Microsoft plans to rearchitect Azure Stack by making it container-based

Microsoft's 'Project Saturn' is an effort to rearchitect its Azure Stack hybrid computing platform and, possibly one day, to allow key Azure services and APIs to run anywhere.

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Credit: Microsoft

I don't think I'm the only one who has noticed that Microsoft officials have not said much about Azure Stack, its hybrid computing platform, this calendar year. I don't believe this is because Microsoft is planning to phase out Azure Stack, given how often execs cite hybrid as one of the key assets Microsoft has in the cloud space. There may be more going on than just a shift in marketing priorities, however.

Microsoft seems to be undertaking a fairly substantial rearchitecting of Azure Stack. The effort to makeover the underlying infrastructure for Azure Stack is codenamed "Project Saturn," according to my contacts. The end goal for Saturn is to make the Azure Stack infrastructure more componentized and simple.

Azure Stack, for those needing a quick refresher, is Microsoft's private and hybrid cloud offering. Redmondians call it an "extension" of Azure which lets users run Azure services in their own or partners' data centers.

Like Windows, Azure Stack could stand to get more modular, and that's why Microsoft is looking for a way to deliver key pieces of Azure Stack independent of the infrastructure they run on. When Microsoft originally outlined plans for Azure Stack, the goal was to allow users to run the platform on their existing hardware. But Microsoft ended up tying Azure Stack to a handful of preconfigured server configurations from partners Dell, Lenovo, HPE and Cisco.

I found one Microsoft job description that refers to the planned changes. It mentions "the evolution of the Azure Stack infrastructure components ... as we move towards a container-based infrastructure that is simplified while embracing the customer promise that Azure Stack is an appliance."

From what I'm hearing, it's still early days for the retooling of Azure Stack. But if and when it comes to fruition, Microsoft would be able -- at least in theory -- to run Azure Stack, various Azure services and Azure programming interfaces -- anywhere.

Last year, Microsoft officials said they were taking orders for Azure Stack at their capacity to deliver. However, Microsoft has not, to my knowledge, ever released any information on how Azure Stack is selling -- not even a growth percentage with no baseline number like it does with Azure. I asked this week for any kind of stats on how Azure Stack is doing in the market and a spokesperson said the company had nothing to share. (I also asked about the planned retooling of Azure Stack and got another "nothing to share" answer.)

According to Microsoft's Azure roadmap site, there were no feature additions to the Azure Stack product between November 2018 and September 2019. In September, Microsoft added diagnostic log collection. Entries for integration with Azure Government Secret cloud and retail solution patterns for hybrid applications were added in September under the in-development category. As far as I know, Microsoft still hasn't delivered on its year-ago commitment to make its Cosmos DB multi-model database available on Azure Stack.

Microsoft did announce earlier this year Azure Stack HCI (hyper-converged infrastructure), which allows customers to run VMs on-premises and connect them to Azure via an HCI solution. Microsoft is not planning to replace Azure Stack with Azure HCI; the two are different products with different use cases.

Microsoft seems to have stepped up its marketing of Azure Stack as part of its "intelligent edge" family of products. Azure Data Box, Azure Data Box, Azure Data Box Edge, and Azure Sphere also fall into what Microsoft sells as "intelligent edge" products these days.

Update (Sept. 20): On the "Crying Cloud" blog, Danny McDermott noted that as of Azure Stack update 1905, Microsoft added two new infrastructure roles as placeholders. One is called the Infrastructure ring. The description:

"In the future, the infrastructure ring will host containerized versions of existing infrastructure roles, for example, xrp -- that currently require their own designated infrastructure VMs."

This change is designed to reduce the number of infrastructure VMs that Azure Stack requires. But it also will increase the consumption of Azure Stack infrastructure, McDermott noted.

Does this infrastructure ring have to do with Project Saturn? Possibly. Not a bad educated guess from McDermott, in any case.