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Microsoft Azure Stack: Right For Customers — And Your Business?

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Kurt Marko AWS may tower over the public cloud market like Godzilla over Tokyo, but this space is still young, dynamic and rapidly growing. There’s plenty of room for competitors. Microsoft has emerged as a strong No. 2 with the Azure IaaS/PaaS combination, which it is now extending into private clouds via Azure Stack, a packaged version of Azure services that can be deployed in private data centers. The goal is to deliver a completely consistent hybrid cloud platform, regardless of where organizations choose to deploy their applications.

When Mike Neil, corporate VP of enterprise cloud at Microsoft, announced the initial Azure Stack technical preview, he made it clear that Microsoft wants customers to approach cloud as a model — not a place. By “model,” Neil’s talking a hybrid cloud approach that delivers consistency across private, hosted and public clouds.

“To translate this model into reality, customers need a consistent cloud platform that spans hybrid environments,” said Neil.

On the surface, Microsoft’s full embrace of a hybrid-cloud strategy resonates. According to the 2016 RightScale State of the Cloud Report, 71 percent of respondents use hybrid-cloud environments, up 13 points from last year. Although a distant second in actual public-cloud adoption, more organizations show interest in Azure for future projects than any other platform. Microsoft’s strong channel structure is likely a factor for business respondents.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a consistent industry definition and understanding of the term “private cloud.” Given the high response rates in the RightScale survey, we suspect most conflate “private cloud” with “virtualized infrastructure,” as in vSphere/vCenter or Microsoft System Center with Hyper-V, when in fact, realizing full benefits requires a self-service, multi-tenant system offering a selection of pay-as-you-go services, not just compute.

Under that definition, according to one analysis, the “true” private cloud market is actually smaller than AWS alone.

Microsoft clearly doesn’t believe private clouds are a niche market, but rather an opportunity to be seized with the help of partners.

Heretofore, its private cloud story has been weak, with some Microsoft shops using System Center to manage virtual infrastructure and others experimenting with the now-obsolete Azure Pack add-on for Windows Server. With Azure Stack, Microsoft promises “the power of Azure in your data center” with the ability to deliver IaaS and eventually PaaS services identical to those available on public Azure. It’s a compelling vision shared by VMware with vCloud and vCloud Air. However, each competes from different bases of strength: VMware within enterprise data centers and Microsoft in the public cloud.

Partners Need Skills

The biggest hurdles for partners looking to help customers implement the private side of a hybrid-cloud strategy are the complexity and expense of putting in place the required hardware and software. Cloud stacks aren’t simple to deploy, configure or administer. Furthermore, the fact that they’re designed for highly distributed and redundant infrastructure adds overhead in terms of managing workloads and requires careful hardware selection. While Azure Stack does simplify the software side, it still demands cloud management expertise and, as I found when attending a Microsoft-hosted hands-on Azure Stack workshop for analysts and journalists, has a serious learning curve.

Partners have an opportunity here, if they’re willing to invest in expertise. Even small companies have workloads they’d rather keep off public IaaS. But it will require a lot more engineering chops than selling some Office 365 subscriptions and migrating email and Word and Excel files to Azure.

For example, since public Azure is designed for warehouse-scale data centers and is typically deployed on clusters of 20 racks with 1,000 nodes, scaling the design down to a size usable by most organizations is challenging. Although the Azure Stack preview (aka POC) will run on a single beefy machine, the general release will require a minimal deployment of four nodes. Assuming each node is comparable to the recommended POC hardware, the smallest four-node Azure cloud will have 128 cores, 512 GB RAM and at least 16 disks, specs that are similar to those VMware uses for EVO:RAIL. That’s a nearly $200,000 system.

Indeed, like EVO:RAIL and Microsoft’s own Cloud Platform Standard, most Azure Stack buyers will buy the hardware as part of a pre-integrated, converged system, although Microsoft will publish a hardware compatibility list (HCL) for do-it-yourselfers.

I’m focusing on the hardware to underscore the minimum level of cloud capacity a customer needs before Azure Stack makes sense. Organizations not running at least 200 simultaneous VMs and prepared to spend more than $100,000 on new hardware need not apply. For partners, this means Azure Stack must be positioned for large and midsize enterprises, possibly some smaller boutique shops with high-end needs; think biopharma or financial services. General SMBs are best served either evolving to all public cloud or using an MSP for private workloads.

That said, Azure Stack should be a compelling option for large enough Microsoft shops, particularly those already using or experimenting with Azure public cloud.

Perhaps a more intriguing partner opportunity for Azure Stack is targeting specific markets, whether industry verticals, underserved geographies or niche use cases, with tailored services by using Azure Stack as the foundation for your own set of cloud services. In fact, Microsoft expects service providers – whether telcos, existing hosting MSPs or partners – to be a significant market for Azure Stack. The Azure Resource Manager has been extended in Azure Stack with this in mind by adding features designed for businesses offering shared Azure services to customers.

Recommendations

Azure Stack holds promise for customers that have firmly committed to a true hybrid-cloud architecture, understand what that entails, and want the flexibility to easily spread workloads across both private and public infrastructure. That said, it will be most appealing to those that have built their private infrastructures on Windows Server, Microsoft System Center and Hyper-V, not vSphere shops.

Customers already using Azure IaaS and PaaS will love Azure Stack since there’s no learning curve, and applications built for public Azure can seamlessly move to a private cloud without change.

Azure Stack is also a compelling alternative to OpenStack with Cloud Foundry for greenfield private-cloud environments. Selling points: It’s bit-compatible with the second-largest public cloud service; it’s built and supported by a single, trusted vendor; and it’s sure to be widely available and supported pre-integrated on hardware from similarly trusted vendors, like Dell and HPE. For partners in the business of managed hosting and applications, Azure Stack provides a ready-made platform for new cloud services designed for specific industries, use cases, regulatory requirements or individual customers that can be easily integrated with public Azure in situations requiring added capacity or Azure services – think machine learning, HDInsight/Hadoop or IoT – not yet ported to Azure Stack.

Kurt Marko is an IT industry analyst, consultant and regular contributor to a number of technology publications, pursuing his passion for communications after a varied career that has spanned virtually the entire high-tech food chain from chips to systems. Follow him @krmarko on Twitter.


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