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Dell EMC's Azure Stack: Get thee behind me, Microsoft subscriptions

Redmond chucks a lifeline. Not to you, to Big Box Co

Crossed fingers photo via Shutterstock

Dell EMC will release a four-node Azure stack. This potentially places Microsoft's cloud-in-a-can within reach of the SMB. The subscription model thing could get in the way.

Microsoft recently released pricing information for Azure Stack, loudly and proudly championing the subscription model. This is different from what many had been hoping for.

What I had personally envisioned with Azure Stack was essentially a DIY cloud-in-a-can that was inexpensive or free. A next-generation Hyper-V server but this time with management tools that didn't cause sadness.

Take any old gear you had lying around, throw Windows Server on it, run the Azure Stack installer and bam: instant cloud. One that could connect to Microsoft's Azure public cloud and allow you to move workloads back and forth. Microsoft had the technology. What they chose to do with it upset me.

As we all know by now, Azure Stack will not be offered in DIY versions. The tin-shifting titans begged the Beast of Redmond to ensure they still had a reason to exist and, shockingly, we'll only be able to get Azure Stack pre-integrated direct from the big boys.

Microsoft technical fellow Jeffrey Snover has revealed that Azure Stack solutions will be arriving this year from "Dell EMC, HPE, Lenovo and (later in the year) Cisco". There are some important names missing from that list.

Most notable among them are Supermicro, Quanta, Huawei, Inspur and Sugon; the white box kings responsible for making data centres affordable again. There's a reason for this: Microsoft wants every Azure stack server sold to have its hardware supported by the tin shifter in question. Support that must come with a price tag, and that means servers that aren't disposable.

Microsoft absolutely does not want channel partners delivering cheap-as-chips on-premises Azure installs. In fact, there doesn't seem to be room in Microsoft's Azure Stack plans for the channel at all.

Follow the money

In practice, the real effort at cloud unification went into the only thing Microsoft actually cares about: billing. That's right, ladies and gents, one of Azure Stack's headline features is unified billing.

At the core of the billing concept behind Azure Stack is that Microsoft believes that the Azure Stack management software they provide is worth money. They want to be paid for every VM you manage. The result of this is that if you have Windows or SQL licences you can use them with Azure Stack and thus you only pay the cost of the management.

Snover writes: "For scenarios where customers are unable to have their metering information sent to Azure, we will also offer a fixed-price 'capacity model' based on the number of cores in the system." This, right here, is the root of my discontent.

For buying the hardware and running it on our dime we are to get slightly lower prices for our on-premises instances. Anyone willing to give odds on just how much lower?

Unless something changes in how Microsoft is wording things, if we want all the cloudy management goodness and the ability to integrate with Azure Public Cloud we must submit to the subscription model. If we prefer to avoid the subscription model, we lose the public cloud capabilities.

Limiting use to the SMB

Where Azure Stack would have been absolutely wonderful for the SMB is that it could have delivered on a decade-old public cloud promise: cloud bursting. You might remember years of marketing promises about running workloads on-premises, magically bursting up to the public cloud when demand exceeded capacity and then collapsing back on-premises when demand let up.

For seasonal or event-driven businesses this is a nearly utopian idea, especially in the SMB space. Lots of SMBs are seasonal, and are trapped between three unpalatable choices. They can buy the IT capacity to meet peak demand and see that capacity sit idle most of the year. They can put everything in the public cloud and pay outrageous fees to run the base IT requirements.

Lastly, SMBs could invest a lot of IT nerd time into figuring out how to make all their extant workloads burstable using DevOps voodoo. This is functionally black magic because a lot of industry-specific (and even non-industry-specific) software is not exactly what one would call "cloud-native".

This cloud-bursting dream has more appeal than just seasonality. SMBs are more vulnerable to the fluctuations of boom and bust economics than large enterprises, governments and even charities. SMBs like the ability to buy IT they can wrap their arms around to cover the minimum required operations. IT you can wrap your arms around are assets that can be sweated when times get tough.

Bursting to the cloud only when times are good and one can afford the punitive rates is ideal. That's IT as a utility. Paying subscription fees during the bust for stuff you already own is problematic. There's a very large chunk of the world for whom the predictability of expenses is absolutely critical.

The future is hybrid

The Reg's Chris Mellor recently eviscerated Dell for not having a public cloud. If you accept Mellor's premise that the future is public clouds then he's right, and Dell is already dead. I, however, must dissent.

As I see it, public clouds are a means, not an end. They're just one more tool in the toolbox, but they can't replace on-premises IT. An individual enterprise or government is much larger than an SMB, but even in the US enterprises represent less than 5 per cent of employer businesses. There are a lot more SMBs than enterprises, and no matter how hard vendors want to will it to be so, public cloud economics just doesn't work in all cases for all SMBs.

There's the boom and bust thing I talked about above. There's the cost of internet connectivity. There's the difficulty in getting redundant internet connectivity that's adequate. There's the part where a lot of SMBs are involved in manufacturing, or drilling, or umpteen other things where they need to drive equipment on-premises, and that gets complicated, expensive or both if all the IT lives in the public cloud.

The Internet of Things is exploding. Sensors are going everywhere, everything's talking to everything else, and if anyone thinks we're going to solve the security problems attached to IoT devices, they're delusional. This means we're not going to get away from on-premises network security. That brings with it monitoring and more. And that's before I start getting into data sovereignty, privacy regulations or other governance and regulatory compliance issues.

From a thousand different angles, on-premises IT is not going away, nor is it going to get easier to manage. From tens of workloads under management in the 1990s to millions in the 2000s, our ability to keep this digital insanity under control relies entirely upon the quality of the management software we have in place.

Think different

Clouds – public, private and especially hybrid – are a critical part of managing the increasing complexity of IT. Public clouds and hosted service providers offer you the ability to pay via subscription. Azure Stack joins VMware-based clouds and many startups in enabling this ransom economic model for on-premises data centre.

Dell EMC, however, has options. While everyone else is hoping Azure Stack revitalises on-premises data centre growth, or plays the start-up-buying lottery until they find a winning cloud management offering, Dell EMC can choose to stand out from the crowd.

Subscription-based IT requires trust, and the tech industry is full of scorpions saying they're trustworthy. They won't sting you when times are tough, they say, because if they did so it would affect their reputation and then you'd both drown. Dell EMC has some finely dressed scorpions. Some wearing Azure Stack lapel pins.

But Dell EMC can also sell cloudy solutions to our growing IT complexity that don't require trust, and come with peace of mind of being beholden to no one. When everyone else is selling one thing, and you can offer something different, you win. When there's choice in offerings, so do the rest of us.

Let the mass-market hybrid cloud wars begin. ®

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