Can Microsoft edge Windows Server — and technologies based on Windows Server — back into the data center where Linux and the Linux stack reign supreme? For what it’s worth, Microsoft will put its best foot forward this Friday, with the general release of the first Technical Preview edition of Azure Stack — essentially all the components that an enterprise would need to run an Azure-compatible cloud on-premise.

“Microsoft believes enterprises have to approach cloud as a model, not a place,” wrote the company’s corporate vice president, Mike Neil, in a blog post published today.

“This model cuts across infrastructure, applications and people, and requires a hybrid cloud approach that provides consistency across private, hosted, and public clouds. To translate this model into reality, customers need a consistent cloud platform that spans hybrid environments.”

What Neil is hoping for here is quite the opposite of what Microsoft would have wanted for itself at just the turn of the decade. Back in 2010, its software strategy was to continue to leverage new and evolving platforms around Windows, solidifying a permanent dependency on the operating system.

That dependency was already evaporating. Now, if Microsoft hopes to provide a competitive model (not a place) for hosting the workloads enterprises actually use today — many of which are, and for the foreseeable future will be, based around Linux — it must convince them that its tools and resources can host and manage those same workloads better and more effectively than any other platform.

This means breaking the Windows dependency, including the way Microsoft markets both Windows and Azure. The clarion call for that change was first sounded in May 2014, when Azure CTO Mark Russinovich famously declared at a TechEd conference in Houston, “Azure is the new Windows.”

Service-ization

Reporters got their first glimpse of Azure Stack under construction the following year, at the Build conference in San Francisco and Ignite conference in Chicago (within one week of each other). At Ignite, Microsoft’s private cloud solutions product manager, Ryan O’Hara, presented a briefing out of sight from the general public.

“When we see customers transition to the cloud operating model, what they want to do now is take data center capacity and transact that as consumable IT services,” explained O’Hara. “We want to ‘service-ize’ the infrastructure, if you will.”

He then showed reporters and analysts the first glimpses of an on-premise installation of an early build of Azure Stack that mirrored the public Azure in almost every conceivable way, going a few steps beyond the public demonstration during the keynote. As if pretending to have been shipped in from an alternate universe, Azure Stack sported a reverse color scheme from Azure.

But from the standpoint of someone using Visual Studio to deploy software, an on-premise Azure Stack deployment presents exactly the same profile as the public Azure deployment. Meaning, any service at all that recognizes Azure can be pointed towards recognizing Azure Stack instead.

What O’Hara meant by “service-izing” the infrastructure, in part, is decoupling the service from the infrastructure. In the old Windows Server world, Windows Server workloads were bound to the appropriate Windows Server roles.

Deployment “as-a-service,” by definition, means breaking those bonds. Microsoft is driving toward a world where the same services currently deployed on, say, OpenStack can be deployed on Azure Stack instead — yes, in a different way, and with entirely different tools, but in a manner that makes no difference to the end customer.

This is why Microsoft’s full support for Docker containers and the Docker toolkit, announced last April, is so critically important: Microsoft is no longer in a position where it can build an entire data center deployment model entirely of its own design, and expect the weight of its brand alone to impose that model upon the world.

If data centers demand containers, then Microsoft must support containers. Windows still cannot host containers the same way Linux can (most container-based workloads are Linux-based), but if Azure can find a way around that obstacle, then so can Azure Stack.

“Because it is a very consistent set of experiences, it allows the single Azure ecosystem to be developed and to thrive,” said Microsoft’s O’Hara last May, “both in the public cloud and the private cloud landscape. Now, participating with Microsoft in one Azure ecosystem is something that yields consumption across many, many clouds.”

Parallel-ification

“The key distinguishing characteristic is that this is semantically Azure,” wrote Al Hilwa, IDC’s program director for software development research, in a note to CMSWire Tuesday.

“From a management API and app model perspective, it is a proper subset of the broad services available in Azure,” Hilwa continued. “Prior offerings aimed at this space by Microsoft and others have not typically provided enough congruence between the on-premise world and the public cloud services it maps to. Azure Stack appears to move the bar significantly in this area because for the first time Microsoft is providing an identical application model for both scenarios.”

Azure Stack ends up paralleling OpenStack for private cloud infrastructure and Cloud Foundry for application resources, Hilwa noted. But the people who sign the checks today don’t perceive Microsoft or Windows or Azure as belonging to the “stack” as they understand it.

Won’t that be a problem for Microsoft going forward, as it tries to hoist Azure Stack onto the pedestal once occupied by Windows Server? I asked Al Hilwa.

“It is interesting to see how standalone operating systems evolve, in light of infrastructure management software like this,” he responded. “To what degree would it be integrated?

“To the extent that folks will continue to run traditional data centers ten years from now, a significant chunk of said data centers may be allocated to these cloud management platforms. This would clearly have an effect on the design of operating systems.”

It’s a ray of hope for Microsoft, which really hasn’t had much input in the data center and cloud operating system discussion at any time in this decade.

Title image “Azure Blue Patchwork Fabric Texture” licensed under Creative Commons CC0

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