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By | Tim Anderson 21st October 2014 14:35

Microsoft and Dell’s cloud in a box: Instant Azure for the data centre

A less painful way to run Microsoft’s private cloud

Analysis Two words were missing from Microsoft’s cloudy event in San Francisco yesterday, where CEO Satya Nadella and Cloud and Enterprise VP Scott Guthrie presented an update to the company’s Azure and hybrid cloud strategy. Those two words were System Center.

That was an odd omission considering that System Center is meant to be the heart of Microsoft’s private cloud offering; there is even a Create Cloud button in System Center’s Virtual Machine Manager.

Instead, Nadella and Guthrie talked about another way to build a private cloud, using a cloud-in-a-box offering from Microsoft and Dell called the Cloud Platform System (CPS). This is a private deployment of technology from Microsoft’s public cloud which you install in your own data centre.

The software is based on an existing product, the Azure Pack, while Dell provides the hardware: a rack stuffed with 32 Dell PowerEdge C6220 II servers for Hyper-V hosts, additional PowerEdge servers for managing storage, and 4 PowerVault MD3060e enclosures for HDD and SSD arrays.

Microsoft's Scott Guthrie presents the Cloud Platform System

You will be able to buy from one to four 42U racks. A full four-rack setup will offer up to 8,000 VMs (each with two virtual CPU cores, 1.75GB RAM and 50GB disk) and 0.7PB of workload storage (there is additional storage used for backup).

There is 1,360 Gb/s of internal rack connectivity, 560 GB/s inter-rack and up to 60 Gb/s external bandwidth.

Fault-tolerance is built in at every level, including networking. Patch management, monitoring, backup and data recovery are all integrated.

Windows Azure Pack plus Dell hardware makes up the CPS

Azure Pack is a subset of the software used to run Azure, configured to run on private infrastructure.

The key feature for end users (that is, consumers of the private cloud) is that they get to use the Azure portal, web services API, or PowerShell scripts for creating and managing their applications and virtual infrastructure. This includes Azure Web Sites, which lets you deploy a web application on anything from a shared site using minimal resources – handy for prototyping – to multiple load-balanced instances on dedicated VMs, with scheduled auto-scaling available.

Admins get their own portal where they can set quotas, manage pricing and billing and configure the end user portal (including galleries of standard applications and VM images).

Migration from System Center private cloud is not straightforward

System Center still lurks underneath (especially its Virtual Machine Manager) as an essential component of the Azure Pack or CPS, but if you choose the CPS option, then admins should not have to tangle with it directly. That said, a CPS cloud is not the same as a System Center cloud, though they both use Hyper-V, Microsoft’s hypervisor. Migration from System Center private cloud is not straightforward.

Installing Azure Pack on your own hardware remains an option, but buying Dell’s preconfigured and validated offering is attractive given the saving in configuration time and cost, and the higher chance (one hopes) of getting something that works reliably. It should do, given Microsoft’s claim that CPS is similar to what runs on Azure itself, though the private version offers only a subset of Azure’s features.

The downside is that currently only one hardware supplier is available (Dell), which is unfortunate for companies that have standardised on another vendor. It is also an enterprise-only (or hosting provider) solution, though smaller scale manual deployments of Azure Pack are possible.

CPS is a shrewd move for several reasons. One is that the complexity and pain of administering System Center is one reason for VMware’s popularity, and CPS is a way of escaping some of it (of course System Center has many other functions).

The wider reflection is that running public cloud services has forced Microsoft to improve the administrative usability of its products, and we are now seeing this migrating back into the data centre.

Azure has complexity of its own, and the more it grows (Guthrie claimed over 300 new features or services in the last 12 months), the higher the risk of issues like API churn and inconsistent documentation which mar the Azure experience.

Another positive aspect is that CPS or Azure Pack lets users employ the same cloud APIs both for private and public cloud. The open source OpenStack [] offers some of the same advantages, since it supports Amazon Web Services (AWS) APIs for some services, but that is a long way from having the same vendor validate both a public and private cloud offering.

Using both public and private cloud can make sense. Social search specialist Foursquare built its business on AWS, but recently migrated its big data analytics to servers hosted in an Equinix data centre. The rest of its infrastructure remains on AWS, with a fast connection using AWS Direct Connect (Azure has an equivalent, called ExpressRoute). Foursquare claims lower costs and better optimisation as a result, illustrating that wholesale migration to public cloud is not always the most cost-effective solution.

Issues of compliance, data protection, autonomy and resilience are also drivers for private cloud.

More details on the CPS are meant to be available here, though at the time of writing this returns page not found, in a marketing masterstroke. ®

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