What was announced?
On October 20 at TechEd, Microsoft quietly slipped in what looks like a potential game-changing announcement in the private/hybrid cloud world when they rolled out Microsoft Cloud Platform System (CPS), an integrated hardware/software system that combines an Azure-consistent on premise cloud with an optimized hardware stack from Dell.
Why does it matter?
So who needs YaCI (Yet another Converged Infrastructure)? The market is now almost overrun with converged systems running VM clusters with various levels of management functionality and guaranteed ease of installation, OpenStack integrations are around every corner, and every Linux vendor has their own complete cloud distribution, mostly based on OpenStack? What’s different about this one? In a word – Azure. OpenStack is still struggling for enterprise credibility, and the amazing number of vendors pouring effort into “hardening” it speaks well for its appeal but not so eloquently to its current suitability as a highly scalable enterprise platform. VMware is well proven as the defacto standard for enterprise VM infrastructure and they are aggressively pursuing private and public cloud market share, but are still a work in progress. Azure, on the other hand, is a demonstrable enterprise-grade highly scalable cloud platform, both in a PaaS and IaaS model. It is the major challenger to Amazon AWS, and, locked in an arms race with AWS has implemented many of the same advanced capabilities that others are still struggling with, including low-latency enterprise connections, very low latency massive cloud I/O capabilities, a wide range of VM sizes and performance levels, and has recruited and impressive number of CSPs with low-latency peering arrangements. Microsoft has the money and has shown the willingness to invest in global-scale cloud infrastructure, and has emerged as one of the mega-scale cloud environments.
In addition to the intense competitive dance with AWS, Microsoft Azure has one amazing attribute that is often overlooked in the evaluation of its mega-cloud attributes. It runs and is centered on indows, the “operating environment for the rest of us”. If you are a top-tier global investment bank you probably run Windows. If you are a metro-area dry-cleaning chain you probably run Windows. You get the picture – a lot of the focus on emerging cloud platforms has overlooked the fact that the largest of them are inherently Linux-centric. Windows still comprises somewhere around 80% of the OS images in production, and all of them are potentially in the cross-hairs of the Azure program. So we have the lingua-franca of OS, and we combine it with an on premise private cloud that embodies the core the functionality of a global cloud platform. Combine that with pre-integrated hardware and software, scalable to multiple racks of storage and servers, and I think we have a quiet winner in the enterprise private cloud space. Strategically CPS can also be viewed as an element in Microsoft’s ongoing pivot toward the cloud, a strategy which, based on recent financial results, appears to be paying off.
To be fair, you can order WIndows instances on other clouds, including AWS, and WIndows runs just fine on VMware, probably in about 100% of the worlds large comapnies. But with Azure there is no distraction, and no loss of focus – Windows is the focus, and other environments are options and conveniences.
What do you get?
Like a lot of converged infrastructure offerings, the piece parts have actually been available – if you have the time, talent and risk tolerance to bolt them all together. Microsoft contributes Windows Server 2012 R2, Systems Center 2012 R2, Azure Pack, configuration templates and scripts, integrated updates, optimized runbooks for Microsoft products and Microsoft led support. These are installed in pre-configured racks of Dell PowerEdge servers, storage, network components. The system comes with preconfigured and customizable management and tenant portals, ready to run as an enterprise private cloud. The systems can scale to a current maximum of four racks of hardware and up to 8000 VMs, placing it squarely in competition with the largest VMware-based CI offerings such as VCE Vblocks on a size basis.
Microsoft has been very careful to limit CPS discussion to local private cloud and multi-site DR scenarios using Azure Site Recovery, with no general discussion of gateway functions to the global Azure environment. But it doesn’t take even a very smart rocket scientist to figure out that since Microsoft has all this functionality available, including Azure-based storage and backup/recovery services, coupled to an infinitely (almost) scalable IaaS cloud capability, that future enhancements to MCP will include easy gateway functions to migrate workloads and implement cloud-based storage services, backup, recovery and DR and other Azure capabilities.
On the platform front, Dell, looking for ways to differentiate itself from competitors with richer CI portfolios, was a natural and appropriate partner for Microsoft, but Microsoft has never tied itself exclusively to a single hardware platform, and all of the CPS components should run on almost any x86 platform, so stay tuned for additional hardware partners after some period of Dell exclusivity. My guess – Cisco is a good candidate now that they are distancing themselves from EMC, maybe a major Asian Tier-2 vendor such as Fujitsu. HP I expect to be slow to the party considering all of their other CI investments, but they will eventually come around. Lenovo is a question mark, since they will be busy digesting the IBM acquisition for a while. Interesting timesJ
If you are a Windows/Azure competitor
This is a big-time wake-up call. Even if you have very well integrated toolkits to allow on premise development and easy sloshing of workloads onto and off of your cloud environment, Forrester has ample data that shows that a large fraction of enterprises intending to use cloud want to workloads on premise if the economics are competitive for a variety of reasons ranging from sheer inertia to legitimate concerns about multi-tenancy, data governance, regularity compliance and perceived risk. CPS now puts this option squarely within the reach of a huge tranche of the world’s computing users. Not a bad deal, really.
VMware and its community get it, and are actively promoting its EVO architecture as well as partner offerings and its cloud integration. The OpenStack world gets it, but OpenStack is light-years behind Azure in proven scalability and functionality. Is there a place for an “AWS Appliance”? Time and customer pressure will tell.