In my engineering role within our Azure Stack product team at Dell Technologies, I have the opportunity to talk about what value Microsoft and Dell Technologies bring to our customers’ hybrid strategy for our internal sales teams and our important partners. In addition, I also get to discuss these same values directly with our customers. In these discussions, I get to hear about their cloud goals, requirements and provide deep technical guidance to ensure that the targeted solutions will meet their objectives. There are many strategies that come out of these discussions that customers are looking to achieve; they could be looking to reduce their OnPrem IT spend by moving their core infrastructure to a public cloud or they may be looking at how they can target workloads that should live in the public cloud do so while still supporting infrastructure OnPrem in a more modernized way, whether it be application modernization or IT modernized management. It’s those conversations where the customers are seeing a real business value by taking a hybrid approach across their organizations. This ability to harness the power to embrace both public cloud and local datacenter, and may provide edge capabilities, is what is enabling customers to improve their IT agility and efficiencies. At Microsoft’s core, it’s always been about the Enterprise and running workloads within the customer’s datacenter. With the advent of Azure, Microsoft continued to see the importance of the OnPrem infrastructures that customers have traditionally invested in while still seeing the importance that public cloud infrastructures bring. This mindset has allowed Microsoft to invest and build their assets that are uniquely built for hybrid. Many of these hybrid strategies evolve into delivering new application patterns using intelligent cloud and intelligent edge.
Over the past couple of years, Microsoft has been honing their hybrid strategy to enable their partners, like Dell Technologies, to deliver modernized infrastructure built on Enterprise-proven assets integrated with connectivity to Azure Services. With the Azure Stack portfolio, customers can find the solution that meets their hybrid goals. Each of these have different delivery models, control planes, services, and targeted workloads. These variations across the Azure Stack ecosystem help to support complex customer requirements, many through Microsoft validated or Integrated systems via their hardware partners.
Before we jump into what those solutions look like from Dell Technologies, I’m going to circle back to our customer discussions and what we look to glean from these discussions to identify the appropriate solutions to meet their requirements. During these informative meetings, we want to understand:
- Use-Case Scenarios
Current OnPrem investments
- Are they heavily invested in one virtualization Platform – i.e. Microsoft, VMWare, nothing, or something else?
What are their long term OnPrem and Cloud goals
- Are they going to shift their OnPrem investments to the Public cloud?
- Investments in one Public Cloud ecosystem or heavily skewing toward one over another
- Have they identified workloads that have business or technical requirements that would prohibit them from living in public cloud
Investing toward application modernizing to take advantage of cloud-native design principles or simply a lift-and-shift to the cloud of their current workloads?
- Container Workloads – Kubernetes/AKS/GKE/etc, OpenShift, AWS ECS,
- Moving to streamline development pipeline operations w/ DevOps
- Standardizing on a cloud platform control plane; Azure Resource Manager (ARM), Amazon EKS, Cloudflare or VMware Cloud Foundation (VCF)
This list is not exhaustive but you get the idea that there are lot of things to consider as a customer traverses their path to the cloud and considerations they must be aware of, as well as their decisions, for both their OnPrem and Cloud investments. This includes things they may not have considered as well, such as: learning new tools or platforms, costs associated with unforeseen expenses in the cloud, application migrations or re-architecture requirements. As we discuss all these things with the customer, we want to ensure they are thinking about these as we move through this engagement. They will not all be understood, though sometimes they are, but it’s a case of planning and re-visiting the plan often.
Breaking down this list to bucketize them will help arrive at the best solution. Depending on the outcome of these discussions, you may find that the customer’s, or your, initial thoughts around a specific solution may not meet their overall requirements and you need to shift entire solution sets. That’s ok. At Dell Technologies, we have a broad playbook that allows us to shift to something else that is a better fit for their needs. We don’t want to shoehorn a solution just because that is the only thing we can provide. That path will not end in a satisfactory way and lead to customer issues and may abandon the course. Not good.
This is going to be focused around the Azure Stack portfolio so assuming our conversations and outcomes from the above list are keeping on this track, we will discuss some of these considerations.
If we look at the image of the Azure Stack portfolio, there are three distinct product offers. Each one has services and values that provide the ability for our customers to deliver their application needs directly to their customers:
Starting with Azure Stack Hub, which was the first solution delivered as part of the Azure Stack family, provides customers the ability to deliver a cloud-native experience OnPrem, behind their firewall, either connected for fully disconnected to Azure Public. These allows customers to deliver applications that take advantage of Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) services, such as Azure Functions, Web and API applications, Event Hub, and IoT Hub that can be consumed from a local Hub instance but also has the same control plane as Azure Public resources. In fact, Azure Stack Hub is just another region that can be targeted like other Azure regions (i.e. US East, US West, etc) using the same tools you are familiar with; Azure CLI, PowerShell, and even Visual Studio, for example. Just keep in mind that Hub is a subset of Public Azure, so you need to ensure that the services you want to deploy to Hub are available. Do not assume that it is available for your application use since it does not have the scale factor that Azure Public has. Scale for Hub is from 4 – 16 compute nodes per region/scale-unit. However, if a customer is considering a full investment into the Azure ecosystem and they are trying to unify their control plan between OnPrem and Public cloud, using ARM, this could be the best path for them. Think of Azure Stack Hub as a development platform which provides:
- A way for customers to implement a standardized DevOps practice between Azure Public and OnPrem
- Modernize OnPrem applications from traditional monolithic application models to lightweight microservices while still close by to the OnPrem data source instead, keeping latency low and performance high while allowing time for the application to be migrated over time.
Delivering cloud-native applications in a completely disconnected pattern for edge or far-edge deployments. Think in terms of remote locations: Mines, Combat zones, Oil and Gas industries, etc.
- Example: Process IoT sensor data from a mining operation that measures critical mine shaft data (air quality, oxygen levels, gas levels, seismic activity) that are processed locally in real-time for the safety of the miners.
- Support of containers using Azure Kubernetes Engine (AKSe) and, soon, Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS).
Moving to our right in the image, to the center solution, we are to Azure Stack HCI.
Out of the portfolio, Azure Stack HCI has evolved the most over the last few years. Initially referenced as Windows Server Software-Defined Datacenter (WSSD), more of reference architecture, it was built upon a strong virtualization platform in Hyper-V, storage built upon Storage Spaces Direct (S2D) and, the optional, Software-Defined-Networking (SDN) to deliver a modernized, scalable virtualization platform. Dell Technologies was an early provider with WSSD solutions through our PowerEdge-based S2D Ready Nodes product line that were the building blocks to support virtual machines for those customers who were strong Microsoft datacenters. Over the last year, Microsoft has invested heavily in maturing the platform and is now a 1st-party citizen with Azure Public services; Azure Monitor, Azure Backup, etc. This provides a native integration layer directly with Azure that other solution providers just cannot deliver today. What this translates to is that customers running Azure Stack HCI can have a highly scalable infrastructure built on a proven and reliable Hyperconverged Infrastructure hardware delivered as an integrated experience. Dell Technologies has taken the years of experience delivering Hyperconverged Infrastructure solutions across different platforms, like VxRail using VMware to engineer and deliver these solutions. Scalability is key to the platform and Azure Stack HCI will scale from 2 nodes to a maximum of 16 nodes. Over the past 6-8 months, Microsoft and Dell Technologies have gone further and improved the Azure Stack HCI platform by introducing:
- Dell EMC Integrated System for Microsoft Azure HCI, improving the original Ready Node concept that we launched with a few years ago by adding a new AX product line specifically designed and targeted for Azure Stack HCI. This new platform provides new full stack Lifecycle Management features that are simply not available in Ready Nodes or PowerEdge servers.
- Microsoft introduced HCI-OS, a pared down OS focusing only on HCI services optimized to deliver best in-class virtualization. This OS uses an Azure subscription-based billing for the HCI Operating system and will provide faster updates, aligning more to the Azure release model. Also, it will target HCI features, such as stretch-clustering, that will not be available on Windows Server Datacenter.
All of this allows for a performance-driven platform optimized for delivering the best experience for virtualized workloads. Circling back to our original list above, use-cases for HCI will be targeting:
- Windows Server or Hyper-V Refresh from Server 2008/2012/2016/2019 to Azure Stack HCI: If a customer is Microsoft-centric today and has a Hyper-V presence, it’s a natural progression to the more modernized HCI platform.
- Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) – As you can imagine, with the pandemic, many customers have looked at investing in VDI and Azure Stack HCI is a great consideration for this use-case. Powerful and performance driven, Dell Technologies has configurations that can support the demand.
- Remote Office / Branch Office (ROBO) or Edge Infrastructure – Cluster sizing down to a minimum of 2 nodes makes using HCI at the edge or branch office.
- High Performance, latency sensitive applications – Any applications that are highly performance driven or require low latency, such as Microsoft SQL server.
- Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) – Microsoft released AKS recently for Azure Stack HCI making container support running OnPrem a reality giving you the ability to support containers using a proven and scalable solution like AKS.
For management, HCI is done with Windows Admin Center. Unlike Hub, which uses ARM, using Windows Admin Center’s native integration of HCI OS Cluster management operations and Dell Technologies Lifecycle Management integration, allows customers to manage many HCI cluster instances from a single instance.
The net here is that if the customer is a strong Microsoft customer today, looking to invest more in Microsoft or shift their support to Microsoft, Azure Stack HCI is a strong factor aligning to their use cases.
Finally, let’s talk about the final solution in the image, Azure Stack Edge. Unlike the other two in the Azure Stack portfolio, Azure Stack Edge is delivered directly by Microsoft through the Azure portal. This solution is also very specific in the target workloads. Since it isn’t scalable like the other two platforms, this is looking at those workloads which are targeting lighter duties for IoT and/or Machine learning (ML) capabilities. Also, keep in mind that Edge always comes with a GPU or FPGA for those ML-focused workloads so that cost is always factored into the price. If you aren’t looking to support workloads of this type or don’t need GPU/FPGA support, it may not be the best or cost effective for your particular needs. Since this is directly sold by Microsoft, Dell Technologies typically does not speak much about it except that it is available and what the targeted workloads typically are. For more information for Azure Stack Edge, I urge you to read more about it at Azure Stack Edge | Microsoft Azure.
One thing that we have not discussed today, Azure Arc. Azure Arc’s goal is to offer simplified management, faster application development, and consistent Azure Services. You can easily organize, govern and secure OS’s, Windows or Linux, SQL Server and Kubernetes clusters across datacenters, the edge and even multicloud environments directly from the Azure Portal.
We have discussed quite a bit today but this is only the tip of the spear. There are a lot of considerations for any of these solutions and within those solutions, different configuration options to support the targeted workloads. Below you will find reference documentation to align to the information I’ve reviewed today. Also, if you are considering a move to the Azure Stack Portfolio, I urge you to reach out us at Dell Technology or directly with Microsoft to get a conversation started. We can partner with you on your journey, answer any questions and help size any solution that is required.