TL; DR: Microsoft Azure Stack is an extension of Azure designed to meet customers where they are with the technology they need. Intended to break down barriers, the technology brings the benefits of cloud computing on-premises for a truly consistent hybrid experience. Whether Azure Stack is facilitating cloud computing in offline areas or enabling customers in regulated industries to develop in Azure, Microsoft’s ultimate goal is to maximize productivity and speed development in any environment.
Between seasickness, cramped rooms, bland food, and overpriced drinks, it’s no wonder many people would rather stay home than set foot on a cruise ship. To top it off, internet access at sea is provided by expensive, spotty satellite connectivity, which can be particularly annoying for smartphone-dependent vacationers.
But if vacationing in a disconnected area seems inconvenient, imagine operating a modern, cloud-run business in such a location. Sounds impossible, right? That’s one of the reasons Microsoft created Azure Stack, an extension of Azure that brings the advantages of cloud computing to practically any environment — including ships, oil fields, and mineshafts. For example, ocean liners and freight companies now use Azure for their global cloud platform while deploying Azure Stack locally on ships to power daily operations.
“Azure Stack is an extension of Azure – not an alternative,” said Natalia Mackevicius, General Manager, Microsoft Azure Stack. “It offers customers a way to enable innovation on existing assets, such as oil rigs, factories, or shipping vessels, and integrate them with the capabilities and ecosystem of a major public cloud provider.”
That means customers enjoy a uniform hybrid cloud experience across Azure Stack and Azure, with no code changes required. “The APIs, portal, and PowerShell cmdlets are all the same,” Natalia said.
But the ability to use the same services, automation, tools, and portals as Azure while running on-premises isn’t only beneficial for edge and disconnected environments. It’s also being used to extend legacy applications with Azure services on-premises, meet regulatory and policy requirements, assist in moving latency-sensitive workloads to the cloud, and ensure a compatible DevOps process in hybrid environments.
“Through Azure and Azure Stack, Microsoft provides customers with a true experience of hybrid cloud consistency,” Natalia said. “This means that their investments in people, processes, and technology work consistently across cloud boundaries.”
An Extension of Azure Balancing Flexibility and Control
While it’s true that cloud computing can drive efficiency and increase scalability, many organizations face restrictions — such as security measures and bandwidth requirements — that limit their ability to fully embrace the cloud. These groups often turn to a hybrid cloud solution that leverages a mix of on-premises, private cloud, and public cloud services.
The problem is most hybrid deployments don’t provide a unified development platform, meaning that developers must work within two different environments, impeding efficiency. As an extension of Azure, Azure Stack breaks down barriers between datacenters and the public cloud to remedy this problem.
With Azure Stack, developers enjoy enhanced control and speed because they only have to build in one environment: Azure. This means they can develop, test, and deploy more efficiently than ever, whether across their datacenters or on the cloud.
“With a consistent platform across Azure and Azure Stack, companies can move forward by investing in new people skills (for both development and operations), modern application development architectures and processes, and operational standards that work the same way wherever they need them,” Natalia said.
Ultimately, the service streamlines application builds across hybrid environments. “Azure Stack uniquely enables customers to extend the Azure platform for digital transformation into their own environments — and we know customers need consistency across their full IT environments.”
A Wide Range of Customer-Facing and Internal Use Cases
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which took effect May 28, 2018, had a far-reaching impact on how companies store and maintain the personal data of European residents. Now, as similar regulations like the California Consumer Privacy Act become law, it’s clear that compliance will remain a concern for many businesses.
According to a recent whitepaper produced by Microsoft, Azure Stack helps customers in regulated industries develop in Azure while staying in compliance.
“Customers can develop and deploy applications in Azure, with full flexibility to deploy on-premises on Azure Stack to meet regulatory or policy requirements, with no code changes needed,” the report stated. “Illustrative application examples include global audit, financial reporting, foreign exchange trading, online gaming, and expense reporting.”
Azure Stack helps customers ensure compliance in a number of ways. First, it offers the flexibility to put data where it’s required while still leveraging the benefits of the cloud. Second, it enables a single, repeatable development and operational model — whether customers use the public cloud, their facilities, or those of a service provider.
“This lets people, processes, and technology move fluidly between environments,” Natalia said. Finally, because Azure Stack is an integrated system, Natalia told us Microsoft can work with specific industries to provide documentation that proves regulations have been met.
Aside from regulated industries, Azure Stack is a good fit for organizations with latency-sensitive workloads.
“We frequently see customers with significant on-premises assets requiring real-time processing that, over time, they want to move to the cloud — think large-scale systems of record or mainframes,” Natalia said. “Customers want and need to modernize those applications with cloud techniques and technologies, which is made possible by deploying on Azure Stack and moving them to Azure when and how they choose.”
Maximize Productivity with a Consistent Development Experience
Natalia told us Azure Stack is the only hybrid cloud that can run connected with Azure or completely disconnected in datacenters or at the edge. As such, the technology helps maximize productivity by empowering developers to build and deploy applications in the same way, whether working with Azure or Azure Stack.
“For many established companies, there’s a tremendous amount of investment in assets or experiences that may hold back application innovation,” Natalia said. “Azure Stack offers consistency and a way to avoid dividing those IT investments into the different technology silos every time a business need or opportunity arises.”
With a consistent platform for application development, Natalia told us developers can leverage common DevOps practices for continuous deployment and integration using open-source tools like Jenkins. They can also automate infrastructure using Chef and Azure PowerShell DSC extensions. And, like Azure, Azure Stack allows developers to use a range of open-source application technologies, including Java, Python, Node.js, PHP, Docker-integrated containers, Mesosphere DC/OS, and Cloud Foundry.
Natalia said Microsoft aims to make the onboarding process as simple as possible. “Azure Stack is consistent with Azure, which means customers can quickly start prototyping their application with Azure, without even procuring an Azure Stack system,” she said.
Customers also have the option of installing the Azure Stack Development Kit, a free version of Azure Stack, on a single server.
Speed Delivery Through Integrated Systems with Partners
For users deploying systems on-premises, production-supported Azure Stack may be delivered via integrated systems with hardware partners.
“This enables customers to realize the benefits of a hybrid cloud solution quickly,” Natalia said. “The appliance delivery model reduces time to value through the upfront work done by hardware partners and Microsoft in developing the system.”
This approach allows businesses to get up and running quickly with integrated systems from partners such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Dell EMC, Cisco, and Lenovo. Partners will even ship the hardware to your location, where their engineers will deploy, integrate, and validate the system.
The seamless delivery process has also enhanced onboarding efforts. “Customer interest and adoption of Azure Stack is high, with customers like Chevron and Avid already capturing business value from its unparalleled capabilities,” Natalia said.
In the future, Microsoft plans to make Azure Stack even more powerful. “I’m particularly excited about the opportunities that arise with the emergence of the intelligent edge,” Natalia said. “As an example, we’re currently in development to bring Azure IoT Hub to Azure Stack.”
This will allow operators to manage IoT devices and process real-time data within their facilities — or even on their ships.