Advanced Computing in the Age of AI|Friday, May 29, 2020
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Microsoft Eyes Hybrid Cloud Shift With Azure Stack 

Microsoft is zeroing in on the steady shift to hybrid cloud deployments with an Azure cloud-based platform that would allow customers to deliver Azure services from their own datacenters.

The company (NASDAQ: MSFT) unveiled a technical preview of its Microsoft Azure Stack this week, calling it the "next phase of its hybrid cloud strategy." (The preview was scheduled to go live on Friday.) In a blog post, Mike Neil, corporate vice president for enterprise cloud at Microsoft, touted Azure Stack as "bringing proven innovation—including [infrastructure-as-a-service] and higher level [platform] services—from hyper-scale datacenters to on-premises, enterprise-scale environments…."

The hybrid cloud initiative is consistent with the software giant's steady push toward a platform-centric strategy. Speaking at the SC15 conference in November, Jeff Baxter, a Microsoft Azure manager, stressed: "We don’t see ourselves as a Windows company, we see ourselves as a cloud provider." That translates into supporting customers running Linux or other platforms. “We are very much agnostic, and we’re supportive of people who want to run workloads that aren’t on our platform."

In another cloud move, Microsoft announced last summer that its Windows Server 2016 would support Docker application containers and other micro-services which are fast becoming the preferred method for secure delivery of distributed enterprise applications.

Azure Stack addresses the growing preference for hybrid cloud deployments that allow enterprises to meet regulatory and data sovereignty requirements via their own datacenters while using public cloud services like Azure for distributed applications. The flexibility of keeping sensitive data on-premise while leveraging the horsepower of the public cloud gives users the freedom to decide where applications and workloads reside.

Azure Stack also targets application developers and IT managers, Microsoft's Neil stressed. For developers, he touted a "write once, deploy to Azure or Azure Stack" capability, noting that APIs are identical for the public cloud platform and Azure Stack. That allows development of both open source or .NET applications that can run on-premise or in the public cloud.

Microsoft also said Azure Stack would allow datacenter resources to be used as Azure infrastructure and platform services "while maintaining oversight using the same management and automation tools that Microsoft uses to operate Azure."

One industry analyst said Microsoft's emerging cloud infrastructure and platform services offers technologies akin to the combination of OpenStack infrastructure and Cloud Foundry, the open source cloud computing platform.

"Most midsize and large organizations are not about to decommission their datacenters and so have a need to serve their internal customers with self-service and a granular set of resources and workload controls," IDC analyst Al Hilwa said in research note. "Microsoft is now tackling this area where cloud operator technology is brought to bear for internal IT and partner cloud operators."

Hilwa added that the "key distinguishing characteristic" of Microsoft's cloud infrastructure push is that it is "semantically Azure." In other words, "Azure Stack is identical to Azure from a programming model and management API perspective," he explained.

Meanwhile, Microsoft reported what market analysts considered steady quarterly financial results this week, driven largely by its Azure cloud business. Richard Windsor, who tracks cloud providers for Edison Investment Research, said Microsoft Azure along with Office 365 "grew far faster than the corporate average and it was these two businesses that drove stronger than expected revenues."

Microsoft shares added more than 5 percent after its fourth-quarter profit and revenues topped forecasts.

--Doug Black contributed to this story.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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