The first Technical Preview (TP) of Azure Stack is a chance to see how close Microsoft can get the experience of private and hybrid cloud to the hyperscale public Azure cloud. There are two sides to that: what Azure Stack is like to build, run and maintain as an admin, and what it’s like to use for building and running cloud services.

Production versions of Azure Stack will need at least four servers (and more if you want to run all the Azure Stack services), and Microsoft is expecting most customers to either buy an Azure Stack appliance (like the Cloud Platform System with Windows Azure Pack it offers through HP and Dell), or to order preconfigured systems from Fast Track vendors.

Bear in mind that for an efficient cloud system, you need enough hardware to be able to scale up workloads, and that you have to allow for the requirements of the cloud platform itself. When you use a VM or a PaaS service in Azure, you don’t have to care about the hardware that those services run on. When you’re running the cloud yourself you do have to care, although you get the advantage of the operational model of a cloud platform — highly automated deployment, infrastructure management and service provisioning.

Although Microsoft isn’t going to be listing specific processors or server models for the Azure Stack (beyond the fact that you need servers with a TPM and hardware support for virtualisation, and you can’t use ‘niche’ hardware like Infiniband), you’re not going to be digging into configuration files to change any settings. That way, you’re not just getting the benefit of what Microsoft has learned about how to set up everything from the network layout and the virtual switch to storage provisioning to the hypervisor, to make running Azure efficient. Moving away from the individual and often highly customised setup of on-premise systems increases reliability: when the topology of every Azure Stack installation is the same, performance tuning and tracking down the root cause of any problems should be much simpler.

The goal is for the final version of Azure Stack to install on a bare-metal server in a very automated way. If you need to replace or add hardware to the system, you’ll be able to plug in a new server and Azure Stack will automatically discover and configure it. Patching will also be a much more automated experience: Azure Stack will handle orchestrating a patch, so it doesn’t stop any workloads from running while it’s applied — something that the existing Cloud Platform System already does for its thrice-yearly updates.

For the Technical Preview, the experience is more like what you’ll get with the free Proof-of-Concept version of Azure Stack, which runs on a single server and doesn’t require a TPM. At this point the system requirements include Windows Server Datacenter Edition. That makes sense because of the way Microsoft is planning to licence the software-defined data centre features in Windows Server 2016 that Azure Stack requires, but we don’t yet know how Microsoft will price Azure Stack when it’s available at the end of the year. You also need it for installation.

That’s straightforward but a little slow; the download is an image and you need to put that on a server with 128GB of free disk space, running Windows Server 2016 Datacentre Edition TP4 (making sure it’s the US English edition), then turn that into a VHDX by running the EXE file in the download, and boot from it to get the Hyper-V environment that Azure Stack runs on, and then run a PowerShell script that takes about 2.5 hours.

You can’t run Azure Stack TP1 on Azure, because Azure doesn’t yet have nested virtualisation, although Microsoft expects you’ll be able to do that — at least for training — in the future, once Azure is based on Windows Server 2016. Future technical previews will also let you provide details about your network, like IP addresses and ranges, so the installation can do more of the setup for you automatically.

Tools for reporting on system usage, building out resource groups and automatically provisioning subscriptions to users in specific Active Directory groups will also be available in later technical previews. In TP1, what you’ll see is key monitoring information, like whether the storage system and the various services are healthy or having problems.

A portal for everything

Although there are some tasks you can do with PowerShell, as an admin you’ll be working with Azure Stack through the portal, the same way users (or ‘tenants’, as Microsoft calls them) will — you’ll just see different blades and options when you go to https://portal.azurestack.local.

The Azure Stack interface is as much like the Azure portal interface (the new portal design rather than the older blue-and-white portal) as possible — not just because in many cases it’s the same code, but also to ensure that both workloads and admin skills are transferable to the public Azure cloud (or a hosted Azure Stack cloud). Like the public Azure portal, the Azure Stack portal is laid out logically, if somewhat long-windedly; you keep clicking and opening new blades until you reach the blade with the configuration settings.

Although Microsoft is creating Azure Stack in response to demand from enterprise customers, the end goal is to shift businesses to developing applications that take advantage of cloud patterns like containers and microservices and stateless applications that can cope with hardware problems, rather than the familiar N-tier client-server applications that are harder to scale and more fragile when thing go wrong. And the customers for Azure Stack are as likely to be hosting providers as individual companies.

That means you have cloud concepts like subscriptions, offers, quotas, base plans and add-ins that you need to set up, as well as resource groups and resources. These are nested concepts: subscriptions contain resource groups and resource groups are made up of resources. To let users provision virtual machines, you have to make a plan that includes compute, network and storage resource providers. You can leave users to sign up for subscriptions or use role-based access controls to pre-provision those, making them owners, contributors or readers.

Users get resources and applications from the Azure Stack marketplace, again in the portal. What they see there are services, resources and applications, which are all really Azure Resource Manager templates that deploy and provision the necessary resources (and underneath, those templates and resource groups are actually JSON files). You can make your own with the Packaging tool or use templates from Microsoft and the community; the first templates on GitHub are for deploying SharePoint, Active Directory, a Desired State Configuration server or a simple Windows VM. Then there are PaaS services you can enable on top of Azure Stack, like Web Apps. For TP1, Microsoft is publishing these separately.

This should all sound very familiar, because Azure Stack comprises as much of Azure as makes sense to run on your own servers. Quite how much that is still a matter for discussion — there will be more services in Azure Stack than we see in TP1, but there are offerings like Azure Media Services that remain only in the public cloud. What you’re getting is a model for running a highly-automated stack with as few knobs and dials for you to turn as possible. Beyond that, much of the value of Azure Stack comes from integrating with Azure itself: although you could use Azure Stack for a private cloud setup, it’s really meant for the hybrid cloud scenario.

At this stage, Azure Stack is suitable for looking at what’s involved in running a hybrid cloud service and seeing how far what Microsoft is planning suits the way your company wants to move into cloud applications (so you’ll want to test the emerging PaaS services as much as the built-in IaaS support). It’s very different from working with Windows Server in any other way (even Nano Server). The reality of hybrid cloud is that it’s always going to be far more work than public cloud, and you’re going to be contemplating it if data governance and location are vital to your workloads. Azure Stack TP1 lets you get a feel for what that’s going to involve, but expect it to change quickly and add many new services in later technical previews.