Azure Stack preview reveals Microsoft's hybrid cloud vision

Azure Stack has many of the same features in Azure, but Microsoft's plan to create a winning hybrid cloud is as hardware-centric as it is software-powered

Azure Stack preview reveals Microsoft's hybrid cloud vision
Thinkstock

Azure Stack, Microsoft's private cloud software built from the same bits used to create the public Azure cloud service, is now available in its third, and likely final, technical preview edition before its release to the public later this year.

TP3 has many new features, but it also clarifies Azure Stack's pricing structure and Microsoft's plan to address the specific problems for which customers use Azure Stack.

Stacked ever higher

Azure Stack's concept is audacious: Help people run a private or hybrid cloud on their hardware that's functionally identical to the full-blown Microsoft Azure cloud, all the way down to the APIs and the bits.

To that end, most of TP3's new functionality replicates what's in Azure at large, including Azure Functions, Microsoft's stab at an Amazon Lambda-style serverless application architecture. Apache Mesos, a datacenter orchestration system used by many Azure customers, will also now run on Azure Stack.

But the big revelation is Azure Stack's business model. Microsoft corporate VP Mike Neil explained in a phone call that Microsoft customers wanted as consistent an experience as possible between Azure Stack and Azure itself -- "from an API perspective and a services perspective, but also from a business perspective," he said.

"Azure Stack will be priced in a similar fashion to Azure," said Neil. "We use a set of meters that mirror what you have in the public cloud. Obviously, the pricing on that will be lower, given that the customer owns the hardware and that it's running in their facility." Aside from the consistency of cost between the two environments, "there's no upfront cost," said Neil. "It's really based on their usage." The meters are "similar to what you'd find in Azure," such as running a certain size of VM for a certain length of time.

Several Microsoft OEM partners, such as Dell, HP Enterprise, and Lenovo, are intent on providing a pay-as-you-go model for Azure Stack certified hardware. There, the user buys the hardware with Azure Stack preinstalled and is then billed for Azure Stack usage separate from the hardware costs.

This highlights one of the criticisms of Azure Stack: The fully supported version of the product is still slated only to be offered on precertified system configurations offered by partners. InfoWorld's Eric Knorr believed it "says something about the daunting complexity of implementing a full-fledged private cloud" -- that is, while it'll be possible to run a hybrid version of Microsoft's offering, the cost of that complexity will be in the form of dollars paid to Microsoft and its partners to keep things humming.

Hybrid as "the new normal"

Despite all this, Azure Stack is a big part of Microsoft's current and future plans for hybrid. "We've got a fairly consistent refrain from most customers that they're looking at hybrid as the new normal," said Neil.

For Neil, "cloud is a model, not a place." Providing a consistent interface across both public and private clouds isn't only about convenience. It also unlocks many new application scenarios, some of which Neil claimed were already under exploration by Azure customers.

One example is performing cloud-model development on premises: "A lot of customers want to use public cloud as a mechanism to do dev and test, but have regulatory or other requirements that keep them from deploying in public clouds." Being able to use the same toolset in both domains, he said, is a benefit for them.

Neil also mentioned processing that needs to happen at the cloud edge -- "where people are dealing with latency and connectivity as challenges," such as apps that connect to and fetch data from the public cloud but still need to be able to run autonomously in case of network outages. One concrete example Neil mentioned was the datacenter on board a cruise ship, which runs many functions: a CRM system for handling customer demands, the onboard entertainment server, and so on.

When Microsoft was designing Azure, said Neil, "we talked with [partners and customers] a lot about what they were doing with things like OpenStack and private cloud solutions, and we saw pretty high failure rates there." Those that did run, he said, required heavily dedicated development teams to make them work. "We really wanted to have a solution that didn't require Ph.D-level effort to deploy and have the customer be successful out of the gate."

For Microsoft, the ultimate aim with Azure Stack is reminiscent of what companies like Mirantis have tried to do with OpenStack: Deliver a hybrid cloud that won't sour its users on the concept, and allow them to be genuinely productive. Hence, the focus on OEMs as the path for Azure Stack customers to acquire and work with the product. (Mirantis has also gone the hardware route, offering OpenStack appliances as one possible solution.)

If the "new normal" Microsoft is talking about is tied to specific, OEM-provided hardware, that's a far cry from the once-heralded vision of a hybrid cloud that runs entirely on open source, open standards, and hardware of one's choosing. Microsoft's bet is if it works, and if its hybrid cloud market is in fact a growth market, there'll be less hand-wringing about what was missed, and more leveraging of a hybrid architecture designed to build on the existing and growing Azure legacy.