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New Azure Stack blends data center with cloud apps

Azure Stack combines PaaS and IaaS to give Microsoft shops a streamlined way to manage and deploy legacy and cloud apps.

CHICAGO – Hoping to bolster its cloud strategies on a number of fronts, Microsoft debuted a sweeping set of products...

and services spanning Azure, Office 365 as well as upcoming versions of Windows Server and desktop.

What captured the attention of many of Microsoft Ignite 2015's 23,000 attendees here this week was Azure Stack, which is intended to deliver both infrastructure as a service and platform as a service to large data centers. This allows IT professionals to blend enterprise-class legacy applications, such as Exchange, SharePoint and SQL Server, with modern distributed applications and services that can all be managed from a single location. 

The new offering, which works with the recently released Azure Resource Manager, helps IT administrators deliver more consistent application deployments when they are provisioned to the Azure public cloud or Azure Stack based in a data center. This allows users to write an application once and deploy them later, company officials said.

Users here who grapple with issues involving the melding of old and new enterprise applications were heartened by the news, but want more technical details.

"I have to think this is an ideal solution for those with heavy investments in Microsoft legacy apps and platforms," said Jeff Haggerty, an IT administrator with a bank in Evanston, Ill. "But how they manage this combination [of legacy and modern applications] is what I am waiting to see."

In essence, Azure Stack is a meld of Windows Server 2016 Azure Service Fabric and Azure Pack, the latter a selected set of Azure features normally available to large enterprises. Besides combining Windows Server and Azure features, Azure Stack includes an improved Azure portal and Azure Resource Providers.

Azure Stack is the functional equivalent of OpenStack for Windows, according to Carl Brooks, an analyst with 451 Research, based in New York. It makes a Windows server look like Azure through a combination of several existing features, including Azure Pack and Azure Service Fabric, which is the "secret sauce that makes Azure scalable and manageable across more than one data center," he said.

The strategy is similar to VMware's attempts to have a seamless transition between on-premises servers and vCloud Air, Brooks said.  Microsoft's goal is to be the default external service provider with Azure functioning as the server, hypervisor, orchestrator and interface.

This makes Azure more open -- with the caveat that you must buy Windows Server.

Azure Stack vs. OpenStack?

Microsoft is so entrenched in data centers worldwide that Azure Stack – a name that is not-so-coincidentally close to OpenStack – should have a massive worldwide audience for IT departments transitioning to cloud, Brooks said.

Azure Stack could directly compete with OpenStack as a private cloud distribution, particularly for those that feel the open-source technology is immature or requires too much work to install and operate, Brooks said.

Windows Server users are typically behind the curve on implementing the latest version, but in a couple years Azure should become one of the standard flavors of compute and orchestration that people put in their own data centers, he said.

"By the end of 2016 it will fundamentally have changed the conversation about how to provision private cloud or how to do a tech refresh," Brooks said. "Potential customers for this are literally every IT department in the world."

Azure Stack is built on the same code as Azure, and will include a software-defined network controller and Storage Spaces Direct that will both sync and automatically failover, Microsoft said.

The offering features shielded VMs and guarded hosts that deliver "zero-trust" software-defined security to private clouds that allows companies to more securely segment organizations and workloads, according to Brad Anderson, a Microsoft corporate vice president. It also is capable of monitoring access and administration rights.

"Users are working in a rapidly expanding world today which is good for collaboration, but that comes with an increasing risk," Anderson said. "You have to strike a balance with the right amount of empowerment with security and this is what we are think this product can achieve."

Another strategically important tool introduced here was the Microsoft Operations Management Suite, a hybrid management tool that handles corporate workloads whether they run on Azure, Amazon Web Services, Windows Server, Linux, VMware, or OpenStack.

Azure Stack provides an 'easy button' for on-premises private cloud deployments, but another important addition is Operations Management Suite, a SaaS-based delivery of log analytics, site recovery, and orchestration to support a hybrid model, according to Mary  Johnston Turner, an analyst with IDC in Framingham, Mass.

"They're really committing to providing customers a spectrum of on-premises and public cloud solutions that will interwork very closely because they're based on the same code," Turner said.

Previously, putting together a private cloud with Microsoft involved bringing together a couple different tools, and Azure Stack could fill the needs of enterprises that want to deploy private clouds but need an easier and more efficient way to do it, Turner said.

Azure Stack is expected to be available in late summer, according to the company.

More Microsoft software updates for business, IT

Microsoft also introduced a broadly distributed public preview Office 2016 that features real-time co-authoring to Office desktop applications – a feature found in Google Docs. The ability to view changes made to text in real-time better allows teams of people working together to stay up to date with each other as they create documents.

Microsoft also launched Windows Update for Business, a service for Windows Pro and Windows Enterprise devices that delivers the latest Windows security protection and Windows features.

Also entering technical preview today is System Center Configuration Manager for Windows 10. The new offering has tools to deploy, update, manage and secure Windows 10 and integrates with Windows Update for Business.

Microsoft next week plans to release service packs for existing Configuration Manager 2012 and 2012 R2, as well as an update to Microsoft Intune that allows it to support Windows 10. The company also said it plans to deliver Exchange Server 2016 in preview later this year.

Ed Scannell is senior executive editor at TechTarget. He can be reached at escannell@techtarget.com. Trevor Jones is the news writer for SearchCloudComputing. You can reach him at tjones@techtarget.com.

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