Not another HCI solution! 2nd generation Azure Stack HCI lands.

By Neil Thurston

Most industry data suggests that the lion’s share of sales in the HCI market are going to Nutanix or VMware, so why consider anything else? Well if you’re thinking about building a hybrid cloud, read on…

Before we dive into Azure Stack HCI though, let’s first clear up the Azure Stack portfolio – there’s Azure Stack Hub, Azure Stack HCI and Azure Stack Edge. In brief, the differences between these offerings are as follows.

Azure Stack Hub - if you want to extend Azure IaaS and PaaS consistent services on-premise, then you deploy Azure Stack Hub. It ships as pre-built racks, from a certified hardware vendor, that plug straight into your data centre. You can’t migrate existing on-premise VMs to it – it’s deployed to host Azure workloads or data on-premise for latency, performance or governance reasons.

Azure Stack HCI – if you want an HCI solution that is pre-integrated with Azure services to extend the data centre into Azure, then you deploy Azure Stack HCI. It ships as a software solution that installs onto your existing server hardware, or you can buy pre-built certified servers, and once up and running it is monitored, updated, supported, licenced and billed through Azure. You can migrate existing on-premise VMs to it.

Azure Stack Edge – if you have IoT devices and need to analyse events and data at the edge before sending them to Azure, then you deploy Azure Stack Edge. It ships as an Azure-managed appliance.

Getting back on topic, the 2nd generation of Azure Stack HCI (in preview at the time of writing) is more than just a rebrand of Microsoft’s Windows Server 2019 bundled with Storage Spaces Direct (S2D) - it’s built with a real intent to provide an HCI solution with hybrid capability to the Azure mothership. To back this up, Microsoft has forked the Azure Stack HCI hypervisor away from Windows Server, to focus it on hypervisor host functionality (it even now displays the Azure logo when booting, not the Windows logo), whereas Windows Server continues to focus on being a guest OS and traditional server.

Taking it in isolation, this is an HCI solution based on Hyper-V, S2D and Microsoft SDN technologies that delivers standard HCI functionality from storage efficiencies and fault tolerance to stretched clusters for your virtualised Windows and Linux, plus Kubernetes, workloads to run on. It also supports the standard use cases for HCI solutions from DC consolidation and modernisation to supporting NVMe storage for performance-sensitive apps to hosting virtual desktops. If that’s what you need then this solution is on a level playing field with the rest of the HCI market, albeit Hyper-V is clearly the only hypervisor choice available. Beyond this though, it’s the built-in integration with Azure that makes this standout, whether you’re looking to build hybrid cloud capabilities now or in the future.

What’s the benefit of Azure integration? Simplicity. Use one suite of services to manage, secure and govern both on-premise and cloud-based workloads and data; run general apps in Azure and run performance or latency-sensitive apps, or host sensitive data, on-premise; enable apps and data on-premise to securely connect to apps, app tiers and data in Azure.

I could list all of the services but to save me from RSI, here’s a diagram from Microsoft’s website:

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So there’s a whole bunch of hybrid Azure services that you can use to simplify operations, security and governance of your hybrid environment, as well as enabling the mobility of workloads and data. On top of these hybrid services, Azure Stack HCI Windows and Linux VMs can also be managed centrally using the standard Azure tools of Azure Portal, Azure Resource Manager and Azure Arc.

Management of the underlying HCI platform is done through Windows Admin Center and this has also been updated too and now integrates with Azure Portal. Again, this simplifies operational workflows and enables Azure tools to manage on-premise HCI hosts and clusters, modernising your operational toolsets.

Finally, in addition to Azure integration, Azure Stack HCI also now supports a growing set of managed Azure services running on-premise (in preview at the time of writing). The initial set of services include AKS (Azure Kubernetes service), Azure SQL Managed Instance and Azure PostgreSQL Hyperscale – just sit back and consume these services while they are managed remotely by the Azure team, but with all your data stored locally. This gives you some essential capabilities of Azure Stack Hub without the hefty investment.

Summing up, Azure Stack HCI will be a middle-runner on most people’s shortlist when looking for standalone HCI solutions but if you're looking to build an HCI-based hybrid cloud then Azure Stack HCI and Azure are pretty much on a shortlist of 1. It’s a digital swiss army knife hosting local workloads and data, connecting to Azure to run hybrid services and running managed Azure services on-premise – all secured, managed and governed centrally from the cloud. It simplifies hybrid cloud whilst driving flexibility into your digital transformation strategy. Definitely worth considering.