Becoming Cloud Native
Anyone who has touched a computer in the last 40 years is probably aware of the name, Microsoft (a portmanteau of “microcomputer software”). Founded in 1975, Microsoft has developed innovative software and hardware solutions that have changed the way people work, learn and play. Today, Microsoft supports organizations’ digital transformation—ushering in the era of the intelligent cloud and agile edge with its public cloud offering, Microsoft Azure.
As part of its journey to become one of the world’s largest providers of cloud computing at scale (a strategic move that helped the company reach $2 trillion in market capitalization in June 2021), Microsoft had to go through its own digital transformation.
For Elke Bregler, principal architect leading Microsoft’s internal SAP support team, the move to Azure was urgent. Before Bregler and the team could migrate, however, they needed to prove that Microsoft Azure could live up to all it promised to be—a global-scale cloud offering hybrid consistency, developer productivity, AI (Artificial Intelligence) capabilities, trusted security and compliance. It was crucial for the team to prove Azure could be easily managed and could run critical systems in production, without interruption. For this reason alone, the stakes were high.
Microsoft wanted to migrate to the cloud for all the reasons any company pursues digital transformation—to simplify data center management and improve efficiency. With four decades of legacy technology to modernize, there was much work to do. This is the story of their SAP Basis team’s journey to the cloud, and the growing role of SAP HANA and SUSE technologies in the team’s evolving cloud strategy.
Like many other established companies, Microsoft is constantly looking for ways to innovate. It is also grappling with many of the same issues facing other long-standing organizations—how best to make the move from monolithic and outdated legacy compute methodologies to a more agile and cloud-centric vision of the future. In 2017, Microsoft’s infrastructure team successfully migrated its entire infrastructure to Microsoft Azure—a major feat and resounding endorsement of this powerful cloud platform.
Now, as Microsoft’s ongoing transformation gathers pace, open source technology is an integral part of the strategy. In recognition of the growing role of open source technologies in promoting greater flexibility and agility, Microsoft has begun to work with SUSE in the database layer; capitalizing on open source innovation by migrating databases to SAP HANA to optimize data processing and drive greater agility.
The History: Migrating to Microsoft Azure
Driving Efficiency and Consistency
Like other companies, Microsoft had a slew of its own data centers, managed by the Microsoft IT infrastructure team and following ITLC processes. Business requirements, however, grew over time and the estate became increasingly complex and inconsistent. With the emergence of new search capabilities and cloud offerings, several product teams started to manage their own data centers. Consequently, server support and repair became redundant and costly—especially for IT teams managing a multitude of specialized hardware. Once the volume of servers needed to run these search and cloud offerings exceeded the hardware used by the internal IT organization, the ownership of the data centers changed from Microsoft IT to the Azure product team.
“The one-off processes required for these highly specialized IT systems were very cost-intensive in comparison to the standard processes used within Azure product teams,” says Bregler, who was part of the original Azure migration project for the SAP systems. “These specialized servers were a thorn in the side of the teams managing the data centers for quite some time. They were much more difficult to manage than standardized servers. You cannot run a low-cost data center that way.”
In 2016 with directives in hand, Microsoft’s IT organization began to replace this sprawling and complex estate of data centers with a cloud native strategy. With the stability and performance of business operations front of mind, the task was daunting.
“At this point the question became, how can we prove that moving to the cloud and standardizing processes will work, so we can remove these specialized appliances?” comments Bregler. “Different teams have been running appliances on premises with specialized needs. How would they be able to do those same things in the cloud, but with a standardized setup used by everyone?”
Once the necessary Azure SKU sizes became available in 2017, Microsoft’s internal SAP team was ready to put the plan into action. With systems, tools and infrastructure in place, the team began migrating sandboxes for testing. They tested for high availability performance, smooth pathways for growth, and to ascertain how specific needs would be met. It wasn’t long before they had what they needed to convince the wider business that the time had come to migrate to Azure.
“I was cautious about moving the big SAP systems to the cloud,” reflects Bregler. “There was a lot of hesitation at the beginning regarding whether this is really going to work. Is the performance going to be there? Is the availability going to be there? I was one of the ones who was very nervous and reluctant, since we even had dedicated storage on premises for our largest system. But the move turned out to be a huge success. We run our SAP systems at 99.98% planned availability.”
Moving to the cloud allowed the internal SAP support team to eliminate specialized hardware, systems and infrastructure, but it has also opened several novel innovation avenues that had not previously existed. Now that the SAP Basis team owns the complete SAP-related stack, it can run automated scripts that deploy virtual machines (VMs), decide how the VM’s are configured, and install any needed applications to keep SAP processes running—all in a controlled environment and can adjust to new business requirements very quickly.
Driving Agility and Innovation with Open Source
Microsoft has relied on SAP’s enterprise resource planning solutions to support all financial transactions since 1996. Maintaining a single, highly available, global SAP instance, therefore, was a major priority throughout the digitization journey.
The resulting system is impressive. The company now runs one of the largest SAP implementations in the world, overall, 24 terabytes in size (and growing, despite constant archiving), to support over 400 million customer and business transactions per month, all from SQL servers hosted on Windows in Azure.
With systems standing and running as planned in a robust cloud, Microsoft’s internal SAP team began taking steps to optimize the speed of their data processing by piloting a small migration to SAP HANA (only a fraction of the 24+TB SQL server database would be part of this initial project). At this point, and with an eye on continued innovation and flexibility, Microsoft worked with SUSE to deploy its first internal Linux-based open source solution.
“SLES for SAP Applications makes our complete deployment process way easier. It comes preconfigured with SAP requirements so we can deploy without having to take any extra steps. It also allows us to resize [VMs] without having to change any configurations. It’s quite easy to use and makes for a much better experience for everyone involved.”
Migrating to SAP HANA
As a sagacious creator and adopter of disruptive technologies, Microsoft’s love of open source has grown in recent years. This is unsurprising when considering how important open source technologies have become to every kind of enterprise, in all sectors. Over the last 10 years, Microsoft has contributed to upstream coding through GitHub (which Microsoft acquired in 2018). They also offer several open source tools through Azure Marketplace for its users.
Like every other growth-minded company, Microsoft’s infrastructure team has been exploring the value of Linux in its own transformation strategy.
When asked why open source is important, Bregler explains, “Open source solutions are well suited to our industry because crowdsourcing allows new developments to be released much faster. The downside to them, though, is that off-the-shelf, unsupported open source has little regulation to guarantee stability and continuity for enterprises.” It is precisely this sentiment that made SUSE the obvious choice for Microsoft, who were motivated not only by the rapid innovation associated with open source but also by reliability and predictability.
Microsoft chose SUSE for two main reasons. Firstly, SAP has trusted SUSE as a partner longer than any other open source company (since 1999)—their breakthrough database, SAP HANA, was built using SUSE Linux Enterprise Server. In selecting SUSE, Microsoft felt reassured that the open source solutions they invested in were enterprise-hardened, robust and supported 24-7. Secondly, at the time of implementation, SUSE was the only Linux solution that supplied high availability support for SAP applications running in Azure.
“The good thing about SUSE,” Bregler says, “is that it bridges that gap for enterprise-ready technology with world-class support. It is critical for us to be able to use open source safely, in a controlled environment, when running our SAP HANA databases.”
The Road to High Availability with SUSE
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server for SAP Applications
Microsoft’s open source journey began with the deployment of SAP HANA within the database layer, which complements the innovative digital transformation program already executed by Bregler and her team. The IT group were looking for a highly available, easy to maintain and fast scaling database management solution. They soon started working with SUSE Linux Enterprise Server for SAP Applications—a product as reliable as its name is long (SLES for SAP Applications, for short). A Premium Certified SAP Endorsed App, SLES for SAP Applications provides an environment for optimal SAP performance: reduced risk from service outages; less time and effort for system maintenance; and faster services deployment on premises and in the cloud for SAP solutions.
Bregler explains, “SLES for SAP Applications makes our complete deployment process way easier. It comes preconfigured with SAP requirements so we can deploy without having to take any extra steps. It also allows us to resize [VMs] without having to change any configurations. It’s quite easy to use and makes for a much better experience for everyone involved.”
Agnostic Integration: SUSE Manager, Salt and Pacemaker
With a Linux system now connected to essential business processes through SAP HANA, Microsoft needed to ensure uniformity, resilience and security across their systems. To accomplish this, the team saw huge value in integrating SUSE Manager with Salt configuration management and Pacemaker for automated failover. As SUSE Manager is completely open source and agnostic, it works seamlessly with Salt to ensure specific files are configured on all systems and cronjobs. This guarantees all servers are configured consistently and makes synchronizing Linux patching updates across the environment a breeze. Then, Pacemaker kicks in to provide resilience—reducing the overall business risk. “We really need to make sure we have the same code and patch applied in all environments. SUSE Manager allows us to use best-of-breed tools side-by-side,” comments Bregler.
SUSE Manager was designed to help IT Operations teams reduce complexity with a single tool to manage Linux systems across a variety of hardware architectures, cloud platforms and more. Automating Linux server provisioning, patching and configuration for faster, consistent and repeatable server deployments, it has helped Microsoft ensure compliance with internal security policies and external regulations.
In contrast to typical monthly patch cycles adhered to in the software industry, open source patches are released every day. This would ordinarily be an unwanted complexity for Bregler’s team, but SUSE Manager provides a simple solution.
Starting each Wednesday after Patch Tuesday (the second Tuesday of every month), SUSE Manager automatically collects the daily Linux patch releases through the next Patch Tuesday to build a single bundle of Linux patches. It then applies that bundle to every Linux server across the landscape at once, repeating the process each month. “SUSE Manager is a useful tool,” says Premjit Ger, senior software engineer at Microsoft. “Without it, we wouldn’t be able to automate and synchronize our Linux patching schedule. It mimics what we do in Windows.”
SUSE Consulting + Premium Support
To ensure the implementation was a success, Bregler’s team took advantage of SUSE Consulting for “white-glove” treatment from a trusted expert, whom they got to know and who, in turn, got to know the specific needs of their environment.
Bregler explains, “The Linux implementation went smoothly because we had SUSE Consulting to help us. At Microsoft, this would be the first, and largest business-critical application running on Linux. Whenever we had problems in the past, we could contact people internally for help. Lacking internal Linux administrators, we made the decision, right from the beginning, to use SUSE Consulting services to help us ramp up—to define our standards, processes and procedures. It really helped us a lot. We also became friends with our SUSE Consultant.”
To maintain their SLES for SAP Applications environment, Microsoft has also benefited from a direct Premium support relationship. This direct access to a subject matter expert and expanded support team has resulted in faster resolution times, staying ahead of potential issues, and more precise planning of future projects.
Reliability for a Cloud-Centric Future
When operating business critical systems in a new, cloud environment alongside open source technology, maintaining performance and resilience are major priorities. “We’ve done a lot of performance testing,” says Bregler. “All of our new systems that go live have performance requirements, including our SAP HANA databases. So far, we met these goals and found no major problems.
Pleased with its operational stability and efficiency, SUSE will continue to support further migrations to SAP HANA at Microsoft. “SUSE really helps us run highly available SAP HANA systems, which are going to have more and more of an impact,” says Bregler. “Up next, we’ll be working with SLES for SAP Applications and SAP HANA to launch a legal compliance regulation system that is going to be humongous.” For the team, who oversee a 24 terabyte-and-growing SAP database, ‘humongous’ must be pretty big.
Having laid the foundation for an eventual migration to SAP S/4HANA, what’s next for Bregler and her team? Looking to the future, Bregler concludes, “There’s only cloud.”