For one thing, you have to buy all the hardware you’ll need for peak loads, unless you can burst out to Azure for extra scale. And if you can do that with your existing workload, think about why you’re running it on a private or hybrid cloud in the first place, because Microsoft can buy infrastructure and electricity more cheaply than you can, and they already have the skilled admins who know how to run a cloud. Automation based on what Microsoft has learned running Azure will vastly simplify deploying and maintaining Azure Stack, even down to replacement servers being automatically discovered and configured. But you will still have to operate it (especially if you want to add third party services).
For another, Azure will always have more services than Azure Stack, and it will get new services first. The Azure regions in the eastern and western U.S. have the same services; but Azure Stack is more like the federal government version of Azure or the forthcoming German Azure region that will be run through a German owner for legal protections or the version of Azure that’s available in China – separate cloud services that get new Azure features on a different schedule than the public Azure service.
Some services are unlikely to make sense without the global scale of Azure, like the content delivery network that’s part of the Azure Media Services. Others might work best as hybrid services that rely on Azure. The Key Vault service will be in Azure Stack, but it will be a software-based solution rather than using the Hardware Security Modules that the Azure service relies on (complete with explosives to avoid tampering).
It’s not a question of Azure Stack being second class, just that it has the services that make sense in the private cloud and the hosted cloud rather than in a hyperscale, global, public cloud, and it’s important to be aware of what you’re getting.
“We have to be very clear with customers so they understand the scale limitations of running Azure in their data center,” explains Mike Neil. “We want the functionality – from the top level APIs to the experience of the portal – to mimic Azure as closely as possible but that’s the challenge we have, when the minimum stamp size for Azure is about a thousand machines. How do we take that technology and scale it down to something that's more cost-effective at an entry price point for customers and make that a usable system?”
He’s confident Azure Stack will be useful, even though it’s not Azure scale. “Even in a four node configuration you can run a significantly powerful system; for a customer using this technology, they're going to be able to have a pretty good experience. And through management tools we will allow them to do capacity planning so they can understand when they’re going to run out of capacity and scale up.” The idea of bursting out to the cloud isn’t new, but it’s going to be a lot easier from Azure Stack, because the environment you have with Azure Stack will be set up in the same way, with applications already configured for the cloud platform.
Hybrid cloud demand
Critically, Microsoft is creating Azure Stack because it’s what enterprise customers and hosting providers have been asking for. As Snover puts it, “this is Satya Nadella and his fixation with listening to the customers, saying ‘get out of Redmond, go listen to the customers, find out what they want and give them what they want.’ We’re serious about doing that.”
What those customers want is a way of being able to build technology quickly enough to respond to market opportunities. “The ability to get insights is going to be disrupting every business,” claims Russinovich. “Businesses that can't respond are going to be left behind. We’ve got this tension happening in the IT world; businesses are demanding these capabilities and they’re going to the cloud to get them.” If the cloud is a model rather than a location, as Microsoft believes it is, then Azure Stack will give those businesses a choice.
“We have some customers saying they’re going to be out of their own data centers in two years, others say they have data in their data centers and it’s going to stay there for 10 years,” says Russinovich. “The journey till take time and customers in the meantime have business requirements.”
It’s the second group who will be interested in Azure Stack, for working with that data. “What we hear from the majority of customers today is that the benefit they see is isolation,” adds Russinovich. They want the speed and flexibility of the PaaS services that are built in to Azure Stack, as well as to be ready for when they can move to cloud. “As usage matures and they understand the value, the hybrid approach could be more much more interesting.” And he notes “we’re not trying to convince customers to stay on premise. They’re making that decision.”
If those enterprise customers are right about what they need, Microsoft can turn Windows Server into a private and hybrid cloud platform that’s in sync with its Azure cloud in a way no other cloud provider can match, addressing worries about regulation and data sovereignty, or latency problems working against data on their own servers. “If that’s the blocking issue for a customer adopting Azure, in the broad sense, we expect this to accelerate adoption,” Neil says. And if enterprises are wrong about what they need, Azure is still growing fast, with over 90,000 new subscribers a month.
To Microsoft, it’s all the same thing. “Azure, in its grand sense, is the platform for customers who want to build and modernise their application portfolio,” says Neil. “And we are giving them choices to host the modern services that power that application experience in our data center, or in their own data center where their IT staff operate them.”
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