I’ve spent the better part of the last 4 years banging on about how the hybrid cloud should be the goal that all cloud services work towards. Whilst the argument can be made that this might be born out of some protectionist feeling for on-premise infrastructure it’s more that I could never see large organisations fully giving up control of their infrastructure to the cloud. However the benefits of using the cloud, both in terms of its IaaS and PaaS capabilities, are undeniable and thus the ideal scenario is a blend between these two. Only one cloud provider has seriously considered this position, likely because of their large footprint in the enterprise space. Today Microsoft has launched the next stage in its cloud strategy: the Microsoft Azure Stack.
The Azure Stack appears to be an extension of the Azure Pack that Microsoft released a couple years ago, bringing many of the backend features that Microsoft itself uses to power the Azure Cloud to the enterprise. However whilst the Azure Pack was more of an interface that brought a whole lot of tools together the Azure Stack is its own set of technologies that elevates your current IT infrastructure with Azure features. As to what those features are exactly Microsoft isn’t being more specific than saying IaaS and PaaS currently although the latter indicates that some of the more juicy Azure features, like Table Storage, could potentially find their way into your datacenter.
The idealized hybrid cloud scenario that many have been talking about for years is an on-premise deployment that’s able to burst out to the cloud for additional resources when the need strikes. Whilst this was theoretically possible, if you invested the time to develop or customize your applications to take advantage of it, the examples of successful implementations were few and far between. The improvements that come with the Microsoft Azure Stack make such a scenario far more possible than it ever was before, allowing developers to create applications against a common platform that remains consistent no matter where the application finds itself running. At the same time supporting infrastructure applications can benefit from those same advantages, greatly reducing complexity in administering such an environment.
This comes hand in hand with the announcement of Microsoft Operations Manager which is essentially the interface to your on-premise cloud. Microsoft is positioning it as the one interface to rule them all as it’s capable of interfacing with all the major cloud providers as well as the various on-premise solutions that their competitors provide. The initial release will focus on 4 key features: Log Analytics, Security, Availability and Automation with more features to be coming at a “rapid pace” as the product matures. For me the most interesting features are the availability (apparently enabling a cloud restore of an application regardless of where it sits) and the automation stuff, but I’ll need to have a play with it first before I call out my favourite.
The Microsoft Azure Stack is by far the most exciting announcement to come out of Redmond in a long time as it shows they’re dedicated to providing the same experience to their enterprise customers as they currently deliver to their cloud counterparts. The cloud wall that has existed ever since the inception of the first cloud service is quickly breaking down, enabling enterprise IT to do far more than it ever could. This new Microsoft, which is undoubtedly being powered by Nadella’s focus on building upon the strong based he created in the Servers and Tools division, is one that its competitors should be wary of as they’re quickly eating everyone else’s lunch.
Like all industry terms the definitions of what constitutes a cloud service have become somewhat loose as every vendor puts their own particular spin on it. Whilst many cloud products share a baseline of particular features (I.E. high automation, abstraction from underlying hardware, availability as far as your credit card will go) what’s available after that point becomes rather fluid which leads to the PR department making some claims that don’t necessairly line up with reality, or at least what I believe the terms actually mean. For Microsoft’s cloud offering in Azure this became quite clear during the opening keynotes of TechEd 2012 and the subsequent sessions I attended made it clear that the current industry definitions need some work in order to ensure that there’s no confusion around what the capabilities of each of these cloud services actually are.
If this opening paragraph is sound familiar then I’m flattered, you read one of my LifeHacker posts, but there was something I didn’t dive into in that post that I want to explore here.
It’s clear that there’s actually 3 different clouds in Microsoft’s arsenal: the private cloud that’s a combination of System Centre Configuration Manager and Windows Server, the what I’m calling Hosted Private Cloud (referred to as Public by Microsoft) which is basically the same as the previous definition except its running on Microsoft’s hardware and lastly Windows Azure which is the true public cloud. All of these have their own set of pros and cons and I still stand by my statements that the dominant cloud structure in the future will be some kind of hybrid version of all of these but right now the reality is that not a single provider manages to bridge all these gaps, and this is where Microsoft could step in.
The future might be looking more and more cloudy by the day however there’s still a major feature gap between what’s available in Windows Azure when compared to the traditional Microsoft offerings. I can understand that some features might not be entirely feasible at a small scale (indeed many will ask what the point of having something like Azure Table Storage working on a single server would achieve, but hear me out) but Microsoft could make major inroads to Azure adoption by making many of the features installable in Windows Server 2012. They don’t have to come all at once, indeed many of the features in Azure become available in a piecemeal fashion, but there are some key features that I believe could provide tremendous value for the enterprise and ease them into adoption of Microsoft’s public cloud offerings.
SQL Azure Federations for instance could provide database sharding to standalone MSSQL servers giving a much easier route to scaling out SQL than the current clustering solution. Sure there would probably need to be some level of complexity added in for it to function in smaller environments but the principles behind it could easily translate down into the enterprise level. If Microsoft was feeling particularly smart they could even bundle in the option to scale records out onto SQL Azure databases, giving enterprises that coveted cloud burst capability that everyone talks about but no one seems to be able to do.
In fact I believe that pretty much every service provided by Azure, from Table storage all the way down to the CDN interface, could be made available as a feature on Windows Server 2012. They wouldn’t be exact replicas of their cloudified brethren but you could offer API consistency between private and public clouds. This I feel is the ultimate cloud service as it would allow companies to start out with cheap on premise infrastructure (or more likely leverage current investments) and then build out from there. Peaky demands cloud then be easily scaled out to the public cloud and, if the cost is low enough, the whole service could simply transition there.
These features aren’t something that will readily port overnight but if Microsoft truly is serious about bringing cloud capabilities to the masses (and not just hosted virtual machine solutions) then they’ll have to seriously look at providing them. Heck just taking some of the ideals and integrating them into their enterprise products would be a step in the right direction, one that I feel would win them almost universal praise from their consumers.
I’ve long been of the mind that whilst we’re seeing a lot of new businesses being able to fully cloudify their operations, mostly because they have the luxury of designing their processes around these cloud services, established organisations will more than likely never achieve full cloud integration. Whether this is because of data sovereignty issues, lack of trust in the services themselves or simply fear of changing over doesn’t really matter as it’s up to the cloud providers to offer solutions that will ease their customer’s transition onto the cloud platform. From my perspective it seems clear that the best way to approach this is by offering hybrid cloud solutions, ones that can leverage their current investment in infrastructure whilst giving them the flexibility of cloud services. Up until recently there weren’t many companies looking at this approach but that has changed significantly in the past few months.
However there’s been one major player in the cloud game that’s been strangely absent in the hybrid cloud space. I am, of course, referring to Microsoft as whilst they have extensive public cloud offerings in the form of their hosted services as well as Azure they haven’t really been able to offer anything past their usual Hyper-V plus System Centre suite of products. Curiously though Microsoft, and many others it seems, have been running with the definition of a private cloud being just that: highly virtualized environment with dynamic resourcing. I’ll be honest I don’t share that definition at all as realistically that’s just Infrastructure as a Service, a critical part of any cloud service but not a cloud service in its own.
They are however attempting to make inroads to the private cloud area with their latest announcement called the Service Management Portal. When I first read about this it was touted as Microsoft opening the doors to service providers to host their own little Azure cloud but its in fact nothing like that at all. Indeed it just seems to be an extension of their current Software as a Service offerings which is really nothing that couldn’t be achieved before with the current tools available. System Centre Configuration Manager 2012 appears to make this process a heck of a lot easier mind you but with it only being 3 months after its RTM release I can’t say that it’d be in production use at scale anywhere bar Microsoft at this current point in time.
It’s quite possible that they’re trying a different approach to this idea after their ill-failed attempt at trying to get Azure clouds up elsewhere via the Azure Appliance initiative. The problem with that solution was the scale required as the only provider I know of that actually offers the Azure services is Fujitsu and try as you might you won’t be able to sign up for that service without engaging directly with them. That’s incredibly counter-intuitive to the way the cloud should work and so it isn’t surprising that Microsoft has struggled to make any sort of in roads using that strategy.
Microsoft really has a big opportunity here to use their captive market of organisations that are heavily invested in their product as leverage in a private/hybrid cloud strategy. First they’d need to make the Azure platform available as a Server Role on Windows Server 2012. This would then allow the servers to become part of the private computing cloud which could have applications deployed on them. Microsoft could then make their core applications (Exchange, SharePoint, etc.) available as Azure applications, nullifying the need for administrators to do rigorous architecture work in order to deploy the applications. The private cloud can then be leveraged by the developers in order to build the required applications which could, if required, burst out into the public cloud for additional resources. If Microsoft is serious about bringing the cloud to their large customers they’ll have to outgrow the silly notion that SCCM + Hyper-V merits the cloud tag as realistically it’s anything but.
I understand that no one is really doing this sort of thing currently (HP’s cloud gets close, but I’ve yet to hear about anyone who wasn’t a pilot customer seriously look at it) but Microsoft is the kind of company that has the right combination of established infrastructure in organisations, cloud services and technically savy consumer base to make such a solution viable. Until they offer some deployable form of Azure to their end users any product they offer as a private cloud solution will be that only in name. Making Azure deployable though could be a huge boon to their business and could very well form a sort of reformation of the way they do computing.
So as you’re probably painfully aware (thanks to my torrent of tweets today) I spent all of today sitting down with a bunch of like minded bloggers for HP’s Cloud Tech Day which primarily focused on their recent announcement that they’d be getting into the cloud business. They were keen to get our input as to what the current situation was in the real world in relation to cloud services adoption and what customers were looking for with some surprising results. If I’m completely honest it was more aimed at strategic level rather than the nuts and bolts kind of tech day I’m used to, but I still got some pretty good insights out of it.
For starters HP is taking a rather unusual approach to the cloud. Whilst it will be offering something along the lines of the traditional public cloud like all other providers they’re also going to attempt to make inroads into the private cloud market whilst also creating a new kind of cloud offering they’re dubbing “managed cloud”. The kicker being that should you implement an application on any of those cloud platforms you’ll be able to move it seamlessly between them, effectively granting you the elusive cloud bursting ability that everyone wants but no one really has. All the tools between all 3 platforms are the same too, enabling you to have a clear idea of how your application is behaving no matter where its hosted.
The Managed Cloud idea is an interesting one. Basically it takes the idea of a private cloud, I.E. one you host yourself, and instead of you hosting it HP will host it for you. Basically it takes away the infrastructure management worry that a private cloud still presents whilst allowing you to have most of the benefits of a private cloud. They mentioned that they already have a customer using this kind of deployment for their email infrastructure which had the significant challenge of keeping all data on Australian shores and the IT department still wanting some level of control over it.
How they’re going to go about this is still something of a mystery but there are some little tid bits that give us insight into their larger strategy. HP isn’t going to offer a new virtualization platform to underpin this technology, it will in fact utilize whatever current virtual infrastructure you have. What HP’s solution will do is abstract that platform away so you’re given a consistent environment to implement against which is what enables HP Cloud enabled apps to work between the varying cloud platforms.
Keen readers will know that this was the kind of cloud platform I’ve been predicting (and pining for) for some time. Whilst I’m still really keen to get under the hood of this solution to see what makes it tick and how applicable it will be I have to say that HP has done their research before jumping into this. Many see cloud computing as some kind of panacea to all their IT ills when in reality cloud computing is just another solution for a specific set of IT problems. Right now that’s centred around commodity services like email, documents, ERP and CRM and of course that umbrella will continue to expand into the future but there will always be those niche apps which won’t fit well into the cloud paradigm. Well not at the price point customers would be comfortable anyway.
What really interested me was the parallels that could be easily drawn between the virtualization revolution and the burgeoning cloud industry. Back in the day there was really only one player (VMware, Amazon) but as time went on many other players came online. Initially those competitors had to play feature catch up with the number 1. The biggest player noticed they were catching up quickly (through a combination of agility, business savvy and usually snapping up a couple disgruntled employees) and reacted by providing value add services above the base functionality level. The big players in virtualization (Microsoft, VMware and CITRIX) are just all about on feature parity for base hypervisor capabilities but VMware has stayed ahead by creating a multitude of added services, but their lead is starting to shrink which I’m hoping will push for a fresh wave of innovation.
Applying this to the cloud world it’s clear that HP has seen that there’s no reason in competing at a base level with cloud providers; it’s a fools gambit. Amazon has the cheap bulk computing services thing nailed and if all you’re doing is giving the same services then the only differentiator you’ll have is price. That’s not exactly a weapon against Amazon who could easily absorb losses for a quarter whilst it watches you squirm as your margins plunge into the red. No instead HP is positioning themselves as a value add cloud provider, having a cloud level that works at multiple levels. The fact that you can seamlessly between them is probably all the motivation most companies will need to give them a shot.
Of course I’m still a bit trepidatious about the idea because I haven’t seen much past the marketing blurb. As with all technology products there will be limitations and until I can get my hands on the software (hint hint) then I can’t get too excited about it. It’s great to see HP doing so much research and engaging with the public in this way but the final proof will be in the pudding, something I’m dying to see.