In the rapidly evolving current technological landscape, the need for flexible and scalable IT infrastructures has never been more pressing. Azure Stack HCI emerges as a response to this need, offering a hyper-converged (HCI) solution that enables the execution of workloads in on-premises environments while maintaining a strategic connection with various services offered by Azure. Azure Stack HCI is not just a hyper-converged solution, but is also a strategic component of the Azure services ecosystem, designed to integrate and amplify the capabilities of existing IT infrastructure.
As part of Azure’s hybrid offering, Azure Stack HCI is constantly evolving, adapting to the changing needs of the market and user expectations. The recent wave of innovations announced by Microsoft testifies to the company’s commitment not only to maintaining but also improving its position as a leader in the HCI solutions sector. These new features, which will be explored in detail in this article, promise to open new paths for the adoption of Azure Stack HCI, significantly improving the management of hybrid infrastructures and offering new opportunities to optimize the on-premises environment.
The lifecycle of updates and upgrades of Azure Stack HCI
A fundamental aspect of Azure Stack HCI is its predictable and manageable upgrade and update experience. Microsoft’s strategy for Azure Stack HCI updates is designed to ensure both security and continuous innovation of the solution. Here’s how it works:
- Monthly quality and security updates: Microsoft regularly releases monthly updates focused on quality and security. These updates are essential to maintain the integrity and reliability of the Azure Stack HCI environment.
- Annual feature updates: in addition to monthly updates, an annual feature update is released. These annual updates aim to improve and enrich the capabilities of Azure Stack HCI with new features and optimizations.
- Timing for installing updates: to keep the Azure Stack HCI service in a supported state, users have up to six months to install updates. However, it is recommended to install updates as soon as they are released to ensure maximum efficiency and security of the system.
- Support from Microsoft’s Hardware Partners: Microsoft’s hardware solution partners support Azure Stack HCI’s “Integrated Systems” and “Validated Nodes” with hardware support services, security updates, and assistance, for at least five years.
In addition to these established practices, during Microsoft Ignite 2023, a significant new development was announced: the public preview of Azure Stack HCI version 23H2. This latest version represents an important step in the evolution of Azure Stack HCI. The final version of this updated solution will be released in early 2024, slightly behind the planned release cycle. This delay is attributable to significant changes made to the solution, aimed at further improving the capabilities and performance of Azure Stack HCI. Initially, Azure Stack HCI version 23H2 will be available exclusively for new installations. Over the course of the year, it is expected that most users currently on Azure Stack HCI version 22H2 will have the opportunity to upgrade their clusters to the new version 23H2.
Activation and management of different workloads
Modern organizations often find themselves managing a wide range of applications: some based on containers, others on virtual machines (VMs), some running in the cloud, others in edge environments. Thanks to Azure Arc and an adaptive approach to the cloud, it’s possible to use common tools and implement uniform operational practices for all workloads, regardless of where they are executed. The 23H2 version of Azure Stack HCI provides all the necessary Azure Arc infrastructure, automatically configured as part of the cluster deployment, including the Arc Resource Bridge and other management agents and components. This means that, from the start, it’s possible to begin deploying Arc-enabled virtual machines, Azure Kubernetes Service clusters, and Azure Virtual Desktop session hosts.
The 23H2 version of Azure Stack HCI offers the ability to activate general-purpose VMs with flexible sizing and configuration options to meet the needs of different applications. Users can use their own custom Linux or Windows images or conveniently access those available in the Azure Marketplace. When creating a new virtual machine (VM) using the Azure portal, the Command Line Interface (CLI), or an ARM template, it is automatically equipped with the Connected Machine Agent. This includes the integration of extensions like Microsoft Defender, Azure Monitor, and Custom Script, thus ensuring uniform and integrated management of all machines, both in the cloud and at the edge.
Azure Kubernetes Service
The 23H2 version of Azure Stack HCI offers the Azure Kubernetes Service, a managed Kubernetes solution that operates in a local environment. The Azure Kubernetes Service is automatically configured as part of the Azure Stack HCI deployment and includes everything needed to start deploying container-based workloads. The Azure Kubernetes Service runs its control plane in the same Arc Resource Bridge as the general-purpose VMs and uses the same storage paths and logical networks. Each new Kubernetes cluster deployed via the Azure portal, CLI, or an ARM template is automatically configured with Azure Arc Kubernetes agents inside to enable extensions such as Microsoft Defender, Azure Monitor, and GitOps for application deployment and CI/CD.
Azure Virtual Desktop for Azure Stack HCI (Preview)
The 23H2 version of Azure Stack HCI has been optimized to support the deployment of virtualized desktops and applications. Azure Virtual Desktop, a Microsoft-managed desktop virtualization service with centralized control in the cloud, offers the experience and compatibility of Windows 11 and Windows 10. This service is distinguished by its multi-session capability, which increases efficiency and reduces costs. With Azure Virtual Desktop integrated into Azure Stack HCI, it is possible to position desktops and apps (session hosts) closer to end-users to reduce latency, and there is also the option for GPU acceleration. The 23H2 version introduces an updated public preview that offers provisioning of host pools directly from the Azure portal, simpler guest operating system activation, and updated Marketplace images with pre-installed Microsoft 365 apps. Microsoft will soon share more information on timings and pricing for general availability.
The increase in applications and infrastructures in edge environments requires organizations to adopt advanced security measures to keep pace with increasingly sophisticated threats from attackers. The 23H2 version of Azure Stack HCI facilitates this process with advanced security settings enabled by default, such as native integration with Microsoft Defender for Cloud and the option to protect virtual machines with Trusted Launch.
Integrated and Default-Enabled Security
The new 23H2 version of Azure Stack HCI presents a significantly strengthened security posture. Leveraging the foundations of Secured Core Server, over 300 settings in the hypervisor, storage system, and network stack are pre-configured following Microsoft’s recommendations. This covers 100% of the applicable settings in the Azure security baseline, doubling the security measures compared to the previous version 22H2. Any deviations from the settings are detected and automatically corrected to maintain the desired security posture over time. For enhanced protection against malware and ransomware, application control is activated by default, using a base policy provided by Microsoft.
Integration with Microsoft Defender for Cloud
In Microsoft Defender for Cloud, in addition to workload protection for Kubernetes clusters and VMs, new integrated security recommendations provide coverage for the Azure Stack HCI infrastructure as part of the Cloud Security Posture Management plan. For example, if the hardware is not set up for Secure Boot, if clustered storage volumes are not encrypted, or if application control is not activated, these issues will be highlighted in the Microsoft Defender for Cloud portal. Furthermore, it is possible to easily view the security status of host clusters, nodes, and workloads in a unified view. This greatly improves the ability to control and correct the security posture efficiently on a large scale, making it suitable for environments ranging from a limited number to hundreds of locations.
Trusted launch for Azure Arc-Enabled Virtual Machines
Trusted launch is a security feature designed to protect virtual machines (VMs) from direct attacks on firmware and bootloaders. Initially available only in Azure’s cloud, it has now been extended to the edge with Azure Stack HCI version 23H2. When creating an Azure Arc-enabled VM, this security option can be selected using the Azure portal, the Command Line Interface (CLI), or an ARM template. Trusted launch provides VMs with a virtual Trusted Platform Module (TPM), useful for the secure storage of keys, certificates, and secrets. Additionally, Secure Boot is enabled by default. VMs using Trusted launch also support automatic failover and live migration, transparently maintaining the state of the vTPM when moving the VM between cluster nodes. This implementation represents a significant step towards introducing confidential computing into edge computing.
Innovations in edge management
Sectors like retail, manufacturing, and healthcare often face the challenge of managing physical operations across multiple locations. In fact, integrating new technologies in places such as stores, factories, or clinics can become a complex and costly process. In this context, an edge infrastructure that can be rapidly deployed and centrally managed becomes a decisive competitive advantage. Tools enhanced with artificial intelligence, capable of scaling to thousands of resources, offer unprecedented operational efficiency.
With the 23H2 version of Azure Stack HCI, fundamental lifecycle operations such as deployment, patching, configuration, and monitoring are entirely managed from the cloud. This significantly reduces the need for on-site tools and personnel, making it easier to manage edge infrastructures.
The 23H2 version of Azure Stack HCI simplifies large-scale deployment. At edge sites, once new machines arrive with the operating system pre-installed, local staff can simply connect them and establish the initial connection with Azure Arc. From that point on, the entire infrastructure, including clusters, storage, and network configuration, is deployed from the cloud. This minimizes the time and effort required on-site. Using the Azure portal, it’s possible to create an Azure Stack HCI cluster or scale it with a reusable Azure Resource Manager (ARM) template, with unique parameters for each location. This infrastructure-as-code approach ensures consistent configuration of Azure Stack HCI on a large scale.
Cloud-based update management
Keeping the system up to date is now simpler. The 23H2 version introduces the new Lifecycle Manager, which organizes all applicable updates into a single monthly package, covering the operating system, agents, services, and even drivers and firmware for participating hardware solutions. Lifecycle Manager ensures that the cluster always runs a combination of software validated by Microsoft and its partners, reducing the risk of problems or incompatibility. Update management for Azure Stack HCI clusters is integrated with Azure Update Manager, providing a unified tool for all machines across the cloud and edge.
Azure Monitor provides an integrated and comprehensive view for applications and infrastructure, covering both cloud and on-premises environments. This now includes logs, metrics, and alert coverage for Azure Stack HCI version 23H2. Over 60 standard metrics are available, including CPU and memory usage, storage performance, network bandwidth, and more. Azure Stack HCI health issues, such as a failed disk or a misconfigured network port, are reported as new platform alerts, customizable to trigger notifications or actions. Additionally, Azure Monitor Insights, powered by Data Collection Rules and Workbooks, provides pre-configured views to help administrators monitor specific features, such as storage deduplication and compression.
For all the details regarding the 23H2 version of Azure Stack HCI, you can consult the official Microsoft documentation.
Azure Stack HCI represents a milestone in the landscape of IT infrastructures, offering a robust, scalable, and secure solution for organizations navigating today’s complex technological ecosystem. With its approach, Azure Stack HCI effectively adapts to the needs of hybrid infrastructures, enabling seamless integration between on-premises environments and the Azure cloud. Its advanced features, such as optimized workload management, cutting-edge security, and ease of edge system management, not only meet current challenges but also open new possibilities for future innovation. The constant updating of its capabilities, highlighted by the 23H2 version, demonstrates Microsoft’s commitment to keeping pace with the evolving market needs and user expectations. Azure Stack HCI is not just a solution for current needs but a strategic investment to bring cloud innovation into one’s on-premises environment.