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An Introduction to Azure Arc

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By: Matt Choi

October 23, 2020

What Azure Arc means for enterprises with distributed computing environments

The rapid evolution of cloud technologies has left many enterprises struggling to keep up. The need to constantly reskill staff and get them up to speed with new systems and processes is perhaps one of the biggest challenges today’s business leaders face. And things aren’t getting any easier.

While the benefits of cloud computing in the enterprise need no introduction, it’s important to understand the problem fully. Moving workloads to the cloud doesn’t eliminate endpoints, such as servers, databases, and other platforms. They all continue to exist in some form, often across increasingly complex hybrid and multi-cloud environments.

Overcoming cloud complexity

Today’s cloud environments consist of countless moving parts, and the devil is very much in the details. Cloud migration and management strategies need to account for the development and deployment of new virtual machines, apps, and compatibility layers. An overarching goal for any enterprise IT department is to bring everything together under a single, cohesive, and centrally managed environment. And that’s no easy task.

According to Cisco, cloud data centers will process 95% of computing workloads in 2021, and almost every enterprise which uses the cloud has a multi-cloud strategy. Today’s distributed computing environments typically comprise a complicated amalgam of different infrastructures hosted in private and public clouds (such as Azure or AWS) and on-premises. The rise of edge computing and the internet of things complicates matters yet further.

The key challenge is bringing everything together in a way that makes it possible to:

  • Organize and govern computing resources across environments
  • Deploy and manage apps consistently and at massive scale
  • Ensure visibility into data workloads for governance and security

Introducing Microsoft Azure Arc

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced the release of Azure Arc at the Ignite conference in 2019, along with a raft of other new hybrid cloud products and services.

Since its first launch a decade ago, Microsoft has been working hard on improving the Azure platform. A key part of this process is accommodating a wider range of systems, including new and emerging ones like edge services and the internet of things, to simplify the management of these complex environments.

Azure’s control plane, which Microsoft dubs the Azure Fabric Controller, is the component that monitors and manages servers and coordinates resources like virtual machines. Azure Arc is effectively an extension of the Fabric Controller, providing expanded support for resources running outside of the Azure platform itself. This means Azure can access and identify virtual machines hosted on other platforms, such as Amazon EC2 or the Google Compute engine. A physical server running in a data center also looks like a virtual compute resource to the Azure Resource Manager. With Azure Arc, it’s possible to register any Windows or Linux server, as well as Kubernetes clusters and database services.

What does this mean to enterprises?

Of the big three public cloud providers (Azure, AWS, and Google Cloud), Azure has a market share of 17.6%. Although this is little over half the market share AWS commands, it is growing twice as quickly. Moreover, 69% of enterprises currently use Azure, many in combination with AWS and/or Google Cloud. On top of that, most enterprises incorporate a mix of on-premises and private cloud environments in their computing infrastructures. Added to this is the rising prevalence of edge computing and IoT. In other words, networks comprise and increasingly enormous range of connections and endpoints. However, they all need governance, security, and compliance.

Azure Arc lets users manage computing resources deployed not only within the Azure cloud itself, but also outside it through the same control plane. This means IT teams can centrally manage complex underlying environments and run Azure services almost anywhere. This may very likely end up being a game changer for Microsoft, since it makes it much easier to manage multi-cloud infrastructures.

The release of Azure Arc, currently available for preview, means that enterprises will be able to use the Azure Security Center to ensure compliance policies are applied to all resources registered with the system, irrespective of where they’re physically deployed. Security teams can quickly and easily apply critical security fixes and other updates to operating systems in virtual machines and encrypt file systems across their entire infrastructures from one location. Moreover, all registered resources may be monitored centrally, affording IT teams complete visibility into disparate computing environments.

Rather than alienating enterprises which are still using legacy infrastructures, Azure Arc offers greater freedom when it comes to cloud migrations. Even physical x86 servers running long-obsolete operating systems can be registered with the Azure Arc, thus providing full lifecycle management over these resources too.

Thanks to this wider range of supported systems, enterprises will be better equipped to drive their modernization and digital transformation strategies at their own paces and with a minimal tradeoff. Azure Arc is also set to become the top-level management layer for Microsoft’s hybrid cloud environments. By contrast, equivalent offerings from competitors, like AWS Outposts and Google Anthos, don’t offer nearly the same degree of freedom and flexibility.

Getting started with Azure Arc

As of August 2020, Azure Arc is now available for public preview, although some features are still in private preview. In further announcements from last year’s Ignite Conference, Microsoft is also launching several other new features for the Azure Stack. This includes a preview of the Azure Stack Hub, and GPU partitioning for optimizing graphics-intensive workloads.

One of the big questions among IT leaders in light of this development is whether they’ll need to provide additional training to their teams. While Azure Arc promises to greatly simplify the management and monitoring of multi-cloud environments, now is a great time for teams to get up to speed with the platform. After all, it’s only likely to become more popular. Hands-on Azure labs and Azure functions training can help teams build and reinforce their skills, while taking an Azure skills assessment can test their fundamental knowledge of the platform.

Cybrary provides customizable training programs to help IT managers train their teams across a wide range of cloud computing and cybersecurity disciplines. Learn how to drive your team forward by scheduling your personalized interactive demo, today!

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