Azure Stack: Squeezing the Little Guy

The growing cloud divide that's separating SMB from enterprise.

Microsoft has recently announced that its much anticipated Azure Stack will not be available to be downloaded on whitebox servers. Individuals and organizations wishing to use Azure Stack will have to purchase a pre-qualified cluster. This has caused some outrage amongst fans, but what really is the impact of this decision?

To understand the complexity of this event, it's important to separate what Microsoft intended Azure Stack to be, from what enthusiasts wanted it to be, from what Azure Stack actually is. These three things combine and interact to determine how Azure Stack will be perceived by paying customers, and how this will affect its uptake.

The Azure Stack Endgame
What Microsoft wants from Azure Stack is a means to drive as many workloads as humanly possible into its Azure public cloud. Cost, privacy concerns, regulation, fear, lack of skills and good old-fashioned job protectionism are all reasons that organizations have been reluctant to shift workloads into the cloud.

Microsoft is working on regulation, and working in concert with Google (and others) on allaying privacy concerns by "re-educating" citizens. It can't do anything about job protectionism, and cost will either take care of itself in time or it won't; unless Microsoft starts laying fiber around the world, there isn't much it can do there, either.

This leaves fear and a lack of skills to be addressed. If Microsoft can get Azure-in-a-can into larger organizations with lots of IT staff, it can allay fear of change and help build relevant skills. More importantly, it can get self-service computing into organizations that traditionally are rather bureaucratic, getting them addicted to IT without all the red tape.

How Microsoft Wins
The theory goes that once an enterprise's IT team has made Azure Stack available to internal customers there will be no going back. They'll either have to convert their entire internal IT infrastructure to be as easy to use as a public cloud, or simply move their workloads into the public cloud. Either way, Microsoft wins.

To Microsoft, even if Azure Stack results in workloads going to Amazon, they still win. The goal is to force the entire world to change. Microsoft wants applications to be developed against microservices, to use containers and to otherwise be segmented away from the operating system entirely.

Windows costs a lot of money maintain, and Microsoft believes there are better margins -- and more consistent revenue -- to be had in the cloud. It may take decades to wean the public off of Windows, but that's the end game.

It starts by getting workloads into the public cloud where it controls every aspect of the infrastructure: from the hardware to the databases, the APIs to the containerization standards. Lock customers in, charge them a subscription and make sure they never, ever leave.

Enthusiasts don't care about any of that. Enthusiasts want a simpler, easier way to run their existing workloads. They want VMware's ESXi, vCenter, vRealize and vCloud solutions in one easy-to-deploy, easy-to-manage, easy-to-consume -- and, most importantly, free -- package.

Out of Reach
VMware's solutions can make provisioning, hosting, managing and maintaining existing "monolithic" applications easier; but the complete suite is shatteringly expensive, even for midmarket companies. Microsoft has non-Azure Stack answers to this, but they're functionally unusable, and not really much cheaper. OpenStack, the open source answer to rolling your own cloud, is raw insanity unless you use a commercial version, and the commercial versions are pricy.

From a business standpoint this means that smaller businesses still can't afford to create their own cloud. Small business administrators can't afford to build the skills necessary to move past traditional monolithic applications and learn the new microservices, DevOps, serverless, containerized future.

The New Digital Divide
Enterprises have the money. And they're embracing Docker, the public cloud and new development styles, while a divide is growing among the midmarket.

The end result of Microsoft's Azure Stack decision is a retrenchment of the new digital divide: the haves, who can afford the software, services, subscriptions and skills to embrace the only future vendors are leaving open to us; and the have nots. Is it any wonder the enthusiasts are angry?

About the Author

Trevor Pott is a full-time nerd from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He splits his time between systems administration, technology writing, and consulting. As a consultant he helps Silicon Valley startups better understand systems administrators and how to sell to them.


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