much of hybrid cloud use comes because of initial trials of public cloud services. As business users adopt more public cloud, SaaS in particular, they will need more support from companies, such as Pulsant, to help provide solutions for true integration and governance of their cloud.

The challenge, as always in the cloud arena, is that there is no strict definition of the term ‘hybrid.’ There has been, until recently, a distinct lack of vendors and service providers able to offer simple solutions to some of the day-to-day challenges faced by most companies who are trying to develop a cloud strategy. Challenges include those of governance, security, consistent experiences between private and public services and the ability to simply ‘build once’ and ‘operate everywhere’.

Enter Azure Stack — it’s not often that I use language like “game changing” and “disruptive technology” but in the case of Azure Stack I don’t think these terms can be understated. For the first time you have a service provider (for that’s what Microsoft is becoming) that is addressing what hybrid IT really means and how to make it simple and easy to use.

So what is Azure Stack?

Azure Stack is, simply put, Microsoft’s Azure public cloud services brought into an organisation’s own data centre providing a private cloud solution. Under the hood Azure Stack is running Microsoft’s vNext technology ‘stack’, Window Server 2016, Hyper-V and Microsoft networking and storage. In truth, when it launches later this year, it will only have a limited number of Azure public services ready to go – but – the exciting bit is that no matter how you look at it is, you will be running Microsoft’s Azure on-premises. It’s not just “something that is functionally similar to Azure,” but running Azure Stack is running Microsoft’s public Azure cloud in your data centre.

The obvious first question on people’s minds is perhaps ‘why run a cloud service offering in your own data centre at all’? Isn’t the whole idea of (public) cloud to push workloads out of your own organisations to third party hosting solutions to minimise IT costs?

Well, yes. Offloading infrastructure and data centre workloads to the public cloud has been the main (but not only) use of public cloud so far. The challenge that still faces many CIOs and CTOs is that there are many workloads and services that they cannot or refuse to put up in the public cloud (right now). Common excuses include security, compliance, and assured reliability, along with the fact that core business apps are not (currently) allowed outside of the data centre and other reasons.

One way of addressing this issue has been to build private clouds on-premises. This works but often these are ‘disconnected’ from public cloud services a company may be using, are poorly integrated (if at all) to other cloud services and are often bespoke solutions that lack any true ability to make use of public cloud services without a lot of re-engineering, re-development and a lot of ‘know how.’

What Azure Stack does for the first time is provide a consistent platform that allows companies to, for example, stage the development and implementation of apps on-premises in a private Azure Stack cloud and then seamlessly move or scale out to Azure public cloud. Azure Stack provides the exact environment on-premises as in the public cloud. Not something similar on-premises, but truly in an on-premises dev/test and on-premises internal data centre environment that is identical to a public cloud (Azure) environment.

How is Azure Stack (or Azure public) better than an existing VM environment?

This is the simple question that completely differentiates Azure (public) / Azure Stack from a traditional VM-based environment. When you understand this, you understand how Azure Stack is a disruptive and game changing technology.

For a long time now application scalability has been achieved by simply adding more servers (memory, processors, storage, etc.) If there was a need for more capacity the answer was “add more servers”. Ten years ago, that still meant buying another physical server and putting it in a rack. With virtualization (VMware, Hyper-V, OpenStack) it has been greatly simplified, with the ability to simply “spin-up” another virtual machine on request. Even this is now being superseded by the advent of cloud technologies. Virtualization may have freed companies from the need for having to buy and own hardware (capital drain and the constant need for upgrades) but with virtualization companies still have the problem of the overhead of an operating system (Windows/Linux), possibly a core application (e.g. Microsoft SQL) and, most annoyingly, a raft of servers and software to patch, maintain and manage. Even with virtualization there is a lot of overhead required to run applications as is the case when running dozens of “virtual machines” to host the applications and services being used.

The public cloud takes the next step and allows the aggregation of things like CPUs, storage, networking and simply allows a company to be allocated the amount of capacity it needs and applications are given the necessary resources dynamically. More importantly, resources can be added and removed at a moment’s notice without the need to add VMs or remove them. This in turn means less ‘virtual machines’ to patch and manage and so less overhead.

The point of Azure Stack is that it takes the benefits of public cloud and takes the next logical step in this journey — to bring the exact capabilities and services into your (private) data centre. This will enable a host of new ideas letting companies develop a whole Azure Stack ecosystem where:

  • Hosting companies can sell private Azure Services direct from their data centres
  • System integrators can design, deploy and operate Azure solution once but deliver in both private and public clouds
  • ISVs can write Azure-compatible software once and deploy in both private and public clouds
  • Managed service providers can deploy, customise and operate Azure Stack themselves

I started by making the comment that I thought Azure Stack will be a disruptive, game changing technology for Pulsant and its customers. I believe that it will completely change how data centres will manage large scale applications, and even address dev/test and highly secured and scalable apps. It will be how hosting companies like Pulsant will offer true hybrid cloud services in the future.

Stuart has real-world experience of developing and running cloud services businesses, as well as adoption, integration and strategy implementation, having been involved in various Cloud start-ups and projects in both enterprise and SMB companies. He is always happy to discuss planned cloud services strategies and to present or provide consulting in this area.

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