Azure Stack HCI: the constantly evolving hyper-converged solution – edition of November 2022

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.

Financial benefits for customers with a Software Assurance agreement

Customers who have Windows Server Datacenter licenses with active Software Assurance, can activate’Azure Hybrid Benefit also for Azure Stack HCI cluster. To activate this benefit, at no additional cost, you will need to exchange a Windows Server Datacenter core license with Software Assurance for an Azure Stack HCI physical core. This aspect allows to zero the Azure costs for the Azure Stack HCI host fee and provides the right to run an unlimited number of Windows Server guest virtual machines on the Azure Stack HCI cluster.

Furthermore, Azure Hybrid Benefits can also be activated for Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS). In this case, Windows Server StandardDatacenter licenses with active Software Assurance are required, or the presence of a Cloud Solution Provider subscription (CSP). Each Windows Server core license entitles you to use an AKS virtual core.

In the following image it is summarized as, customers with Software Assurance, can use Azure Hybrid Benefit to further reduce costs in the cloud, in on-premises datacenters and peripheral offices.

Figure 1 – What is included in the Azure Hybrid Benefit for customers in Software Assurance

Specifically for customers with a Software Assurance agreement, the adoption of Azure Stack HCI translates into a drastic reduction in the costs of modernizing the virtualization environment, making this solution even more competitive from a cost point of view compared to competitors on the market. To consult in detail the licensing requirements you can refer to this document.

22H2 update

The new update, known as “version 22H2” or “22H2 feature update”, has been officially released and is ready for use in the production environment. This version brings higher quality on several fronts of the solution.

The following points summarize the various features and the various improvements introduced to the Azure Stack HCI operating system, version 22H2:

  • Network ATC v2 is able to automatically assign IP addresses to intra-cluster storage networks and automatically name cluster networks based on their intended use. It can also manage the live migration settings, such as network selection, transport and bandwidth allocation.
  • Storage management is more flexible as existing storage volumes can be modified to increase their resilience (for example, passing from a two-way to a three-way mirror) or perform an in-place conversion from fixed provisioning to a thin one.
  • Storage replication in a stretched cluster is faster with the new optional compression capability.
  • Hyper-V live migration is more reliable for clusters to 2 and 3 nodes without the presence of specific switches.
  • On the networking side, a new tag-based network segmentation option is also available, which helps protect virtualized workloads from threats based on custom tags that are assigned.

To consult all the details relating to the 22H2 version you can consult this document.

All existing Azure Stack HCI clusters can receive the 22H2 update as a free over-the-air update and you can apply the update without interruption thanks to the cluster-aware update. Microsoft recommends version 22H2 for all new Azure Stack HCI implementations.

The management tools have also been revamped to support the functionality of this new update. Indeed, you can use Windows Admin Center to manage version 22H2. Furthermore, compatibility with System Center Virtual Machine Manager and Operations Manager is maintained, thanks to the first Update Rollup (UR1) for System Center 2022, which will add official support for Azure Stack HCI, version 22H2.

Azure Arc-enabled VM management

By adopting Azure Stack HCI and Azure Arc, cloud management models can also be applied to the on-premises environment. Earlier this year, Microsoft released the public preview for managing Azure Arc-enabled virtual machines, which allows you to deploy virtual machines on Azure Stack HCI via ARM, Azure CLI and Azure portal.

In this context, important new features have been introduced:

  • In addition to the use of customized images, images can now be accessed directly from the Azure Marketplace. This allows you to quickly deploy the latest fully updated Microsoft images, including Windows Server 2022 Azure Edition with hotpatching and Windows 11 Enterprise multi-session for Azure Virtual Desktop. Third party images will also be available in the future. This feature is natively integrated into Azure Arc and is designed to respect network bandwidth. Indeed, the images are optimized to minimize file size and you only need to download them once to create even several virtual machines.
  • When deploying a new VM in Azure Stack HCI through Azure Arc, the guest operating system is now automatically Arc-enabled. This means it is possible to use extensions for VMs, as Domain Join or Custom Script to deploy and configure applications. Other extensions will also be available in the future.

Azure Hybrid Kubernetes Service

Many enterprises have a mix of deprecated virtualization applications and new container-based applications. By adopting Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) in the Azure Stack HCI environment it is possible to distribute and manage containerized applications in parallel with virtual machines, on the same physical server or cluster environment.

The update of September 2022 for AKS on Azure Stack HCI has introduced some significant improvements, including:

  • The Linux container base image has been updated to Mariner 2.0, which is smaller in size and safer.
  • The integration of software-defined networking (SDN) is available and ready for use in the production environment.
  • The procedure for connecting GPUs to containers has been simplified.
  • Introduces the ability to use any account in the system Administrators group to manage AKS.

The ability to provision hybrid AKS clusters directly from Azure was also recently introduced, using an AAD identity. The distribution of new Kubernetes clusters in the on-premises environment is done through the Arc Resource Bridge, very similar to managing Arc-enabled virtual machines. This is an important evolution towards a simple and consistent end-to-end application provisioning experience, that embraces the cloud and the edge.

Hardware designed, shipped and supported directly by Microsoft

Microsoft announced that in the 2023 will offer a hardware-based Azure Stack HCI system designed, shipped and supported directly from the house in Redmond.

The solution, called “Pro 2”, has the following features:

  • Compact form factor of only 2U at half depth, also ideal for deployments outside the data center (ex. retail, manufacturing and healthcare environments).
  • Tamper resistant.
  • Quiet enough for an office environment, generating less than 60 dBA of acoustic noise.
  • Orderable directly from the Azure portal and supplied with pre-installed Azure Stack HCI.
  • Available in different configurations, with specifications suitable for different use cases.
  • Hardware management fully integrated with existing cluster management tools, including a new Windows Admin Center extension under development.

This upcoming release enables customers to adopt a consistent business model between the cloud and the edge: an OPEX payment model with the possibility of using Azure commitments to obtain a complete Microsoft solution, including hardware.

Conclusions

Thanks to constant improvement, the continuous introduction of new features and the inclusion of new usage scenarios, Microsoft's 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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