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The Essential Guide to Azure Stack HCI

For organisations that continue to rely upon on-premise infrastructure for workload operations, Azure Stack HCI combines the capabilities of on-premise and cloud-based solutions to meet performance and cost-efficiency requirements. See how implementing AzS HCI enables the full potential of hybrid-cloud solutions.

Although cloud-based platforms are growing in popularity, local hosting remains a relied-upon option for workloads such as remote desktop visualisations, database engines, and applications. Opting for such on-premise solutions can be justified by various factors that include practicality, compliance, and security concerns. 

Shifting to hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) results in improved availability, increased performance, and significant cost reductions. Closing the gap between performance and cost efficiency combined with optional access to cloud services is of paramount importance to businesses. 

Finding an HCI solution that meets such requirements is indeed a challenge faced by numerous organisations. Using HCI solutions can improve the operational efficiency of on-premise infrastructure. On the other hand, cloud services can be used as supplementary options for supporting the local infrastructure.  

Microsoft Azure Stack HCI (AzS HCI) provides businesses with an on-premise HCI solution that can be integrated with cloud-based services provided by Microsoft Azure. In addition to fulfilling performance and cost requirements, AzS HCI provides businesses with an effective and efficient price-to-performance ratio. 

Feel free to contact our Microsoft Azure Consultants for expert advice on integrating Azure Stack HCI with organisational practices. 

Understanding Hyperconverged Infrastructure

A hyperconverged Infrastructure (HCI) can be best described as a combination of compute functionalities, storage networking, virtualization, and management. HCI solutions provide an alternative to purpose-based hardware and ensure efficient software-integrated operations of all the data centre elements. The main components of an HCI infrastructure include compute virtualization, software virtualization, and network virtualization. 

Compute Virtualization 

Compute virtualization focuses on simplifying traditional architecture by ensuring the reduction of physical devices. The process essentially results in virtual versions of computer hardware, operating systems, and networks. 

It reduces the need for hardware by consolidating servers and uses physical servers as resources to create a flexible model for virtual machines (VMs).

Software Virtualization

Software Virtualization emphasises using a single server to operate one or more virtual environments. The process focuses on the installation of a virtualized software application on a single on-premise server allowing them to perform further tasks. 

Using software virtualization ensures that organisations can overcome compatibility issues that arise when installing an application on different devices. In addition, it enables multiple operating systems to function independently and allows users to access applications from the main server remotely. It also simulates component-based applications, which in turn increase the efficiency of the application testing process. 

Network Virtualization 

The process of network virtualization focuses on the combination or division of multiple physical networks into combined or independent virtual software-based networks. It uses the equipment and configuration of on-premise networks for the operations of virtual networks.

It additionally eliminates the network reconfiguration requirements and enables the transfer of virtual machines across different domains. 

Importance of Hyperconverged Infrastructures 

Organisations continue to seek hybrid-cloud options to meet computing, storage, and networking requirements. Combining the functionalities of these requirements, solutions based upon hyperconverged infrastructure can serve as a feasible option to increase efficiency. 

Organisations can use HCI solutions to reduce operational complexity by ensuring streamlined management of mixed workflows. In addition to streamlined management, using HCI also accelerates the delivery of application resources. This allows them to cope with the ever-changing business requirements.

Hyperconverged Infrastructures use industry-standard components as opposed to specific external storage arrays and fibre channel networking. The use of industry-standard components allows businesses to ensure cost efficiency during procurement. Additionally, these solutions can be scaled incrementally, which in turn leads to moderate and need-based acquisition expenses. 

The functionalities of these solutions ensure the modernization of data centres and protect the investments that organisations have made in on-premises infrastructure. It also enables them to incorporate hybrid-cloud possibilities in their business practices.

What is Azure Stack HCI

Azure Stack HCI is a cluster solution that uses the hyperconverged infrastructure and closes the gap between on-premises infrastructure and Azure cloud services. It allows the hosting of virtualized OS workloads and their storage in a hybrid environment. Using Azure Stack HCI requires that most applications and servers operate within the virtual environment. However, the HCI solution does provide expectations for network controllers and components required for software-defined networking. 

In addition to having a central view of all HCI deployments, using AzS HCI enables cloud-based monitoring, site recovery and VM backups as well. These integrated systems can be bought with a pre-installed AzS HCI or as validated nodes. Charges for the HCI solution are billed similarly to other Azure services, such as Azure AD

Azure Stack HCI Vs. Azure Stack Hub

Factors such as the differences among capabilities, skills, and processes require consideration when implementing a hybrid cloud strategy. Azure Stack Hub provides innovative processes and continuation of Azure services in disconnected scenarios. Whereas AzS HCI ensures familiar processes and uses Azure Arc to provide services.

In addition, AzS HCI allows organisations to connect data centres to the Azure control panel and provide a flexible platform using integrated systems. However, Azure Stack Hub enables organisations to use the Azure Resource Manager and is delivered as an integrated system. 

Azure Stack HCI Features & Architecture

Azure Stack HCI is architectured upon validated on-premise hardware, software components, and management tools. In most cases, the HCI solution is already pre-installed and configured on industry-standard hardware. 

Validated Hardware Components

Each AzS HCI cluster consists of upto 16 on-premises validated servers. Each individual server uses the Windows Server Failover Clustering feature and ensures common configuration and use of resources.

Software Components

The software components of an AzS HCI consist of Hyper-V, a software-defined network, and storage spaces direct. 

1. Hyper-V 

Hyper-V is the hypervisor and hardware virtualization platform which allows the creation and operation of guest virtual machines (VMs) on either Windows or Linux operating systems. These VMs can be controlled or modified using the Windows Admin Centre.

2. Software-Defined Networking

Although the SDN is an optional component of the SDN, it enables organisations to configure and manage various network functions through the software. These functions may include network switching, firewalling, micro-segmentation, and load balancing. 

3. Storage Space Direct 

The SSD is a key component of the HCI solution. It’s built on multiple features in the Windows server that include failover clustering, Server Message Block (SMB) 3, Cluster Shared Volume (CSV), and more. SSD creates a pool of highly available and scalable storage options. When compared to traditional storage, the cost of SSD solutions options is significantly lower.

Management Tools 

The Azure Stack HCI is primarily managed through the Windows Admin Centre and can be integrated with other management tools that include Azure Service and PowerShell. 

1. Windows Admin Centre

The Windows Admin Centre is a browser-based tool used to manage the entire Windows Server infrastructure. Using this tool to manage the AzS HCI and enable numerous features such as:

  • Cohesive management of compute, storage, and network resources and functionalities.
  • Management of virtual resources, including hypervisors and storage options.
  • Cluster monitoring and management of individual machines. 

2. Azure Services 

Although these services are optional, they can be integrated with the Windows Admin Centre. Some of the many integrable Azure services include Azure Site Recovery, Azure Network Adapter, Cloud Witness, Azure Monitor, and more. Once integrated, these services allow organisations to:

  • Monitor activities across the infrastructure. 
  • Connect on-premise resources. 
  • Provide disaster-as-recovery options. 

3. PowerShell

In addition, PowerShell is another management option for the Azure Stack HCI. The tool can be operated from a host hypervisor and doesn’t require the need of any additional network configuration.

Benefits of Azure Stack HCI

Using AzS HCI, businesses can take advantage of both cloud-based possibilities and traditional on-premises infrastructure. Furthermore, businesses can also use the Azure portal to monitor and manage all of their Azure’s Stack HCI clusters. In addition to this, there are other benefits of implementing the HCI solution. These benefits include:

  • Simplified Deployment – Due to the nature of the hyperconverged infrastructure, installation, configuration, and deployment times are significantly reduced. Compared to traditional infrastructures, this allows businesses to ensure that resources are made available to workloads in a shorter amount of time. 
  • Unified Management AzS HCI uses the Window Admin Center for management controls. The tool can be integrated with other Azure services and task automation softwares. This allows organisations to manage all the functionalities of the HCI, enabling them to efficiently provide all the resources of the HCI. 
  • Cost EfficientThe HCI solution allows multiple virtual environments to function simultaneously while using just one operating system and one on-premise server. Additionally, it allows the development of multiple VMs that are equipped with disaster recovery options as well. Considering these factors and the cost of traditional infrastructure, the HCI solution is a more cost-efficient option for organisations. However, to ensure that your organisation can generate a positive ROI, it’s important to use Azure’s price calculator.
  • Reduced Integration ProblemsEnsuring that new technologies are compatible with the ones currently in use is a major challenge that organisations face. Such challenges arise due to the incompatibility among technologies or infrastructure. However, the HCI solution is built on interoperability and optimization and ensures that organisations don’t face any integration problems. 

Azure Stack HCI Technical Use Cases Overview 

Using the Azure Stack HCI enables organisations to accomplish IT goals at scale. The importance of on-premise infrastructure continues to increase as organisations incorporate cloud platforms and solutions into their IT operations. 

Catering to such requirements, the AzS HCI provides a hybrid-cloud solution that ensures the maintenance of consistency among on-premise and cloud infrastructure. Its capabilities provide organisations with the ability to implement numerous technical use cases.

Branch Office and Edge 

This use case ensures that organisations can meet the technical requirements for retail stores, field sites, branch offices, edge offices, and more. High availability and resilient storage at an affordable price is a common consideration among those seeking deployment in such a scenario. 

Infrastructure costs are minimised by deploying only two node clusters combined with affordable witness options that include a Cloud Witness to a USB file-share witness. These deployments can be monitored using the Azure portal.

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)

Implementing remote desktop virtualization at scale is another technical use of the HCI solution. The deployment of such VDIs allows users access to various virtual desktop services such as Virtual Horizon, Citrix Virtual Apps, and Azure Virtual Desktops (AVDs) as well. 

These virtual desktop services are connected to virtual machines on the cluster. HCI for the deployment of VDIs enables enhanced security. It ensures that users are not allowed to store or upload any data to or from local devices and instead use central storage. The process simplifies the protection of user data and reduces the possibility of intentional or accidental data leaks. 

SQL Servers 

This technical use case involves the implementation of high-performing, scalable, and manageable Microsoft SQL Servers. Operating SQL servers in the HCI cluster allows organisations to run SQL-associated applications with the added flexibility of virtualization. 

In addition to the flexibility of virtualization, such a deployment scenario enables simplified support and performance optimisation as well. Additionally, organisations have the added freedom to choose from a Windows or a Linux SQL server. 

Trusted Enterprise Virtualisation 

AzS HCI enables trusted enterprise virtualisation and allows the deployment of highly secure workload infrastructure using virtualisation-based security (VBS). The security measures are enforced through dedicated and isolated memory regions with guest VMs.

These regions ensure additional security through a virtual security mode mechanism that’s implemented through hypervisors. The deployment ensures that the host OS can block the memory regions when performing dedicated security operations.

Scale-Out Storage 

Scale-out storage is another technical use case that offers the leading storage performance on validated hardware in the industry. The hardware can be optimised to increase the speed and performance-to-cost ratio. 

The use case is based upon using Storage Space Direct, which allows significant cost reductions when compared to other options such as storage area networks and network-attached storage technologies.

Conclusion 

On-premise infrastructure is perceived as a highly competent practice for workloads such as remote desktops and databases. However, the possibilities offered by cloud-based platforms make their integration a necessity for organisations. HCI solutions improve the operational efficiency of on-premise infrastructure and allow the integration of cloud-based services. 

It enables organisations to improve performance and cost efficiency and allows them to deploy various technical use cases. In addition to other possibilities, these deployments can lead to hybrid-cloud solutions such as Microsoft Remote Desktops, virtualization-based security, and SQL servers as well.

Get in touch today to know more about how you can use your existing on-premise environment to host applications and workloads using the Azure Stack HCI.

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