In-Depth

Hyper-V and Beyond

The release of Microsoft's first major update to Windows Server 2016 and the long-awaited launch of Azure Stack will enable the ongoing shift toward containerization, DevOps and digitally focused modern apps.

Remember when every upgrade to Windows Server came with major improvements to Hyper-V? That's still the case, with last year's Windows Server 2016 and the pending fall update release. Microsoft has made significant improvements to Hyper-V with Shielded VM, failover clustering and the forthcoming ability to expose persistent memory to the virtual machine (VM) and remote direct memory access (RDMA) support for trusted guests.

But Microsoft has given most of the airplay to sexier capabilities such as native support for containers and new software-defined networking (SDN) and software-defined storage (SDS) capabilities, which are the hallmark of modern, cloud-native computing environments. Just as hypervisors were the hot new trend in software and computing a decade ago because they eliminated the need to dedicate single OS instances or applications to a server or cluster, containers and software-defined infrastructure capabilities effectively allow for the consolidation of VMs and are paving the way to build Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)-style apps that can run both online and on-premises.

The hybrid model that Microsoft and others have professed for years is also about to change the dynamics of VM deployment with this month's launch of Azure Stack, which brings Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) to the datacenter.

The long-touted release of Azure Stack, first revealed more than two years ago, means enterprises can run Microsoft's public cloud on-premises for the first time, allowing workloads to be moved to or shared with the Azure public cloud. Alternatively, they can run Azure Stack in a third-party colocation facility or via a hosting provider. Microsoft is expected to emphasize the new release of Windows Server 2016 and Azure Stack at its Ignite conference at the end of this month in Orlando, Fla. Picking up on the theme of last year's Ignite and this year's recent Build (developer) and Inspire (partner) conferences, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella will likely discuss the ways organizations are undergoing digital transformation initiatives to become more agile, be able to offer new products and services, and serve their customers more proactively.

To help in this massive makeover, Microsoft built out its Azure public cloud to more than 40 global locations with enormous scale, and a customer base second only to Amazon Web Services Inc. (AWS). Despite the lead of AWS in the cloud—which may be hard for anyone to catch—Microsoft argues its hybrid capabilities coming with Azure Stack and available with Windows Server, as well as key offerings including Office 365, SharePoint and SQL Server, make it well-poised to deliver advanced machine learning, predictive analytics and automation capabilities that until very recently didn't exist or required massive infrastructure.

In his keynote at Inspire, the new name for its annual global partner gathering, Nadella underscored three core tenants of digitization, which he broadly described as the "intelligent cloud and intelligent edge" that's quickly moving toward server-less computing:

  1. Users are no longer bound to a specific device, and most have many systems that are "multi-sense."
  2. Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to enable automation, including autonomous vehicles, and Internet of Things (IoT)-based automation for smart factories, hospitals and cities.
  3. Access to what Nadella called rich data and storage enabled in the cloud.

"As we have more of the computation itself to generate how AI gets distributed, to manage all of this complexity we need a new, efficient frontier for how we develop applications, distribute applications, manage applications," Nadella said. "That's what this server-less revolution is all about. Containers, microservices, server-less, these are technologies that are going to be more profound than virtualization was, ever."

Containerization of the Enterprise
Ironically, containerization is an outgrowth of virtualization. Applications that make use of container runtimes can utilize higher-level services such as PaaS and SaaS, making them less reliant on VM instances. The growing shift to DevOps in large organizations and the ability to build the so-called "cloud-native" applications designed for SaaS and mobile platforms is possible now that Docker and Kubernetes container runtimes and orchestration tools can operate in Windows Server and Azure, as well as most other clouds and Linux server distributions.

Most major IT organizations are exploring, piloting or deploying at some level containerized applications. Containers are an opportunity to move away from the monolithic characteristics of traditional Windows-based software, with their promise of application portability across clients, servers, VMs and clouds. They also enable more rapid development and revision because they're built on microservices, perform faster and are more secure. Industry research shows rapid growth in container adoption, though it's still early in the curve.

A 451 Research LLC study based on more than 300 IT professionals found that 19 percent were in initial production of containerized applications, and 8 percent were in broad implementation.

Does that mean that Microsoft will stop trying to enhance virtualization in general, and Hyper-V specifically? Not likely, though some of the changes have drawn criticism. The most notable of these was the decision to remove infrastructure services from its new Nano headless server configuration in September's Windows Server 2016 Build 1709.

That update is the first based on Microsoft's new Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) model for the server OS, which will receive twice-yearly updates in the spring and fall. The company is calling it the semi-annual channel release cycle (also now delivered to Windows 10 and Office), which is only available with Enterprise Agreements. Those remaining on the Long-Term Service Branch won't see any of these new features, but also won't be required to upgrade at the pace of those on the faster release cycle, which is at least once per year.

The New Nano
The new Windows Server 2016 fall build will include a stripped-down Nano Server configuration. Nano Server is the headless server option introduced last year with the release of Windows Server 2016.

Now Microsoft is stripping out the infrastructure components from the Nano Server option, reducing its footprint by 50 percent, to make it more suitable for container deployment. Admins looking for those infrastructure services should select the new Server Core option, according to Microsoft.

The revamp of Nano Server caught many off guard because leading up to its release last year, Microsoft had touted the minimal-footprint deployment option of Windows Server 2016 for its suitability for large clusters in Web-scale application and datacenter environments. Microsoft has since found that the "vast-majority" of Nano Server deployments from a workload perspective were running container-based applications based on Docker, Kubernetes and others. Because container-based workloads don't require the infrastructure components, Microsoft determined that removing them would result in a more efficient server environment and advance the move toward containers.

"Nano Server will be optimized as a container runtime image, and we will deprecate the infrastructure roles," says Chris Van Wesep, Microsoft's director of enterprise cloud product marketing. "So for anybody who had wanted to do smaller footprint compute and storage clusters, Server Core will be the right implementation to do that."

By deprecating the infrastructure features in the Nano Server option, the removal of that code will make way for Microsoft's new .NET Core 2.0, "which enables customers to use more of their code in more places [and] make Nano Server the best option for new container-based development," said Erin Chapple, general manager for Windows Server, in a blog post announcing the new release options.

Microsoft is recommending Server Core for hosting VMs, as well as containers, which Chapple said can run Nano Server or Linux container images. The Windows Server build also will support Linux workloads via extended Hyper-V isolation, which will allow Linux containers to run without having to deploy two separate container infrastructures to run both Linux and Windows-based applications. As previously announced, Microsoft is also bringing out the Windows Subsystem for Linux, (aka Windows Bash component), allowing application administrators and developers to use common scripts and container images for both Linux and Windows Server container hosts, according to Chapple.

Azure in the House
The first Azure Stack appliances will be available in September from a number of vendors. They include Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Lenovo, with Microsoft's newest partners, Cisco Systems Inc. and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., set to release their offerings by year's end and in the first quarter of 2018, respectively. "We're building out Azure as the first hyper-scale cloud that supports true distributed computing with Azure Stack," said Nadella during his Inspire keynote.

Some may challenge the claim that Azure Stack appliances will be "the first" hybrid cloud offerings delivered to organizations, as products from VMware Inc. and OpenStack-based appliances might have claimed that turf. But Microsoft argues it brings the software-defined infrastructure offered in Windows Server 2016 (such as Storage Spaces Direct, Hyper-V and support for containers) to a common application development, deployment and systems management model.

Another thing that sets Azure Stack apart, Microsoft believes, is its infrastructure-as-code nature. "You're writing one set of code, you're updating one set of code, you're deploying one set of code, but it is running in two places," said Microsoft Corporate VP Julia White. "In a Visual Studio dropdown, you can select Azure or Azure Stack. It's that simple."

The initial systems will allow customers to provision and manage both IaaS and PaaS workloads via the Azure Portal, effectively choosing Azure Stack as a region. While workloads running in Azure Stack initially are limited, Microsoft officials say they cover the most widely used capabilities in Azure, including:

  • VMs (base VMs and Windows Server)
  • Storage (Blob, Table and Queue)
  • PaaS offerings via the Azure App Service (including Web apps, mobile apps, API apps and functions)

Microsoft said it will continue to push additional capabilities and templates over time. In the short-term pipeline are the IoT Hub and Azure Data Services, said Microsoft Senior Product Director Mark Jewett. While Azure Stack doesn't yet support Azure Data Services, customers can run SQL Server in Azure Stack. "We can certainly deliver Database as a Service," said Jewett.

Jewett and White also pointed to the ability to run the Azure App Service Stack on-premises. Using PaaS services, the common API model and Azure Functions allow organizations to move to server-less computing.

Nadella in his keynote also said he sees server-less computing as the next wave in application development, deployment and management. "Virtualization has been amazing, but now this new era of microservices, containers and server-less [computing] is going to be fundamentally transformative to the core of what we write as applications," he said.

Azure Stack will appeal to those who have data sovereignty requirements where information can't be stored in the public cloud; edge computing scenarios where connectivity is unavailable or sporadic, such as cruise ships and oil rigs; and those looking to build new cloud-based applications that run on-premises or extend existing legacy systems.

Stepping Into IaaS
While Azure Stack isn't the first hybrid cloud appliance, Microsoft is looking to make the case that it's the first to share a common control plane across on-premises and public clouds. Paul Galjan, senior director of product management for Dell EMC Hybrid Cloud Platforms, agrees. "It is unique," he said. "It fits into a niche in the market that no other software vendor is offering anything quite like it."

Natalia Mackevicius, Microsoft's director of program management for Azure Stack, said the shift to DevOps and toward building modern applications optimized for mobile and digital experiences will drive adoption of Azure Stack. "People want to start modernizing to remain competitive, and they also want to make sure they can have more agility to deliver new features and functionality more quickly, listen to their customers and adapt," she said. "We are seeing drivers toward those changes, but it's a step function where enterprises choose to start with IaaS, and start modernizing over time," Mackevicius said.

Hyperactivity
The first iterations of Azure Stack from Dell EMC, HPE and Lenovo are hyper-converged appliances with SDN and Storage Spaces Direct running the same software that runs in the public Azure cloud. Customers will be able to choose among single-node systems for dev and test, all the way up to 16-node behemoths for complex computing scenarios. Those upper-tier systems will cost several hundred thousand dollars and up, depending on configuration and with usage-based pricing incorporated into their public cloud-based Azure subscriptions. Microsoft has emphasized that its engineers are working closely with its three OEM partners both on development and ongoing management.

"What we have done is enable customers to focus on their applications and services as opposed to the infrastructure," Mackevicius said. "So we've abstracted some of the infrastructure and have purpose-built infrastructure and management capabilities that are tested and validated. We jointly validated and tested everything from the bios, the firmware, the drivers, to our deployment and infrastructure management technologies. We've also invested in patch and update technologies, so completely orchestrated patch and update technologies are available. We want more of the focus to be on actually having cloud services available for the customers."

Microsoft touts three usage models for Azure Stack:

  • Edge and disconnected: Environments where network access isn't available, such as oil rigs and ships, or on shop floors or environments that may have intermittent connections, or those with latency. "With some industries [and government], you want to be air-gapped from the public network, but you still want that cloud," Mackevicius said.
  • Data sovereignty: Countries who want to use Azure but must keep data within their borders; also: financial services and health care businesses that must keep their data on-premises.
  • Modernization: This includes organizations with legacy or "heritage" applications that want to modernize them. "Instead of moving that legacy or heritage application directly to the cloud, they want to bring the cloud to that application and then they can start modernizing it, using things like microservices and container technologies," Mackevicius said. "Over time, they can move it to the public cloud, but it gives them the capability to start modernizing now."

While Microsoft will point to a number of enterprises making the move to Azure Stack, many experts say hosting providers will likely be the earliest to deploy it in production. That's because they see opportunities to monetize it.

Among the first to publicly disclose plans to deploy it are Atos and Rackspace. Jeff DeVerter, CTO of Rackspace's Microsoft practice, believes many customers will use its hosted Azure services, while some will have the large services provider manage it on-premises.

"We have a dozen or so customers using the technical preview, the Azure Stack development kit and testing their applications to see how they work and how they fit inside, experimenting with it to look at features and functionality and understand how that's going to fit into the enterprise," DeVerter said.

Many are moving to DevOps but are looking more piecemeal at moving to modern application environments and server-less infrastructure, DeVerter added. "Operations becomes less of 'How am I going to physically put something in or respond in an outage?' to 'How am I going to code around some of the things that were challenges before, or how am I going to continue to optimize to make use of cloud capabilities?'" he said.

"Incredibly Transformative"
Microsoft's focus on hybrid and public clouds doesn't mean, however, that virtualization is dead or dying. Dell EMC's Greg Colburn last month cautioned not to confuse the coming of IaaS and PaaS to the datacenter as a replacement for virtualization. "Let's understand that the core use cases for Azure Stack are PaaS-related; the end goal is to deliver Azure PaaS services in an on-premises/hybrid fashion," he said in a late August blog post.

He continued: "That said, Azure Stack also has the capability to deliver Azure-consistent IaaS services, as well. Virtualization, even really, really, good virtualization, isn't IaaS and it's not even cloud. It's a mechanism for IT consolidation and efficiency. IaaS on the other hand builds on top of virtualization technologies and is focused on streamlining DevOps processes for rapid delivery of software and business results by proxy. In scenarios where delivery of IaaS in a hybrid, Azure-consistent fashion is the requirement, Azure Stack is an incredibly transformative IaaS offering.

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