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Azure Stack: What it is and how it impacts the cloud market

Posted by admin May 2, 2016
Azure Stack: What it is and how it impacts the cloud market

Microsoft has long been a key player in the public cloud, with its Azure cloud computing services regularly being the second-most popular platform after Amazon Web Services. Now with its recent rollout of Azure Stack, Microsoft is making an aggressive move into the private cloud market. What does this newer offering mean for Microsoft's customers as well as the competing OpenStack and AWS communities? And what does it say about private cloud in general?

Overall, it is a powerful acknowledgment of the private cloud's importance. Enterprises can't just "jump into" the public cloud; they need a platform that can support their existing workflows and infrastructures, too.

The basics of Azure Stack: A public cloud brought into the private data center

Azure Stack is not just any old private cloud. It is, in effect, the Azure ecosystem brought into each individual user's data center. It uses the same code as Azure proper, and can be set up for private or hybrid cloud purposes. Let's look at a few of the nuts and bolts:

  • Azure Stack runs on top of Windows Server 2016.
  • It is running Hyper-V as well as Microsoft's storage and networking technologies under the hood.
  • Azure Stack should not be confused with the closely related but different Azure Pack, a "cloud in a box" appliance initially conceived in 2010.
  • As of early April 2016, Azure Stack was still available only as a technical preview.

As a whole, Azure Stack can be conceived of as part of a balancing act between offering the standardization and convenience of public cloud and providing the control and customization of a typical private cloud. Basically, it is meant to be a common easy-to-use tool set, capable of addressing both the public and private cloud spaces. It is no surprise, then, that 

The mix-and-match capabilities of Azure make it an ideal fit for hybrid cloud setups.The mix-and-match capabilities of Azure make it an ideal fit for hybrid cloud setups.

What you will and won't get from Azure Stack

It is important to note that Azure Stack will likely never have true parity with Azure, for the simple fact that Azure's cutting-edge services are built for massive scale (i.e., at least a thousand supporting machines) that might not be replicable in some private cloud environments. Public Azure will continue to get new features first, and only later will they (probably) be included in Azure Stack. The latter will get the APIs and other functionality that make Azure what it is, but on a longer timetable and at a lesser scale.

What market is Microsoft targeting with Azure Stack?

As we said, Azure Stack is conceived as part of a common tool set for public and private cloud environments: built on Azure's technologies, but capable of being run even at reduced scale in a private data center. Who, exactly, is looking for such a solution?

Start with enterprises that are already deeply invested in Windows Server. Azure Stack is low-hanging fruit that they can pick to get PaaS up and running and modify their applications as they move some or all of their operations to the cloud. Both private and hybrid cloud continue to be in high demand among enterprises especially. The 2016 State of the Cloud Report from RightScale found that 82 percent of them had a hybrid cloud strategy in place.

"Azure Stack is ideal for hybrid cloud deployments."

One of the fundamental goals of Azure Stack seems to be preparing Microsoft's customers for public cloud tomorrow, even if they are private-cloud-centric today. It is a stepping stone, in other words, a way to check the "hybrid cloud" box. This is as much a strategic move as it is a technical one. It gives Microsoft a crucial one-up on Amazon, Google and even OpenStack.

There aren't exact equivalents for Azure Stack among the other public cloud providers, at least not yet. It gives Microsoft users a way to ensure that they continue working even if something goes wrong with their public cloud setup, or a particular workload requires a private cloud.

"Everywhere you look, companies are using proprietary chat, storage, workflow, CRM, on and on, but one of the biggest blocks for companies adopting a cloud strategy is the fear of being trapped in an ecosystem that you can't get out of," wrote John Basso for InfoWorld. "Problem solved! Now if something goes wrong, just download the Azure Stack, and you can run locally."

Ease of use and similarity to intuitive public cloud tools is crucial in this context. There is still a steep hill for Microsoft's competitors to climb here, given the usability issues with AWS and the challenges of implementing open source alternatives such as OpenStack. Azure is not yet the market leader for public cloud, but it will be interesting to see how Microsoft's recent moves with Azure Stack will affect its position.

Enabling DevOps

Ultimately, Azure Stack gives enterprises a more seamless connection between devtest and production. This of course can only be leveraged with the proper DevOps tooling in place. For example, a cloud sandboxing platform like Quali's CloudShell would allow developers and testers to use application sandboxes that seamlessly deploy to Azure cloud or on-prem via Azure Stack. In addition, continuous processes tools like Jenkins, release automation tools, and containers (and Azure microservices) are also needed to leverage the true value of a technology like Azure Stack.

The takeaway: Azure Stack is designed as a stepping stone between private and public cloud. It brings all of the essential Azure technologies into the data center. It has its limitations, especially when it comes to scalability and when it receives new features. For now, though, it is a unique offering in the cloud market. AWS, Google and OpenStack have their work cut out for them in providing private cloud-like solutions that can be run in the data center with all of the convenience that Azure offers.

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