What is Microsoft Azure Stack?
Azure Stack offers both infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS) for organizations that develop and deploy applications. Azure Stack shares its code, application programming interfaces (APIs) and management portal with Microsoft Azure for a common platform to address hybrid cloud issues, such as inconsistency between cloud and on-premises environments. Microsoft positions Azure Stack for organizations that must contend with regulations or other constraints that require them to keep certain data private but want to tap into the benefits of a cloud-like platform.
There are currently three variations of Azure Stack intended to suit a wide range of business needs and enterprise-wide deployment scenarios:
- Azure Stack Edge provides a managed hardware-accelerated computing appliance intended for edge computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and internet of things (IoT) environments.
- Azure Stack HCI provides an on-premises hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) appliance with Azure integrations intended for data center modernization, demanding workloads and remote branch environments.
- Azure Stack Hub provides an Azure private cloud, which lets organizations use cloud services on premises to assist with application modernization and intermittent cloud connections.
What is Azure Stack used for?
Delivering IT resources and services as a flexible, highly scalable cloud is compelling to modern organizations, but the implementation also poses many challenges. Businesses that adopt a public cloud, such as Microsoft Azure, deal with a different resource and service delivery paradigm in their data center. This makes it difficult to move workloads seamlessly between cloud and on-premises resources.
Some organizations try to ease this problem with a private cloud that connects to the public cloud, but private clouds typically demand local deployment and configuration of a complex software stack. This drives up complexity for the local data center and doesn't guarantee compatibility between public and private cloud services, access and management.
Microsoft presents Azure Stack as an integrated platform that fashions a seamless Azure environment that extends from the Azure public cloud into the local data center, as well as to remote offices and the organization's edge. With this consistent application development platform, developers can build and deploy applications the same way to the private or public cloud. Azure Stack offers a wide range of Azure services on premises -- such as Azure Virtual Machine Scale Sets, Azure App Service, Azure Functions and Azure Active Directory -- to administer Azure Stack identities.
What services run on Azure Stack?
Azure Stack offerings provide access to a wide range of Azure public cloud services, but potential adopters should carefully consider the Azure services available with each before selecting a product from the Azure Stack portfolio.
Azure Stack offerings don't feature the full scope of services found in the Azure public cloud. Microsoft continues to add functionality through patches and system updates.
The initial release of Azure Stack included infrastructure services such as Azure virtual machines (VMs), Azure Virtual Machine Scale Sets, Azure storage -- such as blobs, tables and queues -- virtual networks, load balancer, virtual private network gateway and Azure Key Vault.
Azure platform services included Azure App Service, Azure Functions, standalone Azure Service Fabric clusters, Azure Container Service engine support for Docker Swarm, Mesosphere Distributed Cloud Operating System and Kubernetes, and databases such as MySQL resource provider and SQL Server resource provider.
Azure Stack initially ran Azure identity services such as Azure Active Directory and Active Directory Federation Services. Azure Stack supports tools such as Azure Backup and System Center Data Protection Manager for backup and restore operations and integrates with Azure Site Recovery for replication and failover.
Early Azure Stack offerings also supported a wide range of Azure marketplace content, such as templates for Cloud Foundry, blockchain and Docker Swarm. Azure Stack customers can also use numerous images and extensions such as Windows Server, RedHat, SUSE, CentOS, Debian, Ubuntu, CoreOS, Chef and others available from the Azure marketplace.
Since its initial release, Microsoft has regularly upgraded Azure Stack offerings with more services and integrations. The latest upgrade was 22H2 released in late October 2022. Azure Stack users can expect more features and functionality to be added in the future. Now that Azure Stack offers a portfolio of products -- Hub, HCI and Edge -- it's a good idea to check for specific features using Microsoft's online Azure Stack documentation.
For example, current Azure Stack Hub supports popular VMs and services in the U.S., including the following:
- A0 through A7 VMs along with Av2 VMs.
- D-series, DS-series, DSv2-series, Dv2-series, F-series, Fs-series, NCasT4_v3-series, NVv3-series and NVv4-series Azure Dedicated Hosts.
- Web Apps App Service.
- Azure Disk Storage.
- Azure Functions.
Azure Stack HCI provides a dedicated hyper-converged platform that hosts virtualized Windows and Linux workloads and storage in a hybrid environment, combining local infrastructure with Azure cloud services. Azure Stack HCI enables a broad suite of Azure features, while the HCI operating system supports common platform tasks, including the following:
- Registration, which connects Azure Stack to the Azure cloud.
- Monitoring, which follows all Azure Stack HCI clusters in the environment.
- Support, which creates and follows support requests for Azure Stack HCI.
- Billing, which allows users to pay for Azure Stack HCI through an Azure subscription.
- Licensing, which validates proper registrations and distributes new licenses and certificates.
- Diagnostics, which sends diagnostic data about Azure Stack HCI to Microsoft to help with support requests and ensure the HCI clusters are up to date.
Azure Stack Edge emphasizes ease of deployment and management using purpose-built hardware-as-a-service products provided by vendor partners. Edge products include Pro, Pro 2, Pro R and Mini R. Edge systems are cloud-managed devices that focus on data processing and computing tasks, but offer other capabilities, including the following:
- Support for VM and containerized workloads.
- Data access from Azure Storage Blobs and Azure Files using cloud APIs.
- Cloud management through the Azure portal.
- Disconnected mode, which handles offline uploads.
- Double encryption for additional data protection.
- Bandwidth throttling to limit bandwidth use.
- Support for scale-out file servers.
What are the advantages of Azure Stack?
In broad terms, organizations face two major problems with cloud technology:
- Deciding whether to run a workload locally or in the cloud.
- Establishing the consistency to build and run the same workload locally or in the cloud.
For many organizations, it's an either-or decision. In some cases, it's too expensive and resource-intensive to build a private/hybrid cloud. In other cases, a workload built for the local data center won't run optimally in a cloud, and workloads built for the cloud might not run in a local data center at all.
The promise of a true hybrid cloud is supposed to address these issues by creating a single uniform environment that can host the same workload on premises within a private cloud or host the same workload in the public cloud where more operational scale and global presence are desirable. History has shown that it can be incredibly difficult for a business to build a successful hybrid cloud. However, Microsoft has fundamentally done that work in Azure Stack.
Azure Stack -- in its three current permutations Hub, HCI and Edge -- is widely intended to provide organizations with this single, uniform, ubiquitous environment that allows businesses to develop one workload that can run seamlessly regardless of whether it's operated locally or remotely. Azure Stack offerings each fill business needs for performance and network connectivity that combine to provide that uniform hybrid cloud environment. Azure Stack offers an assortment of benefits that organizations need, including the following:
- Mature and stable platform in Azure.
- Access to a wide range of Azure features and services.
- Large vendor ecosystem.
- Good compatibility with Microsoft and Windows environments.
- Uniform Azure Stack management.
Microsoft Azure Stack use cases
Azure Stack attempts to fulfill a multitude of roles that demand the investment in a private cloud. For example, next-generation application development requires the availability of cloud-like services and flexibility. A private cloud based on Azure gives developers a consistent platform to build, test and update applications. The company can push the apps to either the Azure public cloud or keep them on premises with Azure Stack.
Microsoft Azure Stack offers use cases in a wide range of industry verticals:
- The financial services sector can use Azure Stack to handle data sovereignty and regulatory compliance requirements, modernize aging legacy workloads to a cloud environment and position the organization for a complete cloud migration.
- The government sector can use Azure Stack to modernize legacy workloads, build creative new services and applications for citizens, and meet its own data sovereignty and regulatory compliance requirements.
- The healthcare sector can use Azure Stack to improve patient data gathering and analytics, modernize aging healthcare applications or create new patient applications, and use analytics to enhance operational decision-making in the clinical environment, such as reducing wait times.
- The industrial and manufacturing sector can use Azure Stack at the edge -- integrating with actual equipment and systems on the factory floor to gather and process metrics from the industrial environment and use the resulting intelligence to lower manufacturing or operational costs.
- The retail sector can bring similar edge computing and processing to a retail floor and then use the resulting intelligence to maximize product availability and minimize theft and fraud.
The uniform development and universal deployment features of Azure Stack help a company meet regulatory or compliance requirements. But not every application can run in the cloud. Azure Stack allows applications to run locally to avoid problems with connectivity, security and latency with the public cloud.
A workload developed for the hybrid cloud can run locally, remotely or in the public cloud -- all dictated by regulatory or policy demands -- without changing its codebase. Regulated workloads are often related to banking, financial reporting and exchange trading industries.
Developers can design workloads to run certain tasks locally before the results move to the public cloud for more detailed collection and processing. For example, an application that runs on Azure Stack can collect and process research data before it moves to a workload in the Azure cloud for more extensive analytics.
Microsoft Azure Stack access and management
Customers manage Azure Stack through the administrator portal and PowerShell. The IT staff creates tenant services and resources from the administrator portal and makes them available to users. Administrators also add appropriate items to the Azure Stack marketplace -- such as VM images or templates.
The user portal -- or the tenant portal -- provides a self-service location for users to select and provision available services and resources such as apps, VMs and storage. Administrators can test services, plans and offers through the user portal.
PowerShell helps administrators access and manage Azure Stack. Administrators who wish to automate routine administrative Azure Stack tasks need to install compatible Azure PowerShell modules for the necessary cmdlets.
Azure Stack administration extends beyond the administrator portal and PowerShell. Administrators perform other duties to maintain the Azure Stack deployment, such as adding user accounts through Azure Active Directory or Active Directory Federation Services and assigning roles through role-based access control.
As an example, Azure Stack Hub provides both an administrator portal and a user portal. The web-based administrator portal is used for regular management of Azure Stack Hub. The administrator portal is accessed by browsing to the portal URL and signing on using Azure Stack Hub operator credentials. Once an administrator is logged into the portal, they can perform Hub tasks such as the following:
- Create plans and subscriptions for users.
- Populate the marketplace with apps and services.
- Register Azure Stack Hub with Azure.
- Monitor health and alerts for the Azure Stack Hub deployment.
- Manage Azure Stack Hub software updates.
Microsoft Azure Stack deployment and pricing
Although procurement options vary depending on the variant of Azure Stack selected -- Hub, HCI or Edge -- Microsoft typically provides the software, while an approved hardware partner sells the related hardware elements usually direct or through familiar channel providers. In terms of ongoing maintenance, Azure Stack offerings require a contract with Microsoft -- as well as the related hardware provider if applicable. Consequently, Microsoft supports the software, while the hardware vendor supports the associated hardware. Microsoft pricing is subscription-based depending on the version of Azure Stack deployed.
Azure Stack Hub provides an IaaS with Azure VMs, extending Azure services into on-premises data centers and allowing cloud applications to run locally. This can be beneficial when applications need to run locally or disconnected from the internet or public cloud. Azure Stack Hub is built on top of Azure Stack HCI and almost all Azure services are available through Hub. Azure Stack Hub can be deployed in a self-managed fashion where software comes from Microsoft and hardware comes from vendors that generally install the software. Self-managed deployments are billed $6 per vCPU, per month for a base VM and $34 per vCPU, per month for a Windows Server VM, while storage accounts are billed per gigabyte, per month depending on the storage services used. Managed deployments are available from providers that actually host Hub at their own sites -- fully managed and supported by the service provider. Managed pricing is at the discretion of each individual service provider.
Azure Stack HCI exists as a hyper-converged infrastructure system that uses both IaaS and PaaS to support Azure workloads and data services on premises. Users can deploy Hyper-V virtualized workloads through Windows Admin Center, which connects to Azure cloud services. HCI can also deploy other container workloads and PaaS offerings. HCI can connect to the Azure cloud but can also run disconnected from the internet and Azure. HCI nodes are purchased from approved vendors and typically have Azure Stack HCI software pre-installed. Microsoft currently offers a free 60-day trial and then charges a monthly service fee of $10 per physical core, per month. Additional services and options carry additional fees.
Azure Stack Edge uses purpose-built systems with strong compute capabilities to run Edge software and operate machine learning, IoT and other intensive edge environments. There are several Edge variants -- Pro, Pro 2, Pro R and Mini R -- and each is intended for specific use cases such as machine learning, remote and branch office, remote data center and rugged environments. These are dedicated hardware and software systems ordered directly from Microsoft and billed through the Azure cloud subscription. For example, the Azure Stack Edge Pro 2 is available in the following three main models:
- 64G2T with 32 vCPUs, 51 GB RAM, 720 GB is $399 per month.
- 128G4T1GPU with 32 vCPUs, 102 GB RAM, 1.6 TB, 1 x NVIDIA A2 GPU is $520 per month.
- 256G6T2GPU with 32 vCPUs, 204 GB RAM, 2.5 TB, 2 x NVIDIA A2 GPUs is $615 per month.
Each unit incurs a $350 shipping fee. Other Edge variants and options carry their own monthly subscription fees.
In all cases, it's important for Azure Stack customers to evaluate product needs carefully and consider all costs and fees associated with the selected Azure Stack product before committing to a long-term deployment.
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