Microsoft's Hybrid 2.0 strategy: Azure Arc, Azure Stack Hub, Azure Stack Edge explained

At Ignite 2019, Microsoft is announcing new branding and a new strategy meant to make Azure the place IT pros will manage their edge, on-premises and multi-cloud software and services. Here's my best attempt to demystify the new hybrid announcements.

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Credit: Microsoft

One of the most sweeping -- and likely, least readily understood -- announcements by Microsoft at its Ignite conference this week will be what it's calling "Azure Arc." Arc is not an acronym; it's the name of a set of Microsoft technologies that are meant to extend the reach of Azure across Microsoft and other vendors' servers and cloud services.

I've spent the past week reading as much as Microsoft let me get my hands on, plus talking to various Microsoft and third-party folks, about Azure Arc. Here's my best attempt to try to explain what this new strategy is and how Microsoft plans to push it forward.

"We consider it as a huge part of what we're calling Hybrid 2.0.," Microsoft's Azure Chief Technology Officer Mark Russinovich told me in a sit-down interview a week ago. "The first two services that will plug into it are Kubernetes and Azure SQL Analytics," he said.

Azure Stack was Microsoft's Hybrid 1.0 play. Microsoft introduced Azure Stack in 2017. Originally, Microsoft planned to allow customers and partners to run Azure Stack on any datacenter hardware of their choosing. But following early testing, Microsoft decided the best way to make sure Azure Stack appliances remained properly serviced was to pick a handful of such servers to certify.

After pooh-poohing private cloud/hybrid cloud as unnecessary and fake, Microsoft's rivals like Amazon and Google heard from customers that they wanted and needed hybrid cloud offerings. Not every workload can or should be run in the public cloud, they said. Amazon introduced AWS Outposts as its hybrid play and Google added the ability to centrally maintain and manage Kubernetes clusters as a primary feature of its Anthos microservices platform.

Azure Arc seems to be Microsoft's attempt to answer Amazon with Outposts and Google with Anthos, said Sid Nag, a Gartner Research Vice President. Beyond that, at this point at least, it seems to be mostly a bunch of industry buzzwords, Nag said.

Arc is a brand which will encompass a variety of technologies from different Microsoft teams that will roll up into the company's plan to manage on-premises resources from Azure. Arc isn't about bringing Azure services to the edge and/or hybrid servers. Instead, it is about projecting edge and on-premises resources back to the Azure portal so they can be managed in Azure. The idea is to give customers a single control plane in Azure to manage their edge, on-premises and other cloud resources centrally.

Microsoft's most succinct definition of Arc that I've seen so far is "Azure Arc is a set of technologies that extends Azure management and enables Azure services to run across on-premises, multi-cloud and edge."

Just to make things a bit more confusing, Microsoft also is doing a bunch of Azure Stack rebranding simultaneously with the launch of Azure Arc. 

Azure Stack, which has been Microsoft's hybrid computing platform consisting of a number of Azure services and technologies made available on a handful of pre-selected servers from partners like Lenovo, Dell, HP and Cisco, is going to be renamed "Azure Stack Hub." Azure HCI, Microsoft's Azure HyperConverged Infrastructure (which, itself, is basically Windows Server Software Defined made-over) is keeping its same name. Azure Data Box Edge, one of the family of Microsoft data-transfer devices, is being rechristened as "Azure Stack Edge."  Azure Data Box is Microsoft's answer to Amazon's Snowball.

The Azure Stack Edge data-transfer appliances include an onboard field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) meant to help handle AI inferencing on the devices. At Ignite, Microsoft is adding a couple of new features in preview to Azure Stack Edge boxes, including the ability to run applications in VMs or containers on the devices, as well as support for Kubernetes clustering for containerized apps on the devices.

Back to Azure Arc... As of today, November 4, Microsoft is making available in preview form a few of the tech pieces of Azure Arc. It is delivering its Azure Resource Manager (ARM) for Windows and Linux servers running on any infrastructure available in preview form. It's also making available previews of two on-premises resource types that can be managed from Azure: Kubernetes clusters and Azure data services. Both of these are available on Azure Stack Hub -- Kubernetes on Azure Stack Hub is generally available while Azure Data services is available on Azure Stack Hub in preview. In addition, Microsoft is previewing Windows Virtual Desktop on Azure Stack Hub as of this week.

Because Azure Resource Manager enforces all kinds of management, including governance capabilities with Azure Shell, Azure Portal, API, role-based access control (RBAC) and Azure Policy for all Azure resources, Microsoft officials see it providing a bigger role beyond just managing Azure resources in Azure. Longer term, Microsoft's goal is to get customers to take advantage of Azure DevOps and security across the edge, on-premises and multicloud as part of its Arc strategy.