Azure Stack HCI is Microsoft's preferred way of delivering a hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) solution. It's hosted on-premises and managed in Azure. Recently, Microsoft changed Azure Stack HCI to enable admins to configure single-node Azure Stack clusters. So it's competing with Windows Server for additional use cases.

Microsoft's Azure Stack HCI is the way forward for hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) on-premises. It allows organizations to have software-defined storage and networking along with virtualized compute resources.

Azure Stack HCI versus Windows Server ^

Technically, it provides pretty much the same features as Windows Server Datacenter Edition. However, future developments will favor Azure Stack HCI (ASHCI), while Windows Server will only get a few innovations for setting up a hyperconverged infrastructure.

The main differences between the systems are licensing, separate hardware certification programs, and the possibility of running Azure services on-prem. Azure Stack HCI is installed only on bare-metal systems, and unlike Windows Server, it doesn't include any virtualization rights. For ASHCI, you need a subscription, whereas for Windows Server, you purchase perpetual licenses.

Azure Stack HCI is based on Windows Server but has its own license model and separate certification program for hardware

Azure Stack HCI is based on Windows Server but has its own license model and separate certification program for hardware

In the long run, Microsoft's strategy positions Azure Stack HCI as the preferred solution for the infrastructure, whereas Windows Server will be reduced to the role of a guest OS in VMs providing "legacy services." In this respect, the ASHCI single-node cluster fills an important gap, since it's now poised to replace Windows Server in various niche use cases.

Components and benefits ^

The Azure Stack HCI solution contains four main components:

  1. The new Azure Stack HCI OS
  2. Azure services enabled by Azure Arc
  3. Supported and validated hardware from an OEM
  4. Management using Windows Admin Center

Microsoft grants some benefits to organizations running Azure Stack HCI that are not available on Windows Server:

  • Windows Server Azure Edition—The Azure-exclusive OS that provides many benefits, including rebootless hotpatching
  • Extended Security Updates (ESUs)—Allows customers to have access to security updates for end-of-life SQL Server releases and Windows Server VMs
  • Azure Policy guest configuration—Allows auditing and configuring guest OS settings as code

Why run Azure Stack HCI single-node configurations? ^

By starting with a single-node Azure Stack HCI configuration, you can begin with a platform that allows you to extend and scale out over time instead of starting with multiple nodes.

This also means that once you turn on Azure Stack HCI for a single node, you can access the Azure benefits mentioned above. In addition, you also have access to solutions in the Azure catalog, such as Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD), Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS), and all the same OpEx billing models.

Limitations of Azure Stack HCI single-node clusters

Together with the benefits of the single-node solution, there are also limitations to note. These include:

  • You can't use Windows Admin Center to create new single-node clusters. You are required to use PowerShell.
  • You can use only a single drive type; you cannot mix drive types.
  • You cannot form a stretched cluster with individual servers since the stretched configuration requires two nodes at each location.
  • To update the single-server node, you will need to use Windows Admin Center > Single server > Updates tool. You can also use PowerShell or the sconfig utility from the console of the Azure Stack HCI node.
  • Users must realize that any maintenance operations on a single node, including updates that require a reboot, will mean downtime for virtual machines running on the node.

Install the Azure Stack HCI operating system ^

To deploy the Azure Stack HCI operating system, sign up and download the Azure Stack HCI ISO from this link. It provides a 60-day trial of the OS. Install and boot the Azure Stack HCI node.

After installing Azure Stack HCI, we need to go through the steps to create the Azure Stack HCI single-node cluster.

Deploy an Azure Stack HCI single-node cluster ^

There are a few steps to setting up the Azure Stack HCI single-node cluster. These involve the following:

  • Adding the required Windows roles and features
  • Creating the single-node failover cluster
  • Enabling StorageSpacesDirect
  • Adding the cluster to Windows Admin Center
  • Registering with Microsoft Azure
  • Creating a shared volume for running workloads

Adding the required Windows roles and features

To add the required Windows roles and features for the Azure Stack HCI single-node cluster, run the following PowerShell command:

Install-WindowsFeature -Name "Hyper-V","Hyper-V PowerShell","Failover-Clustering" -IncludeAllSubfeatures -IncludeManagementTools
Adding the required Windows roles and features to Azure Stack HCI

Adding the required Windows roles and features to Azure Stack HCI

Creating the single-node failover cluster

Once the Azure Stack HCI single-node host has the required roles and features, you can create the single-node failover cluster.

New-Cluster -Name azclstr -Node azstackhci01 -NoStorage -StaticAddress 10.1.149.60
Running the command to create the single node Azure Stack HCI cluster

Running the command to create the single node Azure Stack HCI cluster

Enable StorageSpacesDirect

Next, we can enable StorageSpacesDirect (S2D), the software-defined storage solution used with Azure Stack HCI.

Enable-ClusterStorageSpacesDirect -CacheState Disabled
Enabling StorageSpacesDirect on the single node Azure Stack HCI cluster

Enabling StorageSpacesDirect on the single node Azure Stack HCI cluster

Adding the cluster to Windows Admin Center

Next, we need to add the new single-node Azure Stack HCI cluster to Windows Admin Center for management and registration with Microsoft Azure. Navigate to the All Connections > Server clusters > Add button. Follow the wizard to add your Azure Stack HCI cluster.

Use the Add Cluster wizard to add your single node Azure Stack HCI cluster

Use the Add Cluster wizard to add your single node Azure Stack HCI cluster

The Azure Stack HCI single-node cluster has been added to Windows Admin Center.

Azure Stack HCI single node cluster added to Windows Admin Center

Azure Stack HCI single node cluster added to Windows Admin Center

Register with Microsoft Azure ^

You need to register the Azure Stack HCI cluster with Microsoft Azure to enable services and expose Azure benefits. Connect to your Azure Stack HCI cluster dashboard. Click Register this cluster in the Azure Connection column.

Register your Azure Stack HCI single node cluster with Microsoft Azure

Register your Azure Stack HCI single node cluster with Microsoft Azure

Complete the wizard to log in to Microsoft Azure and register your Azure Stack HCI cluster.

Creating the shared volume for running workloads

Finally, you need to create the shared volume for running workloads. You can use PowerShell to do that.

New-Volume -FriendlyName "AZSTACKVOL01" -Size 50GB -ProvisioningType Thin
Adding an Azure Stack HCI storage volume to your single node cluster

Adding an Azure Stack HCI storage volume to your single node cluster

After the Storage Spaces Direct volume is created, you are ready to start deploying workloads to your single-node Azure Stack HCI cluster.

Final notes ^

The new capability to create an Azure Stack HCI single-node cluster allows organizations to use Azure Stack HCI in ways they could not before, with the most minimal configuration possible while allowing Azure benefits.

Additionally, this new capability will allow businesses that accept the resiliency limitations of a single node to still run Azure services on-premises with a single server. It will undoubtedly be a use case for creating lab/dev/test hosts where resiliency isn't as important.

Note the following Azure Stack HCI single-node resources:

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