Category Archives: Azure Stack

4 good reasons to choose Azure Stack HCI

Cloud computing is increasingly popular for companies looking to simplify management and achieve greater scalability of their IT environment. However, many organizations continue to use infrastructure at their datacenters for a variety of reasons, ranging from the need to ensure support for legacy workloads, the need to comply with specific technical and regulatory requirements. This article discusses the top reasons why you should consider adopting Azure Stack HCI over other on-premises virtualization solutions.

Azure Stack HCI is the Microsoft 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 was specifically designed by Microsoft to help customers modernize their hybrid datacenter, offering a complete and familiar Azure experience in an on-premises environment. If there is an insight into the Microsoft Azure Stack HCI solution, I invite you to read this article or to view this video.

Figure 1 – Overview of Azure Stack HCI

Interacting with customers on a daily basis, I am often asked why they should choose Azure Stack HCI over other known solutions that have been on the market for a long time. In the following paragraphs I report those that, in my view, are the main reasons that lead to the adoption of Azure Stack HCI.

1. Modernize your on-premises infrastructure by bringing innovation

Azure Stack HCI is not synonymous with a virtualization environment, but it allows you to achieve much more. Indeed, it is ideal if you want to modernize your infrastructure, adopting a hyper-converged architecture that allows you to:

  • Activate virtual machines relying on consolidated technologies that make the environment stable and highly available, also particularly suitable for workloads that require high performance and high scalability.
  • Deploy and manage modern applications based on micro-services, parallel to virtual machines, on the same cluster environment, adopting Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS). As well as being able to run containerized Windows and Linux apps, AKS provides the infrastructure to run services PaaS selected of the Azure platform in an on-premises environment, thanks to Azure Arc.
  • Activate 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.
  • Create session host pools of Azure Virtual Desktop using virtual machines running on-premises. This hybrid scenario becomes interesting 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.
  • Extend the functionality of the on-premises solution by connecting to various Azure services such as Azure Site Recovery, Azure Backup, Azure Monitor and Defender for Cloud. This aspect guarantees a constant innovation, given the continuous evolution of cloud services.

2. Optimize costs

The cost model for Azure Stack HCI, described in detail in this article, is very simple.

In particular, for customers with a Software Assurance contract, 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. Recently, doing a cost comparison between Azure Stack HCI and VMware vSphere + vSAN on a projection of 3 years, it emerged as Azure Stack HCI allows you to save up to 40%.

3. Increase the level of security

Azure Stack HCI offers cross-security across hardware and firmware, integrated into the functionalities of the operating system, that can help protect servers from advanced threats. Indeed, Azure Stack HCI systems, can adopt the security features of Secured-core, all through an easy setup experience from the Windows Admin Center.

Furthermore, Azure Stack HCI lets you get it for free, just like in Azure, important security patches for Microsoft's legacy products that are past their end of support, through the Extended Security Update program (ESU). Currently applies to Windows Server 2008/R2 and will soon also apply to Windows Server 2012/R2 when end of support is reached, in addition to the corresponding versions of SQL Server. This allows you to have more time to undertake an application modernization process, without neglecting the safety aspects.

4. Maximize the investments already made

Azure Stack HCI can integrate with your existing environment as well as popular third-party solutions. Therefore, the adoption of this solution does not require new investments to introduce or adapt the management solutions, identity, security and protection.

In particular, 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. Furthermore, by adopting Azure Stack HCI and Azure Arc it is possible to apply the cloud management models also to the on-premises environment, greatly simplifying the user experience.

Azure Stack HCI allows you to take full advantage of not only the investments already made in terms of tools, but also with regard to the skills of the IT staff.

Conclusions

Microsoft brings cloud innovation and experience managing one of the world's largest data centers to Azure Stack HCI. Customers, in turn, by adopting Azure Stack HCI they can modernize their on-premises datacenter, safeguarding the investments made and future ones, without neglecting the aspects related to security and integration. The reasons described in this article are particularly important, to the point of having already led several customers to choose Azure Stack HCI over other solutions in this area.

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.

How to modernize your infrastructure and get the benefits of Azure with a single on-premises server

Azure Stack HCI is the Microsoft 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. Microsoft recently introduced the ability to create an Azure Stack HCI cluster consisting of a single server. This possibility opens up new scenarios regarding the adoption of this solution. This article reports the main use cases, the aspects to consider and the benefits that can be obtained by activating Azure Stack HCI on a single server system.

In a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), several 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 is a stack made up of hardware and software that customers also use for the potential of simple integration with the Microsoft Azure cloud.

Use cases of Azure Stack HCI consisting of multiple nodes

The use of a standard Azure Stack HCI configuration consisting of multiple nodes is suitable if:

  • You want to modernize your infrastructure, adopting a simple hyper-converged architecture based on established technologies. Ideal for both existing workloads in the main datacenter and for branch office scenarios that require high resilience.
  • You want to provide for an extension of the functionality of the on-premises solution, which guarantees resilience, 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.
  • You want a suitable solution to host workloads that require high performance and high scalability.
  • It is considered useful to innovate your datacenter, as you have the ability to activate AKS clusters and deploy cloud native apps and Azure Arc-enabled services in high availability. All this thanks to the tight integration of AKS in the Azure Stack HCI environment.

Figure 2 - Use cases of Azure Stack HCI with multiple nodes

Use cases of Azure Stack HCI with a single node

Thanks to the possibility of activating an Azure Stack HCI cluster even with a single server, it is possible to contemplate new usage scenarios, including:

  • Activation of Azure Stack HCI in environments where there are no particular needs in terms of resilience, such as branch offices.
  • Adoption of a solution in environments where the ability to scale easily is required, starting initially from a single node to potentially go up to 16 nodes, if necessary.
  • Need to activate a solution with a small footprint, perhaps in locations with physical space constraints and at the same time allowing to keep hardware costs and operating costs low.
  • Ability to create and maintain test and development environments more easily.

Comparison between single node and multi-node Azure Stack HCI clusters

From the point of view of functionality, Azure Stack HCI clusters made up of a single node offer a feature set that is very similar to traditional clusters made up of multiple nodes, like:

  • Native integration with Azure Arc, key element for innovation and modernization of the infrastructure.
  • Ability to add servers horizontally to increase the scalability of the cluster environment.
  • Integration with Azure services.
  • Support for the same workloads, like Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD) and Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS).

For a complete comparison of the features you can consult this Microsoft's document.

Single node Azure Stack HCI clusters currently have the following limitations:

  • Installation must be done using PowerShell commands and configuration support is not yet available through the Windows Admin Center.
  • They are resilient to some errors, for example the presence of a failed disk, but the limited capabilities in terms of resilience dictate that they must be composed of only one type of disk drive, NVMe or SSD (not combinable with each other). This implies that there is no possibility of having cache levels.
  • Not all hardware vendors currently have supported solutions. To check availability, you can consult the Microsoft catalog of Azure Stack HCI solutions.

Conclusions

The possibility of activating an Azure Stack HCI cluster with only one physical server introduces greater flexibility and greatly expands the possibilities of adopting this solution. Furthermore, this choice denotes how Azure Stack HCI is the future of virtualization and software-defined solutions at Microsoft. By adopting Azure Stack HCI it is possible to bring innovation even within your datacenter thanks to a solution that is constantly updated and able to easily integrate with Azure services.

Datacenter Modernization: a real case with Microsoft solutions

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.

Conclusions

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.

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. Indeed, 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.

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 – June edition 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. 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. Indeed, 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.