Microsoft has long talked about the concept of a hybrid cloud, and — when you think about — it would, wouldn't it? While Microsoft's roots are as a packaged software company, it has since tried vigorously to reposition itself as a company that offers software and services. (And devices like phones, but the less said about those, the better.)
So Microsoft's not just going to go all-in on the cloud and cloud services — despite having in Azure a very fine cloud platform to rent out to customers. And since it doesn't want to – or can't – remain solely a packaged software company, it has no choice but to sit somewhere squarely in the middle, which means software and services, and clouds that involve on-premises computing as well as computing in the cloud.
The problem with hybrid clouds is that they are hard to do efficiently. That's true because the on-premises computing resources are generally different from the pure cloud computing resources. Without consistency across locations, devops frequently have to use different sets of tools, different APIs, or maybe just deal with various inconsistencies when deploying applications in a private cloud or in a public one, or moving between the two.
Microsoft's solution to making efficient hybrid clouds that involve its Azure public cloud is simple: Azure Stack. Essentially Azure Stack is a an on-premises version of Azure that lets companies deliver Azure services from their own data centers just as if it was running in a Microsoft Azure data center.
Microsoft announced that Azure Stack was ready to order back in July, and the first integrated systems built on hardware from Dell EMC, HPE and Lenovo are available now.
Vendors Showing Support for Azure Stack Is Key
Microsoft must be encouraged when it sees companies that make supporting software are betting that Azure Stack will be a hit. Veeam, for example, announced earlier this week it is extending its data protection and availability product to cover Azure Stack as well as Azure.
This kind of support from third-party vendors is key, according to Carl Brooks, an analyst at 451 Research. "Azure Stack is a significant development in hybrid cloud that has the potential to transform the way enterprises think about their data centers and Azure. Recognition of this by independent software vendors is an important validation of Azure Stack," he says.
What's interesting about Azure Stack is that it is priced as a software service, meaning that customers pay for it just as they would if they were using Azure in the cloud. A base virtual machine costs $6 per vCPU per month, for example, while a Windows Server virtual machine costs $35 per vCPU per month. Azure Blob storage costs 0.6c per GB per month, while web apps, mobile apps API apps and functions cost 5.6c per vCPU per hour.
The Azure Stack product/service is likely to appeal to many companies such as those in the financial or healthcare sectors who find it difficult to take advantage of cloud platforms like Azure for security and compliance reasons. Or simply those with traditional or legacy IT bosses who don't feel it's sensible to put the data they are responsible for out in the public cloud.
Since Azure Stack is, in a sense, just Azure running on-premises, it becomes trivially easy — or that's the promise, anyway — to move workloads from Azure Stack to Azure at any point in the future. That could become desirable if more resources are needed rapidly, if workloads end up running data that IT bosses no longer believe has to stay in-house, if regulations loosen, or if younger and more cloud-amenable staff take over.
As of today it's too early to tell how successful Azure Stack will be, because the first integrated systems are only just now being delivered. But it looks like a sensible move, and third-party vendors are behind it, so the early signs are good. And if things turn out to be a roaring success, then Microsoft may one day be in a position to challenge Amazon's AWS cloud platform for the number one spot.
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist and contributor to ServerWatch, EnterpriseNetworkingPlanet and EnterpriseMobileToday. He has also covered technology for international newspapers and magazines including The Economist and The Financial Times since 1991.