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Microsoft Azure Arc faces cautiously interested user base

The hybrid cloud offering, announced this week at Ignite, will let users manage across multi-cloud, on-premises and edge environments -- but is it relevant? Customers weigh in.

ORLANDO -- Microsoft hopes that Azure Arc, its newly unveiled push into hybrid cloud computing, will catch fire with customers. Judging by the reaction of some users at this week's Ignite conference, the company should be patient.

For one, Azure Arc may have more appeal if its components are as well-integrated as Microsoft portrayed at Ignite.

"We want out of the box," said a principal IT architect at a large U.S. energy provider, who asked for anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media. "We don't want to put it together. We're very risk-averse."

With Azure Arc, customers will be able to use Azure's management capabilities to control their Windows and Linux server farms on premises. Arc also provides the means to manage Kubernetes-based container clusters "on any infrastructure across on-premises, multi-cloud and edge," and deploy native Azure data services such as Azure SQL on those containers. The data services will use a cloud-based billing model similar to the model used when consumed directly via Azure.

The architect, who attended a session on Arc after Microsoft's initial announcement, said she is still in the research phase, but it has some immediate points of interest. "The billing portion of it is very interesting," she said. "Billing is a difficult challenge for us because we manage our billing differently with Azure [compared with] on-prem. We just need to see how that will help us."

Arc bears similarities to Google's Anthos, which became generally available in April. Like Arc, Anthos provides a means to manage containerized workloads across public clouds and on-premises environments.

Is there an audience for Azure Arc?

Arc seems like a good idea but may not have relevance for all customers, according to Michael Porter, an IT administrator at Brunswick Corp., a $4.5 billion diversified manufacturer in Illinois known for its boating, fitness and firearms product lines.

"Ninety percent of our stuff is going into Azure and we've got a tiny bit going into the Oracle [cloud]," he said.

Like Google, Microsoft would obviously prefer that customers rent IaaS from itself, rather than give up that money to a rival. So a skeptic may question whether Arc represents a response to real-life customer need, or an attempt to burnish Microsoft's reputation as a much more open company than in the past.

I'm not sure how well the other [cloud] providers are going to play along [with Arc].
Michael PorterIT administrator, Brunswick Corp.

Porter expressed skepticism on this front, questioning whether commercial concerns will inhibit such an optimistic outcome. "This is just my perspective, but I'm not sure how well the other [cloud] providers are going to play along [with Arc]," he said.

Arc does reflect customer reality, said another Ignite attendee. "Part of it is PR, but the other part of it comes to that companies are putting resources into all these different locations," said Bill Worthington, who leads the Microsoft practice at IT services firm High Availability, based in Eden Prairie, Minn.

"They're lacking the tool set to manage things consistently across those, so having that single pane of glass where you can apply policies and do all those things, that's a value," Worthington added.

One managed services provider said he believes the primary value of Azure Arc is allowing corporate users to take a more unified and centralized management approach to managing across multi-cloud, on-premises and edge environments.

"It really does let users take advantage of tools they are familiar with so they can expand their footprint to other cloud technologies," said Chris Smith, vice president of cloud architecture at Unitas Global, a managed services provider. "It shows Microsoft is furthering its commitment toward multi-cloud and hybrid cloud environments."

Arc also reflects Microsoft's strategic evolution in a positive way, another attendee said.

"It's comforting to me to see Microsoft continue to trend away from being a proprietary company -- or at least give equal weight to open source," said an IT administrator for a mid-size Orlando-based bank, who asked for anonymity. "We have investments in both technologies now, especially in Linux-based products the past two years."

Early days for Azure Arc

Arc's ability to manage Linux and Windows servers is now in public preview, and the data services component is in private preview. The previews don't incur any monetary charges, but Microsoft hasn't released any information on Arc's ultimate pricing model. How that shakes out could be key, as Google's Anthos pricing is steep and geared toward large enterprises.

"There's some competitive positioning there in terms of using Azure PaaS capabilities wherever customers have resources and want a consistent operating environment," said Meaghan McGrath, senior analyst at Technology Business Review in Hampton, NH. "It's a way to abstract the high-value PaaS services from the commoditized IaaS-hardware layer to further disrupt AWS."

While Azure Arc clearly is in its early stages of development, Microsoft officials indicated they expect significant progress several months into next year, timing that would coincide with the company's Build conference for developers and IT operations professionals.

Ignite attendees did get a sneak peek at Arc's working code, as Microsoft officials showed in a session how customers can tag and connect assets outside Azure as Arc machines.

Beyond data services, Microsoft will deliver more Arc-enabled Azure components over time, they said. Meanwhile, Azure Resource Manager serves as the technological core of Azure Arc and Microsoft will give customers the ability to extend ARM as part of Arc.

"It's an ARM-based control plane, so you keep up with the [Azure] platform, but you'll also be able to plug your own stuff in," said Jeremy Winter, director of Azure management and a lead architect on the Arc project, during a session.

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