What the hybrid cloud really means

Consistency between public and private cloud environments is key, and Microsoft has the tech lead -- and the big installed base -- to make hybrid happen first

What the hybrid cloud really means
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I've always had trouble with the phrase "hybrid cloud." Certainly the Wikipedia definition -- "a composition of two or more clouds" -- is less than helpful. The commonly accepted meaning today is some sort of harmonious integration between a public cloud (maintained by the provider) and a private cloud (maintained by the customer).

To unpack an emerging tech paradigm, it always makes sense to talk to the company that's furthest along. For the hybrid cloud, that company would be Microsoft, and few are more qualified to discuss it than Microsoft Azure CTO Mark Russinovich, who dropped by InfoWorld's offices last week to expound on Microsoft's hybrid strategy. For years he has worked on creating a consistent public/private cloud environment for Microsoft customers, bringing Azure technologies to on-premises Windows Server/System Center deployments.

Of the top cloud providers -- including Amazon, Google, and IBM -- why do I think Microsoft has the most advanced hybrid play? For one, Amazon and Google have no hybrid play at all. IBM does, but the gist of it seems to involve IBM consultants building OpenStack private clouds in customer data centers that integrate with IBM's SoftLayer public cloud.

Microsoft is aiming for a much more productized approach, with a private cloud built around Windows Server and System Center that extends to the Azure public cloud. The linchpin is the private cloud component: Not that many private clouds have been implemented at scale in the real world because they're hard to build and maintain. Moreover, when you build a private cloud to be the on-premises half of a hybrid cloud, it needs to closely resemble the public half.

Reflecting Microsoft's product-oriented approach, Russinovich's definition of Microsoft's private cloud is simple: Windows Server 2016 running Azure Stack, next year's cloudier successor to today's Azure Pack. "What we believe is really, truly different," says Russinovich, "is a consistent cloud that spans on-prem hosts and the Azure public cloud."

This is more radical than it sounds. It also reveals the advantage of a proprietary solution controlled by a single company, rather than a consortium like OpenStack. Basically, next year, Microsoft is promising Windows Server customers a turnkey private cloud very similar to the Azure public cloud:

Customers want a consistent private/public cloud experience, and that's where Azure Stack comes into play, which is a core set of services that have the same management and the same developer experience across those environments. We've seen a tremendous amount of excitement for that because a lot of enterprises are saying: "I'm going to be in a transition state for a long time; I don't want two different worlds. I'd like to have one view of the world when I develop an application. I want to make a decision later as to whether I deploy it on-prem or in the cloud -- or maybe it starts in one place and goes to the other place." That's exactly what Azure Stack is designed for.

That may seem like a lot of proprietary Microsoft stuff end to end, but it's worth noting that Azure has also made a point of accommodating open source solutions within its cloud. That includes open source container solutions, such as Docker, Kubernetes, Mesos, and CoreOS. "We want to be first class in supporting all those things that customers are interested in running," says Russinovich.

The container aspect is significant. Docker containers have made it easier for developers to migrate applications and build according to the principles of microservices architecture. One of the most attractive aspects of the Azure hybrid cloud promises to be the container options -- both Windows Server containers and Hyper-V Containers -- as well a Docker containers on Windows Server. In addition, Service Fabric, Microsoft's new PaaS specially designed to support building and maintaining microservices applications, promises to make moving applications from the private to pubic cloud and back again relatively seamless.

We won't really be able to evaluate Microsoft's hybrid cloud until Windows Server and System Center 2016 arrive next year. But odds are Microsoft shops will be first to experience how a real hybrid cloud should work.

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