Last week’s Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference saw renewed efforts by the company to rally its sales and consulting partners around more consolidated brands and product lines for the back office and data center. As Windows Server is allowed to fade into the background, Azure steps up to the podium as Microsoft’s principal data center brand, extending its cloud services directly into hybrid installations with Azure Stack.
In perhaps the most prevalent example of this transition under way, colocation leader Equinix touted a new partnership with managed service provider Arrow Electronics. The company's objective is to begin making available turnkey systems on HPE server platforms that provide hybrid cloud connectivity to Microsoft Azure services through Equinix’ connectivity resources.
“HPE is bringing a specific technology stack that is tested and that we know interconnects well with Azure,” said Greg Adgate, Equinix’ vice president for global technology partnerships, in an interview with Datacenter Knowledge. “What we’re doing is assembling their specific storage, compute, and software, privately connecting it through Equinix Cloud Exchange into the Microsoft Cloud platform over their private on-ramp, ExpressRoute.”
Repaving the ExpressRoute
Equinix first announced its embrace of Microsoft’s ExpressRoute program for managed services partners two years ago. As part of the program, Microsoft provides a reference architecture for hardware and systems that partners assemble and deploy for customers. Once deployed, those systems give customers a faster route to adopting Azure storage and compute resources.
With each passing Microsoft Conference, Azure Stack — the company’s on-premise deployment package for Azure-compatible services, which incorporates Windows Server — is looking more and more like the center of gravity for Microsoft’s server ecosystem.
“The combination of Azure and Azure Stack provides you that unparalleled cloud platform,” explained Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to a packed crowd of partners and service providers during his keynote address last Tuesday. “It’s the only hyperscale cloud platform that is available across the globe. It also provides you with that true hybrid computing infrastructure that is needed.
“Essentially,” Nadella continued, “I think of our service as the edge of the cloud.”
The “edge” metaphor is following in the wake of the “cloud” metaphor’s success, but nearly every purveyor (or, as some would say, perpetrator) conveys its meaning differently. In Nadella’s case, the edge is that zone of interconnectedness where the customers’ premises end, and cloud services begins. That’s not Microsoft’s territory; and with this latest round of ExpressRoute partnerships, it’s not trying to acquire that territory.
Rather, Microsoft wants partners like Equinix and Arrow to build the bridges between hybrid data centers and Azure solutions.
“Arrow can enable MSPs, with their normal distribution relationships, and VARs that want to become MSPs, to fill the gap,” Adgate told us. “As we integrate our story into those of the many, many partners that Arrow supports today, there’s going to be a broader set of companies who have the competencies to deliver the whole hybrid IT solution. Equinix is going to continue to recruit managed service partners, regardless.”
Where’s the Carrot and Where’s the Stick?
If Azure is the beneficiary at the end of the chain, though, what incentives would Microsoft give to such partners to have them connect Azure to their customers on its behalf? We asked Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Dan Conde.
“In my opinion, it's a matter of who adds unique value, and they can get paid accordingly,” Conde responded by e-mail. “Equinix is more of a platform rather than just a colocation facility, that leverages its presence (physical location and network connection) to create great connectivity between cloud providers, to provide better performance to its customers. So it makes sense to work with companies like Arrow to create a hybrid solution that leverages Equinix's platform as well as on-premises solutions in an easy to consume way.”
As Equinix’ Adgate explained, rarely does it achieve a customer win where it effectively assumes all of that customer’s data center resources — especially including all of its legacy mainframes. Rather, it wins subsets of applications or projects that require high availability, low latency, maximum bandwidth, undiminished uptime, and a variety of network service provider connectivity choices. And these applications will be the big revenue generators.
As currently configured, HPE systems offered by Arrow through this deal would enable high-speed, private connectivity (off of the public Internet) into Microsoft Azure. Whether data centers would then be eligible for migration into Azure’s staging platforms, such as Azure Container Service, could be determined by the customer working in concert with Arrow’s consultants and Microsoft’s technical specialists.
Usually, it’s these specialists who wait at the end of the supply chain, said Adgate, for enterprises to get to the point where they’re ready to migrate their applications. All the components of the solution usually have to be installed, tested, and running first; then, and only then, can they start reaping any revenue.
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It’s the design of ExpressRoute, he told us, that turns that equation on its ear.
“What this does is shrink that front end,” he explained, “to be able to actually get that cloud workload moving faster. [Cloud providers] like it because it bills faster. The faster it can get to billing, the better.
“Why Arrow’s partners like it — the managed service providers and integrators — is that now, they’re not relying on that enterprise, corporate IT person to find the space, the power, and the bandwidth to connect it and make it happen. Equinix becomes that place — that enterprise, on-prem. They carve out their own cage, with their own security policies, and they physically connect it back to a data center that may be in transformation, to allow them to quickly connect, scale, and start consuming.”
“The key thing,” ESG’s Conde reminded us, “is not to focus on the ‘commodity aspects’ where you get paid last, but to focus on the value add that each party brings to the table. Firms like Amazon AWS are pretty much all public cloud based, which is fine for some workloads. But firms like Microsoft via Azure, and Equinix as a platform for infrastructure, are focused on providing a solution that can address hybrid computing needs.”