Azure Stack Family Part 2

At Microsoft Ignite 2019 it was announced that Azure Stack was to become a portfolio of products.  What we knew as Azure Stack became Azure Stack Hub and was joined by Azure Stack HCI and Azure Stack Edge to create a portfolio for Microsoft’s Hybrid Cloud offering. 

I covered Azure Stack Hub in Azure Stack Family Part 1.  In this blog we will take a closer look at Azure Stack HCI.  This series of posts aims to explain the use cases for each product in the portfolio and to help you understand which workloads would be best suited to each product, how they differ and complement each other.

So lets get in to it…

Some background…

Azure Stack HCI is not a brand new product offering.  Previously known as Windows Server Software Defined (WSSD) program.  The WSSD program was a certification program for hardware vendors to certify optimal configurations of Hyper-V and Storage Spaces Direct. 

If we take it back to Windows Server 2016 (WWS2016), this release was the culmination of a lot of activities in the product pipeline including software defined storage, software defined networking and software defined compute.  It could be said that this release really laid the foundation for Azure Stack HCI.  It also brought a lot of brilliant security feature such as guarded fabric and shielded VMs.  I remember getting excited about the possibilities of these features for MSP’s. They dealt with the threat of ‘rogue admins’ a concept we don’t like to think about but have to consider. 

With WS2019 we seen the realisation of the foundations laid in WS2016.  This release brought with it connectivity to Azure through Windows Admin Centre as well as many more features and benefits.  With Windows Admin Centre you can take advantage of Azure Hybrid Services such as: Azure Back-up, Azure Site Recovery and Azure Monitoring. 

A big part of the messaging around Azure Stack Hub at launch was consistency and this was said to be the definition of true hybrid cloud.  Azure Stack Hub brings the Azure Portal with it.  This means that you get true consistency with Azure by bringing actual Azure IaaS and PaaS services on premises and being able to use the same deployment patterns and code to deploy in both Azure and Hub.  These features mean that Hub was pitched as the only ‘true hybrid’ solution at launch, and it was and still is in terms of that definition.  However, Microsoft with its heritage in traditional IT has Hyrbid in its DNA.  Unlike AWS and Google who were born in the cloud and who are now embracing hybrid and working to find ways to operate their services on premises, Microsoft has always had Hybrid in mind and this can be seen in the build out of Azure Stack portfolio, especially with Azure Stack HCI.

So what is Azure Stack HCI?

With the new capabilities in Windows Admin Centre to connect up to Azure and augment your on premises infrastructure with Azure services, consistency and stability in infrastructure and management are paramount.  Consistency is absolutely key when it comes to Cloud.  That’s what allows you the agility and scalability.   

Azure Stack HCI is a validated virtualisation solution with true hybrid capabilities by being able to connect to and take advantage of Azure services. It is a hyperconverged infrastructure  with the same software defined compute storage and networking capabilities as Azure Stack Hub which has gone through the same rigorous validation requirements.  This is the next version of virtualisation, it really is impressive and has the capability to deliver true consistency in management and deployment across on premises and public Azure infrastructure. Workloads on premises don’t need to be left behind. This solution is available from a selection of hardware vendors, including Dell Technologies.

So what is the difference between Azure Stack Hub and HCI?

Azure Stack Hub is delivered as an appliance. You don’t log in to or manage the underlying software or hardware.  Hub brings with it the Azure portal, you can use consistent Azure IaaS and PaaS services.  With Azure Stack Hub there is a ‘Cloud Admin or Operator’ role.  You manage Hub via the Admin view of the Azure portal as well as using Azure Resource Manager (ARM) known as the secret sauce of Azure.  Similar to what Microsoft do with public Azure.  For more info on the ‘Cloud Operator Role’ please see Part 1.

With Azure Stack HCI you build and manage the infrastructure using Windows Admin Centre, System Centre and any tools which you already use to manage your Hyper-v infrastructure.  You manage the infrastructure software, hardware, virtual machines and applications.  This is a virtualisation platform with the benefit of being able to connect to Azure services via WAC such as back-up as a service but you can’t run those services on the platform itself. 

Another differentiator is flexibility.  Azure Stack HCI has more flexibility in configuration options than Hub.  This is because Hub is delivered as an appliance and needs to maintain consistency with monthly updates from both the OEM and Microsoft.  With Azure Stack HCI you can be more flexible with your configurations and tailor them to the requirements of your virtual workloads.

What are the use cases for Azure Stack HCI?

I’ve mentioned Microsoft’s heritage in enterprise IT and that hybrid is in their DNA and this really shows in Azure Stack HCI.  Microsoft understand that not all workloads can move to the cloud and not all applications can be refactored or migrated. 

With Azure Stack HCI you can consolidate those virtual applications on industry standard (leading if you go with Dell!) hardware and modernise the platform on which they run.  These applications can then benefit from Azure Services such as Azure Security Center and Azure Monitoring bringing you consistency across your management of VMs and applications regardless of their location.  

A few more use cases include:

  • Large scale virtual desktop environments – connect your virtual desktops to Azure Update Management and manage the update of your VDI configurations from Azure.
  • High-performance, scalable SQL Server.  If it’s performance and high availability you need for your SQL workloads then Azure Stack HCI is the answer.
  • Run a Kubernetes cluster and enable automated deployment, scaling and management of containerised applications through Azure Arc for Kubernetes. 

I’ll aim to cover Azure Arc in another post but you can read more about it here.

You can learn more about Azure Stack Hub Use Cases in a previous post.

Summary

Azure Stack Hub & Azure Stack HCI

  • Azure Stack HCI is connected to Azure whilst Azure Stack Hub is consistent with Azure
  • Azure Stack HCI is a virtulisation platform whereas Hub is a true cloud native platform
  • Azure Stack Hub is delivered as an appliance whereas you build and manage the hardware and software of Azure Stack HCI
  • Azure Stack Hub can operated disconnected with Azure whereas Azure Stack HCI must be connected to Azure (if you want to connect to Azure services)

Azure Stack HCI

  • Enables you to augment and enrich your virtualised infrastructure and applications with Azure services
  • A flexible, performant hyperconverged infrastructure with connectivity to Azure
  • Bring Azure consistency in management and monitoring to on-prem workloads

Azure Stack HCI will only continue to grow and develop as a solution.  In fact in a few short week we will see announcements from both Dell and Microsoft which will do just that and this post will require an update.  We will meet back here to discuss those post Microsoft Inspire!

To hear more about Azure Stack HCI and how it fits as part of the Azure Stack Family listen to Episode 8 – Azure Everywhere on the Lisa at the Edge podcast with special guests: Jeff Woolsey Principal Program Manager for Azure Stack HCI at Microsoft and Kenny Lowe Azure MVP and Azure Stack Engineering Technoligist Lead at Dell Technologies.

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