First look: Microsoft Azure Stack hits the ground running

Technical preview of Microsoft's hybrid cloud platform drives just like Azure, drawing on the same APIs, tools, and templates

First look: Microsoft Azure Stack hits the ground running

Microsoft's latest attempt to square the circle of on-premises IT and cloud services, Azure Stack brings what Microsoft describes as a "cloud consistent" platform into the data center. "Cloud consistent" means that Azure Stack offers the same portal, management, and devops tooling as the Azure cloud service -- although it's not built on the same underlying software, but instead extends Windows Server 2016.

Consistency makes all the difference when delivering a hybrid cloud platform, which by definition should allow the seamless migration of applications from on premises to the cloud and back again. Azure Stack has the same APIs as Azure, and it offers the same self-service IaaS and many of the same PaaS features. You'll be able to write code once, and deploy it to either on-premises servers or the Azure cloud simply by changing the deployment target in Visual Studio. Similarly, you can use the same PowerShell management scripts on both platforms, as well as the familiar Azure portal.

The first technical preview of Azure Stack will be available for download on Friday, January 29. Microsoft will continue to update the preview throughout 2016, with a final release due sometime toward the end of the year, after the release of Windows Server 2016. I was able to spend some time working with Azure Stack during a recent visit to Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Wash.

Your own private Azure

While much of the Azure platform will run on Azure Stack, Microsoft decided that some services should operate in a hybrid mode, with Azure Stack consuming these services from the Azure cloud. It's an approach that makes a lot of sense. After all, if you're going to use Azure Active Directory to handle user authentication, then you're not going to want to run it on premises. With Azure Stack drawing on Azure AD, you have a single authentication infrastructure for on premises and the cloud, using Active Directory synchronization to map your local Active Directory to Azure AD.

In much the same way Azure Stack will depend on Azure's backup and recovery services, allowing you to use the Azure cloud as a recovery target for on-premises Azure Stack applications. While integration with the Azure cloud simplifies the deployment and management of Azure Stack, it does mean that you're going to need an Azure subscription to get the most out of Azure Stack.

azure stack services

In the initial technical preview, Azure Stack limits you to core Azure services such as blob and table storage. Microsoft promises Azure Service Fabric and more in future previews. 

In addition to the user portal, Azure Stack provides a dashboard for administrators, where they can see resource usage and bring on more compute and storage as necessary. All services will have their own management experiences, giving you many of the tools you'll need to handle troubleshooting. There's also a limited ability to customize the portal, giving service providers the ability to add their own branding as necessary. Microsoft will provide an initial set of VM images as part of Azure Stack's Gallery, and you'll be able to use PowerShell to add your own images.

It's important to note that running Azure Stack is not like running Virtual Machine Manager or any of the other System Center tools to build your own private cloud. It's a significant step up the stack, allowing you to manage physical infrastructure and Azure Stack services while users get self-service access to your private cloud. You'll need to take a different approach to monitoring and managing your Azure Stack instance, keeping a close eye on how resources are being used and applying quotas and resource management tools to ensure that user experiences aren't degraded by excess load.

Azure Stack is based on Windows Server 2016 and installs using only one line of PowerShell. While it supports all of Microsoft's VM types, the small scale of the technical preview is such that you will likely want to use it with Nano Server, building microservices and experimenting with high-density virtual infrastructures. There will be support for some key Azure workloads on the technical preview including Azure Websites, though you'll need to prepare VMs before you can deploy the service.

One key service missing from the initial download is Azure Service Fabric. That's a disappointment, but Microsoft indicated that Service Fabric will be added in a future update. If you're planning on using Azure Stack to build PaaS applications, you'll initially be limited to working with core Azure services like blob and table storage.

Hands-on with Azure Stack

The technical preview is designed to run on a single server, but don't expect to run it on a low-end server. The Azure Stack needs plenty of power. Microsoft is recommending a minimum of 12 physical cores that support Hyper-V with SLAT (second-level address translation), and suggests at least 16 cores. Similarly, you'll need at least 96GB of RAM, and preferably 128GB. You'll also need five hard disks: a 200GB SSD or HDD for the base OS and four disks for the workloads, again either SSD or HDD, and a minimum of 140GB per disk, preferably 250GB or greater.

azure stack templates

You can use the same Azure Resource Manager templates to deploy your applications to Azure Stack or Azure. 

At a recent event in Redmond, I had some hands-on time with a pre-release version of the Azure Stack technical preview. Running on a single server, Azure Stack had the same look and feel as the Azure cloud, and it offered the same support for the Azure Resource Management tools. You can use familiar tools to add resources to a subscription, via core Azure services and virtual machines from a local Gallery.

If you've been using Azure's templating language to create and deploy applications, you can use the same templates in Azure Stack. I was able to take one from GitHub, copy it into the Azure Stack portal as a custom template, and add appropriate device and service names before deploying it. Unlike Azure, where the service portal is the only interaction with the platform, administrators are able to use Windows Server tooling like Hyper-V Manager to inspect operations and watch new servers being deployed.

One key concept in Azure Stack that will be unfamiliar to many IT departments is the idea of a service plan. Azure Stack is run like a cloud service and brings in many service provider concepts. Admins can offer self-service users a menu of service plans that allow admins to control the resources those users can access, dependent on their Active Directory roles. This allows you to give business users different services from developers and PaaS users different resources from those consuming IaaS. You'll also be able to use these resource offers to manage charge-backs, allowing you to account for compute and storage usage, and eventually to turn IT departments into profit centers rather than cost centers.

Microsoft has learned from its Cloud Platform System collaboration with Dell and HP. Azure Stack will offer as few options as possible, while Microsoft will be prescriptive about the hardware you use and how you deploy it. Further, Azure Stack will make use of lighter-weight technologies like Nano Server, significantly reducing the of hypervisor footprint and concomitant need for patching. Updates will be delivered automatically and will install without affecting user workloads.

Azure Stack promises to be one of Microsoft's most significant 2016 releases, blending the benefits of on-premises IT operations and cloud services. You'll be able to build and run services locally, in the same way you build and run them in Azure, while still being able to take advantage of Azure resources as necessary. Microsoft describes cloud as a model, not a place, and Azure Stack delivers on that promise. By mirroring the Azure APIs and integrating Azure services, Azure Stack is poised to make on-premises IT as easy and flexible as the public cloud. That's something that both IT and users can get excited about.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.