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Red Hat on Azure: A Case Study for Cloud Transformation

by John Grange
redhat

On the heels of the recent announcement of Red Hat Linux becoming available on Azure, I feel like it’s the perfect time to share our recent experience delivering Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) solutions to our customers on Azure. If you’ve been around the industry for a while this may seem counterintuitive but there is actually robust support for Linux on Microsoft’s Azure cloud. Today, Azure provides endorsed VM images for the popular Ubuntu, the nascent CoreOS, Oracle Linux, SUSE/openSUSE, and CentOS via OpenLogic, but very conspicuously, no Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Microsoft supports these endorsed distributions and they even have a very capable Linux team which has been helpful in my experience. I’ve heard rumblings that as much as 40% of VM’s on Azure are running Linux – this clearly isn’t the Microsoft of old.

Azure has settled firmly into the number two spot in the cloud wars with Amazon’s venerable AWS still firmly out in front. They’ve become Amazon’s only real competitor by being the cloud that appeals to enterprise sensibilities. Microsoft has significant CIO mindshare and those CIO’s are quick to trust them with the cloud more readily than AWS in many cases, something Matt Asay highlighted in Info World earlier this year. If Microsoft’s software presence in the enterprise is a key cloud growth driver, then Red Hat, who’s products are along side Microsoft’s in nearly all the same organizations, is a natural extension.

This particular customer case involves a mid-sized enterprise with RHEL requirements and a strategic desire to adopt Azure as a cloud platform. This company’s IT leadership had been working on a strategic vision to leverage the cloud (they’re all doing this at this point), they trusted Azure as they’re subject to PCI-DSS compliance and other standards, use Active Directory, Exchange (some Office 365), and other Microsoft products, and had identified their QA environments as an optimal jumping off point. This is a really common scenario since initial cloud deployments are most successful with lower risk, non-production workloads. However, in this situation the customer’s production environment was running Red Hat 5x, a version for which the CentOS analog isn’t even supported on Azure, yet RHEL 5x was a hard requirement for the QA environment on Azure and thus dictated the relative success or failure of the cloud initiative.

Luckily, we run a substantial amount of Linux on Azure in addition to a 50/50 Linux/Windows split in our own data centers.  This background gave us confidence that we could get RHEL 5x running and stable inside Azure. The first step was to construct a custom RHEL 5.11 Azure VM image to meet their specs and this is best done inside a Hyper V environment.

1. Creating Custom Linux VHD in Hyper V for upload to Azure

Microsoft has very good documentation as well as blog posts on building custom OS images for Azure, including instructions for some specific Linux distributions. A few things to be mindful of:

-Use standard partitions when installing RHEL and NOT LVM.

-Register the OS with RHN so you can use Yum and update key packages.

-You’ll likely have to install LIS 4.0.7 and not 4.0.11 as the latter doesn’t have an install package for RHEL 5.11.

-Azure requires OpenSSL v1.0+ which is not supported on RHEL 5. However, Azure is really looking for the Heartbleed patch that was part of OpenSSL 1.0 which was backported by Red Hat into 5x. You should be able to Yum Update OpenSSL and bring it to 0.9.8 with the correct patch levels that work with the Windows Azure Agent.

-Waagent requires Python 2.6 which is isn’t available on RHEL 5x. You’ll need to either use the EPEL repository or build your own rpm from source. My recommendation would be that you do the former.

2. Upload deprovisioned VHD to Azure

Once you go through the cleanup steps of the custom image and finalize everything with the ‘waagent –deprovision’ command (think sysprep for Linux), you’re ready to upload your VHD to Azure. You’ll want to make sure you create a container inside a storage account in Azure and then within that container with a valid DNS name. This will be the uri you point your VHD upload to.

Once you’ve got your storage account and container setup you can upload the VHD using Azure Powershell. Again, Microsoft has some great documentation on performing this action. Once Azure Powershell is all linked up to your Azure subscription the command is very simple:

Add-AzureVhd -Destination <BlobStorageURL>/<YourImagesFolder>/<VHDName> -LocalFilePath <PathToVHDFile>

3. Create Image in Azure From VHD and Deploy Initial VM

Once you have your VHD up there it’s pretty simple to create a new image from it. Once that image is created it’s available to you when you’re creating a new Virtual Machine from the Gallery. You’ll want to provision a VM with that image right away to make sure that the Waagent is interacting appropriately with Azure.

Azure Resource Manager Deployments

For enterprises to truly leverage the cloud’s scale and efficiency and not just ‘lift and shift VMs’, their environments need to be implemented with a cloud-native mindset. This means thinking about automation, thinking about resources as ephemeral, and right-sizing resources to fit needs knowing scale comes easy. With the custom RHEL 5.11 image operational on Azure it was time to fully implement their environment. Working with their internal infrastructure, network, app dev, and security teams, we put together the comprehensive requirements and implementation plan for for the QA environment. For enterprises to adopt the cloud, there needs to be a translation of enterprise security policies and standards to the cloud environment. We use Azure Resource Manager (ARM) to accomplish this.

With ARM we can build declarative JSON templates that define every aspect of the environment. Our customer has specific requirements around user access controls, subnet configuration, VPN configuration, as well as the desire to have workloads spin up and down on a schedule to control costs. Our team took their requirements and built out ARM templates that defined their unique requirements and brought them a level of deployment consistency they don’t even have in their own data center. For our customer to deploy an entire multi-tier, AD integrated, and compliant QA environment, all their infrastructure team needs to do is run a single Azure Powershell command. Additionally, we have tools that capture logs of these processes and enforce the consistency in policy and configuration.

The Business Case

This has been an interesting technical case study in that we worked around dependencies and other technical issues to get a clean and certified version of RHEL 5.11 running and stable on Azure but that obscures how transformative this deployment is to the existing business.

-QA environment spin-up went from days to hours.

-Not only are they not having to buy and maintain hardware but the cloud resources they’re now using are right-sized and they’re using automation to ensure the servers are running only when they need them.

-With ARM and the automation we’ve built for them they actually have more consistency in their cloud environment in Azure than they do on premise.

-The speed and cost savings has funded other innovative projects which solidifies the cloud business case.

Companies don’t need to adopt a micro-services architectures or be running the latest software to reap the benefits of cloud transformation. Viewing the cloud as simply a new, modestly less expensive, place to put virtual machines obscures the fact that those cost savings pale in comparison to those arising from automation, agility, consistency, and the ability to coordinate complex infrastructure operations faster than ever. Gaining an orientation around the cloud beyond new virtual machines, a cloud-native orientation, if you will, is a key factor in extending cloud transformation to business success.

3 tips for making your multi-cloud approach wildly successful

by John Grange
3tipsmulticloud

As I speak with customers and partners, it’s striking how many of them are no longer making the choice between infrastructure in their own datacenter’s or going all-in on one of the public clouds. More and more companies are taking hybrid or multi-cloud approaches to their applications and infrastructure – a practice that maximizes the value and utility of the cloud. When you can right-size your infrastructure to be in line with the technical and cost requirements, you end up running more efficiently by providing more flexibility as time goes on and requirements change. In IT things are always changing so it’s wise to put a high premium on flexibility.

So why isn’t everybody right-sizing there workloads through a hybrid cloud model? Like everything else in IT, it really comes down to inertia and fear. The inertia stems from the propensity of organizations to continue to do what they’ve always been doing. It’s an easy route to take because it’s generally considered more difficult to get fired for a decision NOT made rather than to make the decision to blaze a new path. The fear component comes from, not only change, but the enterprises concerns over data security in the cloud. Recent analysis shows that data governance and security are major concerns for companies who are considering cloud computing.

The multi-cloud approach with it’s efficient, right-sized workloads and variable cost model is so obviously advantageous, what’s the best way to overcome the organizational inertia and fear and adopt this approach? We have a lot of experience in this realm since we offer public, private, and hybrid cloud services. Here are some things that we see successful companies doing to adopt a multi-cloud approach:

1. Find the low-hanging fruit

All workloads aren’t created equal. To make your first foray into the public cloud successful, start with an application that would be somewhat easy to move into a new environment. Examples would be a web application that runs on common database software and uses a fairly vanilla configuration. Often times the “low hanging fruit” are non-essential or internal applications. If your first migration to the public cloud is successful, it will be easier to get organizational support to move other applicable workloads there as well.

2. Leverage vendors and tools

Just like you use a wide range of software tools and vendors to run your datacenter, managing a multi-cloud environment should be no different. Like any good engineer would say, sometimes it’s about just having the right tools for the job. Leveraging vendors can allow you to ensure security, monitor performance, troubleshoot problems and increase the general reliability of your applications. The most powerful reason to do this is that it reduces the burden on your team and ultimately allows you to do much more with less.

3. Enforce consistency

Consistency is really important. Whether it’s OS configurations, access methodologies, or deployment processes, consistency increases stability and enhances security. As a matter of security and organization, your public cloud presence should be as consistent with your private cloud. This doesn’t have to mean they’re exact replica’s; it means that the general processes, guidelines, and procedures you use everywhere else are part of your public cloud environment, regardless of whether you use the exact same tools to achieve that parity. Enforcing consistency will save you headaches by minimizing mistakes and ensuring enterprise security regardless of where the data sits.

Disaster recovery isn’t just about worst-case scenarios, it’s about delivering high-availability to your core applications.

by admin

Disaster recovery (DR) is a difficult concept in IT. It requires one to not only think about the many implications of a worst-case scenario but also develop a sound response. You have to think about that crazy thing that may or may not actually happen while deciding how much resources should be committed to that theoretical event – without materially disrupting your business, of course. But what if your DR site served an additional purpose? What if you could make your DR site more than just an expensive store of data that may or may not save your behind in the event of a worst-case scenario? Well, in the modern data center it’s much easier to make your plan B your plan A.

Think about how you’ve traditionally thought about DR. It’s been “backup the heck out of our data and get it to some off-site place so we can restore it if we need to.” The obvious questions becomes, how does that backup data end up becoming a live application environment? How long will it take to transfer the backup data to new hardware? For that matter, what infrastructure are we really planning to restore to that’s geographically diverse from our production environment? At the core of these questions is data availability; and availability is really what DR is all about.

So many of today’s applications are web-based and may even include native mobile and tablet components associated with them. As an infrastructure professional in charge of the availability of these applications, redundancy, load balancing, and replication are all things you’ve probably implemented in some form. If one of the application servers goes down, it fails over to another node. Well, you know what? This is how your DR site should work too.

At Layeredi we approach DR from the standpoint of making your plan B your plan A. What that means is that to be truly resilient to a prolonged outage and achieve speedy recovery time objectives, your DR site should be a literal extension of your production environment. And this sort of setup doesn’t have to be cost prohibitive. Capacity, hardware specs and recovery time objectives can be tweaked to reflect financial constraints. Here are a few things that our team does to make DR a core application availability strategy, not only for us, but also for our customers:

Store backups in native hypervisor format

In a modern data center you’re probably highly virtualized. You may not be 100% there, but chances are your virtualization footprint is over 60%. Whether you’re running VMware or Hyper-V there are built-in tools for snapshots and other ways to quickly and easily migrate VMs from host to host.

Use VM replication

We use tools that allow us to replicate live VMs at our productions sites to powered-down VMs at our DR site. The DR VMs aren’t actually consuming resources when they’re powered down yet they can still be quickly powered on in the event of a disaster scenario. This produces a cost effective scenario whereby a replica of the production environment can be turned on in short order.

Pre-stage VM recovery

In many application environments, there are certain dependencies that need to be in place for it to be fully operational. So certain VMs need to go live before others. An example would be a Domain Controller needing to be up before you can bring on your sql server. We use tools that allow us to pre-stage the order of recovery in our DR site. When we say “recovery”, we really mean the order in which powered down replica VMs get turned on, so this process is quick.

Tiered Storage

In our production and DR environments we use flash-optimized tiered storage. What this means is that for any workload we can define whether it’s running on SSD or 7k spinning disks based on profile. This allows us to save money by keeping VMs on cheap 7k storage until they need to become production and we can instantly provide 10’s of thousands of IOPS to our applications by moving them into the SSD tier.

This was a quick primer on how we do DR for ourselves and our customers. Technology is so incredibly business-critical today, that we feel like it’s important that we continue to iterate and innovate on DR and application availability because it’s more important than ever.

 

How 19-year-old entrepreneur Brent Comstock plans to save rural communities

by admin

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Watch this gorgeous video about Quantified Ag

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Which startup bills will the Nebraska governor sign?

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Hello world!

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