Microsoft Azure Stack was the first product to bring Azure services on-premises. The problem is, it involved serious hardware and management costs—enough to effectively place it out of reach for anyone save large companies that really needed it. What if your organization simply needs to run a few pieces of Azure in your data center, like say, the Azure SQL Database, to keep certain sensitive data under more direct control? At the Microsoft Ignite 2019 show this week in Orlando, Florida, Microsoft’s answer to this problem was declared to be Azure Arc. This platform not only allows companies to run Azure on-premises in near-piecemeal fashion, but it also gives you the ability to turn Azure’s beefy management tools onto your on-premises servers as well as Kubernetes workloads running anywhere.
However, don’t take this as an indication that Azure Stack is dead. Azure Arc does not replace Azure Stack, which is a much more mature platform that provides a wider range of Azure Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) solutions. At this juncture, Azure Arc only offers two database products plus the management capabilities, though the company says it will be growing the Azure Arc platform. Part of what will make Azure Arc attractive to customers is its focus on organizing workloads via container technology. Microsoft ditched its own orchestration platform in favor of Kubernetes some time ago, betting on the standard’s growing following, especially as a de facto standard across all cloud providers. With Azure Arc, that bet looks to pay off big.
Unfortunately, we only received a preview glimpse of Azure Arc at Ignite 2019. Pricing hasn’t even been announced, and Microsoft seems intent on following its usual procedure of gathering early adopter feedback to tweak and course correct the platform before its official release. Currently, accessing Azure Arc is free for evaluators, though you’ll need an Azure subscription to test out the preview. That’s a hoop well worth jumping through for many IT managers, however, as the flexibility that’s possible with Azure Arc has exciting potential. For example, Microsoft could charge for Azure SQL database on-premises in the same way they do for cloud Azure. You could even run Azure SQL database in Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Cloud Platform.
Kubernetes and Databases Everywhere
The key to this flexibility is Kubernetes because it’s the basic standard for deploying complex, multi-service applications across any major cloud provider. Microsoft has gone all-in with its support for Kubernetes, and that’s given Azure some excellent cross-platform advantages. It’s also allowed Redmond to push the Azure Database Anywhere concept, which lets you run Azure SQL database or Azure PostgreSQL on any platform supporting a Kubernetes cluster. Part of that deployment includes a management layer that communicates back to the Azure cloud, neatly positioning Microsoft at the center of many multi-cloud management deployments.
That same management layer can be used to manage any Kubernetes application on any cloud but from the same management console IT managers are already using to control everything else on Azure. It’s the same “single pane of glass” pitch the company has been using to sell the System Center management suite. Everything you need in a single toolset, and you also get all of the Azure policy and security features along with full support for Kubernetes. The beauty of running Azure SQL database in your own Kubernetes cluster is you get the exact same code base running on the Azure platform. You also get updates and patches whenever the base container gets updated.
Microsoft has identified the requirement to support applications running on other cloud platforms. Azure Arc makes it possible to manage all those Kubernetes-based applications regardless of where they run. Microsoft also recognizes the need to run some applications on-premises, which is why Azure Arc enables you to run Azure SQL database on your own hardware, with all of the data stored and protected locally yet still being managed from the cloud.
Azure Arc for Servers
Another big Azure Arc benefit is server management at scale. When you connect an on-premises server to Azure, it becomes a resource and is managed as a part of a resource group. From there, you have access to all of the standard Azure features, such as policies and resource tagging. While this does require the installation of an agent package on each on-premises server you’re looking to control from Azure, many IT managers will like it because it provides a consistent management experience as if everything was running in Azure.
The initial release of this capability will provide management of specific resources on both Linux and Windows servers, including both virtual machine (VM) workload management along with the ability to manage the hardware health of the underlying servers themselves. Data gathered by the server management agent will be stored in a Log Analytics workspace and made available through that product.
Scripted management uses the Azure Connected Machine Agent CLI interface to automate repetitive tasks across all connected servers. Azure Monitor provides the querying capability to identify any potential problems of either a hardware or security nature based on system logs. These can then be used to remediate those problems when necessary.
Microsoft also touts “elastic scale” among Azure Arc’s benefits. However, since local resources are obviously limited this capability refers mainly to containerization and associated management. On-premises Kubernetes clusters become a part of your available resources to include capacity and usage. That means you could push a new Kubernetes workload to your datacenter just as easily as you spin up a new application in the Azure cloud. The key piece is the Azure management console which handles both scenarios the same way.
An Interesting Future
Microsoft has been marching toward providing products and services which run anywhere a customer might need them, including a competitor’s cloud platform. While that might seem like a losing proposition, it is reality for many customers today. Kubernetes is the key to making this happen across any cloud platform, and Microsoft is all-in on Kubernetes.
The initial release of Azure Arc offers just two database products plus a wide range of management capabilities. Microsoft has indicated that it will consider other products for the same treatment in the future based on customer demand and feedback. For now, you can get started on your Kubernetes cross-platform journey for no additional cost.
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