Category Archives: Azure Stack

Azure Stack HCI: disaster recovery features inherent in the solution

In the latest version ofAzure Stack HCI is included the ability to create stretched clusters to extend a cluster ofAzure Stack HCI in two different locations (rooms, buildings or even different cities). This disaster recovery solution provides storage replication (synchronous or asynchronous) and contemplates encryption, local site resilience and automatic failover of virtual machines. This article explores the possible architectures and features of the solution.

To further improve the built-in resilience in the Azure Stack HCI solution, it is possible to implement a cluster consisting of two groups of nodes, defined "stretched cluster". Each group is located in a different site and must contain a minimum of two nodes. A stretched cluster can consist of a minimum of four to sixteen physical nodes (maximum number of nodes supported by an Azure Stack HCI cluster), which must satisfy the standard hardware requirements for HCI solutions.

Figure 1 - Overview of a stretched cluster in an Azure Stack HCI hyper-converged architecture

Going into the detail of the architecture, the components and functionalities used are:

  • Azure Stack HCI. The minimum required version is 20H2, deployed as an Azure hybrid service and released in December 2020. This is a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), where different hardware components are removed, substitutes from the software, able to combine the layer of compute, storage and network in one solution.
  • Storage Replica. The technology included in Windows Server that allows replication of volumes between servers or between clusters for disaster recovery purposes.
  • Live Migration. The Hyper-V feature that allows you to easily move virtual machines (VMs) running on one Hyper-V host to another, without having downtime. This feature is useful for managing expected or scheduled downtime.
  • Witness resource. Witness is a mandatory component within Azure Stack HCI clusters. To implement it, you can choose an Azure Cloud Witness or a File Share Witness. Azure Cloud Witness is the recommended choice for Azure Stack HCI stretched clusters as long as all nodes have a reliable internet connection.

An Azure Stack HCI stretched cluster is based on the use of Storage Replica and it is possible to have a synchronous or asynchronous replica of the data:

  • Using the synchronous replication data is mirrored between sites on a low-latency network. Volumes are crash-consistent to ensure zero data loss at the file system level during a failure event. The requirement for synchronous replication applicable to stretched clusters enforces network latency of 5 ms of round trip between the two groups of nodes located in the replicated sites. Depending on the connectivity characteristics of the physical network, this constraint generally translates into approx 30-45 Km away. With this configuration, if there is a problem affecting the availability of a site, the cluster is able to automatically transfer workloads to the nodes of the site not affected by the problem to minimize potential downtime.
  • The asynchronous replication mirrors data between sites over network links with higher latencies, but there is no guarantee that both sites have identical copies of the data when a failure event occurs. In the presence of asynchronous replication, it is necessary to manually bring the target volumes online to the other site following a failover.

There are two types of stretched clusters: active-active and active-passive.

Figure 2 - Types of stretched clusters compared

An active site is a site that has resources and hosts roles and workloads to which clients can connect. A passive site is a site that does not dispense roles or workloads for clients, but is awaiting a failover from the active site for disaster recovery purposes.

Replication in an active-passive stretched cluster has a preferred direction, while replication in an active-active stretched cluster can take place bi-directionally from both sites.

Azure Stack HCI and Storage Replica also support data deduplication, useful to increase the usable storage capacity, identifying duplicate portions of files and archiving them only once. Starting with Windows Server 2019, deduplication is available on volumes formatted with Resilient File System (ReFS), which is the recommended file system for Azure Stack HCI. In Azure Stack HCI stretched clusters, it is recommended to enable Data Deduplication only on the nodes of the source cluster, and not on target nodes, who always receive deduplicated copies of each volume.

Conclusions

The ability to extend clusters Azure Stack HCI in two different locations allows you to implement disaster recovery architectures in a way that is fully integrated into the solution, without the need to adopt third-party products. This characteristic, combined with the ability to connect Azure Stack HCI with Azure services to achieve a hybrid hyper-converged system, makes it a complete solution, stable and reliable, able to meet the most advanced needs in hosting business critical workloads.

Azure Stack HCI: how to monitor the environment in a complete and effective way

Azure Stack HCI is the Microsoft solution that allows you to create hyper-converged infrastructures (HCI) for the execution of workloads in an on-premises environment. Azure Stack HCI, in addition to seamlessly integrating into on-premises datacenters, offers an important added value: the ability to connect with Azure services to obtain a hybrid hyper-converged solution. Among these services we find Azure Monitor and this article reports the benefits and features of the solution to monitor the Azure Stack HCI environment in a complete and effective way.

The solutionAzure Stack HCI Insights is able to provide detailed information on integrity, on the performance and usage of Azure Stack HCI clusters. The version of the clusters must be 21H2, must be connected to Azure andregistered for related monitoring. Azure Stack HCI Insights stores your data in a Log Analytics workspace, thus providing the possibility to use powerful filters and aggregations to better analyze the data collected over time.

Benefits of the solution

The main benefits of adopting Azure Stack HCI Insights are:

  • Managed by Azure. The solution is accessible directly from the Azure portal, it is constantly updated and no additional infrastructure components or third-party software are required.
  • Scalability. This is a very scalable solution, able to load more than 400 cluster information set, located on multiple subscriptions, and without limits of domain or physical location.
  • Advanced customization. The user experience is based on Azure Monitor workbooks. Workbooks allow users to change views, the query, set specific thresholds according to your needs and save these customizations. Furthermore, workbook charts can be added to dashboards in the Azure portal.

Activation requirements

In order to use Azure Stack HCI Insights the following steps must be completed:

  • Azure Stack HCI cluster registration with Azure. This step ensures that every server in the cluster is automatically Azure Arc-enabled. This action allows Azure Monitor to retrieve details not only of the cluster, but also of the single nodes that compose it.
  • Enabling Log Analytics, to connect the cluster to a Log Analytics workspace, in which the necessary logs for the monitor will be saved.
  • Enable monitoring, to allow Azure Monitor to begin collecting the necessary events for the monitor.

Figure 1 - Configuration of the Log Analytics Agent extension and monitoring

Environment monitor

After completing the necessary configurations, you have the possibility to view the monitor data of a single cluster directly from the Azure Stack HCI resource page or you can use Azure Monitor to obtain an aggregate view of multiple Azure Stack HCI clusters.

Figure 2 – Aggregated view of multiple Azure Stack HCI clusters

Is offered the ability to monitor the health of the cluster , the status of individual nodes and virtual machines.

Figure 3 - Overview of the status of the cluster nodes

By accessing the specific tabs it is possible to obtain further detailed information regarding virtual machines and storage (health, use, and performance).

Information regarding the performance of the Azure Stack HCI environment is also reported. The following performance trends can be consulted through the panels integrated into the solution:

  • CPU usage
  • Average latency of storage volumes
  • IOPS of storage volumes
  • Storage volume capacity

Figure 4 - Consultation of performance trends

Costs of the solution

There are no specific costs for the use of Azure Stack HCI Insights, but the cost is calculated based on the amount of data that is entered in the Log Analytics workspace and the related retention settings.

Conclusions

Having an effective monitor system for such environments, that allows to detect and prevent anomalous conditions and performance problems is of fundamental importance. This further possibility, offered through the integration of Azure Stack HCI with the Azure Monitor service, makes the solution more and more complete and integrated. This is a further added value compared to other competitors who propose solutions in this area.

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.

Windows Server 2019 compared with the new version of Azure Stack HCI

Microsoft recently released the new version ofAzure Stack HCI, the solution that allows you to build hyper-converged infrastructures (HCI) to run virtual machines in an on-premises environment and that involves an easy and strategic connection to Azure services. Customers who are now facing a modernization of their data centers may be wondering which product to use. Windows Server 2019 and Azure Stack HCI are intended for different and complementary purposes. This article explains the main differences between the two products and provides guidance on the different scenarios of use.

What is Azure Stack HCI?

With the arrival of Windows Server 2019, Microsoft introduced the solutionAzure Stack HCI, which allows the execution of virtual machines or virtual desktops in an on-premises environment, being able to have a wide connection to the different services offered by Azure.

This is a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), where different hardware components are removed, substitutes from the software, able to combine the layer of compute, storage and network in one solution. In this way there is 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 – "Three Tier" Infrastructure vs Hyper-Converged Infrastructure (HCI)

In December 2020, Microsoft released the new Azure Stack HCI solution, deployed as an Azure hybrid service, namedAzure Stack HCI version 20H2 that introduces important changes.

When to use Windows Server 2019?

Windows Server 2019 is a multi-purpose and highly versatile server operating system that allows you to activate dozens of roles and hundreds of features. Windows Server 2019 can be used to:

  • Host virtual machines or run containers.
  • Enabling one or more server roles included in the operating system, such as Active Directory, file server, DNS, DHCP or Internet Information Services (IIS).
  • Traditional infrastructure involving bare-metal systems.

Figure 2 - Usage scenarios of Windows Server 2019

When to use Azure Stack HCI?

Azure Stack HCI builds on the essential components of Windows Server and has been specially designed and optimized to provide a powerful Hyper-converged platform. The new version ofAzure Stack HCI adopts the well-established technologies of Windows Server, as Hyper-V, software-defined networking and Storages Spaces Direct, and adds new specific features for running on-premises virtual machines.

The use of Azure Stack HCI is eligible if:

  • You want to modernize your infrastructure, adopting a simple hyper-converged architecture based on established technologies. Suitable for both existing workloads in the main datacenter and branch office scenarios.
  • You want to expect an extension of the on-premises solution by connecting to Azure. This aspect guarantees a constant innovation, the evolution of cloud services and the possibility to take advantage of a common set of tools, simplifying the user experience.

Figure 3 – Azure Stack HCI usage scenarios

The solutionAzure Stack HCI can also be configured with Windows Server 2019, but the new version ofAzure Stack HCI introduces important innovations affecting the following areas::

  • Dedicated and solution-specific operating system
  • Virtual machine disaster recovery and failover capabilities inherent in the solution
  • Optimization of the Storage Spaces resync process
  • Updates of the entire stack covered by the solution (full-stack updates)
  • Native integration with Azure services and Azure Resource Manager (ARM)

For more information on this subject I invite you to read the article "The new Microsoft solution for hyper-converged scenarios".

Other aspects to consider

Costs of the solution

Despite Azure Stack HCI is running on-premises there is an Azure subscription-based billing, just like any other Azure cloud service. The billing model is simple and provides a fixed daily cost based on the total number of cores present in the physical processors that make up the cluster.

In the new billing model there is no minimum or maximum number of cores to be licensed, much less a minimum activation duration. An important aspect to consider is that for Windows guest virtual machines and paid versions of Linux, these licences should be included separately. The subscription-based cost is only for the software and does not include the hardware of Azure Stack HCI.

For more details on costs please visit the Microsoft's official page.

Enabling Azure Stack HCI

There are two options to activate a solution based on the new version of Azure Stack HCI:

  • Buy a hardware solution validated by one of the Microsoft partners, with pre-installed Azure Stack HCI software.
  • Install the Azure Stack HCI software, which includes a free trial version of 30 days, on new hardware or already purchased, as long as it is present in the catalog of solutions specifically tested and validated by the various vendors.

Support provided for the solution

Azure Stack HCI, becoming in effect an Azure solution, is covered by Azure support with the following features:

  • Support will be provided by a team of experts dedicated to supporting the new solution Azure Stack HCI.
  • You can easily request technical support directly from the Azure portal.
  • You can choose from different support plans, depending on your needs.

Conclusions

Despite the new version of Azure Stack HCI is based on technologies also present in Windows Server 2019 it should be specified that these are two solutions that are now intended for different and complementary purposes. Despite also Windows Server 2019 allows you to activate hyper-converged solutions, if you're making an investment right now to activate such a solution, consider adopting the new solution Azure Stack HCI. In fact, thanks to the changes introduced, you can get a very complete hyper-converged scenario proposition, more integrated and performing. An aspect to be carefully evaluated is that of costs, as they have a significant impact.

Azure Hybrid Cloud: Azure Stack Edge solution overview

Microsoft to better meet the needs of adopting solutions that can extend your environment, from the main datacenter to the peripheral sites, with innovative Azure services, makes the Azure Stack portfolio available to its customers. It is a set of hybryd cloud solutions, that allow you to deploy and run your application workloads consistently, without restrictions imposed by the geographical location. This article provides an overview of the Azure Stack Edge platform (ASE) and its characteristics, examining the use cases and the main features.

Before going into the specifics of Azure Stack Edge it is good to specify that the solutions included in the Azure Stack portfolio are the following:

  • Azure Stack Edge: the Azure managed appliance that can bring computational power, cloud storage and intelligence in a remote edge of the customer.
  • Azure Stack HCI: the solution that allows the execution of virtual machines and an easy connection to Azure thanks to a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI).
  • Azure Stack Hub: the offer for enterprise companies and public sector customers, needing a cloud environment but disconnected from the Internet, or need to meet specific regulatory and compliance requirements.

Figure 1 – Azure Stack Product Family

To get an overview of these solutions I invite you to read this article.

Azure Stack Edge value proposition

The results that can be obtained by adopting the Azure Stack Edge solution are the following:

  • Possibility of adopting an on-premises model Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) for workloads on peripheral sites (edge), where both hardware and software are provided by Microsoft.
  • Ability to run applications at customer sites, in order to keep them close to the data sources. Furthermore, allows you to run not only proprietary and third-party applications at the edge, but also to take advantage of different Azure services.
  • Availability of built-in hardware accelerators that allow you to run machine learning and AI scenarios at the edge, right where the data is, without having to send data to the cloud for further analysis.
  • Possibility of having an integrated cloud storage gateway that allows easy data transfer from the edge to the cloud environment.

Usage scenarios

The main scenarios for using Azure Stack Edge are the following:

  • Machine learning at peripheral sites: thanks to the presence of integrated hardware accelerators and the processing capabilities offered by the solution, you have the ability to cope with these scenarios right where the data resides, processing them in real time, without having to send them to Azure.
  • Computational capacity at edge: customers can run their business applications and IoT solutions at peripheral sites, without necessarily having to rely on constant connectivity to the cloud environment.
  • Network transfer of data from the edge to the cloud: used in scenarios where you want to periodically transfer data from the edge to the cloud, for further analysis or storage purposes.

Form factors

To support the different usage scenarios reported, vertically between industrial sectors, Azure Stack Edge is available in three separate form factors:

  • Azure Stack Edge Pro, a 1U blade server with one or two GPUs.
  • Azure Stack Edge Pro R, a rugged server with GPU, in a sturdy carrying case, complete with UPS and backup battery.
  • Azure Stack Edge Mini R, a machine with a reduced form factor with a battery and a low weight (less than 3,5 Kg).

Figure 2 – Azure Stack Edge Form Factors

Azure Stack Edge "rugged" versions allow resistance to extreme environmental conditions, and battery-powered versions allow easy transport.

Azure Stack Edge stack software

The customer can place the Azure Stack Edge order and provisioning directly from the Azure portal, and then use the classic Azure management tools to monitor and perform updates. Hardware support is provided directly by Microsoft, that will replace the components in case of problems. There is no upfront cost to obtain this appliance, but the cost will be included monthly in the billing of Azure services. Since, once configured, any application running on Azure Stack Edge can be configured and deployed from the Azure portal, eliminates the need for IT staff in the edge location.

Azure Stack Edge Computational Capacity

The ability to offer computational capacity taken from the edges is one of the key features of Azure Stack Edge, which can be provided in one of the following ways:

  • IoT Edge: the execution of containerized workloads distributed through the IoT hub has always been supported since the launch of Azure Stack Edge and continues to be so.
  • Kubernetes: recently, support was introduced for the execution of containerized workloads in Kubernetes clusters running on Azure Stack Edge.
  • Virtual machines: another way to run applications is by activating workloads on board virtual machines.

Kubernetes environment in Azure Stack Edge

Kubernetes is becoming the de facto standard for the execution and orchestration of containerized workloads, but those who know these environments, is aware of some of the operational challenges that can arise from managing a Kubernetes cluster. In this context, the goal of Azure Stack Edge is to simplify the deployment and management of Kubernetes clusters. With a simple configuration, you can activate a Kubernetes cluster on Azure Stack Edge.

Once the Kubernetes cluster has been configured, you must perform additional management steps, that are simplified in ASE with simple add-ons. Among these operations we find:

  • The ability to easily enable hardware accelerators.
  • The provisioning of the storage system to create persistent volumes.
  • Keep it up to date with Kubernetes releases by taking the latest updates available.
  • The ability to apply security and governance mechanisms from their own infrastructure.

Cluster environment configuration completed, Simple mechanisms are provided for deploying and managing workloads on the Kubernetes cluster, by using the following modes:

  • Azure Arc: ASE comes with native integration with Azure Arc. With just a few steps you can enable Azure Arc, allowing applications to be distributed in the Kubernetes cluster directly from the Azure portal.
  • IoT Hub: by enabling the IoT hub add-on it is possible to use it for the distribution of conteiners.
  • Kubectl: finally supports the native way kubectl, typically used in disconnected environments or if you have an existing infrastructure that already integrates with this mode.

Figure 3 – Kubernetes deployment in Azure Stack Edge

Virtual machines in Azure Stack Edge

Another variant to offer computational capacity at the edges is the activation of virtual machines. Azure Stack Edge allows you to host virtual machines, both Windows and Linux, offering the ability to deploy and manage these virtual machines directly from Azure or by acting locally.

Figure 4 – Virtual Machines in Azure Stack Edge

One thing to consider is that Azure Stack Edge allows you to set up simpler network topologies than Azure or Azure Stack Hub.

Regarding the hardware acceleration features in Azure Stack Edge, these two variants are supported:

  • GPU NVIDIA T4, fully integrated with the GPU stack
  • Intel Movidius Visual Processing Unit (VPU), for AI and ML scenarios

Azure services that can be deployed in Azure Stack Edge

The number of services that can be activated in Azure Stack Edge is large, among those recently introduced we find:

  • Live Video Analytics: a platform for creating video solutions and applications based on artificial intelligence, to carry out real-time insights using video streams.
  • Spatial Analysis: a real-time computer vision module to analyze videos and understand people's movements in physical spaces. For example,, during the Covid period, many retail stores want to implement social distancing policies and may use a special analytics module to understand certain behavior based on videos shot in the store.
  • Azure Monitor: this increases application performance and availability by collecting logs from containers and analyzing them.

Figure 5 – Azure Solutions in Azure Stack Edge

Conclusions

In business realities, the adoption of totally cloud-based solutions does not always turn out to be a viable choice or the best of all, hybrid solutions often have to be adopted, which in any case include the possibility of using the innovations introduced by the cloud. Azure Stack Edge is a flexible and modern solution that allows you to meet your needs, even the most challenging ones, emerging for edge sites, without neglecting the potential offered by the public cloud.

The new Microsoft solution for hyper-converged scenarios

Very frequently to the strong tendency to move workloads to the public cloud for cost benefits, efficiency and innovation, alongside the need to maintain specific on-premises application environments. The reasons can be different and range from compliance reasons, specific needs in terms of latency or for certain business reasons. Microsoft, aware of these needs, recently announced the release of a new version of Azure Stack HCI, the solution that allows you to build a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) to run virtual machines in an on-premises environment and that involves an easy and strategic connection to Azure services. This article lists the main features that will be introduced in the new version of Azure Stack HCI.

What is Azure Stack HCI?

With the arrival of Windows Server 2019, Microsoft introduced the solution Azure Stack HCI, which allows the execution of virtual machines and a wide access to different services offered by Azure.

This is a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), where different hardware components are removed, substitutes from the software, able to combine the layer of compute, storage and network in one solution. In this way there is 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 – "Three Tier" Infrastructure vs Hyper-Converged Infrastructure (HCI)

Azure Stack HCI belongs to the Azure Stack family, which includes a comprehensive and flexible range of solutions to meet the different needs for implementing infrastructure. The Azure Stack portfolio ranges from Azure Stack Hub, which is an Azure extension that can bring the agility and innovation of cloud computing to the on-premises environment, to Azure Stack Edge, a managed Azure appliance that can bring computational power, cloud storage and intelligence in a remote edge of the customer. For more information about the Azure Stack portfolio, see this article.

Figure 2 – Azure Stack portfolio

The new Azure Stack HCI solution, deployed as an Azure hybrid service is named Azure Stack HCI version 20H2 and includes important news.

Figure 3 - Overview of Azure Stack HCI version 20H2 components

Full stack for a Hyper-Converged infrastructure

The operating system of the new Azure Stack HCI solution is based on the core components of Windows Server and has been specially designed and optimized to provide a powerful Hyper-converged platform. The new version of Azure Stack HCI adopts well-established Windows Server technologies such as Hyper-V, software-defined networking and Storages Spaces Direct, and adds new specific features. Following, the innovation areas of this solution are reported.

Dedicated and solution-specific operating system

The operating system of the new solution Azure Stack HCI it is a specific operating system with a simplified composition and newer components than Windows Server 2019.

This operating system does not include roles that are not required for the solution, such as the print server, DNS role, DHCP server, Active Directory Domain Services, services relating to certificates and federated services.

Furthermore, there is the most recent hypervisor also used in the 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 4 - Azure Stack HCI OS interface

Disaster Recovery Features and virtual machine failover inherent in the solution

In the new version of Azure Stack HCI is included the ability to create stretched clusters to extend a cluster of Azure Stack HCI in two different locations (rooms, buildings or even two cities). This feature provides a replica of storage (synchronous or asynchronous) and contemplates encryption, on-premises site resiliency and automatic failover of virtual machines.

Figure 5 – Stretched cluster in a hyper-converged Azure Stack HCI architecture

In the build phase of creating a new cluster, you can select whether it is an implementation on a single site or stretched on two different sites.

Figure 6 – Options when creating an Azure Stack HCI cluster

If there is a stretched cluster, when creating a volume, you can configure storage replication between the two sites.

Figure 7 – Volume replication options when there is stretched cluster

Optimized the Storage Spaces resync process

In Azure Stack HCI version 20H2 has been completely re-engineered the Storage Spaces Resync, used for storage space repair, to the point where the length of the process is significantly reduced (up to 4-5 Times). This improvement makes it possible to speed up the restart of the various systems after the updates are applied.

Figure 8 - Comparison of the times for the monthly application of operating system patches

Updates of the entire stack covered by the solution (full-stack updates)

To reduce the complexity and operational costs of the solution update process, in the new version of Azure Stack HCI a process is contemplated that involves full-stack updating (Firmware / driver along with the operating system) for certain selected partners.

Figure 9 – Solution updates of a Dell EMC-branded Azure Stack HCI solution

Azure Hybrid Service

This new version of Azure Stack HCI is provided as an Azure service, applying a subscription-based licensing model and offering integrated hybrid capabilities.

To expand the capabilities of your solution, you can use Azure solutions to monitor, activate disaster recovery scenarios, manage backup protection, as well as a centralized view of the various implementations of Azure Stack HCI direct from the Azure Portal. Following, details about this Azure hybrid service are reported.

Native integration in Azure

The new 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 10 – Azure Stack HCI integration scheme in Azure

By integrating with Azure Resource Manager, you 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)

Billing based on a subscription model

Despite being running on-premises, Azure Stack HCI provides invoicing based on Azure subscription, just like any other Azure cloud service. The model is simple and has a cost of 10$ / core / Month, which depends on the cores of the physical processor. In the new pricing model there is no minimum or maximum on the number of licensed cores, much less in the activation duration.

Figure 11 – New licensing model applied for Azure Stack HCI

Dedicated Azure Support Team

Azure Stack HCI becomes an Azure solution, therefore it will be covered by Azure support with the following features:

  • 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 new solution Azure Stack HCI.
  • You can choose from different support plans, depending on your needs.

For more information, you can access this page.

Familiarity in management and operation

The Azure Stack HCI solution can be activated on different hardware models of your choice and does not require specific software tools to be administered.

Choosing and customizing your hardware

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.

The solutions Azure Stack HCI included in the catalog are composed of:

  • A server system
  • An host bus adapter
  • A family of network adapters

Furthermore, you can customize your hardware solution to suit your needs, going to configure the processor, memory, storage and features of network adapters, always respecting the supplier's compatibility matrices.

Figure 12 – Hardware composition for Azure Stack HCI solutions

Management and integration tools

The administrative management of Azure Stack HCI does not require specific software, but you can use existing management tools such as Admin Center, PowerShell, System Center Virtual Machine Manager and even third-party tools.

Using the Windows Admin Center, you can install and configure new architectures Azure Stack HCI and activate virtual systems. Furthermore, With native Windows Admin Center integration with Azure, you can extend functionality with different Azure services, including:

  • Azure Site Recovery to implement disaster recovery scenarios.
  • Azure Monitor to monitor, in a centralized way, what happens at the application level, on the network and in its hyper-converged infrastructure, with advanced analysis using artificial intelligence.
  • Azure Backup for offsite protection of your infrastructure.
  • Azure Security Center for monitoring and detecting security threats in virtual machines
  • Azure Update Management to make an assessment of the missing updates and proceed with its distribution, for both Windows and Linux systems, regardless of their location, Azure or on-premises.
  • Cloud Witness to use Azure storage account as cluster quorum.

Conclusions

The innovations introduced in Microsoft's new hyper-converged solution are very interesting and concern various areas. Azure Stack HCI integrates seamlessly with the existing on-premises environment and offers an important added value: the ability to connect Azure Stack HCI with Azure services to achieve a hybrid hyper-converged solution. This aspect in particular strongly differentiates it from other competitors who offer solutions in this area. Thanks to the changes introduced by this new version it is possible to obtain a complete and more integrated and performing proposition for hyper-converged scenarios.

Azure Hybrid Cloud: overview of the new Azure Stack portfolio

In a corporate reality the adoption of solutions totally based in the cloud is not always be a viable choice or the absolute best, hybrid solutions often have to be adopted, which in any case include the possibility of using the innovations introduced by the cloud. Microsoft, aware of that, has recently announced several innovations in the proposition of its solutions in Hybryd Cloud extending its portfolio to make it more complete and more adaptable to the needs of customers. This article describes how the range of Microsoft solutions in Azure Stack has been expanded and changed.

Currently, the solutions included in the Azure Stack portfolio are as follows::

  • Azure Stack Hub (previously called only "Azure Stack")
  • Azure Stack Edge (previously called "Azure Data Box Edge")
  • Azure Stack HCI

Figure 1 – Azure Stack product family

Azure Stack Hub

Azure Stack Hub and, prior to this product portfolio review, was known by the name Azure Stack continues to be the offering for enterprise customers and for the public sector customers, needing a cloud environment but disconnected from the Internet, or need to meet specific regulatory and compliance requirements. Azure Stack Hub It allows you to deliver the Azure services in the location you want. The solution continues to evolve to cover an increasingly broad range of services, including:

  • Kubernetes with Azure Kubernetes Service integration (AKS) to automate the creation, upgrading and scaling cluster environments.
  • Support for N-Series virtual machines that include GPU support.
  • Event Hubs (expected the preview this year)
  • Azure Stream Analytics (expected the preview this year)
  • Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) (expected the preview this year)
  • Azure Data Services with Azure Arc (expected the preview this year)

Azure Stack Edge

Azure Stack Edge, previously known as Azure Databox Edge, is an Azure managed appliance that can bring computational power, cloud storage and intelligence in a remote edge of the customer. The customer can place the order and the provisioning of Azure Stack Edge direct from the Azure Portal, and then use the classic Azure management tools to monitor and perform updates. No upfront costs are required to obtain this appliance, but it will be covered monthly in the billing of Azure services. The big news about Azure Stack Edge is that new features will be supported, among the main ones we find:

  • Execution of virtual machines
  • Cluster Kubernetes
  • NVIDIA GPU support
  • High availability support

Azure Stack Edge will also be available in a "rugged" version, to withstand extreme environmental conditions, and in a battery-powered version, to be easily transported.

Azure Stack HCI

With the arrival of Windows Server 2019, Microsoft introduced the solution Azure Stack HCI, which allows the execution of virtual machines and a wide access to different services offered by Azure. This is a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), where different hardware components are removed, substitutes from the software, able to combine the layer of compute, storage and network in one solution. This is the evolution of the Windows Server Software-Defined solution (WSSD) available in the past with Windows Server 2016. Azure Stack HCI with Windows Server 2019, allows the use of Hyper-V, a solid and reliable hypervisor, along with Software Defined Storage and Software-Defined Networking solutions. To this is added Windows Admin Center, that allows you to fully manage and with a graphical interface the hyper-converged environment.

Azure Stack HCI shares the same software-defined technologies also used by Azure Stack Hub and requires the adoption of hardware tested and validated specifically for the solution. In order to obtain certification, the hardware is subjected to rigorous validation tests, that guarantee the reliability and stability of the solution. To see the different Azure Stack HCI solutions of the various hardware vendors, you can access this page. Azure Stack HCI can be used for smaller environments with a minimum of two nodes and can scale up to a maximum of 16 nodes. This makes it a suitable solution for different usage scenarios.

Conclusions

To better meet the needs of different clients in this area, Microsoft has revisited its product portfolio. The Azure Stack portfolio combined with Azure Arc, provides an environment where Azure services and management are reflected on validated and integrated infrastructure models, all in a complementary way.

Azure IaaS and Azure Stack: announcements and updates (September 2019 – Weeks: 35 and 36)

This series of blog posts includes the most important announcements and major updates regarding Azure infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and Azure Stack, officialized by Microsoft in the last two weeks.

Azure

Microsoft Azure available from new cloud regions in Switzerland

Microsoft announced the availability of new Azure Regions in Switzerland. With the Azure Region Switzerland West and Switzerland North, Microsoft addresses the need of customers to have cloud regions and datacenters available in Switzerland. Remember that not all services are available in all Azure regions. You can find more information about the products and services available in the Swiss Azure regions on the Azure website.

31 new Azure edge sites

Microsoft announced the addition of 31 new edge sites, bringing the total to over 150 across more than 50 countries. Microsoft is also adding 14 new meet-me sites to Azure ExpressRoute to further enable and expand access to dedicated private connections between customers’ on-premises environments and Azure.

Azure Firewall in China

Azure Firewall is also available in China.

Azure DevTest Labs now integrates with Azure Bastion

Azure DevTest Labs now integrates with Azure Bastion, enabling you to connect to your virtual machines through a web browser. Azure Bastion provides secure and seamless RDP/SSH connectivity to your virtual machines directly in the Azure portal over SSL. As a lab owner, it’s possible to enable your lab virtual machines to have browser-based access provided they’re created in a virtual network that has Azure Bastion configured on it.

Azure Stack

Azure App Service on Azure Stack Update 7 (1.7)

This release updates the resource provider and brings the following key capabilities and fixes:

  • Updates to **App Service Tenant, Admin, Functions portals and Kudu tools**. Consistent with Azure Stack Portal SDK version.
  • Updates to core service to improve reliability and error messaging enabling easier diagnosis of common issues.
  • Access Restrictions now enabled in User Portal

All other fixes and updates are detailed in the App Service on Azure Stack Update Seven Release Notes.

Diagnostic log collection is generally available for Azure Stack

The Azure Stack diagnostic log collection service provides a simplified way for Azure Stack operators to collect and share diagnostic logs with Microsoft Customer Support Services (CSS). A new user experience in the Azure Stack administrator portal is available for operators to set up the automatic upload of diagnostic logs to a storage blob when certain critical alerts are raised, or to perform the same operation on demand.

Azure IaaS and Azure Stack: announcements and updates (January 2019 – Weeks: 03 and 04)

This series of blog posts includes the most important announcements and major updates regarding Azure infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and Azure Stack, officialized by Microsoft in the last two weeks.

Azure

Azure Guest OS Family 6 (Windows Server 2019)

Azure Guest OS Family 6, based on Windows Server 2019, is now generally available. Windows Server 2019 is the operating system that bridges on-premises environments with Azure, adding layers of security while helping you modernize your applications and infrastructure.

Azure Availability Zones in East US 2

Azure Availability Zones, a high-availability solution for mission-critical applications, is generally available in East US 2.

Availability Zones are physically separate locations within an Azure region. Each Availability Zone consists of one or more datacenters equipped with independent power, cooling, and networking. With the introduction of Availability Zones, Microsoft offers a service-level agreement (SLA) of 99.99% for uptime of virtual machines.

Update rollup for Azure File Sync Agent: January 2019

An update rollup for the Azure File Sync agent was released and addresses the following issues:

  • Files are not tiered after upgrading the Azure File Sync agent to version 4.x.
  • AfsUpdater.exe is now supported on Windows Server 2019.
  • Miscellaneous reliability improvements for sync.

More information about this update rollup:

  • This update is available for Windows Server 2012 R2, Windows Server 2016 and Windows Server 2019 installations that have Azure File Sync agent version 4.0.1.0 or later installed.
  • The agent version of this update rollup is 4.3.0.0.
  • A restart may be required if files are in use during the update rollup installation.
  • Installation instructions are documented in KB4481059.

Azure Migrate is available in Asia and Europe

Azure Migrate now supports Asia and Europe as migration project locations. This means that you can now store your discovered metadata in Asia (Southeast Asia) and Europe (North Europe/West Europe) regions.

In addition to Asia and Europe, Azure Migrate also supports storing the metadata in United States and Azure Government geographies. Support for other Azure geographies is planned for the future.

Note that the project geography does not restrict you from planning your migration for a different target location. Azure Migrate supports more than 30 regions as assessment target locations. The project geography is only used to store the discovered VM metadata.

M-series virtual machines (VMs) are available in Australia Central region

Azure M-series VMs are  available in the Australia Central region. M-series VMs offer configurations with memory from 192 GB to 3.8 TiB (4 TB) RAM and are certified for SAP HANA.

Azure IaaS and Azure Stack: announcements and updates (December 2018 – Weeks: 50 and 51)

This series of blog posts includes the most important announcements and major updates regarding Azure infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and Azure Stack, officialized by Microsoft in the last two weeks.

Azure

Update rollup for Azure File Sync Agent: December 2018

An update rollup for the Azure File Sync agent was released this month which addresses the following issues:

  • A Stop error 0x3B or Stop error 0x1E may occur when a VSS snapshot is created.
  • A memory leak may occur when cloud tiering is enabled

More information about this update rollup:

  • This update is available for Windows Server 2012 R2, Windows Server 2016, and Windows Server 2019 installations that have Azure File Sync agent version 3.1.0.0 or a later version installed.
  • The agent version of this update rollup is 4.2.0.0.
  • A restart may be required if files are in use during the update rollup installation.
  • Installation instructions are documented in KB4459990.

Automate Always On availability group deployments with SQL Virtual Machine resource provider

A new automated way to configure high availability solutions for SQL Server on Azure Virtual Machines (VMs) is now available using SQL VM resource provider.

Virtual Network Service Endpoints for serverless messaging and big data

Azure Event Hubs, a highly reliable and easily scalable data streaming service, and Azure Service Bus, which provides enterprise messaging, are the new set of serverless offerings joining the growing list of Azure services that have enabled Virtual Network Service Endpoints.

Azure Stack

Azure Stack 1811 update

The 1811 update package includes fixes, improvements, and new features for Azure Stack. This update package is only for Azure Stack integrated systems. Do not apply this update package to the Azure Stack Development Kit.