Microsoft is taking a very different approach to edge storage than Amazon Web Services (AWS). Azure Data Box Edge and its ruggedized Azure Stack are Microsoft’s first branded enterprise servers. However, under the unassuming faceplate, the two products use a Dell EMC server chassis. They are already enterprise-class servers, not a Microsoft first attempt at designing enterprise-class servers.
Branded enterprise server manufacturers like Dell EMC will make good enterprise integration partners for cloud service providers (CSPs), as CSPs drive intelligence to the edge of the cloud.
Edge storage helps put large data sets into the cloud
Some data sets are still too large to send fast enough or cheap enough over the internet. Offline data transfer into public cloud services is heating up as a competitive market.
CSPs now offer offline data transfer services to migrate very large data sets from on-premises into a public cloud by storing the data on disk drives. The CSPs send drives to customers, customers load data onto the drives, then customers ship the drives back to the CSP datacenter.
Offline data transfer options
Microsoft Azure has stepped up its core Data Box portfolio to compete directly with differentiated multi-product offerings from AWS and Google Cloud. IBM Cloud, Huawei Cloud and Alibaba Cloud are delivering initial point solutions.
The drive systems for all these storage systems (except the Microsoft Azure Data Box Edge) can easily be sourced from contract manufacturers. There is no architectural differentiation; storage capacity, ruggedization and ease of use are the competitive differentiators.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE
Microsoft Azure Data Box Edge vs. AWS Snowball Edge
Microsoft Azure and AWS treat the edge very differently, addressing different customer use cases.
- AWS Snowball Edge is “storage first”: high-capacity storage with a little compute power. Customers will connect Snowball Edge to existing on-premises servers as an external peripheral. They may keep Snowball Edge for a few weeks or months, but they will eventually send each Snowball Edge back to AWS full of data. Like the other offline data transfer products, this chassis is contract manufactured, self-contained, and easy to support as a stand-alone unit. This type of ruggedization does not support the heat dissipation of mainstream servers, so each chassis contains a SBE1 instance. A SBE1 instance is a single-socket Intel Xeon D processor running at a slow 1.8GHz. It is smaller and runs cooler than a standard dual-socket Xeon server, so the heat is easier to manage in a rugged case.
- Microsoft Azure Data Box Edge is “compute first”: mainstream Xeon dual-processor compute power with a moderate amount of local storage. Microsoft created Data Box Edge to ingest and analyze sensor data close to the sensors. It is a standard rack-mounted server chassis design. Customers will keep Data Box Edge installed for prolonged periods of time and will integrate it into their datacenter’s management fabric. It is not designed to be repeatedly shipped, installed, removed and reshipped.
Microsoft has not released the pricing model for Data Box Edge, but I expect it will be very different than for Snowball Edge. Microsoft says that Data Box Edge will soon host an FPGA AI accelerator for machine learning inferencing at the edge.
Both AWS and Microsoft Azure have chosen to house-brand their offline data transfer hardware. Because the products are external peripherals, they are not integrated with customers datacenter management fabrics and require lighter IT support.
Dell EMC powers Microsoft Azure Data Box Edge
Microsoft has never sold branded servers to datacenter customers. Why would or should enterprise IT shops trust Microsoft’s first branded server? Microsoft’s Azure Data Box Edge is different from the rest of its offline data transfer products. It is a very standard server chassis that integrates with customers datacenter infrastructure for prolonged periods of time.
Microsoft gave no details about its hardware vendor partnerships for this product line in the announcement. I looked closely at Microsoft’s display systems during Microsoft’s recent Ignite event. Both the Data Box Edge and ruggedized Azure Stack exhibits are based on a Dell EMC server platform. The rear panels match Dell EMC’s current generation server designs exactly. Not only do the back panels match, the Data Box Edge’s 750W power supplies narrow the model to a Dell EMC PowerEdge R640 with 2 PCIe expansion slots.
Microsoft’s version of Dell EMC’s R640 is outfitted with two low-power 10-core Xeon processors, an unassuming 64GB of memory, baseline 750W redundant power supplies and maxed-out 12TB of NVMe SSD storage. Dell EMC’s PowerEdge R640 is already tested to host one Intel Arria 10 GX FPGA card, which enables Microsoft’s promised FPGA-acceleration option.
Microsoft hides the front panel of the R640 behind a generic industrial-looking grill. This is a bit like Superman putting glasses to become Clark Kent. It’s hard to disguise the rest of the package and no one is really fooled.
Why Microsoft’s use of Dell EMC server platforms is important
Branded server manufacturers—such as Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Lenovo—must reinvent themselves as private cloudvendors to continue to remain relevant in the new market landscape. In the long term, because of public cloud, enterprise IT buyers will buy less of their own on-premises hardware. Large CSPs are already bypassing branded server manufacturers to deploy lower-cost, unbranded hardware in their large-scale datacenters.
Microsoft has engaged with a raft of server manufacturers for sales, fulfillment and support of Azure Stack private cloud gear. It calls these manufacturers “integration partners.” Today, Avanade, Cisco, Dell EMC, HPE, Huawei, Lenovo and Intel/Wortmann AG are integration partners. Microsoft’s integration partners handle the enterprise sales, integration and hardware support that would have been prohibitively expensive for Microsoft.
Given that Dell EMC was already an existing Azure Stack integration partner, sourcing the Data Box Edge from Dell EMC makes sense. Especially because Dell EMC has invested heavily in IoT and edge processing applications over the past few years.
What’s next for CSPs & branded server manufacturers?
I expect to see more Microsoft collaboration with Dell EMC and other integration partners as the partners expand their edge portfolios. For example, HPE recently pledged $4 billion to develop a better edge computing platform and has released some new products in this area under the Edgeline brand.
Also, I expect to see other cloud service providers partnering with branded server manufacturers to address on-premises enterprise integration. It’s a promising idea. Branded server manufacturers still have a well-defined role to play at the edge of the cloud, where cloud meets enterprise operations.