Project Bicep, an ARM Domain-Specific Language

Project Bicep

Project Bicep? Biceps? Do you mean like bicep curls? Muscles? What does this have to do with ARM or ARM templates? Well, to master ARM templates, we can use a little extra power. So, It’s a joke so bad it’s good as Microsoft’s Alex Frankel put it.

Impressive power but not the kind of biceps we are talking about (image by Eduardo Romero on Pexels.com)

Over the years, I have noticed a couple of challenges when it comes to Infrastructure as Code (IaC). It is not an easy thing to achieve in practice. Not only in the cloud but anywhere. It is a significant hurdle in achieving IaC. Maybe you have the same experiences.

Azure Infrastructure as Code

In Azure, one of the biggest challenges has been the learning curve when it comes to writing the JSON. JSON, the “human-readable” data interchange format that brings ARM and ARM templates to live. It isn’t something you pick up super quickly and turns out to be harder and harder to use when things become more complex and diverse.

Other challenges are related to managing the templates, getting pipelines set up reliably and consistently for all resources in Azure tenants, subscriptions, resource groups, etc. It is not something that I would call inviting and easy to do.

Then there are the real-world realities we need to handle. There is a ton of “stuff” out there where deployment, configuration, orchestration, and change happens in different ways. How does one onboard all that in an IaC process without too much risk of breaking things? Unfortunately, this is tedious and fragile.

We like Infrastructure as Code

For many people, the above is a bit discouraging. Don’t get me wrong. People see, understand, and like the idea of Infrastructure as Code. They just have a hard time getting there. There are all sorts of tools for various environments and needs. We have all at least heard and probably looked at Chef, Ansible, Puppet, or Terraform. There are many others still, but I just listed the ones that have been getting some serious attention over the last four years. Choosing one is losing the benefits of another. Using them all is an operational, skills, and management challenge. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. The main differences are whether they take a procedural, declarative, or an orchestral approach to getting the job done.

While orchestration is very popular, it does feel a bit like a failure, but that is “emotion”. Why? Well, because in the end, we cannot manage change very well and end up throwing everything away and replacing it with a new deployment that has the changes in there. Everything is a cow now that gets slaughtered and replaced when it doesn’t function as expected or needs to change. That works well for lightweight and fast implementations. It is somewhat painful when using this in more massive deployments. But still, when looking at the results and preventing configuration drift, it gets the job done.

But even the best tools have issues that can be best described as “death by a thousand cuts.” The concept is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy to do!

Microsoft has heard this feedback

We like Infrastructure as Code. We do find it too hard to do well, especially if that is not the bulk of your work, and you are not a guru at it like Stanislav Zhelyazkov.

When Microsoft asked on Twitter, “What do you think is a knowledge gap for traditional #ITPros when it comes to transitioning to the cloud” I replied, “The biggest skills hurdle is related to IaC. ARM is tedious and hard to learn for many, yet a cornerstone … Fix that, and we can move 10 faster in any cloud journey.”.

Project Bicep
My honest reply to Microsoft’s Anna Chu

The above is not new feedback, far from. But recently (Build 2020) they talked publically about what they are doing about it if I recall correctly. Yes, Microsoft is addressing this challenge. Just last week I saw Project Bicep go public on Github!

So what is project Bicep?

Bicep is a project Microsoft announced at Build 2020 (May). It delivers what Microsoft calls Transparent Abstraction over Azure ARM and ARM templates.  ARM ==> Bicep get the joke? Ok, never mind, it is terrible to search for, however. You get a lot of irrelevant hits.

It has a couple of goals as you can learn from the video.

  • Human friendly, so readability and comprehensibility are essential. You have to be able to understand what you read and write without much effort.
  • What you write will create or compile JSON for you. Microsoft now seems to like “Transpiles” for this. Where earlier the sort of made the analogy of JSON being some sort of the Intermediate Language (IL) of IaC.
  • If you think of JSON of an IL (as MSFT suggests), it is easy to see that, just like with .NET, you might see different languages use to achieve the same goal. But for now, that is not the goal. The goal is to get a working, functional declarative language that is suitable for all kinds of users. We’ll see where this ends up.
  • It focuses on modularity, so no, it will not create giant ARM templates, but modular ones. That means there is multi-file support.
  • It should evolve at the speed of Azure, so no waiting for six months to get new functionality implemented. Microsoft calls this “transparent abstraction.”
  • They plan a migration/conversion/export tool for existing ARM JSON!

Read up on project Bicep over here https://github.com/Azure/bicep. It clarifies the current state of what Bicep is and is not. I hope this moves fast and delivers better tooling to make Infrastructure as Code a better, more accessible, and more achievable goal for all of us.

WARNING

Bicep is at a super early stage of its existence. This is the earliest Alpha you can imagine. It is going to break, barf, and probably puke on your Azure stuff once in a while. So please, DO NOT USE THIS IN PRODUCTION. Right now it is only to get a feel for it, tinker around and get some feedback. This is you only and final warning.

In all honesty, it is very raw and as a (non-Linux) hardcore dev, this is not love at first sight for me, as I had hoped to use PowerShell for this. I hope it will mature and I will grow to love it and like using it much more than ARM. Anyway, dive into the bicep tutorial to see what you think.

Custom Route Tables in Azure Virtual WAN are live!

Introduction

Last week, around August 26-27th 2020 Custom Route Tables in Azure Virtual WAN lit up in my Azure Tenants. Awesome news. Normally this should have happened the week of the 3d of August 2020. However, some delay happened. Now it is here is has come in silence. Which I find odd. This is a major capability that offers so much of what we need to make Azure Virtual WAN shine. But it is here, ready to shine at Microsoft Ignite

Custom Route Tables in Azure Virtual WAN
Watch my video on custom route tables in Azure virtual WAN

Custom Route Tables in Azure Virtual WAN

What do we have now? You can read up on Azure Virtual WAN route tables over here. I have made a video about all this which you can find on my blog and on my Vimeo channel. Please take a look for some walkthroughs and links to some other blog posts by me on Azure Virtual WAN.

LabELs

First of all, let’s discuss the labels. Labels logically group route tables. These are very helpful when propagating routes from connections to multiple route tables. The Default Route Table has a built-in label called ‘Default’. When you propagate connection routes to the ‘Default’ label, it automatically applies to all the Default Route Tables across every hub in the Virtual WAN.

Custom Route Tables in Azure Virtual WAN
Creating a label

Associations

Now, we can discuss associations. Each connection is associated with one route table. This means that the connection can send to the destination indicated as routes in the route table it is associated with. The routing configuration of the connection will show the associated route table. This is very important for connected VNETs. Multiple connections can be associated with the same route table. Note that all VPN, ExpressRoute, and User VPN connections are associated with the same (default) route table.

Custom Route Tables in Azure Virtual WAN
Association

By default, all connections are associated with the Default route table in a virtual hub. Each virtual hub has its own Default route table. You can add one or more static routes to the default Route table. Static routes take precedence over dynamically learned routes for the same prefixes.

Propagations

Last but not least, connections dynamically propagate routes to one or more route table. VPN, ExpressRoute, and User VPN connections propagate routes to the same set of route tables. With connections like a Site-2-Site VPN, Express Route, or Point-2-Site VPN, routes are propagated from the virtual hub to the on-premises router using BGP.

Custom Route Tables in Azure Virtual WAN
Propagations for Branches
Custom Route Tables in Azure Virtual WAN
Propagation for a connected VNET

A “None” route table is also available for each virtual hub. Propagating to the None route table implies that no routes are propagated from the connection.

Some need to ask

Finally, some customers need to reach out to support in order to get Azure Virtual WAN Custom route tables to light up.

Contact Microsoft support if and when needed to enable custom route tables for you.

As a result, I suggest you do so to start kicking the tires and then dive in deeper. This is a cornerstone technology for Azure networking going forward.

Automation

I have not found any documentation or guidance in regards to automation with PowerShell, Azure CLI, or ARM templates yet. I expect this to be forthcoming as this is much needed. As a result, I hope we’ll see this by Microsft Ignite 2020.

Conclusion

Azure Virtual WAN with the secured Virtual Hub and custom route tables offers the capabilities we have been waiting for. With these capabilities in place. Azure Virtual WAN is the future of Azure virtual networking. Therefore, I fully expect to hear a lot more about it during Microsoft Ignite in September. I personally will focus on this part of networking in the coming months. It is a stock part of any Azure initiative and project in the near future.

Azure Virtual WAN is for everyone

Do you need to be a Fortune 500 Global business?

When it comes to Azure Virtual WAN, you might have the impression it is only useful for huge, international entities.  Entities like the big Fortune 500 companies, with a significant, distributed global presence.

I can understand why. That is where the attention is going, and it makes for excellent examples to showcase. Also, the emphasis with SD-WAN has too often been about such cases. SD-WAN also enables economically feasible, reliable, and redundant connectivity for smaller locations and companies than ever before. My take is that Azure Virtual WAN is for everyone!

Azure Virtual WAN is for everyone

I would also like to emphasize that Azure Virtual WAN is so much more than just SD-WAN. That does not distract from SD-WAN’s value. SD-WAN is a crucial aspect of it in terms of connectivity to and from your Azure environment. I would even say that the ability to leverage Microsoft’s global network via Azure Virtual WAN is the most significant force multiplier that SD-WAN has gotten in the past year.

Network appliance vendors are signing on to integrate with Azure Virtual WAN for a good reason. It makes sense to leverage one of the biggest, best, and fastest global networks in the world to provide connectivity for your customers. 

One extreme use case would be to use Azure Virtual WAN only as an SD-WAN carrier just to connect your sites without using anything in Azure. An example of this would be a business that is still on-prem but wants to move to Azure. That is a good start. It modernizes connectivity between the locations while becoming ready to move workloads to Azure, where the landing zone is integrated into Azure Virtual WAN when it is time to do so.

A Medium Enterprise example

But let’s step back a minute. The benefits of Azure Virtual WAN go beyond SD-WAN deployments for multinational companies spanning the globe. Make no mistake about this. SD-WAN is also very interesting for Small and Medium Enterprises (SME), and the benefits of Azure Virtual WAN go beyond on-premises to Azure connectivity. It extends to connecting any location to any location.

Azure Virtual WAN is for everyone
SD-WAN leveraging Azure Virtual WAN and the Microsoft Global Network

On-premises connectivity is more than a data center, a corporate HQ, and branch offices with ExpressRoute and/or Site-to-Site VPN (S2S). It is also a user via a Point-to-Site VPN (P2S). All of these can be anywhere in the world but also distributed across your city, country, or continent. Think about what that means for “remote work by default” shops. Every individual, whether working with you as an employee,  partner, customer, consultant or contractor, can be connected to your Azure virtual WAN and your on-premises locations thanks to the any-to-any connectivity.

Some people might have an NGFW at home, depending on their role and needs. Many others will be fine with a point-to-site VPN, which serves both work-from-home profiles as well as road warriors.

People, if this Coronavirus global pandemic has not awakened you to this importance and possibility of remote work, I do not know what to tell you. Drink a lot more coffee?

For example, a national retailer, a school, a medical provider with lots of small local presences can all benefit from Azure Virtual WAN. When they merge with others, within or across the borders, Azure Virtual WAN with SD-WAN puts them in a great position to extend and integrate their network.

There is more to Azure Virtual WAN than SD-WAN

We have not touched on the other benefits Azure Virtual WAN brings. These benefits are there, even if you have no on-premises locations to connect. That would be another extreme, Azure Virtual WAN without any SD-WAN deployment. While the on-premises deployment of apps goes down over time, it will not go ways 100% for everyone. Also, even in a 100% cloud-native environment, having other connectivity options than over the internet and public services can help with security, speed, and cost reduction.

The Any-to-Any capabilities, the ease of use, leading to operational cost saving, are game-changing. Combined with the integration with Azure Firewall manager to create a Secure Virtual HUB and custom routing, it makes for a very flexible way of securing and managing network access and security.

Hybrid scenarios

Don’t think that SMEs will only have 2 to 5 subscriptions, or even less if they are just consumers of cloud services outsourced to a service provider, with one or a couple of vNETs.

If you do not have many subscriptions, you can still have a lot of vNETs. You create vNETs per application, business unit, etc. On top of that, in many cases, you will have development, testing, acceptance, and production environments for these applications.

You might very well do what we do, and what we see more of again, lots of subscriptions. You can create subscriptions for every application environment, business unit, etc. The benefits are clear and easy to measure distinction in ownership, responsibilities, costs, and security. That means a company can have dozens to hundreds of subscriptions that way. These can all have multiple vNETs. When an SME wants to protect itself against downtime, two regions come into play. That means that the hub-to-hub transitive nature excels.

Azure Virtual WAN is for everyone
Azure Virtual WAN – Hybrid scenario

Now, managing VNET peering, transit vNETs, Network Gateways, Firewalls, and route tables all become a bit of a chore fast when the environment grows. Rolling all that work into a convenient, centralized virtual global service makes sense to reduce complexity, reduce operational costs, and simplify your network architecture and design.

Going cloud first and cloud native

In a later stage, your organization can reduce its on-premises footprint and go for an all cloud-based approach. Be realistic, there might very well be needs for some on-premises solutions but Azure Stack has you covered there. You can leverage Azure Stack HCI, Edge, or even hub or those needs but still integrate deployment, management, operations, and monitoring into Azure.

Azure Virtual WAN is for everyone
Azure Virtual WAM – Cloud first scenario

Global Transit Architecture with Azure Virtual WAN

I still need to drive the capabilities and benefits of the Global Transit Architecture with Azure Virtual WAN home for you. For one, it is any-to-any by default. You can control and limit this where needed, but it works automagically for you out of the box. Second, this is true for ExpressRoute, S2S VPN, P2S VPN, VNET peers, and virtual hubs in all directions.

  • Branch-to-VNet
  • Branch-to-branch
    • ExpressRoute Global Reach and Virtual WAN
  • Remote User-to-VNet
  • Remote User-to-branch
  • VNet-to-VNet
  • Branch-to-hub-hub-to-Branch
  • Branch-to-hub-hub-to-VNet
  • VNet-to-hub-hub-to-VNet

This means that a user with a P2S VPN connected to a virtual hub has access to a datacenter that connects to that same hub or another one within the same Virtual WAN. You can go crisscross all over the place. I love it. Remember that we can secure this, control this.

Azure Virtual WAN is for everyone
Any-to-Any – crisscross along locations and connection types – Image adapted from MSFT

Think about that for a moment. When I am on the road connected via a P2S VPN to an azure virtual hub, I can reach my datacenter (ExpressRoute), my office, store, factory, and potentially even my home office (S2S VPN). Next to that, I can reach all my vNETs. It is the same deal when I am working from home or in the office, store, or factory. That is impressive. The default is any-to-any, automagically done for you. But you can restrict and secure this to your needs with custom routing and a secure virtual hub (Azure Firewall Manager).

Conclusion

The benefits of Azure Virtual WAN are plenty, for many scenarios in large, medium and small enterprises. So, I invite you to take a better look. I did. As a result, I have been investing time in diving into its possibilities and potential. I will be presenting on this topic to share my insights into what, to me, is the future of Azure networking. Do not think this is only for the biggest corporations or organizations.

TechNine March Updates for IT Pro’s

TechNine March Updates for IT Pro’s

TechNine (https://www.technine.be/) is organizing its first user group event of 2020 on Tuesday 3 March. The TechNine March Updates for IT Pro’s. This is just a quick blog post to invite all who are in our neck of the woods to join us. It is hosted by the Sentia Group in Lochristi.

TechNine March Updates for IT Pro's

Content

There are 3 sessions.The first session, Micha Wets – Enterprise Mobility MVP, introduces us all to Azure Policy Guest Configurations. What can this do today and what does it mean for Windows GPO configurations in the long run? Can they co-exist? Come find out!

Microsoft launched the new EDGE chromium-based browser. Erik Moreau – Windows Insider MVP will deliver his insights about this great new browser in the second session. I hope he has some good news about one of my main complaints about it. What is that? Attend and you’ll find out.

The 3rd session is still a mystery … TechNine likes to have a last moment surprise.

Practicalities

Schedule

  • 18h00: Welcome & Food
  • 18h30: Azure Policy Guest Configurations: The end of Windows GPO? – Micha Wets
  • 19h15: The New Edge – Erik Moreau
  • 20h00: Break
  • 20h15: To be announced, stay tuned!
  • 21h00: Networking and Questions
  • 21h30: End

When: Tuesday, March 3rd, 18:00 sharp

Location: Sentia, Denen 157, 9080 Lochristi, Belgium

Join us by registering here: March Updates for IT Pro’s