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In-Depth

Microsoft Partners Weigh Azure Pack vs. Azure Stack

Microsoft partners are evaluating whether the Windows Server 2016 generation Azure Stack improves enough upon the Windows Server 2012-era Windows Azure Pack to meet customers' demands for private or hybrid cloud solutions.

Like many Microsoft services provider partners (MSPs), Codero Hosting Chairman, CEO and President Emil Sayegh faces a big decision when Windows Server 2016 comes out.

Austin, Texas-based Codero is considering whether to add Microsoft Azure to the mix -- not just resell Redmond's public cloud, but offer versions of Azure that it hosts in its facilities, which currently support dedicated cloud, hybrid cloud and managed services based on the open source CloudStack platform.

The capability to do this by deploying and operating the same software that runs Microsoft's Azure public cloud is on the cusp of becoming possible. Not only will hosting providers and MSPs be able to operate their own compatible instances of Azure, but they'll be able to sell, deploy and manage it in customers' own datacenters.

The story of Azure Stack began a year ago at Microsoft's Ignite conference when the company revealed the details about Windows Server 2016. Microsoft introduced Azure Stack as an on-premises option to Windows Server that will let partners host their own Azure clouds and deploy it in customer datacenters or colocation facilities to operate private and hybrid clouds that are based on the Azure platform. Microsoft hasn't said exactly when it will release what promises to be a significant new upgrade of its server OS, but the company released the first Azure Stack technical preview in late January, and the expectation is that it will arrive late this year or in the first few months of 2017.

At next month's Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) in Toronto, Microsoft officials have indicated the company will showcase the potential of Azure Stack for partners. Microsoft is targeting a broad swath of partners including hosters, ISVs, OEMs and systems integrators, according to the description of a planned WPC session about Azure Stack. Microsoft Partner Network competencies supporting Azure Stack include Application Development, Application Integration, Cloud Platform, Datacenter and Hosting, according to the description, which identifies corporate accounts, enterprise, midmarket and public sector as target customers. Mark Jewett, a Microsoft senior director, is scheduled to explain the Azure Stack business model and opportunities for partners, provide a product overview and updated roadmap, and outline the company's investments in the Azure ecosystem, according to the description. Jewett declined to discuss his session, though the company confirms it will reveal new information about opportunities Azure Stack will bring to its ecosystem.

"There is a gap in support levels and attention levels that Microsoft could provide even if [it] was using services providers as a channel. I think there is still a gap that services providers can address."

Emil Sayegh, Chairman, CEO and President, Codero Hosting

Overall, Microsoft's stated vision for Azure Stack is that it will extend the footprint of its public Azure cloud by letting customers and hosting providers run their own iterations of it using either Windows Server or Linux. Azure Stack will allow any enterprise, hosting provider or MSP to build and run their own clouds that are compatible with the Azure public cloud. Because Azure Stack is based on the same code, customers can deploy the equivalent of Azure in their own datacenters and hosting providers can run Azure tenants in their own facilities. This will allow workloads and applications to move and scale between a customer site, a third-party cloud hosting provider running Azure and the Microsoft public cloud using the same APIs, thereby not requiring revisions to applications. At least that's what Microsoft is promising. If it sounds familiar, it should, because that was the same expectation that Microsoft set with the last major server OS release four years ago. It's reasonable to be skeptical.

Windows Azure Pack vs. Azure Stack
Indeed, when Sayegh first arrived at Codero in 2012 following major cloud roles at Rackspace and Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft was previewing its own first-generation cloud OS called Windows Azure Pack (WAP), launched with Windows Server 2012 and extended in 2013 with the R2 upgrade. WAP required both Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012. Combined, Microsoft promoted it as Cloud OS. WAP provides a portal on top of System Center that emulates the public Azure interface. Microsoft built it for hosters, MSPs and cloud providers of all sizes such as Codero, as well as enterprises that wanted to deploy their own versions of Azure within their datacenters. Though Sayegh at the time had considered offering services based on the Cloud OS, it never came to pass -- primarily because he concluded the offering wasn't services provider-friendly.

"Some services providers got bitten by it," Sayegh recalls. "Over the years Microsoft tried to pull [customers] into [its] own cloud and [the company was] trying to use services providers as a place to host. There's still a lot of demand by customers for hosting providers to host things for them and be in control of the stack. There is a gap in support levels and attention levels that Microsoft could provide even if [it] were using services providers as a channel. I think there is still a gap that services providers can address."

While many partners did pass on WAP, others have started offering services based on it, though most waited for the first upgrade with Windows Server 2012 R2 and System Center 2012 R2. Many services providers waited for quite some time before building services based on WAP. One of the most substantial wins for Microsoft came last summer when Rackspace started offering WAP-based private cloud services.

Jeff DeVerter, chief technologist for Rackspace's Microsoft practice, admits it was initially slow to take hold but in recent months, Rackspace has started offering more private cloud services with WAP. The types of deployments range from SharePoint to three-tier database applications to Web-based systems, according to DeVerter. "We've got some customers who are really starting to consume it in pretty large chunks," he says.

Another Microsoft partner that has deployed WAP is Chicago-based hosting provider Hostway, which rolled out its first service with it to offer a virtual private cloud service. "It's a productized private cloud within the Hostway datacenter that comes with a nifty UI to spin up and down virtual machines and networks," says Eric Brinkman, a Hostway product manager. Through the WAP portal using some third-party tools, Hostway has also provisioned managed backup and firewall services, Brinkman says. By utilizing Hyper-V virtualization and a control plane, WAP lets services providers completely manage the host with a UI that sports the Azure look, while extending it to provide those additional services.

CGI also offers WAP-based services through the new Dell Hybrid Cloud System (DHCS). Co-engineered with Microsoft, Dell Inc. released a smaller iteration of its Cloud Platform System (CPS) with a version designed for those looking to build private and hybrid clouds in the 100-to-400-virtual-machine range. CGI is the first to announce it has deployed the new cloud-in-a-box system, which, in addition to including WAP, provides converged compute, storage and networking in a single unit. Dell has indicated DHCS will support Azure Stack when it's commercially available, though CGI says there are plenty of customers that want to deploy private clouds today across segments including financial services, health care, manufacturing and government.

"This is what we have today, built on Windows Azure Pack -- it works and we want to deliver that," says Dimitris Karabinis, a CGI solutions architect. While Karabinis and James Pilgrim, CGI's director of consultancy services, say CGI hasn't ruled out evaluating Azure Stack, it's not a priority at this stage of its development. Moreover, they're not ruling out offering other infrastructure services based on VMware's cloud stack. "VMware is no slouch. [It] can come up with something you can deploy and do it just as well," Karabinis says. "We just want to deliver the value to our customers."

Easing WAP's Limitations with Azure Stack
However, just because WAP offers an Azure-like experience, doesn't mean it's the same thing. It's important to understand that the Azure public cloud has evolved significantly in four years and, most recently, Microsoft implemented the Azure Resource Manager, which provides a common control plane for 59 core services (such as storage accounts, databases, Web sites and VMs), where all resources and their interdependent parts are now part of a single entity. Azure Stack will also be welcome to those who don't want to use System Center because, unlike WAP, it's not required.

Even more important, though, while allowing Rackspace, Hostway and others to offer new virtual private cloud services, WAP isn't Azure. "Windows Azure Pack is an awesome product but limited in functionality in terms of bringing all of the feature sets available from Azure public cloud proper to an on-premises datacenter," Hostway's Brinkman says.

"We've got some customers who are really starting to consume [WAP-based private cloud] in pretty large chunks."

Jeff DeVerter, Chief Technologist, Microsoft Practice, Rackspace

The release of Azure Stack promises to address those limitations.

"Azure Stack is going to bring more of those features to the private cloud world because it is supposed to be the incarnation of a true hybrid cloud," Brinkman says. "Run your application where it runs the best manifestation of cloud computing. You can run it in public cloud or private cloud. Azure Stack gives you the ability to run things on-premises that would give you a consistent look and feel, and with its API set it's as if you just ran it in Azure public cloud."

Rackspace is bullish about the potential of the new capabilities in Azure Stack. DeVerter says Rackspace began testing it as soon as Microsoft released the technical preview early this year and intends to have Azure Stack-based offerings as soon as it becomes generally available. DeVerter describes it as "a fulfillment of the promise they made with Windows Azure Pack with Azure Stack running the same code base, running the same APIs. Despite the limited feature set, Azure Stack gives a company like Rackspace the ability to provide that truly-in-Azure experience for a customer in a truly private environment, being able to dedicate and isolate them from the network to the compute down to the storage, which is what they really want."

DeVerter says Rackspace is still evaluating various possibilities and options with Azure Stack. One scenario under consideration is an offering where the company takes the Azure Stack management plane and interface and makes it multitenant, DeVerter says, "So we would use the multitenant management plane, but provide a dedicated compute, storage and network plane. How we see that evolve over time could be pretty interesting in being able to provide a collection of services that may be more multitenant but inside of Rackspace, like storage and sites, but be able to dedicate their storage to be in a single-tenant environment."

That's important because it would allow customers to minimize some of the complexity and costs because customers won't have to invest in multiple hypervisors to run that management plane, according to DeVerter. "In Azure Pack, you've got 20 to 30 different VMs running different services to make it run. If we're going to have that level of redundancy, it's going to require an investment of more hypervisors they'd have to be paying Rackspace for," he says.

Services Providers Consider Azure Stack
Rand Morimoto, a Microsoft Azure MVP and president of Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Convergent Computing, says consultants with his development and deployment services firm are working with numerous hosting providers to evaluate whether Azure Stack makes sense for their environments. Typically, Morimoto says, one of the first questions most hosters ask is why would they want to run the same environment Microsoft already offers on a much larger scale.

"The answer is, there are a lot of customers that don't want to go to Microsoft's public cloud," Morimoto says. "They want to go to someone like a Rackspace who they have a relationship with that is a little more nimble in creating an isolated environment. So you can have, say, an actual environment that is a Rackspace-type cloud, but is not truly public. So you get the depth of Azure but in the secured environment and you do not have to put it in my datacenter."

Yet many also want to run portions of their cloud environment in their datacenters, and many partners will offer triangulated services where they host Azure Stack, provision and/or manage it in customer datacenters, and provide added capacity and storage for specific data and workloads through the Azure public cloud, according to Morimoto.

"This whole concept is that I can have an Azure on-premises or through a services provider or in Azure public, I can move workloads, offer high availability and disaster recovery between different datacenters," he says. "It's the risk-mitigation piece, which is the big part of cloud with a lot of our customers from a banking perspective. Not only do customers want continuity, but they want to be able to provide some level of guaranteed uptime, and this is where they can own that with multiple clouds."

While Azure Stack will make sense for services providers, Morimoto says enterprises that run this in their own datacenters are likely to be those with many thousands of employees and certainly not small to midsize businesses (SMBs) with hundreds of users. The hardware requirements alone will make deploying Azure Stack a considerable infrastructure play, he said. Microsoft has recommended testers deploy the Azure Stack Technical Preview on a dual-socket server with 16 physical cores with 128GB RAM and at least 1TB of storage running on four disk drives.

"If you're a 1,000-person [SMB] WAP is still completely viable," Morimoto says. "Azure Stack is targeting the big companies, and these are companies that typically buy servers in the dozens at a time. So instead of buying a dozen servers and loading up four or five racks, you'll buy an Azure Stack, and the Azure Stack will span across these four or five racks of servers as opposed to building one VM at a time."

Despite some of the limitations of WAP with Windows Server 2012 R2, Morimoto believes its VM model is still suitable for smaller shops that want to run apps in a cloud style and will remain so even as some deploy Windows Server 2016.

"I don't see Azure Stack replacing what Windows Server 2012 set out to do for the private cloud, for the small organization, for custom or internal systems," Morimoto says. "Azure Stack addresses the larger scale and it has a completely different model. When we look at the way Azure Stack is architected, it's based on cores, not virtual machines, and that's a big thing for customers."

Whether Azure Stack is a big thing for the partner community remains to be seen. But early reactions to the preview versions suggest it's a major advance over WAP. Given tepid uptake for WAP in its first couple of years and the amount of time it takes for customers and services providers to put major new systems into production, it will take a while to determine whether Azure Stack is a bigger hit.