AzureStack HCI, what is it?

In this blog, let’s zoom in on AzureStack and AzureStack HCI and show the similarities and differences amongst the two products, joint in the AzureStack family of products.

I’ve identified the following topics in this write-up:

  1. Introduction
  2. AzureStack
  3. AzureStack HCI
  4. Differences
  5. Similarities
  6. Conclusion

AzureStack

After the launch of AzureStack in late 2017, this product has certainly delivered on Microsofts’ promise of true hybrid cloud capabilities, hosted partly in your own datacentre. HPE, as a launching partner, was one of the first companies to initiate a global training program for their engineers and partners. True hybrid in this case means that it runs on the same Architecture and software and should be able to ensure similar uptime, compared to public Azure services.

So, what is an AzureStack?

First, it’s important to understand, that an AzureStack consists of highly standardized hardware brought under an even more standardized configuration. The hardware was picked from the HPE hardware catalog, by HPE and Microsoft, and put through rigorous tests, before the configuration was approved by Microsoft.  But you don’t just get servers in the AzureStack product, it’s a complete solution. Basically, for production you choose a capacity between 4 and 16 AzureStack nodes, and in the process also acquire an “external”, Hardware Lifecycle Host (HLH), an out-of-band management or BMC Switch and two 10GB/e LEAF switches.

Test before you buy

If you want to test AzureStack before acquiring a Production configuration as described above, Microsoft offers a downloadable, single-node AzureStack Development Kit.
This development kit is a fully functional, single node AzureStack, installed on a single server. The single server should at least have the following configuration:

  • Single OS Disk with at least 200GB of diskspace
  • 4 Data Disks with at least 400 GB of diskspace
  • Dual Socket: 20 Core Processor
  • 256 GB RAM
  • Hyper-V Enabled (with SLAT support)

Running production workloads on AzureStack

Even though the single node, AzureStack development kit is a fully functional AzureStack, the production hardware is scaled to run Azure services running in your own datacenter, deployment and management of resources on AzureStack is done by your customers, using similar tools as they’re used to with public Azure Services, like a management portal, scripting or Visual Studio.

Service-wise, AzureStack will always lag behind its’ big public brother. Currently the following services are available on AzureStack:

  • Azure VMs for Windows and Linux
  • Azure Web Apps and Functions
  • Azure Key Vault
  • Azure Resource Manager
  • Azure Marketplace (with syndication!!)
  • Containers
  • Azure IoT Hub and Event Hubs
  • Admin tools (Plans, offers, RBAC, etc.)

The AzureStack itself is managed by the hosting party, using a management web portal and API’s. Hardware defects are resolved by a service technician of HPE, which is a first example that the support model of AzureStack isn’t your average support contract. Since the product is a solution, containing both hardware from HPE and software from Microsoft, these companies have put a mechanism in place to ensure customers aren’t sent from pillar to post during a service outage.
Whichever party that receives the call for support, will stay in the lead, even when it’s the others’ to solve.

Now you know what AzureStack is, a highly standardized solution to run cloud services from your own datacenter, managed by an Azure and an Azure-like management portal on top of Azure Resource Manager. Let’s have a look at AzureStack HCI.

What is AzureStack HCI?

AzureStack HCI is a little younger than AzureStack. It was launched in late March 2019, and although AzureStack and AzureStack HCI share a large portion of their name, they have more differences than similarities.

Where Azure Stack is built to resemble the public Azure cloud services, Azure Stack HCI is clearly built from standard building blocks, the buying entity can manage themselves:

  • Hardware from an OEM partner, like HPE.
  • Windows Server 2019 Datacenter edition
  • Windows Admin Center (WAC)
  • Azure services (optional)

Instead of an Azure portal to control resources, Microsoft offers Windows Admin Center to manage the hardware resources and offer additional controls for customers who want to use Azure public cloud services, like:

  • Backup your Windows Server from Windows Admin Center (WAC) with Azure Backup
  • Protect your Hyper-V Virtual Machines from disaster with WAC and Azure Site Recovery
  • Sync your file server with the cloud, using Azure File Sync
  • Manage operating system updates for all your Windows servers, both on-premises or in the cloud, with Azure Update Management
  • Monitor servers, both on-premises or in the cloud, and configure alerts with Azure Monitor
  • Connect your on-premises servers to an Azure Virtual Network with Azure Network Adapter

Azure Stack HCI solutions enable you to run virtual machines on-premises and optionally connect to Azure with a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) solution. Azure Stack HCI uses validated HCI solutions powered by Hyper-V and Storage Spaces Direct with Windows Server 2019 Software-Defined Datacenter (SDDC). These solutions can be found in the Azure Stack HCI Catalog.

Differences

This small table shows the differences between AzureStack and AzureStack HCI.

Functionality AzureStack AzureStack HCI
Hardware Pre-configured solution Validated Hardware
Management AzureStack Portal Windows Admin Center
Offers PaaS services on stamp Yes, by extending functionality No
Storage layer S2D managed by AzureStack sw S2D managed by customer
Operating system Windows Server 2016 Windows Server 2019
Operating model CapEx (hardware) +
OpEx (services)
CapEx (hardware) +
OpEx (Optional Azure Services)
Deploy resources on solution: By Visual Studio By tenant web portal   Yes
Yes
  No No
Access to Hyper-V Manager No Yes
Logon using Azure Active Directory Yes No
Manageable by System Center Partly Yes

Similarities

This paragraph describes the common items between the two solutions.

Functionality AzureStack AzureStack HCI
Uses Storage Spaces Direct Yes Yes
Offered by HPE Yes Yes
Use PowerShell for management Yes Yes

Use cases

The following use cases can be divided by solution.

AzureStack AzureStack HCI
Financial modeling Remote or branch office systems
Clinical and claims data Datacenter consolidation
IoT device analytics Business-critical infrastructure
Retail assortment optimization Lower-cost storage
Supply-chain optimization High availability & disaster recovery in the cloud
Industrial IoT Enterprise apps like SQL Server
Predictive maintenance Virtual desktop Infrastructure
Smart city  
Citizen engagement  

Conclusion

Microsoft unwantedly created a challenge in communicating about AzureStack with this move, but at the same time shows how much focus they have on Azure by extending the Azure brand to their traditional server-based product line.

Some of the software components (Operating System and Storage Spaces Direct) are about the only things the two offerings have in common. Azure Stack is an on-premises implementation of Azure Resource Manager, the core software that runs the public Microsoft Azure cloud. While some of the technologies under the hood might be the same, there really is no comparison beyond that. AzureStack is a locked-down, highly standardized, managed environment, meaning you really can’t use the lower-level virtualization tools or look under the hood as deep as you might like.

The biggest pieces “missing” in HCI, to make it a real AzureStack product, are the PaaS services provided by Azure Resource Manager and the management portals. You can’t develop a software application based on Azure services and deploy those to Azure Stack HCI. You could conceivably develop container-based applications and integrate those into a large Azure-based solution, but that would be a complicated journey. This doesn’t mean Azure Stack HCI doesn’t have its place in the datacenter spectrum when it meets a functional need of customers. One of the main areas where it excels, is flexibility. Where AzureStack is completely locked down from a hardware management perspective, you have full control with AzureStack HCI. Furthermore, when your organisation is paying big money for traditional storage, you could achieve significant savings when you move to an Azure Stack HCI SDDC (Software Defined DataCenter) or SDS (Software Defined Storage) solution.

Final thought

Azure Stack HCI is a great product on its own and can connect with and use services from the Azure cloud, but don’t expect it to be a lower-cost Azure Stack with some of the bells and whistles from the public Azure Cloud.

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