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What is Microsoft Azure Stack?

What is Microsoft Azure Stack?
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What you need to know about Microsoft's Azure Stack hybrid cloud platform.

Microsoft's Azure Stack is a new hybrid cloud platform product that allows you to bring nearly full public Azure functionality to your own on-premises data centers. So you get the power of the cloud and control of your database. It can help with scalability.

We've outlined the basics of how Azure Stack works and what is new. What might this emerging technology mean for you, your business and your career?

What are the benefits?

The Microsoft Azure public cloud conveys powerful benefits to businesses of all sizes. Instead of purchasing racks of physical servers and worrying about stuff like security hardening, updates and backups, you can pay Microsoft to take care of the back-end plumbing for you.

The Azure ecosystem consists of redundant data centers located literally around our globe. In most cases, Azure can provide you with far better security, performance, and reliability than you can provide on-premises.

MORE: Azure vs. AWS: Cloud Computing Comparison

Legal issues?

That said, public Azure is a "no go" for organizations that have regulatory compliance or internal security policy restrictions against storing corporate secrets in a public cloud.

Another common issue with public cloud services is data sovereignty. What are the laws in other countries with regard to data privacy, and how might those laws result in unauthorized access to your corporate data?

There's no question that the Microsoft Azure development team is well aware of these valid customer concerns, and I believe this is the primary driver behind the Azure Stack.

Azure Stack in Action

Up until the Azure Stack was announced at the 2015 Ignite conference, Windows systems architects had to rely upon the System Center 2012 R2 product suite to build a private cloud.

Microsoft private cloud components.Microsoft private cloud components.

As you can see in the previous figure, you pay a lot of money, not only in terms of hardware costs, but also in System Center/Windows Server licensing fees, to build your own private cloud. And that's perhaps in only one datacenter. To replicate the public Azure cloud's redundancy and fault-tolerance, you'll need to spread your services across two or more geographical locations.

So in a nutshell, Azure Stack aims to simplify deploying your own private, fully owned and operated cloud by giving you the same tools that Microsoft uses in their worldwide data center fabric.

The public Azure web administration portal.The public Azure web administration portal.

The private Azure Stack web administration portal.The private Azure Stack web administration portal.

As a powerful illustration, check out the previous two screen captures. The first image shows you the public Azure web administration portal that may already be familiar to you. The second image shows what the Azure Stack portal looks like as of this writing in summer 2016.

With Azure Stack you're able to use the same intuitive interface to deploy web applications, virtual machines, cloud databases and other services that you already use in public Azure.

If you've worked with Azure Resource Manager (ARM), then you have probably deployed services by using ARM JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) templates, and you've seen how powerful those are. The Azure development team hosts a bunch of Azure Stack QuickStart Templates at GitHub to give you a leg up on deploying services in your own Azure Stack private cloud.

Building blocks

The Azure Stack host system requirements are unapologetically steep. Here are some "highlights":

  • At least 16 CPU cores
  • At least 128GB RAM
  • At least four disk drives

The hardware investment here makes sense when you think of what a cloud host does; namely, offer compute services on-demand to users. One of the biggest benefits of any public cloud platform is the notion of "services on demand."

For example, if you host your corporate website in Azure, you can scale up the service to accommodate traffic spikes without having to mess with any of your on-premises hardware. For that matter, you can set your services to auto-scale as needs warrant.

So yes — you'll need a firm bedrock of compute resources to allocate to your users' platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and/or infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) requirements. You can download the Azure Stack Technical Preview installer package (a 10GB file) from the Azure website. The Technical Preview can be installed only in a single location.

Rumor has it that the shipping version will allow the same kind of geo-redundancy as is found in public Azure. You can even have your Azure Stack regions show up on the Service health map that we Azure pros rely on to check service availability.

Bottom line

Is Azure Stack "ready for prime time" as of summer 2016? Certainly not. The Azure documentation clearly states that nobody on earth should attempt to deploy the Technical Preview in any kind of production capacity.

That said, if you've wanted to move your business to the Azure cloud but have been held back by compliance and security concerns, Azure Stack should rightfully make you pretty happy.

In my opinion, your best bet for getting up to speed with Azure Stack, assuming you've never used Azure before, is to create a free Azure account and spend the free $200 credit kicking the tires to get you past your initial, admittedly steep learning curve.