Microsoft launches Azure Stack… finally

  • Its public cloud features finally become available to on-premises environments
  • Large enterprises, with regulatory and latency issues the target market


Microsoft launches Azure Stack… finally


AFTER more than a year’s waiting in preview mode, Microsoft Corp has finally taken the wraps of its on premise-based cloud solution known as Microsoft Azure Stack, which the company claims will extend the benefits and features of its public cloud offering, Microsoft Azure, to on-premises environments.

Speaking to the media during the unveiling of Azure Stack in Malaysia recently, Microsoft Malaysia managing director K. Raman said the on premise-based Azure Stack is now generally available, and that Malaysian customers looking at leveraging on the power of the public cloud in their own data centre can now do so.

Cloud computing is generally classified into three variants: public, private and hybrid. In public cloud deployments, customers lease computers, network and storage from a service provider, and do not generally own any IT infrastructure. Applications and data reside in these service providers’ massive data centres in a multi-tenant (multiple customers) configuration.

The leading players in this game are Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform (GCP) and Microsoft Azure. China’s Alibaba Cloud has also been ramping up its presence in Southeast Asia lately.

In private cloud, companies either own and operate their data centres, lease space to house their infrastructure from data centre floor providers or contract a service provider to manage their infrastructure in their own data centres.

A hybrid model tries to marry the best of private and public cloud advantages by having a company having part of their applications and data residing in a private configuration for privacy and security reasons, while deploying certain application workloads in a public configuration in order to tap extra capacity and advanced features, and to lower operational costs.

Raman said Microsoft Azure Stack is the perfect tool for organisations to boost their hybrid cloud strategy by having all of Microsoft Azure’s public cloud features but at the same time armed with the assurance of the security and privacy of a private cloud configuration.

The Redmond, Washington-based company claimed that about half of the IT leaders across Asia preferred a hybrid model over private or public deployments, according to an internal survey conducted of 1,200 IT leaders across Asia.

“For Malaysian businesses today, hybrid cloud is a natural progression regardless of size and budgets, to reach their digital ambitions,” he said in a statement, adding that Azure Stack is Microsoft’s answer to getting the best of both cloud deployment models.

Asked why it took about a year to get Azure Stack out on a general-ability basis, Raman explained that Microsoft wanted to make sure that its early adopters have had a chance to rigorously test its products before releasing it to the general public.

“These adopters are typically Microsoft partners piloting our products to see if they are really ready for general availability,” he explained. “Only when they are, Microsoft will release the products out to the [general] market.”

Raman (pic, below) said the announcement that “Azure Stack becoming generally available” was made on July 15, and that the product became generally available on Oct 4.

“If we look at it [from that point of view], we haven’t delayed very much,” he argued. “We wanted to make sure that when we launched the product, it is working well, so yes, there was a lot of testing before it went out to the field. So today it’s ready and we’re excited to bring it to customers here in Malaysia.”


Microsoft launches Azure Stack… finally


Delayed, but why?

The genesis of Microsoft Azure Stack began way back in 2015, when its CEO Satya Nadella conjured up the concept of using a bunch of existing software — Windows Server 2016 and Azure Pack among other things — that will allow companies to run their own data centres on the same foundation software that powers Microsoft's cloud service, Azure, according to Fortune Magazine.

It began making this a reality in 2016 but only on technical preview, and was expected to make Azure Stack generally available the same year. But that did not pan out as the company announced that it was delaying its public launch to the middle of 2017.

Additionally, Microsoft said it will provide Azure Stack through integrated systems built by hardware partners, rather than allowing companies to deploy the software on any compatible hardware they choose. 

The change came about because the company wanted to give businesses pre-validated hardware to simplify deployments of Azure Stack, according to Mike Schutz, the general manager of product marketing for Microsoft's Server and Tools division.

At launch, Microsoft will be working with Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Co (HPE), EMC Dell and Lenovo Group Ltd, Computerworld reported.

Some customers were very unhappy with the delay and made issue of the fact that they were forced to use Azure Stack just on pre-configured settings coming out of fixed vendors rather than having the autonomy to choose their own hardware to work on.

Commenting on the delay, Gartner’s research director Alan Waite said Microsoft has not commented publicly on their internal decision-making process.

“So, we don’t know why [officially] there was such a long delay between the announcement of Azure Stack and its general availability.

“What we do know is that Microsoft faced significant complexity in delivering a ‘sealed’ hardware and software stack to customer data centres and co-ordinating fulfilment and support logistics with multiple hardware partners and service providers,” he told Digital News Asia (DNA) in an email.

Waite said most Gartner clients have adopted a wait and see approach on products like Azure Stack as there is so much hype in the hybrid cloud and hyper-converged infrastructure space, and the delay has affected some purchasing decisions.

“This does not mean those clients that fit the use cases for Azure Stack have not been deterred by the delay, and many have been testing the technical preview code in any case,” he argued.

Who would use it?

Another catch to using Microsoft Azure Stack is that it needs to be paired with hardware from specific vendors, namely HPE, Dell and Lenovo. However, the idea for companies moving to the cloud is that they would not have to allocate capex (capital expenditure) and invest in hardware, as well as not have to hire expertise to run the infrastructure.

When asked why customers would turn to Azure Stack since doing so would require companies to do exactly just that, Raman said from Microsoft’s standpoint, there are two ways to approach the market.

The executive said that for companies with no regulatory and/ or bandwidth issues, they should use Microsoft’s Azure public cloud deployment as far as they can.

“If a company can move to public cloud, we would recommend that approach as you get full economics of scale, while deploying software quickly without buying the hardware,” he argued.

However, organisations with regulatory and data residency requirements can turn to Azure Stack because they can have a full suite of cloud features with the same tools, look and feel, and still meet their data residency requirements, he pointed out.

“There are industries that are being regulated, such as those in the public sector and financial services industries (FSIs), and these will continue to have infrastructure on premises until the regulator allows them to go the cloud.

“Additionally, for those who have network connectivity and will need data processing to be done locally due to latency issues, Azure Stack can cater to these as hybrid cloud is the right design infrastructure that they will need to deploy.

Pressed further as to whether smaller companies would take up Azure Stack due to its high capex requirements, Raman said Microsoft would encourage SMEs who don’t have any regulatory or boundary issues to adopt the public cloud as there is no management or capex requirements and it will work on a pay-per-use model.

“We are giving customers options, depending on what industries they are in and what regulatory requirements they have,” he said.

Gartner’s Waite said he expects large customers to be the main clients for Azure Stack at first due to the high initial price barrier.

“SMEs will be more likely to access Azure Stack via a service provider with managed Azure Stack services, either managed in their data centre or provided in the service provider’s data centre.

Quizzed as to what kind of impact Azure Stack will make on the market, Waite argued that Gartner expects Azure Stack to significantly simplify and streamline on-premises and hybrid cloud application development for customers that are already using the Azure public cloud and need to maintain on-premises infrastructure as well.

“It is important to realise that Azure Stack is not a service-for-service replica of the Azure cloud. As of launch, Azure Stack comprises only a subset of Azure services,” he cautioned. “Azure Stack also potentially creates another technology ‘island’ in the data centre and this will deter some users.”


Related stories:

Google bolsters its cloud commitment to Southeast Asia

Alibaba Cloud trains its sights on Southeast Asia

Hedging its bets, AWS evolves into holistic cloud provider


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