I am interested in seeing what customers do with Microsoft Azure Stack. I think it is a significant part of a hybrid cloud infrastructure for enterprise customers. The interesting part to me is the split in responsibilities between the customer, Dell, and Microsoft. The workload is managed by the customer as another Azure region. The software platform is managed by Microsoft with their own updating cycle. The hardware platform is managed by the hardware vendor but is on-site in the customer’s datacentre. There is an inherent risk with customer-managed premises underneath cloud provider managed software; this needs to be addressed by the hardware vendor. Even more, the complication comes if customers choose a custom, snowflake hardware configurations.
I am at Dell Technologies World this week as the guest of Dell (Dell provided my travel and accommodation, but has not requested, funded or been involved in the publication of this article.) I had a very pleasant chat with some of the Dell Azure Stack team, a lot of which was around the philosophy of their Azure Stack offering. One element is that the on-premises Azure Stack should be treated as an appliance, plug it in, turn it on, and consume the service. They offer a small number of fixed configurations that fit within the maximums certified by Microsoft. This is very much a cloud-like approach; you don’t get to choose the physical host configuration in the public cloud. We discussed that if customers want to customize the servers in the Azure Stack deployment, then they probably weren’t ready for Azure Stack or any on-premises cloud.
Another aspect was the interlocking of updates, software updates by Microsoft with matching firmware updates by Dell. Dell has a lot of automation around the patching and updating of the hardware platform which helps with the cloud-like simplicity. The quarterly updates from Microsoft are linked up to the Dell firmware updates and deployed in unison. There is a fairly complicated multi-step process (pdf) to deploy these updates, which has a lot of automation but not quite as much as I’d like. To me, this feels a lot like updating a Hyperconverged product only with a much more comprehensive scope as the updates are applied to the complete cloud platform. Hopefully, the whole process will get a bit more integrated with a future release. Speaking of releases, Microsoft does seem to be following a minimum viable product approach where each release brings significant enhancements. A lot of scale related features are still coming, more than 12 servers in a scale unit, and more than one scale unit as a unified site. Next up is hardware failures, whether it’s merely a failed SSD or a whole node. There is an embedded OpenManage instance that phones home to Dell when there is an impending failure and triggers a Dell engineer to go on-site to replace failed components. That was a surprise to me; I am used to lots of components being field replaceable by customers. Dell does not want customers replacing hardware in the Azure Stack rack. It does feel like Dell would be happy to lock the door on the rack and keep customers from making any hardware changes, just like a cloud provider locks their data centers. This isolation also extends to the OpenManage instance; it is stand-alone and separate from any OpenManage instance you might have to manage your other Dell assets. The Azure Stack is a separate appliance for running your Azure workloads. The self-contained appliance approach means that customers do not need to have existing Dell assets to see value in the Dell Azure Stack, not integrating with existing on-premises server management means no cross-vendor integration problems.
I think Azure Stack will have a significant impact, particularly in my part of the world (Australia & New Zealand) where there is a very high adoption rate for Microsoft technologies and the Azure cloud. One of the challenges in New Zealand is that we have no local Azure presence, the nearest is Sydney which means a minimum of 15ms of network latency to access Azure services. Azure Stack will be a way for larger companies in New Zealand to adopt Azure cloud services without compromising application performance due to network latency.
The Dell approach of giving customers few choices and treating the Azure Stack infrastructure like an appliance appeals to me. The value of cloud is not in the pre-racked physical servers but in the ease of consuming application services for business outcomes.
© 2018, Alastair. All rights reserved.