The use of hyper-converged infrastructure in recent years has increased sharply and estimates from authoritative sources report that in the coming 12-18 months investing in solutions of this kind will be among the most significant for the modernization of datacenters, for about the 54% of the organizations. With the arrival of Windows Server 2019, Microsoft introduced the solution Azure Stack HCI, that can run virtual machines and easy connection to Azure with a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI). This article lists the main features of the solution and its potential.
The trend that is emerging is the transition from a "three tier" traditional infrastructure, composed of network switches, appliance, physical systems with onboard hypervisors, storage fabric and SAN, toward hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), where different hardware components are removed, substitutes by the "magic" of the software, able to combine the layer of compute, storage and network in one solution.
Figure 1 – "Three Tier" Infrastructure vs Hyper-Converged Infrastructure (HCI)
All this is made possible by the new operating system Windows Server 2019, that lets you use 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. The whole is implemented on hardware specially validated by various vendors.
Figure 2 – Azure Stack HCI Solution overview
The positioning of the solution Azure Stack HCI is as follows, side-by-side with Azure and Azure Stack, but with specific and distinct purposes.
Figure 3 – Azure Family
Azure Stack HCI is an evolution of Windows Server Software-Defined solution (WSSD) available in the past with Windows Server 2016. Azure Stack HCI was inducted into the Azure family as it shares the same software-defined technologies used from Azure Stack.
Azure Stack HCI allows the execution of virtualized applications in the on-premises environment, on hardware tested and validated specifically. In order to get certified hardware is subjected to rigorous validation testing, that guarantee the reliability and stability of the solution. To consult the different solutions for Azure Stack HCI of the various hardware vendors you can access this page.
Figure 4 – Azure Stack HCI solutions hardware partners
Proper hardware sizing is critical to achieving the desired results in terms of performance and stability, Therefore, you should always use hardware solutions validated in a specific way and do not use hardware components assembled at will. This condition is also required to obtain a solution of Azure Stack HCI fully supported.
Through the use and support of the latest innovations in hardware devices, Azure Stack HCI enables you to achieve very high performance, much to achieve an important record of IOPS (-> 13.798.674) for the hyper-converged platforms, doubling the maximum performance that had been reached with Windows Server 2016.
Figure 5 - Hardware Innovations supported by Azure Stack HCI
The hyper-converged solution with Windows Server 2016 saw a big problem due to the fact that the configuration and management of the environment had to be made predominantly from the command line.
Thanks to the introduction of Windows Admin Center you have the ability to manage and control hyper-converged environment totally via web interface. In addition, many vendors of hardware solutions provide the Windows Admin Center extensions to enhance the management capabilities.
The following video shows the management of a hyper-converged environment from Windows Admin Center:
In software-defined storage, the Storage Space Direct technology allows you to take advantage of many features, making it a complete solution, reliable and secure.
Figure 6 – Features in software-defined storage scope
In Windows Server 2019 important improvements have been made in the field of data deduplication and compression that allow you to have a higher quantity of usable storage space.
Figure 7 – Possible disk space savings using deduplication and compression
This configuration can be achieved very easily directly from Windows Admin Center.
Figure 8 – Enabling deduplication and compression from Windows Admin Center
Azure Stack HCI can be used for smaller environments with two nodes and can scale up to a maximum of 16 nodes.
Figure 9 -Scalability of the solution
In the presence of clusters composed by exactly two nodes Windows Server 2019 you can use the Nested resiliency, a new feature in Storage Spaces Direct, introduced in Windows Server 2019, that allows you to support more faults at the same time without losing access to storage.
Figure 10 - Hardware Fault supported
Using this feature you will have a lower capacity than a classic two-way mirror, but you get better reliability, essential for hyper-converged infrastructure, exceeding the limit from previous versions of Windows Server in the presence of cluster environments with only two nodes . The nested resiliency brings together two new options in the resiliency, implemented in software and without the need for specific hardware:
- Nested two-way mirror: on each server is used locally a two-way mirror, and an additional resiliency is ensured by a two-way mirror between the two servers. Actually it's a four-way mirror, where there are two copies of the data for each server.
- Nested mirror-accelerated parity: mixes two-way mirror, described above, with the nested parity.
Figure 11 – Nested two-way mirror + Nested mirror-accelerated parity
Azure Stack HCI connects on-premises resources to public cloud Azure to extend the feature set, a totally different approach from Azure Stack, that allows you to adopt the Azure services on-premises, getting a totally consistent experience to the public cloud, but with resources that are located in your datacenter.
Figure 12 – Hybrid approach: Azure Stack vs Azure Stack HCI
The ability to connect Azure Stack HCI with Azure services to obtain a hybrid hyper-converged solution is an important added value that differs strongly from other competitors. Also in this case the integration can be done directly from Windows Admin Center to enjoy the following services Azure:
- 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.
- Cloud Witness to use Azure storage account as cluster quorum.
- Azure Backup for offsite protection of your infrastructure.
- 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.
- Azure Network Adapter to easily connect on-premises resources with the VMs in Azure via a point-to-site VPN.
- Azure Security Center for monitoring and detecting security threats in virtual machines.
Figure 13 – Windows Azure hybrid Integration services from Admin Center
Microsoft has made significant investments to develop, improve and make its own proposition for hyper-converged scenarios more reliable and efficient. Azure Stack HCI is now a mature solution, that exceeds the limits of previous Windows Server Software-Defined solution (WSSD) and incorporates everything you need to create a hyper-converged environment into a single product and a single license: Windows Server 2019. The ability to connect remotely Azure Stack HCI to various Azure services also make it an even more complete and functional solution.