Azure Stack HCI: the constantly evolving hyper-converged solution

Azure Stack HCI is the solution that allows you to create a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) for the execution of workloads in an on-premises environment and which provides for a strategic connection to Azure services. Recently Microsoft has brought a series of new features that open up new scenarios in the adoption of this solution and that allow you to better manage your hybrid infrastructure based on Azure Stack HCI. This article reports the main aspects that have undergone an evolution and the new features recently introduced in Azure Stack HCI.

Azure Kubernetes Service in Azure Stack HCI

One of the main new features is the ability to activate Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) in Azure Stack HCI. This new on-premises AKS implementation scenario allows you to automate the large-scale execution of modern applications based on micro-services. Thanks to Azure Stack HCI, the adoption of these container-based application architectures can be hosted directly in your own datacenter, adopting the same Kubernetes management experience that you have with the managed service present in the Azure public cloud.

Figure 1 - AKS overview on Azure Stack HCI

Azure Monitor Insights for Azure Stack HCI (preview)

The solution Azure Stack HCI Insights is able to provide detailed information on integrity, on the performance and usage of Azure Stack HCI clusters, version 21H2 connected to Azure and registered for related monitoring. Azure Stack HCI Insights stores its data in a Log Analytics workspace, thus having the possibility to use powerful aggregations and filters to better analyze the data collected over time. There are no specific costs for using Azure Stack HCI Insights, but the cost is calculated based on the amount of data entered in the Log Analytics workspace and the related data retention settings.

You have the option of viewing the monitor data of a single cluster from the Azure Stack HCI resource page or you can use Azure Monitor to obtain an aggregate view of multiple Azure Stack HCI clusters with an overview of the health of the cluster, the state of nodes and virtual machines (CPU, memory and storage consumption), performance metrics and more. This is the same data also provided by Windows Admin Center, but designed to scale up to 500 cluster at the same time.

Figure 2 - Azure Monitor Insights control panel for Azure Stack HCI

Simplification of networking with Network ATC (preview)

Azure Stack HCI networking deployments and operations can be complex and error-prone. Due to the flexibility that is provided in the configuration of the network stack of the hosts that make up the Azure Stack HCI cluster, there are several parts that can be configured not in the best way. Staying up to date with the latest best practices is also a challenge as improvements are continually made to underlying technologies. Furthermore, consistency of the configuration between the nodes of the HCI cluster is an important aspect as it allows for a stable and more reliable environment.

Network ATC makes it easy to create and manage network configuration for Azure Stack HCI nodes, helping to:

  • Reduce the time, the complexity and failures of cluster host networking implementation
  • Deploy the latest best practices validated and supported by Microsoft
  • Ensure configuration consistency across the cluster environment

Automatic activation of Windows virtual machines

Starting with the cumulative update of June 2021, Azure Stack HCI will support the popular automatic virtual machine activation feature (Automatic VM Activation – AVMA) of Hyper-V for Windows Server. Customers who have an activation key of Windows Server 2019 Datacenter Edition can insert them directly into the Azure Stack HCI host using Windows Admin Center or PowerShell. In this way. virtual machines hosted in a clustered environment running Windows Server will automatically inherit activation from the host, without having to manage it for each virtual machine.

Figure 3 – Automatic VM Activation (AVMA) from Windows Admin Center

Trial Period Extension a 60 days

Azure Stack HCI offers a free trial period that allows you to thoroughly evaluate the solution. The duration of this test is extended by 30 days to 60 days and will start from when the registration of the cluster environment is completed. These changes have been applied to all tests since 3 may 2021.

Preview channel

Starting with the cumulative update of June 2021, you have the option of joining the Preview channel with non-production cluster environments, similar to the Windows Insider program but for Azure Stack HCI. It is a program that allows customers to install the next version of the operating system before the official release (build pre-release). This allows you to evaluate the new Azure Stack HCI features and is for evaluation and testing purposes only. Joining this program does not include any cost for Azure Stack HCI and the cluster environment will not have any type of support. The Preview channel will allow you to share feedback on the experience of participating in the channel, useful for enriching and improving the adoption of Azure Stack HCI.

Figure 4 - Join the Preview channel from Windows Admin Center

Availability in China

The Azure Stack HCI team is working to make its service available in other regions and now it is possible to activate it also in Azure China. In fact, you can download Azure Stack HCI from azure.cn, register your cluster in the region China East 2 and take advantage of the advantages of the solution. Integrated systems for Azure Stack HCI are available in China for different vendors, from Lenovo and Dell, as well as from regional partners, ensuring a strong local presence able to provide the best technical advice and the necessary support.

Conclusions

This set of new features introduced demonstrates a major investment by Microsoft in the Azure Stack HCI solution. Thanks to constant improvement, the continuous introduction of new features and the inclusion of new usage scenarios, the proposition for hyper-converged scenarios is increasingly complete, integrated and performing. Azure Stack HCI integrates perfectly with the existing on-premises environment and offers an important added value: the ability to connect Azure Stack HCI with Azure services to obtain a hybrid hyper-converged solution. This aspect in particular strongly differentiates it from other competitors who offer solutions in this area.

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