Azure Stack – Microsoft’s White Elephant?

Microsoft’s World Wide Partner Conference is currently on again in Toronto and even though my career has diverged from working on the Microsoft stack (no pun) over the past four or five years I still attend the local Microsoft SPLA monthly meetings where possible and keep a keen eye on what Microsoft is doing in the cloud and hosting spaces.

The concept of Azure Stack has been around for a while now and it entered Technical Preview early this year. Azure Stack was/is touted as an easily deployable end to end solution that gives enterprises Azure like flexibility on premises covering IaaS, PaaS and Containers. The premise of the solution is solid and Microsoft obviously see an opportunity to cash in on the private and hybrid cloud market that at the moment, hasn’t been locked down by any one vendor or solution. The end goal though is for Microsoft to have workloads that are easily transportable into the Azure Cloud.

Azure Stack is Microsoft’s emerging solution for enabling organizations to deploy private Azure cloud environments on-premises. During his Day 2 keynote presentation at the Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) in Toronto, Scott Guthrie, head of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise Group, touted Azure Stack as a key differentiator for Microsoft compared to other cloud providers.

The news overnight at WPC is that apart from the delay in it’s release (which wasn’t unexpected given the delays in Windows Server 2016) Microsoft have now said that the Azure Stack will only be available via pre-validated hardware partners which means that customers can’t deploy the solution themselves meaning the stack loses flexibility.

Neil said the move is in response to feedback from customers who have said they don’t want to deal with the complexities and downtime of doing the deployments themselves. To that end, Microsoft is making Azure Stack available only through pre-validated hardware partners, instead of releasing it as a solution that customers can deploy, manage and customize.

This is an interesting and in my opinion risky move by Microsoft. There is a precedence to suggest that going down this path leads to lesser market penetration and could turn the Azure Stack into that white elephant that I suggested in a tweet and in the title of this post. You only have to look at how much of a failure VMware’s EVO:Rail product was to understand the risks of tying a platform to vendor specific hardware and support. Effectively they are now creating a Converged Infrastructure Stack with Azure bolted on where as before there was absolute freedom in enterprises being able to deploy Azure Stack into existing hardware deployments allowing for a way to realise existing costs and extending that to provide private cloud services.

As with EVO:Rail and other Validated Designs, I see three key areas where they suffer and impact customer adoption.

Validated Design Equals Cost:

If I take EVO:Rail as an example there was a premium placed on obtaining the stack through the validated vendors and this meant a huge premium on what could have been sourced independently when you took hardware, software and support costs into account. Potentially this will be the same for the Azure Stack…vendors will add their percentage for the validated design, plus ongoing maintenance. As mentioned above, there is also now the fact that you must buy new hardware (compute, network, storage) meaning any existing hardware that can and should be used for private cloud is now effectively dead weight and enterprises need to rethink long term about existing investments.

Validated Design Equals Inherit Complexity:

When you take something in-house and not let smart technical people deploy a solution my mind starts to ask the question why? I understand the argument will be that Microsoft want a consistent experience for the Azure Stack and there are other examples of controlled deployments and tight solutions (VMware NSX comes to mind in the early days) but when the market you are trying to break into is built on the premise of reduced complexity…only allowing certain hardware and partners to run and deploy your software tells me that it walks a fine line between being truly consumable and it being a black box. I’ve talked about Complex Simplicity before and this move suggests that Azure Stack was not ready or able to be given to techs to install, configure and manage.

Validated Design Equals Inflexibility:

Both of the points above lead into the suggestion that the Azure Stack looses it’s flexibility. Flexibility in the private and hybrid cloud world is paramount and the existing players like Openstack and others are extremely flexible…almost to a fault. If you buy from a vendor you loose the flexibility of choice and can then be impacted at will by costs pressures relating to maintenance and support. If the Azure stack is too complex to be self managed then it certainly looses the flexibility to be used in the service provider space…let alone the enterprise.

Final Thoughts:

Worryingly the tone of the offical Blog Announcement over the delay suggest that Microsoft is reaching to try and justify the delay and the reasoning for going down the different distribution model. You just have to read the first few comments on the blog post to see that I am not alone in my thoughts.

Microsoft is committed to ensuring hardware choice and flexibility for customers and partners. To that end we are working closely with the largest systems vendors – Dell, HPE, Lenovo to start with – to co-engineer integrated systems for production environments. We are targeting the general availability release of Azure Stack, via integrated systems with our partners, starting mid-CY2017. Our goal is to democratize the cloud model by enabling it for the broadest set of use-cases possible.

 

With the release of Azure Stack now 12+ months away Microsoft still has the opportunity to change the perception that the WPC2016 announcements has in my mind created. The point of private cloud is to drive operational efficiency in all areas. Having a fancy interface with all the technical trimmings isn’t what will make an on-premises stack gain mainstream adoption. Flexibility, cost and reduced complexity is what counts.

References:

https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/microsoft-azure-stack-delivering-cloud-infrastructure-as-integrated-systems/?utm_campaign=WPC+2016&utm_medium=bitly&utm_source=MNC+Microsite

https://rcpmag.com/articles/2016/07/12/wpc-2016-microsoft-delays-azure-stack.aspx

http://www.zdnet.com/article/microsoft-to-release-azure-stack-as-an-appliance-in-mid-2017/

http://www.techworld.com.au/article/603302/microsoft-delays-its-azure-stack-software-until-mid-2017/

One comment

  • Could not agree more. Microsoft’s action has the effect of wiping out a whole budding industry of system houses, software vendors, alternate cloud services providers and consultant companies that have already invested tens of millions of dollars based on Microsoft’s representations that AzureStack could be licensed and run on any compatible hardware.

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