Category Archives: What’s New in Azure Stack HCI

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: 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 called 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.