Microsoft Elaborates On Its IBM i-Azure Strategy

November 4, 2019

Microsoft has launched various efforts over the years to entice IBM midrange users to adopt their products. The fledgling multi-user operating system, Windows NT, was the target of those first efforts, followed by ever-more-capable versions of Windows Server. Now the software giant is holding its Azure cloud as the destination for IBM i shops. The big question is: Will IBM i shops make the move?

Last week, IT Jungle talked with Eric Lockard, the Microsoft corporate vice president in charge of Azure Dedicated, a department within Azure that focuses on hosting non-standard platforms in the cloud. The company has found success running ERP systems from SAP, virtual environments from VMware, and HPC systems from Cray (now a division of Hewlett Packard Enterprise) in Azure Dedicated. And now, the next target for Azure Dedicated is IBM i running on Power Systems.

Microsoft has analyzed the IBM i marketplace, and that analysis has convinced the company that there’s enough business to at least make an initial play at capturing some of that IBM i workload, Lockard says.

“There’s a lot of IBM Power being sold out there, and a lot of applications running on that platform,” he says. “Providing a way for those apps to come to the cloud and take advantage of, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the customer, our public cloud capabilities without having to be rewritten, is our strategy here.”

As we have previously reported, Microsoft is working with Skytap, a fellow tech firm located in the Seattle, Washington, area, to bring IBM Power Systems servers into Microsoft’s U.S.-East Azure data center. Microsoft will be responsible for procuring the Power S922 servers, storage, and networking – not to mention providing the data center – while Skytap employees will be responsible for managing the IBM i environments and supporting IBM i customers.

A limited preview for the new IBM i on Azure service will start on January 1. The timeline for the launch of a public preview of IBM i on Azure, not to mention general availability, will depend on how things go during the private preview, Lockard says.

How deeply Microsoft integrates Azure and IBM i is also up in the air to some extent, and will be determined by customer demand. According to Lockard, the plan currently calls for Microsoft to extend its software defined network (SDN) into the IBM i environments, which will provide basic network connectivity between IBM i and Azure.

“The first thing we do is bridge the networks,” he says. “We do work to kind of extend the Azure SDN to encompass the specific workloads. So from a networking perspective, now there’s connectivity, and that allows everything from management to the ability to invoke Azure services.”

Storage at this point will remain an IBM i-only affair, managed by Skytap. But depending on how things go, Microsoft could enable IBM i data to be stored in native Azure repositories, such as Azure Data Lake Storage (ADLS) or Blob Storage.

“It’s really early on the storage side with the integration,” Lockard says. “Over time, our strategy is, if they want to use an Azure storage fabric, for example, they can, although not always without change.”

If customers want to extract data from their IBM i server and use them with Azure services, it will be up to them to make that work, although Skytap may be able to assist there. If the work that Microsoft has done with other Azure Dedicated customers is any indication, the IBM i data will prove to be quite useful in other Azure applications.

“We see a lot of people unlocking data, in let’s say an SAP system, that they wouldn’t otherwise [been able to do] if they remained on-prem,” Lockard says. “The longer that workload is in Azure, customers find more and more interesting things to do with the data around it. They use it in a more and more [creative] ways, such as customer targeting, that they didn’t even consider when they first moved it because they were just thinking about infrastructure savings.”

There are a lot of unknowns at the moment, as the IBM i-on-Azure service is not even available yet. As the Power 922s are racked and stacked, and Skytap fills them with IBM i (as well as AIX and Linux) workloads, the story will fill out. In the meantime, the fact that Microsoft is beginning to go down this road is the news.

In the meantime, Microsoft is still collecting data, Lockard says.

“There’s still a lot of IBM Power being sold as a platform, but to be honest, we don’t really know how big it is or how much of a catalyst it is,” he says. “We call it private preview because we want to assess the mutual benefit of working with the customer in the early stages. The viability or the SLA might not be there. We want to make sure that the customers are going to reap the benefits.”


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