Microsoft Azure Stack HCI is now generally available. What is Azure Stack HCI? What is the difference between this and Azure Stack? What capabilities does it offer for on-premises hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI)?

Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations this year have embraced the cloud full-on. Cloud infrastructure and cloud SaaS environments provide many excellent capabilities for remote workers. However, some workloads cannot be moved to the cloud for various reasons. These reasons may include I/O requirements, compliance reasons, or latency restrictions.

For workloads that remain on-premises, businesses are increasingly embracing hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI), as it offers many advantages in terms of performance, simplicity of management, availability, and cost. Microsoft recently released Azure Stack HCI as general availability. This is a new service that is fully integrated with Microsoft Azure.

What is Azure Stack HCI? ^

Azure Stack HCI is a new Azure service offering that provides a hybrid infrastructure platform on-premises. It enables businesses to run traditional workloads on-premises and integrate them with the cloud capabilities that are offered by Microsoft Azure. A new Microsoft Server OS delivers the new Azure Stack HCI offering as part of the solution by the same name—Azure Stack HCI. The core components of the Azure Stack HCI solution include the following:

  • Azure Stack HCI operating system
  • Azure services
  • Windows Admin Center
  • Validated hardware from an OEM partner
Overview of Azure Stack HCI components

Overview of Azure Stack HCI components

Azure Stack vs. Azure Stack HCI ^

Many people may initially be confused by the new Azure Stack HCI release. Hasn't Azure Stack been around since 2017? This is true. The legacy Azure Stack is a ready-to-consume set of appliances, including support, that you can purchase from a certified vendor. It enables you to consume Azure on-premises and offers an experience consistent with operating in the native Microsoft Azure environment. Azure Stack runs the same underlying components as Azure Stack HCI compute, storage, and networking solutions.

Azure Stack HCI is essentially a new designation for the Windows Server Software-Defined (WSSD) program. The WSSD program is a certification program for vendor hardware that runs a configuration that includes Hyper-V and Storage Spaces Direct (S2D). Microsoft has included the Azure designation in Azure Stack HCI due to the services that seamlessly integrate with the new on-premises solution. With Azure Stack HCI, you do not have the Azure Portal on-premises as you do with Azure Stack.

Azure Stack HCI operating system ^

While the Azure Stack HCI operating system looks very much like Windows Server 2019 Server Core, it is a new operating system that has been built from the ground up as a purpose-built operating system for running on-premises server virtualization. Azure Stack HCI runs Microsoft Hyper-V under the hood as the server virtualization technology that allows running Windows and Linux guests.

New Azure Stack HCI operating system

New Azure Stack HCI operating system

Also, the Azure Stack HCI operating system includes storage virtualization that provides a software-defined storage solution as the storage backend for your virtual machines running on-premises. The underlying storage virtualization platform that Azure Stack HCI uses is Storage Spaces Direct (S2D). With Azure Stack HCI storage virtualization, logical cluster storage is created by using locally installed drives in each Azure Stack HCI node.

One of the great features of Azure Stack HCI is the ability to create stretched clusters that allow cluster nodes to exist in different locations. It provides exceptionally robust protection for your business-critical data. With stretched clustering, data is automatically replicated between the two Azure Stack HCI site nodes, and both sites can be used as part of an Active–Active cluster.

Azure Services ^

What makes Azure Stack HCI a unique offering in the HCI space is its hybrid capabilities as part of the core of the solution—Azure integration. Microsoft's Azure Stack HCI offering allows genuinely taking advantage of both on-premises infrastructure and Azure capabilities without forcing customers to choose between one or the other. Rather, these are viewed as complementary offerings that work together. Microsoft has done a great job architecting Azure Stack HCI to take advantage of the best of what both offer in terms of hybrid infrastructure.

What Azure services can you use with Azure Stack HCI? The solution allows you to connect to Azure services such as Azure Backup, Azure Security Center, and Azure Site Recovery. Since Azure Stack HCI is a subscription-based product, like Azure services, you get consistent feature and security updates. This means you don't have to wait for updates and features since the platform is delivered as a service. Also, subscription-based pricing provides unified billing and allows customers to use their existing Azure support plan.

Windows Admin Center ^

Moving forward, Windows Admin Center (WAC) is the new management and administration tool for Microsoft Server operating system platforms and solutions. Microsoft has hit a "home run" with the new Azure Stack HCI platform's provisioning and management using the newly designed workflows found in Windows Admin Center.

Building an Azure Stack HCI cluster with Windows Admin Center wizard

Building an Azure Stack HCI cluster with Windows Admin Center wizard

The Azure Stack HCI offering "feels" like the release of Microsoft's HCI solution that is ready for production. Previous implementations of Storage Spaces Direct and other aspects of implementing HCI with Windows Server 2019 seemed complicated and cumbersome. However, with the fully streamlined workflows, you can completely configure an Azure Stack HCI cluster. This includes identifying and connecting to the hosts, joining a Windows Domain, installing Windows Updates, configuring the networking for the entire cluster, identifying drives for S2D, and even configuring Microsoft's software-defined networking stack.

Using Windows Admin Center workflow to enable S2D on an Azure Stack HCI cluster

Using Windows Admin Center workflow to enable S2D on an Azure Stack HCI cluster

Microsoft is evening things up a bit here with VMware's Cluster QuickStart wizard, which has long been much easier to use to configure a VMware vSAN cluster than a Storage Spaces Direct (S2D) cluster on Windows Server 2019. The general story with on-premises HCI clusters is that organizations want them to "just work" and be easily provisioned out of the box with little headache as to provisioning the core components and configuration. Azure Stack HCI coupled with Windows Admin Center certainly delivers a great configuration experience with the solution.

Validated hardware from an OEM partner ^

Additionally, much like the concept of "vSAN ready nodes" on the VMware side of the house, Microsoft is doing something similar with hardware OEM partners. With new validated hardware solutions for Azure Stack HCI, integrated systems and validated node solutions are offered to make it much easier to choose solutions that are guaranteed to work with Azure Stack HCI. You can think of these as turnkey solutions that provide validated Azure Stack HCI compatibility. Microsoft has published a hardware catalog that allows searching for these validated systems with Azure Stack HCI.

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Azure Stack HCI systems found in the Microsoft hardware catalog

Azure Stack HCI systems found in the Microsoft hardware catalog

Wrapping up ^

The new Microsoft Azure Stack HCI offering provides an extremely powerful on-premises HCI solution that allows organizations to have a truly "hybrid" approach to housing their infrastructure. With the tight Microsoft Azure integration, Azure Stack HCI allows customers to have the best of both worlds and take advantage of the strengths of both. Newly improved management capabilities and workflows using Windows Admin Center as well as validated hardware solutions will no doubt make Azure Stack HCI a formidable player in on-premises HCI solutions.

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