Azure Stack HCI: the constantly evolving hyper-converged solution – edition of November 2021

Azure Stack HCI is the solution that allows you to create a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) for running workloads in an on-premises environment and that provides a strategic connection to various Azure services. Azure Stack HCI is also considered as a hybrid service of Azure and as such it is constantly evolving. Microsoft recently introduced a series of new features that pave the way for new Azure Stack HCI adoption scenarios and allow you to better manage your hybrid infrastructure based on this solution.. This article reports the main aspects that have undergone an evolution and the new features recently introduced in Azure Stack HCI.

New workloads and new benefits

The result that Microsoft intends to pursue with the Azure Stack HCI infrastructure is to be able to run the same workloads as the public cloud in an on-premises environment with the same advantages. To achieve this, Microsoft is bringing the most popular Azure workloads to Azure Stack HCI.

Starting last year, the Azure Kubernetes Service orchestrator can be activated on Azure Stack HCI (AKS), which allows you to automate the distribution and management of containerized applications in an on-premises environment just like in Azure. In addition to being able to run Windows and Linux apps in container, AKS makes the infrastructure available to run selected services of the Azure platform (PaaS) on Azure Stack HCI.

The important news announced in this area are the following.

Figure 1 - New Azure workloads and new benefits in Azure Stack HCI

Azure Virtual Desktop for Azure Stack HCI (preview)

By activating Azure Virtual Desktop in the public cloud, users can access their desktops and applications from anywhere, taking advantage of the familiarity and compatibility guaranteed by Windows 10 and Windows 11. Azure Virtual Desktop is a service hosted and managed by Microsoft, which does not require the configuration of a complex VDI infrastructure.

However, there are situations where applications are sensitive to latency, such as video editing, or scenarios where users need to take advantage of a legacy system present on-premises that cannot be easily reached. To allow you to better deal with situations of this type, Azure Virtual Desktop adds a new hybrid option thanks to Azure Stack HCI.

Azure Virtual Desktop for Azure Stack HCI uses the same cloud management plan as regular Azure Virtual Desktop, but it allows you to create session host pools using virtual machines running on Azure Stack HCI. These virtual machines can run Windows 10 and/or Windows 11 Enterprise multi-session. By placing desktops closer to users, it is possible to enable direct access with low latency and without round trip, using a technology called RDP Shortpath.

Azure benefit for Windows Server

Microsoft offers special benefits when deploying Windows Server in Azure environment and the same benefits, by the end of this year, will also be available on Azure Stack HCI.

First of all, when deploying virtual machines with Windows Server 2022, even in the Azure Stack HCI environment it is possible to activate the Azure Datacenter edition which offers specific features not available in the classic Standard and Datacenter editions. To learn more about the features available in this edition, you can consult this article.

Furthermore, Azure Stack HCI version 21H2 allows you to:

  • Get extended security updates for free, just like in Azure. This applies to Windows Server 2008 / R2 and will soon apply to Windows Server 2012 / R2 as well when we reach end of support, in addition to the corresponding versions of SQL Server.
  • Obtain the license and activate the Windows Server machines as in Azure. Azure Stack HCI as well as allowing you to use your own Datacenter license to enable automatic activation of virtual machines (Automatic VM Activation – AVMA), provides the option to pay the Windows Server license for guest systems through your Azure subscription, just like in Azure environment.

Infrastructure innovation

Microsoft manages some of the world's largest data centers and wants to bring the experience gained and innovation of the cloud to Azure Stack HCI. For these reasons, Azure Stack HCI is a subscription service that receives regular feature updates with the important goal of being able to take advantage on-premises of the technology tested on a large scale in the cloud.

Figure 2 – Infrastructure innovation in Azure Stack HCI

Thanks to the release of the latest update, known as “version 21H2” or as a "feature update 21H2", the following new features are introduced:

  • Quick restart management with Kernel Soft Reboot: improves restart performance, skipping the pre-boot sequence and self-test when turning on the hardware. This also reduces the overall cluster upgrade time (available only on Azure Stack HCI Integrated Systems).
  • Use of GPUs with clustered VMs: provides GPU acceleration to workloads running on clustered VMs. Ideal for AI / ML workloads.
  • Dynamic CPU compatibility mode: the processor compatibility mode has been updated to take full advantage of all the features of the processors in a cluster environment. In fact, it is possible to combine different generations of processors in the same cluster with minimal degradation. The cluster intelligently calculates the largest common subset of processor functionality that can be exposed to virtual machines.
  • Storage thin provisioning: improves storage efficiency and simplifies management through thin provisioning.
  • Network ATC: simplifies host network configuration management.
  • Adjustable storage repair speed: greater control over the data re-synchronization process.
  • Support for nested virtualization with AMD processors: better flexibility to create test and evaluation environments thanks to the possibility of activating nested virtualization even in the presence of AMD processors.
  • Secured-Core Server: offers transversal security on hardware and firmware, integrated into the functionalities of the operating system, that can help protect servers from advanced threats.

New management features

Another result you want to achieve with Azure Stack HCI is to be able to manage your infrastructure as if it were an extension of the public cloud. Azure Stack HCI integrates natively with Azure Resource Manager and this allows you to project the cluster as a resource in the Azure portal. This allows you to leverage the same processes across all environments and manage Azure Stack HCI resources just like cloud resources.

Figure 3 – New Azure Stack HCI management features

Host server Arc-enabled and extensions

From the Azure Stack HCI resource you can locate, add, modify or remove extensions, thanks to which you can easily access the management features. With the availability of Azure Stack HCI version 21H2 the cluster will automatically enable host servers to Arc, at the time of registration, to be able to use the available extensions right away.

Arc-enabled VM management (preview)

In addition to managing the cluster, Azure Arc can now also be used to provision and manage virtual machines running on Azure Stack HCI, directly from the Azure portal. Virtual machines and their associated resources (images, disks, and network) are projected into ARM as separate resources using a new cross-platform technology called Arc Resource Bridge.

In this way you can:

  • achieve consistent management between cloud resources and Azure Stack HCI resources;
  • automate virtual machine deployments using ARM templates;
  • guarantee self-service access thanks to Azure RBAC support.

Azure Backup and Azure Site Recovery

With Azure Stack HCI version 21H2 official support for Azure Backup and Azure Site Recovery was introduced. With MABS v3 UR2 or later it is possible to back up hosts and active virtual machines in Azure Stack HCI. Furthermore, with Azure Site Recovery it is possible to replicate virtual machines from Azure Stack HCI to Azure and activate disaster recovery scenarios.

Conclusions

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 other 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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