Last week’s arrival of the Microsoft Azure Stack Technical Preview marks a turning point in the cloud-computing market and forms a leading indicator of how dramatically Microsoft has changed in the past two years.
The cloud turning point comes because the path to hybrid-cloud capabilities and benefits has a powerful new usher, one with the enterprise, developer, and service-provider presence, R and D budget, and competitive imperative to succeed in a market still underserved and nebulous.
Over the past five years, public cloud infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) value and utility have matured rapidly around three major players: Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform, and Microsoft Azure. But hybrid-cloud infrastructure standards are still under-developed, with no dominant market driver.
OpenStack, Apache CloudStack, Cloud Foundry, Eucalyptus, vCloud Air — none is dominant, none forms an industry standard with critical mass at either the enterprise or service-provider levels. The best path to a hybrid cloud global standard remains a vision only, fragmented in practice, and lacking a viable commercial beachhead.
Right now, it’s hard for enterprise IT architects to place a major bet on their hybrid cloud strategy. Yet placing major bets on the best path to effective hybrid cloud capabilities is exactly what enterprise IT architects should be doing as soon as possible.
Instead of a clear private-to-public cloud synergy strategy, IT organizations are fretting over whether to take a cloud-first or mobile-first approach to their apps, data and development. They want to simultaneously modernize legacy apps, rationalize their data, give their organizations a DevOps efficiency, find comprehensive platform-as-a-service (PaaS) simplicity, and manage it all securely. They know that hybrid cloud is a big part of all of these, yet they have no clear direction.
The right way to approach the problem, says my friend Chris Haydon, chief Strategy Officer at SAP Ariba, is to resist cloud-first and mobile-first, and instead take the higher abstraction API-first approach to as many aspects of IT as possible. He’s right, and SAP’s own success at cloud models — particularly SaaS and big data as a service — is a firm indicator. [Disclosure: SAP Ariba is a sponsor of my BriefingsDirect podcasts.]
With Microsoft Azure Stack (MAS), the clear direction of the future of cloud is of an API-first and highly automated private-cloud platform that has full compatibility with a major public cloud, Microsoft Azure. Like public Azure, private Azure Stack supports workloads from many tools and platforms — including Linux and Docker — and, as a cloud should, fires up hypervisors to run any major virtual machine supported workload.
Sensing an integrated private cloud platform opportunity big enough to drive a truck through, Microsoft has developed MAS to be highly inclusive, with a unified application model around Azure Resource Manager. Using templates typically found on GitHub, MAS operators can rapidly and simply create powerful private cloud resources to support apps and data. Because it’s Azure-consistent, they also allow ease in moving those workloads to a public cloud. This is not a Windows Server or .NET abstraction, its a private-cloud abstraction, with an API-first approach to management and assembly of data centers on the fly.
Because MAS is built on software-defined data center (SDDC) principles and technologies, it requires modern and robust, albeit industry standard, commodity hardware. Converged and hyper-converged infrastructure models, then work very well to rapidly deploy MAS private clouds on-premises as appliances, racks, blocks, and allow cost and capacity visibility and planning to align the hardware side with the API-first model on the software infrastructure. Indeed, the API-first and converged infrastructure models together are highly compatible, synergistic.
Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) clearly has this hardware opportunity for enterprise private cloud in mind, recognizes the vision for "composable infrastructure," and has already partnering with Microsoft at this level. [Disclosure: HPE is a sponsor of my BriefingsDirect podcasts.]
Incidentally, the MAS model isn’t just great for new and old server-based apps, but it’s a way to combine that with desktop virtualization and to deliver the full user experience as a service to any desktop or mobile endpoint. And the big-data analytics across all database, app stores, and unstructured data sources can be integrated well into the server and desktop apps cloud.
And this is why MAS portends the dramatic change that Microsoft has undergone. Certainly MAS and the Azure hybrid cloud roadmap suit Microsoft’s installed base and therefore Windows legacy. There is a compelling path from Windows Server, Microsoft SaaS apps and Exchange, .NET, and Visual Studio to Azure and MAS. There is a way to rationalize all Microsoft and standard data across its entire lifecycle. But there is also a customer-focused requirements list that allows for any client endpoint support, and an open mobile apps development path. There is a path for any enterprise app or database on a hypervisor to and from MAS and Azure. There are attractive markets for ISVs, service providers, and IT integrators and support providers. There is a high desirable global hardware market around the new on-premises and cloud provider hardware configurations to support SDDC modernization and MAS.
Clearly, Amazon Web Services and its stunning public-cloud success has clarified Microsoft's thinking around customer-centric market focus and more open IT systems design. But the on-premises data center, when made efficient via SDDC and new hardware, competes well on price against public cloud over time. And private cloud solves issues of data sovereignty, network latency, control, and security.
But to me, what makes Microsoft Azure Stack such a game-changer is the new path toward an automated hybrid-cloud future that virtually no other vendor or cloud provider is in a better position than Microsoft to execute. Google, Amazon, even IBM, are public-cloud biased. The legacy software IT vendors are on-premises-biased. Pretty much only Microsoft is hybrid biased and on the path to API-first thinking removes the need for enterprise IT to puzzle over the hybrid cloud boundary. It will become an automated boundary, but only with a truly common hybrid cloud management capability.
Because when you take the step toward API-first IT and find a common hybrid cloud model designed for the IT as a service future, then all the major IT constituencies — from dev to ops to CISO to business process architects to integrators to users — focus on the services. Just the services.
Once IT focuses on IT as a service, the target for deployment can be best managed programmatically, based on rules and policies. Eventually managing the best dynamic mix of on-prem and public-cloud services can be optimized and automated using algorithms, compliance dictates, cost modeling, and experience. This hybridization can be extended down to the micro-services and container levels. but only if the platform and services are under a common foundation.
In IT, architecture is destiny. And business supported as management of services, with the infrastructure abstracted away, is the agile Digital Business that innovates and analyzes better than the competition.
A common set of API and data services that spans on-premises and public clouds is essential for creating hybrid clouds that support and propel business needs. With the right cloud model in place, IT leaders gain the freedom to acquire, deploy and broker all the services any business needs. IT becomes the source of business value streams, while the hybrid cloud supports that.
API-first private cloud instances on converged infrastructure with automated hybrid cloud services management is the obvious future. Too bad there have been so few clear paths to attainment of this end-game.
It just now looks like Microsoft is poised to get there first and best. Yes, it really is a new Microsoft.
[Disclosure: Microsoft defrayed travel expenses for me to attend a recent Microsoft Azure Stack workshop and industry analyst gathering.]