Microsoft Azure Stack, a cloud platform that runs within customers' own data centers, is being made available for testing this week as a technical preview.
When originally announced, Azure Stack snapped into focus in Microsoft's plans for a hybrid cloud system. Instead of building one stack to run locally and another to run in the cloud, Azure Stack consists of the same code Microsoft uses to run Azure.
In addition to making it easier to move workloads between local systems and Azure, Microsoft thinks customers will prefer this approach because it familiarizes the development and management experiences in either environment.
A familiar shade of Azure
The current preview of Azure Stack is based on Windows Server 2012 R2, but the final release version will be based on Windows Server 2016, with all of its cutting-edge features. Among those are components Microsoft has stumped for as part of its new vision for an enterprise cloud stack, such as Windows Server Containers (Docker) and Hyper-V Containers.
In a phone conversation with InfoWorld last week, Mike Neil, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Enterprise Cloud group, described the Azure Stack approach as "cloud as a model, not a place." The goal is to present people with an experience and a set of resources that are functionally identical to what's in the cloud. The self-service portal for setting up Azure resources, for instance, relies on the same provisioning infrastructure and offers the same APIs in both the public cloud version of Azure and in Azure Stack.
"It's not going to feel alien to [users]," said Neil.
Another advantage of this approach, according to Neil, is it allows Microsoft to give customers something akin to the full cloud experience in environments where an Azure data center isn't available yet. "If all you have is the public cloud," said Neil, referring to the competition, "you've got to get everybody to move to the public cloud. But that's not the reality faced by most businesses."
Most of the customer feedback Microsoft has received has asked for a consistent operating model that will allow users to move to the cloud in their own time and on their own terms, Neil said. Very few of Microsoft's customers are 100 percent public cloud, so Neil expects to see applications in the on-premises environment that necessarily differ from what's in Azure.
Hitting closer to home
Microsoft's idea for an Azure hybrid cloud is similar to plans promulgated by those building on platforms like OpenStack: Use the same code to build both the in-house and remote instances of a cloud.
However, Microsoft breaks from the OpenStack model in two ways: One, Azure is proprietary and governed by a single vendor, rather than an industrywide open source effort. Microsoft hopes to make it easy to deploy Azure Stack on OEM-packaged hardware (see the Cloud Platform System), and the overall experience is not meant to be nearly as sprawling as OpenStack.
Two, Azure is meant to directly leverage Microsoft's presence in enterprises. Microsoft now includes in its stack many of the open standards that matter to cloud environments -- such as application delivery by way of containers -- so there is less need to defect from Microsoft's platform.
Neil also expects that local solutions-and-service providers will offer Azure Stack to their customers as a managed option. Many of them, he pointed out, are already providing value-adds like compliance with regional government regulations.
Even if they effectively compete with the public Azure, Microsoft remains the driving force.
"There are lots of airlines out there," said Neil, "but only one Boeing."