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What admins need to know about Azure Stack HCI

Microsoft put its branding on a relatively new hyper-converged infrastructure offering that capitalizes on the software-defined features in Windows Server 2019.

Despite all the promise of cloud computing, it remains out of reach for administrators who cannot, for different reasons, migrate out of the data center.

Many organizations still grapple with concerns, such as compliance and security, that weigh down any aspirations to move workloads from on-premises environments. For these organizations, hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) products have stepped in to approximate some of the perks of the cloud, including scalability and high availability. In early 2019, Microsoft stepped into this market with Azure Stack HCI. While it was a new name, it was not an entirely new concept for the company.

Some might see Azure Stack HCI as a mere rebranding of the existing Windows Server Software-Defined (WSSD) program, but there are some key differences that warrant further investigation from shops that might benefit from a system that integrates with the latest software-defined features in the Windows Server OS.

What distinguishes Azure Stack HCI from Azure Stack?

When Microsoft introduced its Azure Stack HCI program in March 2019, there was some initial confusion from many in IT. The company offered a similarly named product called Azure Stack, which uses the name of Microsoft's cloud platform, to run a version of Azure inside the data center.

Microsoft developed Azure Stack HCI for local VM workloads that run on Windows Server 2019 Datacenter edition. While not explicitly tied to the Azure cloud, organizations that use Azure Stack HCI can connect to Azure for hybrid services, such as Azure Backup and Azure Site Recovery.

Azure Stack HCI offerings use OEM hardware from vendors such as Dell, Fujitsu, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Lenovo that is validated by Microsoft to capably run the range of software-defined features in Windows Server 2019.

How is Azure Stack HCI different from the WSSD program?

While Azure Stack is essentially an on-premises version of the Microsoft cloud computing platform, its approximate namesake, Azure Stack HCI, is more closely related to the WSSD program that Microsoft launched in 2017.

Microsoft made its initial foray into the HCI space with its WSSD program, which utilized the software-defined features in the Windows Server 2016 Datacenter edition on hardware validated by Microsoft.

For Azure Stack HCI, Microsoft uses the Windows Server 2019 Datacenter edition as the foundation of this product with updated software-defined functionality compared to Windows Server 2016.

Windows Server gives administrators the virtualization layers necessary to avoid the management and deployment issues related to proprietary hardware. Windows Server's software-defined storage, networking and compute capabilities enable organizations to more efficiently pool the hardware resources and use centralized management to sidestep traditional operational drawbacks.

For Azure Stack HCI, Microsoft uses the Windows Server 2019 Datacenter edition as the foundation of this product with updated software-defined functionality compared to Windows Server 2016. For example, Windows Server 2019 offers expanded pooled storage of 4 petabytes in Storage Spaces Direct, compared to 1 PB on Windows Server 2016. Microsoft also updated the clustering feature in Windows Server 2019 for improved workload resiliency and added data deduplication to give an average of 10 times more storage capacity than Windows Server 2016.

What are the deployment and management options?

The Azure Stack HCI product requires the use of the Windows Server 2019 Datacenter edition, which the organization might get from the hardware vendor for a lower cost than purchasing it separately.

To manage the Azure Stack HCI system, Microsoft recommends using Windows Admin Center, a relatively new GUI tool developed as the potential successor to Remote Server Administration Tools, Microsoft Management Console and Server Manager. Microsoft tailored Windows Admin Center for smaller deployments, such as Azure Stack HCI.

Windows Admin Center drive dashboard
The Windows Admin Center server management tool offers a dashboard to check on the drive performance for issues related to latency or when a drive fails.

Windows Admin Center encapsulates a number of traditional server management utilities for routine tasks, such as registry edits, but it also handles more advanced functions, such as the deployment and management of Azure services, including Azure Network Adapter for companies that want to set up encryption for data transmitted between offices.

Companies that purchase an Azure Stack HCI system get Windows Server 2019 for its virtualization technology that pools storage and compute resources from two nodes up to 16 nodes to run VMs on Hyper-V. Microsoft positions Azure Stack HCI as an ideal system for multiple scenarios, such as remote office/branch office and VDI, and for use with data-intensive applications, such as Microsoft SQL Server.

How much does it cost to use Azure Stack HCI?

The Microsoft Azure Stack HCI catalog features more than 150 models from 20 vendors. A general-purpose node will cost about $10,000, but the final price will vary depending on the level of customization the buyer wants.

There are multiple server configuration options that cover a range of processor models, storage types and networking. For example, some nodes have ports with 1 Gigabit Ethernet, 10 GbE, 25 GbE and 100 GbE, while other nodes support a combination of 25 GbE and 10 GbE ports. Appliances optimized for better performance that use all-flash storage will cost more than units with slower, traditional spinning disks.

On top of the price of the hardware is the annual maintenance and support fees that are typically a percentage of the purchase price of the appliance.

If a company opts to tap into the Azure cloud for certain services, such as Azure Monitor to assist with operational duties by analyzing data from applications to determine if a problem is about to occur, then additional fees will come into play. Organizations that remain fixed with on-premises use for their Azure Stack HCI system will avoid these extra costs.

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