Azure Stack 101: The Definitive Introduction

Microsoft’s Azure Stack is an excellent toolset that allows enterprises to run a hybrid cloud right in their own datacenters, giving them additional cloud options.

But to really use it to its best advantage, IT pros should know the ins and outs of Azure Stack so they can use it within their business IT infrastructures to better manage, speed up and control their Azure cloud deployments and workloads.

A good place to start is with a primer on Azure Stack itself to give business users a broad look at what’s under the hood of their IT infrastructure.

What Is Azure Stack?

Microsoft describes Azure Stack as an Infrastructure-as-a-Service “designed to enable new scenarios for modern applications, such as edge and disconnected environments, or to meet specific security and compliance requirements.”

Azure Stack is an integrated system of hardware and software, which can provide users with the control and flexibility they seek while still adopting a cloud strategy. Azure Stack integrated systems range in size from 4 to 12 nodes. The infrastructure is jointly supported by Microsoft and its hardware partners, including Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Lenovo, which provide the task-designed hardware for the deployments.

The stack is an extension of Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform, which allows developers to build applications using the complete line of Azure services, DevOps processes and features. These can then be deployed across the company to meet the needs of business operations, technical requirements and regulatory mandates.

Microsoft has prepared a whitepaper describing the benefits and highlights of Azure Stack. This paper delves more deeply into how enterprises can use the product to deploy a hybrid cloud, while maintaining more control in their own datacenters. Developers can build applications from scratch or they can obtain and expand application components from Azure Marketplace, including open source tools and technologies, which can save time and money when applications are needed quickly.

Azure Stack includes tools such as Azure web services, containers, serverless and microservice architectures, as well as a wide range of related resources to create or update needed business applications.

Enterprise IT departments can purchase Azure Stack as an integrated system, or as a completely managed service through Microsoft and its partners. The stacks can be modified as a company’s business needs change.

To build their applications, developers use the existing application model, self-service portal and APIs enabled by Azure Resource Manager, which adds familiarity to the process. The applications are built the same way, whether they run on Azure or Azure Stack. The services use known DevOps tools, including Jenkins and Visual Studio Team Services. They also support automation with Chef and Azure PowerShell DSC extensions.

The stack integrates with a wide range of open source tools and technologies, including Java, Python, Node.js, PHP, Docker-integrated containers, Mesosphere DC/OS and Cloud Foundry. Also featured are the Virtual Machine Scale Set capabilities that enable rapid deployments with auto-scaling for whatever workloads are required.

For enterprises that want to use the cloud while maintaining more control over their assets, Azure Stack offers a great solution.

Azure Stack Architecture, Requirements and Deployment

So, what’s under the hood of Azure Stack, and how can it help your enterprise grow?

The basic architecture begins with Azure Portal, templates, PowerShell and Azure Resource Manager (ARM); followed by a partition request broker in a Resource Provider (RP) layer. Next is an infrastructure Control Layer, which includes physical node management, storage, compute and network controllers. This runs atop a hardware layer that includes network switches, compute hardware and storage.   

Azure Stack is capable of using the cluster shared volume file system (CSVFS), with the resilient file system (ReFS). It has cluster-wide data access, fast virtual hard disk VHD(X) creation, expansion and checkpoints. It also provides a single scalable pool of storage for all disk devices, except for the boot disk. Azure Stack is designed to use multiple virtual disks per pool (Mirrored or Parity), a software storage bus, storage bus cache and servers with local SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment), SAS (Serial-Attached SCSI ) or NVMe (Non-volatile Memory Express) disks.

Azure Stack Requirements

The minimum Azure Stack configuration requires at least four compute nodes. These servers are hyper-converged, meaning they combine storage and compute within the sealed system inside Windows Server 2016. A compute node consists of a dual socket processor with a minimum of eight cores per socket. With multi-threading enabled, this will offer 32 logical processors. A server should have a minimum of 256GB of memory, and each server in a hyper-converged cluster should be identical in terms of CPU, storage and network.

Azure Stack Deployment

To begin an Azure Stack deployment, IT administrators have a wide range of tasks to plan, configure and complete; whether it is being set up on-premises, or within a service provider’s datacenter.

Tasks include assembling and readying the needed servers, configuring the network switches, integrating the systems with the border network, deploying Azure Stack onto the infrastructure’s scale units and connecting the systems to Azure Active Directory (AAD), Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS) or other systems.

Enterprises that want to test Azure Stack in their environments can download and install the Azure Stack Development Kit, which provides a free single-node deployment of Azure Stack. The kit can also be used as a staging environment, where developers can create and test applications for use with Azure.

Azure Government Cloud Integration: What Users Will Gain

Plans are in the works to integrate Azure Stack with its Azure Government cloud offerings by the second half of 2018, making it easier and more seamless for government users to take advantage of the cloud platform’s wide array of features.

By bringing in Azure Stack, government customers will be able to run Azure hybrid clouds on their own infrastructure inside private on-premises datacenters, or on public or government cloud environments as desired. This will give them the ability to make rapid changes based on geopolitical developments and cybersecurity threats.

In March it was announced that the two offerings will be integrated to help users create and maintain consistent connections across identity, subscription, billing, backup and disaster recovery services.

Azure Gains for Government Users

When the integration is completed, Azure government users will be able to continue to leverage their existing infrastructure and share data seamlessly across platforms as required.

“With Azure Stack, it becomes possible to process data in the field without worrying about latency or internet connectivity, and then run aggregated analytics in Azure Government to get the most precise predictions and anomaly detections,” Natalia Mackevicius, director of Azure Stack for Microsoft, wrote in a recent post on Azure Government Cloud blog. “In each of the scenarios, a hybrid cloud extends from enterprise to the tactical edge, which can be connected or offline, or disconnected environments.”

Government users will be able to meet needed data compliance, regulatory or policy requirements using a common set of tools that become available once they have developed and deployed applications using Azure Government and Azure Stack.

Users will also have the ability to modernize their on-premises legacy applications if they are not ready for the public cloud because of cyber security or other requirements.

Azure Security for Users: What Analysts Say

“By bringing together Azure Government and Azure Stack, Microsoft will gain a highly-secure and integrated product that can be used to better compete head-to-head with Amazon Web Services,” Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, told 5nine.

“This gives government customers a high-security alternative to an existing Azure Government platform and other less-secure competitors,” said Olds. “One of the best examples of this is an application development team that’s working on new apps, but they can’t let any of the data – even test data – leave the on-premise systems. The company says that this will be easily configurable in their new integration of Azure Government and Azure Stack.”

The key to how this all works for end users is “how well the existing on-premise infrastructure will be integrated with Azure cloud,” said Olds. “The user experience needs to be seamless and stick to processes and procedures that the customers know well. Even more importantly, from a security perspective, Microsoft’s integration and software quality need to be flawless.”

Another analyst, Rob Enderle of Enderle Group, said, “the competition in the government cloud marketplace continues to be fierce and is resulting in massive changes to the cloud platforms and related infrastructure of Microsoft, AWS, IBM and others.”

“Microsoft’s focus is on tuning their offerings to better fit the unique operational and security needs of government, and Microsoft’s integration of Azure Stack and Azure Government are designed to make their offerings even more compelling,” said Enderle. “IT customers also benefit because the government is cheap and it has a need for very high security. The result is there are ever more secure, affordable offerings that can be sold into IT accounts as well.”

Charles King, the principal analyst with Pund-IT, said, “the coming of Azure Stack and Azure Government integration could also offer potential benefits for companies that do or plan to do business with government agencies by delivering services or documents based on Microsoft applications.” Overall, the move is a “market-broadening strategy with Microsoft tweaking existing services and products to meet the discrete needs of other government customers,” said King.

Azure Stack continues to be a huge asset for enterprises that want to expand their operations and infrastructure in the cloud or in their datacenters. For more information about Azure Stack or related solutions, contact us today!

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Robert Corradini is a three-time Microsoft Cloud and Datacenter MVP with over 20 years of experience managing cloud and datacenter technologies. He is currently the Director of Product Management at 5nine and focuses on bringing world-class cloud security and management solutions to market.

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