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Microsoft Adds Azure Stack HCI Features to Catch Up with Nutanix, VMware

Now its own operating system, the hyperconverged infrastructure software goes into general availability with stretch clustering, key hybrid cloud capabilities.

Microsoft has introduced a new version of its Azure Stack HCI software as it tries to make inroads into a hyperconverged infrastructure market now dominated by VMware and Nutanix.

Azure Stack HCI, a solution that features Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualization software, its Storage Spaces Direct software-defined storage, and software-defined networking, is targeted at enterprises that want to run virtualized Windows and Linux workloads in-house while connecting to Microsoft Azure cloud services.

The initial version, launched in 2019, was based on Windows Server 2019 Datacenter. Now, Azure Stack HCI is decoupled from Windows, becoming its own operating system, said Talal Alqinawi, Microsoft Azure senior director for product marketing.

 The new version, which has been available for preview since this summer and released into general availability last week, adds new features, including stretch clustering, hybrid capabilities, centralized management, and integration with Azure Arc, Microsoft’s hybrid cloud and multi-cloud management tool.

“It has delivered an integrated management and operations experience with Azure since the July 2020 preview, allowing customers to manage Azure Stack HCI deployments and Azure resources side-by-side from the Azure portal,” Alqinawi said in an interview with DCK.

Microsoft also announced partnerships with hardware makers Dell, Lenovo, and DataON, which built integrated systems with Azure Stack HCI software and firmware pre-installed, giving enterprises an easy “appliance-like deployment experience,” he said. Furthermore, customers for the first time can purchase Azure Stack HCI through an Azure subscription, with per-core pricing, he added.

The key use cases for Azure Stack HCI include modernization of on-premises data centers, deploying and managing in remote locations (such as branch offices), SQL Server-based virtual applications, virtual machines, virtual desktop infrastructure, and running Kubernetes, Alqinawi said.

Because Azure Stack HCI is delivered as an Azure subscription service, the operating system is always up to date and can be installed on the customer’s choice of server hardware, he added.

The big three cloud providers – Azure, Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform – have all invested in hybrid cloud capabilities, including providing enterprises a way to host some of their cloud services on-premises, inside their own data centers.

In 2017, Azure was the first to market with an on-premises solution when it introduced Azure Stack with its hardware partners. The difference between Azure Stack and Azure Stack HCI is that the latter targets customers that still need to run key workloads in-house but also want to start their cloud journey, Alqinawi said.

Microsoft’s large base of existing Windows users gives the company leverage in the lucrative hyperconverged-infrastructure market, according to analysts. Hyperconverged systems have grown increasingly popular because they simplify management of compute, storage, and networking.

“Microsoft has a captive installed base that it can capitalize on,” Forrester analyst Naveen Chhabra told us. “They can keep their loyal Windows installed base and upgrade them to the Azure Stack HCI environment. It’s a ripe opportunity.”

It was important for Microsoft to update Azure Stack HCI with centralized management, stretch clustering, and additional hybrid cloud capabilities because customers want those features, and because Microsoft’s primary competitors already offer them, he said. “It’s about Microsoft strengthening its product.”

This week, IDC announced that VMWare and Nutanix remained the two biggest players in the HCI software market, which reached $2 billion in revenue during the 2020 third quarter. VMware captured 40 percent of the software revenue, followed by Nutanix with 25 percent, and Cisco with nearly 6 percent market share, the analyst firm said.  

New Azure Stack HCI Features

More details on some of the key new features in the new version of Azure Stack HCI:

  • Hybrid cloud capabilities. IT administrators can now use a new deployment wizard to quickly set up an Azure Stack HCI cluster and connect to Azure to take advantage of core Azure services, such as Azure Backup, Azure Security Center, and Azure Monitor, said Microsoft’s Alqinawi.
  • Azure Arc integration. Customers can use Azure Arc to monitor multiple clusters and even view and manage VMs running on Azure Stack HCI, he said.
  • Stretch clustering. With stretch clustering, servers in different locations are part of the same cluster. That is an important new capability for business continuity and disaster recovery, Alqinawi said.

Microsoft said customers that have deployed Azure Stack HCI include Hendrick Motorsports, Cherokee County School District, and Florida State Medical College of Medicine.

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