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MS Azure Stack. It's like Azure Pack but with even more cloudiness

System Center sidelined in Microsoft's latest offering

Microsoft announced the Azure Stack at its Ignite event earlier this month, for running something like Azure on-premises, but how does it differ from the existing Azure Pack, which kind-of does the same thing?

The answer goes to the heart of how Microsoft is changing to become a cloud-first company, at least within its own special meaning of “cloud”. Ignite attendees heard about new versions of Windows Server, SharePoint, Exchange and SQL Server, and the common thread running through all these announcements is that features first deployed in Office 365 or Azure are now coming to the on-premises editions.

Microsoft’s cloud business may be growing fast, but it is still small compared with its traditional software licensing. In its most recent quarter, January to March 2015, the Commercial Licensing segment pulled in more than $10bn in revenue, more than three times the turnover from “Commercial Other”, which includes Office 365 and Azure, though note that Commercial Licensing includes business sales of Windows and Office.

Despite this disparity, Microsoft’s general approach seems to be to evolve and optimize server products for Azure and Office 365, and then to trickle down features to the on-premises editions where possible. It therefore pays for developers and admins working on Microsoft’s platform to keep an eye on the cloud platforms, since this is what you will get in a year or two even if you have no intention of becoming a cloud customer.

This approach does make sense, in that characteristics desirable in a cloud product, such as resilience and scalability, are also desirable on premises. It may give you pause for thought though if the pieces you depend on have no relevance in Microsoft’s cloud. We have already seen how the company killed Small Business Server, for which the last full version was in 2011.

What about System Center, the complex suite of products which does stuff including server monitoring, software deployment, virtual machine management and device management?

System Center is still very much alive, with Technical Preview 2 of the 2016 edition announced at Ignite, but it is worth noting that Microsoft does not use SCVMM (System Center Virtual Machine Manager) in Azure, and that cloud products including InTune (for device management) and the new Operations Management Suite, cloud management for servers, are encroaching on System Center territory, though Microsoft prefers to talk about extending or complementing its on-premises suite.

That brings us to Azure Stack, the purpose of which is to bring pieces of Azure into your data centre for your very own Microsoft cloud. The existing Azure Pack already does this, but this was essentially a wrapper for System Center components (especially SCVMM) that allowed use of the Azure portal and some other features on premises.

Azure Pack was “an effort to replicate the cloud experience,” Microsoft’s Ryan O’Hara (senior director, product management told the press at Ignite. By contrast, Azure Stack is “a re-implementation of not only the experience but the underlying services, the management model as well as the datacenter infrastructure.” In other words, there is more Azure and less System Center in Stack versus Pack, and that is a good indication of Microsoft’s direction. That said, Microsoft's Azure Stack slide says "powered by Windows Server, System Center and Azure technologies," so we should expect bits of System Center to remain.

What if you just rolled out Azure Pack? This is something that Microsoft rarely likes to talk about, how to extricate yourself from last year’s cool thing, but note that Azure Pack continues. “They will exist side by side going forward. Azure Pack is being updated” said program manager Bradley Bartz at Ignite.

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