Microsoft: Soon, you too can have your own Azure cloud

Microsoft previews Azure Stack, a private cloud configuration which is actually public Azure in a box.

Microsoft is extending its cloud infrastructure story, with plans to package up its public Azure cloud offerings as a private cloud offering. The bottom line: its Azure infrastructure offerings - exactly the same code and services, unchanged - will eventually be offered to enterprises for use as private cloud environments, or to hosting partners to offer up their own value-add Azure offerings. The goal is to support "one Azure ecosystem," with a common technology and tools base for both the public and private versions.

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Photo: Joe McKendrick

I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop at Microsoft's Redmond, Washington headquarters, where Microsoft executives briefed us on the new developments. Jeffrey Snover, technical fellow at Microsoft and Microsoft CTO Mark Russinovich explained that "Azure Stack," the vendor's on-premises cloud package, is the same technology as the public version of Azure. The only difference is that public Azure is built as a hyperscale offering running on more than 22 data centers, while Azure Stack can be effectively deployed on as few as four servers.

The first Technical Preview of Azure Stack is slated to go live January 29th. Both the public and private versions offer the same configurations - a front-end interface with a portal and PowerShell scripting environment, along with the Azure Resource Manager provisioning engine. Both the public and now private versions also include IaaS and PaaS capabilities, and a full-blown underlying cloud infrastructure of compute, storage and networking solutions. Snover described the offering as a "platform from a platform company," noting that "on top of platforms, rich ecosystems get built."

Pricing is still pending for Azure Stack, but is likely to be tiered, said Mike Neil, corporate VP of enterprise cloud for Microsoft. Any patches, version and rollouts seen with the public Azure data centers will also be extended to the private Azure sites, though more likely on a weekly basis, he added. In the upcoming Technical Previews, Microsoft will add services and content such as OS images and Azure Resource Manager templates to help customers start taking advantage of Azure Stack, Azure already has hundreds of such applications and components on GitHub and these will be available on Azure Stack, he states. As with Azure, "Azure Stack will host cloud-native applications as well as traditional applications. These apps can use Windows Server or Linux."

Positioning Azure as a private cloud offerings has some interesting longer-term implications for the Microsoft's cloud offerings. If it takes off, there could be hundreds of Azure data centers around the world, versus the 22 data centers now running public Azure. While Microsoft says the Azure stack sites will be completely self-contained within the enterprises and partners maintaining them, if they do opt into some type of network, it will extend Azure into far-reaching places across the globe. Of course, there's no question that having Azure proliferate across Microsoft's enterprise base will provide customers one less reason to abandon their Windows-based server farms in favor of a public cloud option.

While Microsoft itself has grown increasingly active in the public cloud space, its executives state that public cloud isn't necessarily the best fit for many enterprises. Microsoft actually reports robust adoption of its public Azure services, including 90,000 new subscribers a month, supporting more than 500 million users, public cloud infrastructure services leave many businesses wanting, Snover and Russinovich explained. The "public cloud doesn't address enterprise need for every workload," and "ease of integration and deployment is critical," said Russinovich explains. Plus, many enterprises are looking for ways to modernize their current back-end systems, not rip and replace with third-party cloud services.

Currently, Azure Stack is branded and offered separately from Microsoft's other cloud and Software as a Service offerings, including Office 365, Exchange, and Sharepoint. In addition, Azure Stack is not connected to Microsoft's .NET application services framework, though it can reside as part of Azure Stack's cloud, Russinovich said.

While private clouds tend to be expressed through virtualization approaches, Snover said this is wanting, as it incurs overhead on underlying systems, and tends to be limited in scope. Still, the private cloud infrastructure offerings that have come to the fore in recent years - Eucalyptus, CloudStack and OpenStack - have seen mixed results, with organizations preferring to move assets and capabilities to internal cloud on a more piecemeal basis, versus the more big-bang approach of imposing a far-reaching overlay on top of their infrastructure. It's been more of a story of, "here's a service or two that we've abstracted from our applications and can be accessed through a web layer."

It remains to be seen how many enterprises will buy into the private Azure approach. As cloud service providers buy Azure and offer their own branded versions, it might present a different dynamic. It's entirely possible these providers may be able to offer and extend their Azure network offerings to places that Microsoft doesn't reach, thereby assuring a strong, global brand.

There's no mention of federation yet, and it may never happen, but the possibilities exist for a network effect, essentially a global fabric of Azure services with high availability and high resiliency, serviced both directly from Microsoft as well as from partners' data centers. This may offer stronger insurance against cloud provider outages, which continue to dog the industry.

(Disclosure: Microsoft assisted with travel costs to the recent Azure workshop.)

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