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Azure Stack Hardware Limitations Explained

Ahead of the planned Azure Stack push during the company's September Ignite conference, Microsoft is delving into some of the hardware nuances for the cloud stack.

Hardware and software for Azure Stack will be available at the event, according to Vijay Tewari, a principal group program manager for enterprise cloud solutions at Microsoft. He outlined Microsoft's approach in this Microsoft Channel 9 presentation. Microsoft is planning a public Technical Preview 2 release of Azure Stack "later this year."

Azure Stack is a collection of software technologies, scaled for the enterprise, that lets organizations and service providers host services using software that's similar to Microsoft Azure, which is Microsoft's "cloud services" datacenter network. Microsoft has been promising a stepped-up experience with Azure Stack vs. its current Windows Azure Pack offering because Azure Stack better reflects the software stack that's actually used in Microsoft's datacenters.

Microsoft also is promising simplification of sorts with Azure Stack. There will be common APIs to tap between the Microsoft Azure datacenters and Azure Stack used on premises. Similarly, Azure Resource Manager will serve as the common management tool.

Microsoft launched a preview of Azure Stack in January, generating lots of enthusiasm. However, last month, it tamped down those expectations somewhat. While organizations and service providers originally had the option to select their own hardware to run Azure Stack, Microsoft announced in July that Azure Stack systems would only be available from select hardware partners. Early participants in that program included Dell, HP and Lenovo. In addition, Microsoft pushed out its Azure Stack product release date from year's end to mid-2017.

In the Channel 9 video, Tewari took pains to explain Microsoft's rationales for distributing Azure Stack through original equipment manufacturing partners. Apparently, it wasn't a popular move. He described Azure Stack as an "integrated system" in which control over the hardware and software is important to deliver performance and stability to customers.

Tewari answered a question as to why customers won't be permitted to use their own hardware to run Azure Stack. It's all about keeping it properly updated, which happens frequently. To do that, Microsoft needs assurance about the hardware being used. The hardware needs to be validated. Here's how Tewari explained Microsoft's thinking:

We have to help customers realize that Azure Stack is a brand new product. It is not a conglomeration of existing products as we have seen in the past. And along with it comes a responsibility that Microsoft has to keep the operation lifecycle of that product valid for customers. And what I mean by operational lifecycle is that the entire product needs to be updated at the pace at which we need to keep it updated for Azure services to land on top of Azure Stack. And Azure, as you know, it iterates very very rapidly. New services are emerging all of the time. Existing services are being updated at very very rapid paces. And we need to have that entire approach workable in customer datacenters. So, from our perspective, we need hardware that we know well of, where we know what version of the firmware needs to run on the disks, on the HBAs, on every single aspect of the system so we can keep it operational and robust for the services that land on top of it. That is not feasible on systems that we have never seen before.

Microsoft's goal right now is to help its customers be successful with Azure Stack, Tewari said. It can be done with an initial product aimed at smaller scale systems. Eventually, though, it's possible that Microsoft could permit organizations to use their own hardware, he added.

Tewari later clarified that the smallest Azure Stack implementation might use just four physical servers. Microsoft's own Azure service uses about 880 servers just for one Azure cluster, he said.

Despite the explanations, some early Azure Stack enthusiasts seemed irked by the prospect of not being able to use their own hardware. It's a topic that likely will arise, yet again, at the Ignite event.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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