How Microsoft’s server offerings blur the boundary between on-premises and the cloud

Microsoft's Blue wave of server tools are about to be released; here's how they fit together to build what Microsoft is calling the "CloudOS".
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

Last week, I spent some time in Redmond with the Windows Server and System Center teams to learn more about how Microsoft is delivering the R2 refresh of its server and management tools — and how they fit together to build what Microsoft is calling the "CloudOS".

It’s probably best to start with Azure. There've been big changes under the covers of Microsoft's cloud platform over the past couple of years. When Azure launched it had its own hypervisor, a variant of Hyper-V that wasn't fully compatible with the Windows Server Hyper-V, as it was designed purely to support a Platform as a Service operations. That’s all changed, and Windows Server and Azure now share the same Hyper-V hypervisor. We've already seen the first fruits of that change, with the introduction of Azure's Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) platform.

That’s meant that Windows Server’s 20012 R2 release gets a lot of extra IaaS features, with additional support for Linux guest OSes and improved handling of Windows Server loads. While dynamic memory makes a difference to Linux loads, there are also improvements for IT pros, most importantly, a new, much better view of the guest OS's screen from Hyper-V manager on the host.

Microsoft is using the release of its R2 wave of server and management tools to bring on-premises infrastructure and cloud closer together, while leaving you the option of running your network the way you always have. That’s a smart move — you can upgrade and gain the performance benefits of an updated kernel, as well as many new features across many of the server roles, and when you’re ready, you can start to take advantage of its private cloud features in your networks.

As Azure and Windows Server come closer together, Microsoft is offering IT pros and developers paths to go between cloud and on-premises — even using PaaS tools and services. That’s a big differentiator from other cloud services, as while you can move VMs on and off Amazon’s AWS, if you’re building around its storage options, you’ll need to re-architect your applications and use alternative options.

So how do all the pieces fit?

Building your own cloud might start with building out Storage Spaces to gain the benefits of virtualised storage, without having to invest in specialised storage hardware. It might also mean working with System Center and Intune to manage BYOD devices, while using Workplace Join and work folders to add a layer of control to your network. Similarly, Hyper-V makes it easier to handle disaster recovery, while Active Directory Federation Services will let you control access to apps via a new Web Application Proxy with support for multiple factor authentication.

Once you start treating your on-premises infrastructure as a private IaaS cloud, it makes sense to start mixing and matching Azure’s PaaS services with your software, perhaps using Azure AD as a replica of your own directory to support cloud-based single sign on. With Azure AD now connected to moe than two million organisations (mainly through Office 365) it’s rapidly becoming a key part of Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure — and with System Center Configuration Manager 2012 R2 gaining ever closer links with Intune, using Azure AD to manage BYOD devices, it’s likely to become a key component of yours too.

Technologies like Desired State Configuration (DSC) are key here, too, using PowerShell to describe the apps and services on a server or VM — and then to keep them that way. You can use DSC to quickly stand-up identical front-end web servers, or ensure that the correct storage is always available. Automation is key to the cloud, ensuring servers are in the right state, and that users get the services — and the SLA — that they want.

Once you’ve got a private cloud, your Server VMs can migrate to and from Azure IaaS, using dedicated network connections and VPNs, while data can be switched between cloud storage and local file systems, and between Azure SQL and SQL Server. With the new Azure-hosted disaster recovery tools (and Azure Cloud Backup) in Windows Server 2012 R2 you can quickly take advantage of IaaS cloud as an alternative to traditional business continuity solutions – and save money while doing so. It’s a model that makes both private and public clouds extensions of each other.

Azure’s platform services are harder to bring back to the on-premises server, but with the Windows Azure Pack (while Microsoft internally calls it WAP, I get flashbacks to early mobile browsers), there’s now a route that lets you write at least some apps and move them between your data centre and the cloud. Microsoft is expecting hosting providers to use the Azure Pack to set up their own clouds, but it’s also got a place in the enterprise.

Once you get used to thinking of yourself as a hosting provider, and have set up the appropriate plans and assigned them to Active Directory groups, your users are able to quickly stand-up web servers and services, with quick deployment of common apps and integration with tools like Web Matrix. It’s a self-service option that packs many more web services onto a server than a traditional IIS deployment — and that also gives you the opportunity of migrating between private and public clouds.

Not all the Azure PaaS services come with the Azure Pack, but the combination of high-density web sites and the App Fabric tools mean it’s now possible to build an app on-premises, hosted on your own server, and then move it to and from the cloud when necessary. Need more front-end web servers? Then deploy to Azure. Need to use Hadoop to analyse your data? Fire up HD Insight in the cloud, and then bring the results back to SQL Server and to Microsoft’s Excel-based business intelligence tools.

Microsoft’s server offerings are blurring the boundary between on-premises and the cloud. It’s an interesting approach — and one that can’t be delivered without both a server and a cloud business. Amazon and Google are only cloud, while VMware is in the data center. Bringing the two together, either as services, or with IaaS tools and PaaS applications, is critical to the future of the enterprise data center, as it moves to an automated, self-service platform — a true CloudOS.

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