MJFChat: What’s New in the Azure Hybrid Space?

We’re doing a twice-monthly interview show on Petri.com that is dedicated to covering topics of interest to our tech-professional audience. We have branded this show “MJFChat.”

In my role as Petri’s Community Magnate, I will be interviewing a variety of IT-savvy technology folks. Some of these will be Petri contributors; some will be tech-company employees; some will be IT pros. We will be tackling various subject areas in the form of 30-minute audio interviews. I will be asking the questions, the bulk of which we’re hoping will come from you, our Petri.com community of readers.

We will ask for questions a week ahead of each chat. Readers can submit questions via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and/or LinkedIn using the #AskMJF hashtag. Once the interviews are completed, we will post the audio and associated transcript in the forums for readers to digest at their leisure. (By the way, did you know MJFChats are now available in podcast form? Go here for MJF Chat on Spotify; here for Apple Podcasts on iTunes; and here for Google Play.)

Our next MJFChat, scheduled for July 20, is all about what’s happening in the Azure hybrid space. My special guest is Microsoft Senior Cloud Advocate Thomas Maurer. We want you to submit any and all of your questions for Thomas ahead of our chat.

Microsoft was the first of the major cloud vendors to offer not just a public cloud, but also a hybrid platform. Azure Stack was the core of Microsoft’s hybrid 1.0 strategy. More recently, Microsoft outlined its hybrid 2.0 plan, which centers around Azure Arc.

If you have specific questions on anything to do with Microsoft’s hybrid cloud strategy, Thomas is standing by.

If you know someone you’d like to see interviewed on the MJFChat show, including yourself, send me a note at [email protected] (Let me know why you think this person would be an awesome guest and what topics you’d like to see covered.) We’ll take things from there….


Mary Jo Foley (00:00):
Hi, you’re listening to the Petri.com MJF Chat Show. I am Mary Jo Foley, AKA your Petri.com community magnate. And I am here to interview tech industry experts about various topics that you, our readers and listeners want to know about. Today’s MJF Chat is going to be all about the Azure hybrid space. And my special guest is the perfect person to talk about that Thomas Maurer, who is Microsoft’s Senior Cloud Advocate. Welcome Thomas, and thank you so much for joining me on this chat.

Thomas Maurer (00:39):
Thank you very much, Mary Jo, for having me it’s a pleasure to be in your podcast.

Mary Jo Foley (00:45):
Oh, thank you. So I want to set the stage a little bit, I would say Microsoft’s hybrid strategy predates that of its top competitors like AWS and Google Cloud. In fact, I remember talking to people from AWS and Google about Microsoft offering hybrid cloud products and services, and they always poo-pooed it. But since that time they both have come out with their own hybrid cloud offerings. I’m curious, Thomas, why you think Microsoft kind of came out of the gate strong with this? Is it because they had a lot of enterprise users who needed hybrid offerings? Or why do you think Microsoft was out there so early with Azure hybrid?

Thomas Maurer (01:28):
Well, I think, there are many reasons, first of all, I’m going to say that I, obviously, like that our competitors obviously acknowledge that hybrid this important part, or they basically start listening to their customers as well. And I think that we were very early there because we already came in that space. Right. Azure was really, if you look at many of our services was designed to be hybrid from very early stages. And obviously we also have products like Windows Server or SQL, which then took advantage of these hybrid solutions we have there. And I think that is also something where we see a lot of like misinterpretation from, or like people just don’t know about it is that so many Azure services really, they support hybrid or they can run in a hybrid environment for years now. Right. It’s not just about the current offerings we are heavily promoting. But it’s also about like services, which just our customers need. And so I think that is what it makes the way, why we are so early.

Mary Jo Foley (02:38):
There are still, I assume even years after you guys started first offering the ability to run Azure inside customer’s own data centers, there’s still workloads people need or want to keep on premises, right? Like what kind of workloads are they?

Thomas Maurer (02:54):
Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And I think that is where I always quote, Jason Zander’s and he went on stage at Microsoft Ignite in his keynote. And he said, Hey, hybrid is going to be an end state for our customer and not just a in between state. What it means really is that it doesn’t really matter. Like really all the customers they even at different sizes have reasons why they want to stay in a hybrid environment where they want to take advantage of the cloud, but have some workloads which they on prem or at the edge as we call it. And this can be regulatory reasons, data sovereignty, reasons, networking reasons, or technology reasons as I call it. When applications, for example, can’t deal with latency to the next cloud region or when you don’t have internet at all right.

Thomas Maurer (03:48):
One example I can really bring up and again, there are way, there are many, many examples here, but one example I always bring up is I worked with one of our larger customers. He has factories all over the planet and he just doesn’t want to rely on the internet connectivity from those factories because he wants to run these factories almost 24/7. And if the network that goes down, he still wants to keep running them. Right. And so that is one reason why he has something there in that factory, which keeps the factory running, but then uses the advantage of the cloud to analyze that data. And again, there’s so many different scenarios and I think that is also one of the big differences between us and our competitors really is that we don’t have one solution to address hybrid, right. We have many different solutions out there depending really where our customers are and what they need.

Mary Jo Foley (04:47):
Okay. You just set me up for the perfect next question. So thank you. I was going to ask you to revisit all the branding changes that Microsoft did at Ignite with the whole Azure hybrid family, because the company changed a bunch of names of the products. Like I know Azure Stack became Azure stack Hub and there are others around the Edge and all. Could you just do a quick revisit of what’s in the Azure hybrid family right now, the current names?

Thomas Maurer (05:16):
Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, our hybrid portfolio really grew with like our Azure Stack portfolio and then we have obviously our Azure Arc brand. And then we also, like when we talk about hybrid, we also talk sometimes about Azure IoT and bring that all together. I think when we look at what happens to Azure Stack I think the first time we spoke publicly about Azure Stack was in 2015 where we announced Azure Stack as an idea at Microsoft Ignite. And, since then it changed a little bit in the world of Azure Stack now became a portfolio of products. So Azure stack became our Stack Hub, and it basically allows you to run cloud native services wherever you need them. Right. It doesn’t matter if it’s you’re in your own data center or it’s in one of your actual locations. And so on. Then we also have Azure Stack Edge, which is, was formerly known as Databox Edge, which brings basically AI workloads to the Edge which is a first party appliance. You can basically get from Azure, you can order it and get it into your data center. And then the third one really is Azure Stack HCI, which is like our hyperconverged platform for running virtualization workloads, where we strongly aligned on cloud inspired designs.

Mary Jo Foley (06:44):
Okay. Let’s talk about Azure Arc for a minute, because this was another big announcement at Ignite last year. When I was trying to define it and explain it in my own blog posts, I called it Microsoft’s hybrid 2.0 Strategy because that’s what Mark Russinovich called it when I interviewed him. And I also feel like it’s the way Microsoft is starting to talk about managing cloud workloads, even when they’re not in Azure when they’re in other clouds. So could you do a better explanation here for the listeners for Azure Arc? Because I feel like I still struggle a bit when I’m trying to explain it.

Thomas Maurer (07:21):
I think you did very well on this one. I look at it as for customers who want to use our Azure management tools and our control plane we have in Azure to extend this, not just for Azure services, but for resources which live outside of Azure, right? So we bring basically Azure management and some Azure services to basically any infrastructure. So what we allow in a technical sense is, Azure Arc basically bridges the Azure Resource Manager with resources, which live outside of Azure, and those can be servers, Kubernetes clusters and we also announced data services, for example. And in the recent I think two weeks we also mentioned that you can now connect your SQL server clusters up to Azure, and you get that management experience. You can now see your your servers, your Kubernetes clusters, your SQL server clusters in the Azure portal, for example, and you can then do various management tasks and take advantage of all that.

Mary Jo Foley (08:26):
Okay. That’s good. I know you’re not alone in trying to do some of these things. AWS has something they call Outpost. Google has Anthos, or is it fair to say we’re comparing apples to apples when we look at Arc, Outposts and Anthos, or is there something that Arc does differently from the competitors offerings?

Thomas Maurer (08:48):
Oh yeah, absolutely. So this is a great question. I really like, when we look at what our competitors are saying, they basically have kind of like a one size fits all solution, right? While as you can see from our talk right now, we have more than just Azure Arc, right? We have our Azure Stack portfolio. We have our management services. Even if you look at security like Azure Sentinel or Azure Security Center, those are all services which are designed or live in Azure, but are also available in a hybrid sense. And I think that is the big difference without going deep in like, okay, where does which offer go and which service go. But I think it’s, for us, it’s really important to understand that our customers really want to have, they have other different needs and some of them want to use a control plane, in that sense they can use Azure Arc.

Thomas Maurer (09:43):
Others really want to bring, for example, Azure Infrastructure into their data center so they can access our Azure Stack portfolio for different services. And others, they just want to leverage like our management tools, like, for example, it’s a very simple one when, if you look at Azure Update Management, which is by the way, available in the hybrid environment for four years now. Our customers are telling us, Hey, we don’t want to just use Azure Update Management to manage our Azure virtual machines. We also want to use the same solution for our Linux and Windows servers running outside of Azure. And I think, it really depends on what the customer wants and that is what we can address with our portfolio.

Mary Jo Foley (10:31):
Okay. That’s good. This is excellent timing by the way that I’m talking to you this week, because it’s the Microsoft Inspire Partner conference. And I know one of the big announcements is going to be around Azure HCI and how Microsoft is introducing a new version of this. So I’d love to hear your explanation about what’s the most important things in the V2 of Azure HCI, and maybe even start with, why does it exist in the first place? Why did Microsoft introduce Azure HCI?

Thomas Maurer (11:04):
So yeah, I’m also super excited for this week. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time now, and as you said, this is like our Azure Stack HCI solution, which is our hyper-converged virtualization solution. And we are obviously realizing that not all of our workloads will go to the cloud, right. Some of them need to stay as we discussed at the customer’s location. And that is where Azure Stack HCI can come in. Azure Stack HCI is a hyper-converged infrastructure, which allows you to design like very small clusters, if you will. Like two note clusters to run a couple of virtual machines in a branch office or in store or wherever you want to run it. But then you can also go into very high specced clusters where you can run very high performance workloads in your data center.

Thomas Maurer (11:58):
And so we are taking basically our software which was like in the past was Windows Server and then validated hardware and our Windows Admin Center solution basically to manage that. Now what’s changed now in the new version is that we have a couple of updates on this. So first of all, we optimized the Azure Stack HCI software we’re running which is basically we take the latest hypervisor from Azure with built in software defined storage and networking features, which is stripped down basically to just doing that, right? For example, if you had Windows Server before there were many, many features, which you didn’t really need on an HCI system, right? There were roles and features available and now the team took all of them out and optimized that. It also got a couple of new features as well, but what also is different is that it’s now delivered as an Azure hybrid service itself, meaning that you basically get it.

Thomas Maurer (13:03):
And you pay that in a way as an Azure subscription, right? You paid a subscription fee, you pay for the Azure Stack license. So you don’t have any upfront costs. You don’t need to go out and buy very expensive licenses for the Azure Stack HCI solution, you basically paid it within your Azure subscription. And then obviously you get also the benefits that Azure Stack HCI integrates into Azure Resource Manager as well. So there’s basically Azure Arc built into Azure Stack HCI, which allows the HCI cluster to show up in the Azure portal or in the Azure Resource Manager, because you can obviously also manage using the Azure CLI for example. And then you get various monitoring features to manage that and to get also other hybrid features as well. So you can, for example, use Disaster Recovery as a service which is built in to replicate your virtual machines, for example, to Azure.

Thomas Maurer (14:05):
And then in case your location goes down, you can fail it over. So there’s a lot of hybrid features going on. There’s even more to that. However, another important part to that as well is that our customers said, Hey, we don’t want to necessarily something completely new, right? We want to still, we have our own processes and our own tools we are using. For example, using System Center, we’re using Windows Admin Center. We want to keep on using these. And that is also something which comes with the Azure Stack HCI solution we are offering here.

Mary Jo Foley (14:40):
Hmm, nice. I think if I recall correctly also in this version of Azure Stack HCI, customers can start running it on their own hardware, as long as it meets certain standards or is certified, is that right?

Thomas Maurer (14:54):
Yes, that’s absolutely correct. So that is the case where it’s like validated hardware. And I think we have like over 200 different validated solutions which are all from OEMs, I think there are probably 20 or even 30 OEMs which are bringing that. And as long as your hardware fits in these validation processes, if they are on the list you can basically just go out and install that on existing hardware. So you don’t necessarily need to buy something new. You can also leverage that. And what is also important when you speak about hardware is that it’s not like for example, Azure Stack hardware, we have this appliance approach, it’s more or less more open and more flexible. So you can, for example, say, Hey I can have more memory in it. I can have different components in it, have different CPUs as long as obviously the OEM supports that. So it’s really, it gives the customer a lot of choice on what size they want to use or what their scenario is.

Mary Jo Foley (16:01):
Okay. So why would somebody opt to go Azure stack HCI versus Azure Stack? Like, is it just strictly either workloads that you don’t want to have brought on or what’s kind of the thinking process about when customers are evaluating that?

Thomas Maurer (16:20):
So you mean between Azure Stack Hub and Azure Stack HCI or?

Mary Jo Foley (16:28):

Thomas Maurer (16:28):
Okay. So when you look at Azure Stack Hub, for example, you get a lot more, it’s really a cloud appliance, if you will, where you get an own instance of your Azure Resource Manager. So you get an own Azure Portal you get your own Azure Resource Manager, so you can use for example infrastructure as a service, as you can do in Azure. You get basically that consistency between the both. Now, however, since it is kind of like an asset appliance approach it’s kind of like limited on the ways of the different hardware choices, for example, you can make. So it starts at four nodes and it goes up to sixteen, but then if you look at Azure Stack HCI this is really just designed for virtualization workloads, right?

Thomas Maurer (17:15):
And this can go on from like very small two node clusters. So you get, for example, in branch offices, even though you just need to run like two, three virtual machines, you can get high availability with on a very low price point, but then you can also say, Hey, I need a little bit more so I can have faster disks. I can have more memory, I can have more servers. It really gives you that more flexible way of doing virtualization while again with the Azure Stack Hub you get all that consistency. So we’re addressing again, different use cases, depending on where the customer is.

Mary Jo Foley (17:54):
Okay. That’s great. So I’m going to put you on the spot here, and maybe you can’t answer this, or maybe you’ll just say that’s a dumb question, but will Microsoft ever, do you think enable Azure Stack Hub to run on customer’s own hardware? The way that you’re now enabling Azure Stack HCI to run on customer’s own hardware? Like I remember when Microsoft first announced Azure Stack that the vision was to let people run it on their own hardware. And then, because that was very unwieldy, Microsoft locked it down more and said, no, it’s better as an appliance. Do you think it’ll always stay like a pre configured appliance? Or could there be a time when it could actually run on customers own hardware?

Thomas Maurer (18:42):
I like how you raise that question. So yeah, you’re absolutely right at the beginning. I mean, we came on the world from like from Windows Azure Pack. That was the name of the product before we had. And that was basically a software which then could run on your own hardware and together with System Center. And I think that was where a lot of the thinking came from, from the Azure Stack team and that at the beginning, really, as you said, that we talked a lot about the different software components and everything, but then we realized that one of the big pain points of customers was like keeping such a stack up to date by themselves is very, very tough. Right. And so that is why Jason and many other reasons then decide, okay, Hey, we want to have kind of like this appliance approach.

Thomas Maurer (19:36):
And I currently feel that, this is my personal opinion, this was a good, good choice. So customers can now say, Hey, I want to have that appliance approach. I want to have that consistency. I go for Azure Stack Hub and if I don’t need that, I go for Azure Stack HCI, then I have more flexibility. Will that change? I think that would depend on the customer feedback, right? If customers would come out and say, Hey, we want this on our own hardware. And there are many, many customers saying that then we are of the open to listen to that. But yeah, I feel like right now we have a good choice. Again, you can choose between Azure Stack HCI and Azure Stack Hub and really depending on the customer’s need.

Mary Jo Foley (20:21):
Hmm. Okay. All right. Well, we are just about out of time, but before I let you go, I would love if you could give people some ideas about where they can go on the web to stay up to date with what’s happening with Azure hybrid.

Thomas Maurer (20:36):
So obviously we have azure.com/hybrid as a website for where we bring together all our hybrid services, and then we’ll have links to the different various products. And I obviously highly recommend to follow my blog as well at thomasmaurer.ch.

Mary Jo Foley (20:55):
Okay, great. I do follow your blog so it is an excellent resource. I will put a word in for you there.

Thomas Maurer (21:02):
I feel very honored right now.

Mary Jo Foley (21:04):
Great. Well, thank you so much, Thomas. Really appreciate you doing this chat. I know you’re doing it on vacation too, so thank you again for doing that.

Thomas Maurer (21:13):
Thank you very much for having me. It really was a pleasure and an honor to chat with you and hopefully see you again in the future.

Mary Jo Foley (21:20):
Yes. Let’s hope. And for everyone else listening to this chat right now, I will be posting more information soon on Petri about who my next guest is going to be. Once you see that you can submit questions directly on Twitter for the guest. And in the meantime, if you know of anyone else or even yourself who might make a good guest for one of these MJF Chats, please do not hesitate to drop me a note. Thank you very much.