The statistics speak for themselves, beyond the 90% some companies already have or foresee, in the short term, to adopt a hybrid strategy for their IT infrastructure. These data are confirmed by the daily events, where several customers include in their investment plans both the maintenance of workloads on on-premises infrastructures, both the adoption of solutions in the public cloud. At the same time, a process of modernization of applications is supported with the aim of making the most of the potential and innovation offered by these infrastructures. So we live in the era of hybrid cloud and Microsoft offers several interesting solutions to modernize datacenter and easily manage hybrid infrastructure. This article gives a real example of how a customer has embarked on the modernization path of their datacenter thanks to Azure Stack HCI and how, via Azure Arc, was able to extend Azure services and management principles to its on-premises infrastructure as well.
Initial customer request and problems to be solved
The customer in question wanted to activate a new modern and integrated virtualization infrastructure at their datacenter, to allow you to configure quickly, dynamic and flexible application workloads. The infrastructure in use by the customer was not adequate and encountered various problems, including:
- Non-scalable and inflexible virtualization solution
- Hardware obsolescence
- Configurations that did not ensure adequate availability of virtualized systems
- Performance and stability issues
- Difficulty in managing the various infrastructure components
Characteristics of the proposed solutions, adopted and benefits obtained
The customer has decided to adopt a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), where several hardware components have been removed, replaced by software that can merge layers of compute, storage and network in one solution. In this way it made a transition from a traditional "three tier" infrastructure, composed of network switches, appliance, physical systems with onboard hypervisors, storage fabric and SAN, toward hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI).
Figure 1 - Transition from a "Three Tier" infrastructure to a Hyper-Converged Infrastructure (HCI)
Azure Stack HCI: the complete stack of the Hyper-Converged infrastructure
This was all done by adopting the solution Microsoft Azure Stack HCI, which allows the execution of workloads and an easy connection to Azure of the hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI). The main characteristics of the solution are reported in the following paragraphs.
Choosing and customizing your hardware
The customer was able to customize the hardware solution according to their needs, going to configure the processor, memory, storage and features of network adapters, respecting the supplier's compatibility matrices.
Figure 2 - Hardware composition of the Azure Stack HCI solution
There are several hardware vendors that offer suitable solutions to run Azure Stack HCI and can be consulted by accessing this link. The choice is wide and falls on more than 200 solutions of more than 20 different partners. Azure Stack HCI requires hardware that is specifically tested and validated by various vendors.
Dedicated and specific operating system
The operating system of the solution Azure Stack HCI is a specific operating system with a simplified composition and more up-to-date components than Windows Server. Roles that are not required by the solution are not included in this operating system, but there is the latest hypervisor also used in Azure environment, with software-defined networking and storage technologies optimized for virtualization.
The local user interface is minimal and is designed to be managed remotely.
Figure 3 - Azure Stack HCI OS interface
Disaster recovery and failover of virtual machines
The customer also took advantage of the possibility of creating a stretched cluster to extend their cluster Azure Stack HCI, in the specific case in two different buildings. This functionality is based on storage replication (synchronous in this scenario) contemplating encryption, local site resilience and automatic failover of virtual machines in the event of a disaster.
Figure 4 – Stretched cluster dell’architettura hyper-converged di Azure Stack HCI
Updates of the entire solution stack (full-stack updates)
To reduce the complexity and operational costs of the solution update process, the customer can start in Azure Stack HCI the process that involves the full-stack upgrade (Firmware / driver along with the operating system) directly from Windows Admin Center.
Figure 5 - Solution updates of the Dell EMC branded Azure Stack HCI solution
Azure Hybrid Service: familiarity in management and operation
The customer is able to manage their infrastructure based on Azure Stack HCI in a simple way and without adopting specific software tools, as if it were an extension of the public cloud, thanks to the features mentioned in the following paragraphs.
Native integration in Azure
Azure Stack HCI natively integrates with Azure services and Azure Resource Manager (ARM). No agent is required for this integration, but Azure Arc is integrated directly into the operating system. This allows you to view, direct from the Azure Portal, the cluster Azure Stack HCI on-premises exactly like an Azure resource.
Figure 6 - Azure Stack HCI integration into Azure
By integrating with Azure Resource Manager, the customer can take advantage of the following benefits of Azure-based management:
- Adopting Standard Azure Resource Manager-Based Constructs (ARM)
- Classification of Clusters with Tags
- Organizing Clusters in Resource Groups
- Viewing all clusters Azure Stack HCI in one centralized view
- Managing access using Azure Identity Access Management (IAM)
Furthermore, from the Azure Stack HCI resource you can locate, add, modify or remove extensions, thanks to which you can easily access the management features.
Figure 7 - Azure Stack HCI management capabilities
Arc-enabled VM management
In addition to managing the cluster, the customer can also use Azure Arc 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 multi-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.
Figure 8 - Features provided by Azure Arc integration for Azure Stack HCI VMs
Azure Backup and Azure Site Recovery
Azure Stack HCI supports Azure Backup and Azure Site Recovery. With Microsoft Azure Backup Server (MABS) the customer backs up hosts and active virtual machines in Azure Stack HCI. Furthermore, using Azure Site Recovery it is possible to activate the replication of virtual machines from Azure Stack HCI to Azure, to create specific disaster recovery scenarios.
Infrastructure monitor with Azure Monitor Insights for Azure Stack HCI
Thanks to the solution Azure Stack HCI Insights the customer is able to consult detailed information on integrity, on the performance and use of Azure Stack HCI clusters 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. 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 9 - Azure Monitor Insights control panel for Azure Stack HCI
Azure benefit for Windows Server
Microsoft offers special benefits when deploying Windows Server in Azure environment, and the same benefits are also available on Azure Stack HCI.
Figure 10 – Azure benefit for Windows Server
Azure Stack HCI allows you to:
- Deploy virtual machines with Windows Server 2022 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.
- Get extended security updates for free, just like in Azure. This is true for both Windows Server 2008 / R2, both for Windows Server 2012 / R2, 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.
Dedicated Azure Support Team
Azure Stack HCI is in effect an Azure solution, therefore the customer can take advantage of Azure support with the following characteristics:
- You can easily request technical support directly from the Azure portal.
- Support will be provided by a new team of experts dedicated to supporting the solution Azure Stack HCI.
- You can choose from different support plans, depending on your needs.
Infrastructure innovation and new evolved scenarios
In the Azure Stack HCI environment, in addition to running virtual machines, you can activate Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) and Azure Virtual Desktop.
Azure Kubernetes Service in Azure Stack HCI
This 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 11 - AKS overview on Azure Stack HCI
For more information, you can consult the article Azure Kubernetes Service in an Azure Stack HCI environment.
Azure Virtual Desktop for Azure Stack HCI
In 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, 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.
Microsoft operates one of the largest data centers in the world and is making large investments to bring the experience gained and the innovation of the cloud to Azure Stack HCI. This customer, relying on Azure Stack HCI is taking advantage of a subscription service that receives regular feature updates, with the important goal of being able to exploit the technology tested on a large scale in the cloud on-premises. Furthermore, is able to manage the resources of its environment in a unified way and have a continuous innovation of its hybrid infrastructure.