Azure Stack Family – Part 1

Hey, welcome back!

In this blog I’m going to cover the Azure Stack family of products, and highlight the key differences and use cases for each product.

Last year at Microsoft Ignite, Azure Stack was renamed to Azure Stack Hub and was joined by two more products – Azure Stack HCI and Azure Stack Edge, to form a portfolio of Edge products.  I think it’s safe to say the re-branding of the Microsoft WSSD Program to Azure Stack HCI caused a lot of mixed opinions… I won’t lie, I wasn’t happy! Those that were more in the know than me understood my frustrations (if there is one thing I hate it is marketing which adds confusion, customers already have enough to work out!) but they said it would all become clear and it did at Microsoft Ignite when the new portfolio was announced.

This was a positive announcement for a few reasons.  It showed Microsoft’s commitment and investment to Hybrid and the Edge.  It also demonstrated Microsoft’s understanding that not all customers can or will move their workloads to Azure.  Their heritage in on prem & traditional IT really helps in this space.  With this announcement they recognised the reality of customers and basically said ‘We understand that not all workloads can migrate to Azure, but those on prem workloads don’t need to be left behind and we’re going to give you a true Azure hybrid experience’ (they didn’t actually say this, this is not a quote from Satya :))

Ok so let’s get in to it…. We’re going to look at Azure Stack Hub in Part 1.

Azure Stack Portfolio

Azure Stack Hub – Operate and Run Cloud Services on Prem

Azure Stack Hub is Azure in your DC…. it really is! Its intention is to extend Azure to where Azure cannot go, to bring it on prem or right to the Edge!

Hub is delivered as an appliance, co-engineered between Microsoft and their selected OEM Partners.  Dell Technologies being the best, obviously!

It’s important to point out this really is an appliance, there is no logging in to Windows Admin Centre and managing the underlying hardware here.  That said there is an operator role but it’s very different from the traditional role of managing virtualised infrastructure – we’ll get on to that.

The reason for this delivery model is to enable Microsoft and their OEMs to deliver a truly consistent Azure experience.  Azure runs on 58 HUGE regions across the world, 100’s of services are available to customers, the scale is hard to envision.  Hub is really quite an engineering marvel when you think about it.  Azure Stack Hub can be delivered in as small a form factor as 4 nodes and currently scales up to 16 nodes.  Crazy right?

With this in mind it’s easy to understand that Hub has a limited number of configurations. It’s extremely important to understand what workloads you want to run on Hub prior to deploying.  Once you understand which workloads you want to run we can then size and select the correct configuration for the use case.

What Services are available?

A subset of the 100’s of services available in Azure are currently available on Hub and this is intentional.  The services available are based on those most used and those most suited to the use cases which Hub intends to target.  Hub brings Azure IaaS and some Azure PaaS services to your DC.

Infrastructure-as-a-Service – these services were, in my opinion, overlooked at the initial launch of Hub.  The messaging focused heavily on the PaaS services and the DevOps/Developer use case.  Azure IaaS allows you to begin your infrastructure as code journey.  This allows you to create consistent, repeatable and scalable deployments.  You can really up your game in terms of governance and efficiency by adopting true infrastructure as code.

You manage the Marketplace meaning you can provide your users with VM templates and services which are aligned to your operational standards and avoid ‘shadow IT’.  This also allows you to very clearly track your internal customers’ spending, ‘Hello cost granularity & departmental show back/charge back!’

Platform-as-a-Service – obviously the show stopper is having access to Azure PaaS services in your DC, next to your data and workloads that you want to access or transform.

  • Azure App Service – allows you to run web apps, and API apps
  • Azure Functions –  serverless compute service that enables code on demand without having to provision or manage infrastructure.  Run a piece of code in response to a variety of events.
  • SQL & MySQL Resource Providers – allows you to set-up and offer SQL and MySQL DBs as a service.  Now, this isn’t exactly the same as Azure SQL.  A DBA still needs to manage the database instances on Hub.
  • Azure IoT Hub – In Development – connect and monitor IoT assets
  • Azure Event Hubs – In Public Preview – receive telemetry from devices

For a full list of the services available please see Microsoft Azure Stack key capabilities.

Azure Stack Operator Role

I mentioned earlier the importance of understanding that Hub is delivered as an appliance.  In Azure, your interface is through the Azure Portal and your concern is with the API, the services and cloud platform tools, not the underlying hardware.  This is the same when it comes to Hub.  You do have to apply the Microsoft and OEM updates on a regular basis (this is linked to support so please do make sure you stay up to date!) but that really is about as far as it goes. Hub uses the same portal experience as Azure – consistency! A key difference in Hub is that you have an ‘Admin’ view of the portal as well as a tenant view.  This isn’t visible in Azure because Microsoft are taking care of that, but with Hub you have to take on the Azure Stack Operator Role.

By default the following foundational services are available: Compute, Storage, Networking & Key Vault.  These services allow you to offer IaaS to your users without too much configuration.

The following services are available but require additional configuration and management: App Service, Azure Functions, SQL and MySQL DDs, Kubernetes, IoT Hub & Event Hub.

As a an Azure Stack Operator you need to be aware of the available services, how to deploy them and make them available to your users.  You will be responsible for managing the Azure Stack Hub Marketplace, managing capacity between subscriptions for end users and for creating plans, offers, and services like those available in Azure. For more information on creating a service offering see Microsoft Create a Service Offering.

Regular duties include, but are not limited to: Azure AD and access management, monitoring health of Hub, manage network and storage resources and integrating with support.

For more information on the Azure Stack Operator role please see Microsoft Manage Azure Stack Hub.

Updates and Support

Microsoft works extremely closely with their selected OEMs to update and support Azure Stack Hub.  Microsoft and Dell provide support jointly for Hub by integrating our support and ticketing systems.  This means a customer can contact either Dell or Microsoft and depending on the issue, will be directed to either Dell or Microsoft support.

There are three types of update packages Hub:

  • Azure Stack Hub software updates. Microsoft is responsible for the end-to-end servicing lifecycle for the Microsoft software update packages.
  • Azure Stack Hub hotfixes. Microsoft provides hotfixes for Azure Stack Hub that address a specific issue that’s often preventive or time-sensitive.
  • OEM hardware-vendor-provided updates. Azure Stack Hub hardware partners are responsible for the end-to-end servicing lifecycle (including guidance) for the hardware-related firmware and driver update packages.

More information can be found here.


Hub & HCI

Azure Stack Hub brings consistent Azure Services on-premises.  In order to get the best out of Hub you need to adopt the Azure model, including the services and a cloud-native approach to creating, deploying and managing your workloads.  Hub requires an Azure Stack Operator role to manage and provide services to the tenants on Hub.

Azure Stack Hub

  • Extends Azure to where Azure cannot go
  • It brings Azure Services and the Azure Portal to your DC
  • Delivered as an appliance
  • Important to understand Azure Stack Operator Role

We’ll look at Azure Stack HCI and Azure Stack Edge in a following blog post.

Myself, Kenny Lowe and Darren Small recently recorded a podcast on this topic and it will be published Friday 9th April 2020.  Check out Lisa at The Edge Podacast!

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