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Dell EMC Cloud for Microsoft Azure Stack Hub

In November 2017, WWT began installation of one of the first Dell EMC Cloud for Azure Stack Hub integrations — turnkey platform for building a hybrid cloud offering with the same look, feel and technology as the Microsoft Azure public cloud.

Our colleague Wendell Layne discussed the excitement around unboxing the Dell EMC Cloud for Microsoft Azure Stack Hub and the upcoming hybrid cloud capabilities at work in our Advanced Technology Center (ATC). For rundown of the product arrival and unboxing, check out this article.

The excitement was definitely warranted. Having Azure Stack Hub in the ATC allows us to walk customers through the delivery, installation and operational processes surrounding an Azure Stack implementation, and it's actually easier than you might think.

How delivery and installation work

On-site setup and installation services by participating OEMs and partners are required as part of an Azure Stack Hub purchase, meaning that a customer does not have to worry about assembling, racking and cabling the Azure Stack Hub system.

Prior to installation, as part of the pre-delivery process, the customer spends time with their Dell EMC team, going over details of their environment to make the installation process as smooth as possible. Physical environmental concerns like loading dock size, data center entry dimensions and other various delivery questions are answered during this assessment to ensure that once the Azure Stack Hub arrives, it can be transported to the installation site.

In addition to the physical aspects of the stack, the actual on-site build of the software is completely managed by Dell EMC. Time is spent reviewing the specifics of the customer's current or planned Azure footprint, billing model, authentication choices and network topology ahead of time. The intention is for it to be rolled out into a customer's facility, connected to power and network, and then the on-site build process can begin.

Once the system has arrived and is ready for the on-site portion of the installation by the Dell EMC team, the actual build out of Azure Stack Hub software begins. The setup and installation process typically spans over three to five days, depending on the system ordered and the specifics of the customer's environment.

Installation consists of a health check of the system to verify no hardware issues occurred during shipping, followed by any hardware or software updates that may have been released between factory integration and the actual installation date.

Since the entire setup process is handled by Dell EMC, the required involvement of the customer is limited to providing credentials as needed to connect to the Azure Cloud instance.

Once setup is complete, the customer is provided a handover with all required documentation on the environment and can begin deploying workloads to Azure Stack Hub.

Handling Day 2 operations and more

Post deployment, the customer will be responsible for the lifecycle of the system; this includes applying Azure Stack and OEM specific hardware updates. The design process for updates on Azure Stack is that Microsoft and Dell EMC will release monthly updates that are already fully tested and vetted by both Microsoft and the OEM. Dell EMC updates are to be applied first, followed by the Microsoft updates.

As of the first few releases, this is a somewhat manual process, as the OEM updates have to be downloaded and installed separately from the Azure Stack Hub portal. Those typically will include lower level BIOS and server and switch firmware updates. Dell EMC does include their Open Manage Essentials and Open Manage Network Manager suites to aid in the management of the hardware specific updates.

Microsoft releases an update package that must be downloaded separately, uploaded to the Azure Stack Hub system and then installed from within the Azure Stack Hub administrative portal. With each of the nodes running upwards of 20+ Azure Stack Hub infrastructure virtual machines (VMs), as well as the nodes themselves, this process can take several hours to complete. Expect between 8-16 hours for an update to complete for a four-node system.

Microsoft's approach to updates

One thing to note is that Microsoft has taken a more ephemeral cloud native approach to the update process compared to traditional windows. Azure Stack Hub nodes and infrastructure VM's are not actually patched, but rather are completely redeployed with the latest version of a fully patched OS from Microsoft.

This method saves time while also ensuring a consistent state between all components in Azure Stack Hub. The update process does not affect the customer workloads, and nodes are evacuated prior to updates, ensuring that there are no outages.

The overall Azure Stack Hub upgrade procedure is still a work in progress, much different from some more mature integrated systems that we have tested in the ATC. This is to be somewhat expected as the product is the first of its kind and was just released, so maturity in the lifecycle process will eventually arrive.

Microsoft and their OEM partners have stated that this is one of their top goals for the future of Azure Stack Hub. We have seen this first-hand in the ATC with the first three upgrades to our system, as the documentation and update process is consistently being refined.

Roadmaps and features

Knowing what features are being worked on and when they will be available for any system is typically difficult for a customer to reliably obtain. While some OEMs tend to keep these roadmaps internal, or require an NDA, Microsoft has made their Azure Stack Hub roadmap and priorities freely available to the public.

Available here, Microsoft lists out all of the features they are working on, what state they are in and other information about the feature. One thing customers should keep in mind is that there is always going to be a time lag in when or if the features available in Public Azure will become available in Azure Stack Hub. Public Azure is where new features will typically arrive first, and then, if feasible for Azure Stack Hub, would be developed there as well.

WWT has had a lot of interest in Azure Stack Hub from a wide range of customers. Being one of the first partners to have this solution on premise in our ATC has provided our customers with a first look at this new technology and helped drive conversations around adopting Azure Stack Hub for their organizations. With the rapid changes in this space, we are very excited about the future of our Azure environment in the ATC.