An Intro to Azure Stack

Azure Stack extends Azure to your on-premises environment, powering your own private Azure cloud. In the Azure team’s own words, Azure gives you their code (in the form of a stack) for running Azure in your own datacenter, or a qualified host’s datacenter. With your private Azure platform in place, you can then run Azure services outside of Azure itself, giving you more control and autonomy over your data and workloads.

Recently, Microsoft announced that it is doubling Azure Stack’s reach from 46 to 92 countries in response to growing customer demand. Thus now is a good time to learn more about this increasingly important offering, which is destined to play a central role in the Azure ecosystem. First, we’ll take a look at Microsoft’s underlying motivation for releasing their unique, private-cloud solution. Then we’ll explore the traditional concept of a “stack” and how Azure Stack pushes the concept considerably further. Next, we’ll look at Azure Stack as an alternative to standing up and supporting your own private, proprietary cloud. Then we’ll explore the foundational principles driving the Azure Stack solution. Of course, we’ll also address several practical scenarios where Azure Stack can make the greatest impact on your cloud strategy. And finally we’ll take a look at the user experience, pricing, and how to get started with Azure Stack right away.

Microsoft’s motivation

Although Microsoft is by no means giving Azure Stack away, the prospect of making money directly from this unique offering was not necessarily Microsoft’s primary motivation for creating it. Rather, Chief Architect for Azure Infrastructure, Jeffrey Snover, emphasizes that expanding “the Azure ecosystem” was actually one of Microsoft’s primary motivations for creating the Azure Stack solution. Snover points out that each time a business adopts Azure Stack, the Azure ecosystem grows accordingly. On a global scale, Azure Stack will also reduce latency by increasing the number of extensions of Azure within any given region. This feat will, in turn, significantly improve customer experiences running on Azure-based apps and services.

Understanding “stacks”

In the language of computing, a stack is a collection of software that is composed of layers, one built upon another, like a pyramid. Although there are many types of stacks, the bottom layer is often an operating system, such as Linux or Windows, and the top layer is often a programming language, such as PHP. For example, on a small scale, one widely used stack is a LAMP stack, where LAMP is short for Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP. If you’ve ever run a PHP-based application, such as WordPress, locally, you know that you generally need a LAMP stack or WAMP stack (a Windows version) in place before you can get started. In such cases, leveraging a reliable, pre-packaged stack can save you a great deal of time setting up and configuring your app in a local environment. On a much larger scale, developers building cloud-based applications on-premises also need to have a local stack in place that reproduces all the necessary layers that make up a complex cloud platform, such as Azure. Needless to say, leveraging a pre-packaged cloud stack, such as Azure Stack, streamlines the entire process enormously.

An alternative to a private, proprietary cloud

Although every forward-looking business recognizes the importance of building on a cloud platform in 2018, many still prefer to keep their highly sensitive, business-critical systems off the Internet. Moreover, many businesses may have regulatory restrictions, or customer requirements, that altogether prevent them from building certain apps or storing certain data in the public cloud. To solve this growing problem, some businesses attempt to erect their own proprietary, privatecloud to have the best of both worlds.

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However, Jeffrey Snover argues that this strategy often leads to disappointment. Companies often underestimate how difficult it is to create a private cloud. Furthermore, once an enterprise has a proprietary, private cloud in place, they then have the daunting task of fielding endless questions from would-be developers wanting to use their cloud as a platform. These questions, which are often answered by a robust developer community in public contexts, are far more difficult to answer efficiently in a private cloud environment. Snover goes on to argue that the private-cloud problem is further aggravated by a lack of training, education and detailed documentation on how to use the proprietary cloud platform at hand. Altogether, these shortcomings, according to Snover, “have really doomed most private clouds.” Azure Stack, on the other hand, has a global developer community, extensive detailed documentation and Azure developer training programs to back it up.

Foundational principles

There are several principles that lie at the foundation of Azure Stack. Here we look at four of them:

Consistency

Although there are some unavoidable differences between Azure and Azure Stack, the Azure team has taken great pains to maintain as much consistency as possible between the twin platforms. Generally, this means that you can launch and run the same VMs, storage, containers and so on in the same way on either Azure or Azure Stack. As Principal Program Manager Spencer Shepler explains, this consistency is especially useful for moving data and apps back and forth between Azure and Azure Stack as needed. It also means that you can take your previous experience and knowledge of Azure and presently apply it to your local Azure extension.

Unobtrusiveness

Azure stack is not built to replace on-premises datacenters and VMs. In fact, you can use a great deal of your current on-premises IT infrastructure to run Azure Stack, which the Azure team recommends that you think of as a device.

Ongoing improvement

In contrast to a static, one-time hardware or software deployment, Azure Stack will undergo frequent, ongoing updates, just like Azure itself. As a result, your Azure Stack will continue to rapidly evolve in keeping with the public Azure cloud platform.

Flexibility

Azure Stack reflects the relatively platform-agnostic approach found in cloud computing in general. Accordingly, the Azure Stack offering not only works with Windows, but Linux, Kubernetes and other platforms and orchestrators.

Common scenarios

The Azure Team focuses on three of the most common scenarios that call for a local, hybrid-cloud solution like Azure Stack:

Meeting regulatory requirements

As Jeffrey Snover points out, one common scenario involves a business with regulatory demands that require them to keep their cloud-based app on-premises. In such a situation, Azure Stack allows them to “lift and shift” their Azure-based cloud app and corresponding workloads to an on-premises, private extension of Azure. That is, Azure Stack powers a private Azure cloud for them that can meet all necessary regulatory requirements. Because Azure Stack is essentially the same platform as its public counterpart, their app will otherwise run on-premises in the same fashion as it did in Azure.

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Modernizing legacy systems

Many businesses, while still using legacy systems in 2018, are actively seeking to modernize to meet the demands of a cloud-powered world. Yet for any number of reasons, such as customer requirements, many of these same businesses can’t move their apps and workloads to the public cloud right away. In such situations, Azure Stack provides these businesses with a much-needed stepping stone: a local device that gives businesses all the modern advantages of a widely used cloud-based platform while remaining in a familiar, private, on-premises environment. Once a given business is ready to move on to the public Azure cloud, the transition will be straightforward. After all, thanks to their implementation of Azure Stack, they will already have their apps and workloads running on an extension of Azure.

Bringing the cloud to disconnected environments

In some situations, such as a factory floor full of powerful robotics, control and security are paramount concerns. Accordingly, it may be necessary to keep the underlying operational platform off the Internet altogether. Yet such a business may still want to leverage the cutting-edge advantages that a leading cloud platform, such as Azure, provides. In such scenarios, Azure Stack gives businesses the benefits and services of the Azure cloud while keeping the platform on-premises and off the Internet.

The user experience

When you navigate to the Azure Stack portal, you will find that it looks almost identical to the familiar Azure Portal, including the same, familiar menus. In fact, the only noticeable difference you will find on the main page is the heading in the upper left-hand corner, which reads Microsoft Azure Stack rather than Microsoft Azure Portal. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that when you log into Azure Stack, you are not interacting with an Azure datacenter. Rather, you’re interacting with your own datacenter, or that of your chosen host.

Pricing

Azure Stack uses the pay-as-you-go model, and for good reason. Jeffrey Snover points out that if there were a one-time, up-front cost, Microsoft would get paid regardless of whether or not your business successfully deployed and used Azure Stack. However, under the familiar pay-as-you-go model, Microsoft doesn’t get paid unless Azure Stack is working for, and getting used by, your business. In a nutshell, according to Snover, “in order for us to be successful, you must be successful.”

Getting started

According to Snover, one of the best ways to get started with Azure Stack is to begin building your app in the familiar, public Azure cloud. Then, once you have a good sense of your app’s requirements and capacities, it’s time to move your app on-premises, where it will run privately on Azure Stack. However, before making the move to your own private Azure cloud, Snover suggests reaching out to a team of Azure specialists for expert guidance.

To learn more about Azure Stack and other transformative Azure services, contact us.

About Jess Coburn

It's Jess's responsibility as CEO and Founder of Applied Innovations to set the direction of Applied Innovations services to ensure that as a company we're consistently meeting the needs of our customers to help drive their success.In his spare time, Jess enjoys many of the things that made him a geek to begin with. That includes sexy new hardware, learning new technology and even a videogame or two!When you can’t find him at the office (which admittedly is rare), you’ll likely find him at the grill or in front of his smoker getting ready for some lip-smacking ribs to enjoy with his wife and two kids.