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Microsoft Launches Azure Stack HCI

Azure Stack HCI is now generally available from Microsoft, in conjunction with its hardware partners.

Currently, Azure Stack HCI is available "worldwide, in 18 languages." It uses "the Azure Stack HCI service," which is currently available in "East US, West Europe, and Southeast Asia, with more regions planned every few weeks going forward," Microsoft indicated.

Microsoft first introduced Azure Stack HCI as a preview product last year. This past July, Microsoft announced that Azure Stack HCI had its own new operating system, called "version 20H2." In addition, Microsoft explained back then that Azure Stack HCI would be sold on a subscription basis.

Apparently, organizations need to buy Azure Stack HCI from a certified hardware vendor. They can then run Azure Stack HCI on that hardware in their own datacenters, but Microsoft imposes recurring subscription costs for doing so. Additionally, organizations are responsible for maintaining their Azure Stack HCI implementations, or alternatively they can outsource that work to a Microsoft partner. Microsoft does provide updated software for Azure Stack HCI, though.

Azure Stack HCI is one of three products in the Azure Stack product line, which also includes Azure Stack Hub and Azure Stack Edge. Product distinctions, and more, can be found in this Azure Stack HCI "Overview" document.

Certified Hardware and Software
"HCI" stands for "hyperconverged infrastructure," where compute, storage and networking all happen on the same server in a cluster. More typically, HCI is associated with the Windows Server 2016 and 2019 products, where it was conceived as potentially lowering hardware costs. 

In the case of Azure Stack HCI, organizations have to buy the hardware product from certified vendors. They can't use their own hardware. Azure Stack HCI has been validated by 24 solutions partners so far and is being sold in various form factors, Microsoft indicated in another announcement last week.

In addition, hardware partners DataON, Dell Technologies and Lenovo are currently selling so called "Integrated Systems," which are Azure Stack HCI hardware products that also include preinstalled software, firmware and drivers.

"Integrated Systems are the fastest and easiest way to get up and running with Azure Stack HCI," the announcement explained.

Microsoft also announced that it has started a new "validation program" for software companies building solutions that work with Azure Stack HCI. "The first five participating vendors are Altaro, Commvault, Datadog, Veeam, and Veritas," Microsoft indicated.

Processor maker Nvidia announced that Azure Stack HCI works with Nvidia EGX servers and Nvidia Mellanox networking solutions, taking advantage of "RDMA over Converged Ethernet (RoCE) networking technology." The use of RoCE technology speeds up compute-intensive workloads, Nvidia contends.

Microsoft worked with 30 customers and its various partners to get the Azure Stack HCI product ready for production-environment use, Microsoft explained in this announcement. That effort has simplified its deployment for organizations, it contended. IT pros can use their expertise with Microsoft tools "such as PowerShell and System Center" with the Azure Stack HCI product, Microsoft argued.

Use Cases for Azure Stack HCI
Azure Stack HCI is designed to let organizations run virtualized applications on Azure software, while also having connections to Azure software-as-a-service solutions, such as the Azure Backup service and others.

Azure Stack HCI is also conceived as a solution for organizations that are replacing older hardware. It might be used to update branch-office locations, for instance, according to a characterization by Sarah Lean, senior cloud advocate at Microsoft, in a Microsoft-produced video (at around 14 minutes).

Support for high-performance SQL database workloads is another proposed use case for Azure Stack HCI.

Another highlight mentioned by Lean is Azure Stack HCI's integration with Azure Arc, which is a Microsoft cloud management solution. It also works with the Windows Admin Center browser-based management solution, plus the Azure Portal.

Azure Stack HCI has a "stretch clustering" feature, which lets organizations set up a replica server as failover in disaster recovery scenarios. A cloud-based "witness" is used by default in the setup, Microsoft explained, in this video.

Coming Features
Microsoft described a few coming features expected in 2021. Most impressive is a "kernel soft reboot" feature that promises to reduce the time needed after a reboot to seconds. It bypasses things like the "firmware initialization and hardware power-on self-test" to gain that speed, Microsoft explained.

Microsoft expects Azure Stack HCI will become "Arc-enabled by default" for host nodes in early 2021, which also will facilitate management from the Azure Portal and Azure Monitor. 

A new feature coming in 2021 called "Network ATC" will simplify configurations and protect against "configuration drift," Microsoft indicated.

Microsoft is also planning to add Graphics Processing Unit acceleration improvements used with Azure to the Azure Stack HCI product with a future feature update release.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.

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