I jumped straight from Samsung’s SDC event in San Francisco and analyst life on the road continued in Orlando, where I attended Microsoft’s annual Ignite customer conference for all things enterprise IT. The event is an industry can’t-miss, and I make a point of attending every year to find out what Microsoft has cooking for big and small businesses (see my coverage of 2016, 2017, and 2018if interested in further background).
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella led off the keynote stressing trust, where I believe it has a certain advantage with end customers versus some of its big tech peers. Let’s take a closer look at what all was announced this year. My briefing book was 87 pages, so, of course, I will only be hitting the high points.
Hybrid cloud Azure Arc and Stack
To me, the biggest “lean-in” for Microsoft at Ignite was around hybrid cloud and the edge, led by Azure Arc.
Azure Arc is a set of technologies that will bring Azure services and management to what Microsoft characterizes as “any datacenter, cloud, and edge”, including Windows and Linux servers and Kubernetes clusters. This includes on-prem, the edge, and even competing clouds like AWS and Google Cloud. Out of the gate, Azure Arc includes a variety of capabilities, including Azure Resource Manager (aka Arm), Azure portal, API, Microsoft Azure Cloud Shell, Marketplace and Microsoft Azure Policy. First out Azure Arc services include Azure SQL database for PostgreSQL Hyperscale running a Kubernetes cluster, but I’m expecting many, many more services in the future. Microsoft’s Erin Chapple demonstrated Azure Arc, showing a single pane of glass for managing on-prem and multi-cloud environments, even replicating data to Amazon.com’s AWS cloud.
It’s important to understand the difference between Arc and Stack. Azure Arc is a follow-on to Azure Stack, which has morphed literally into a full stack of hardware, software and services. Azure Stack is characterized as “integrated systems” and are comprised of:
- Azure Stack Edge: this is a cloud-managed appliance for edge compute, ML at the edge, IoT and network bursting to the cloud. Microsoft announced a small, backpack-sized and battery operated edge device which could be used to process drone video.
- Azure Stack HCI: this is what you would expect, a hyperconverged solution for rack-scalable virtualization and a storage, for remote branch offices and even HPC workloads.
- Azure Stack Hub: this is a fully-integrated, cloud-native system for disconnected scenarios, environments where data sovereignty a requirement, and app modernization
Microsoft leaned into its hybrid story more than ever and reinforced that “unlike others, we believe hybrid is a permanent, not temporary state.” It will have some very solid competition from AWS and Google Cloud. AWS Outposts (details here) wasn’t AWS’s first hybrid offering. AWS also offers Snowball Edge, VMware Cloud on AWS and many ways to integrate on-prem resources with AWS including Amazon Storage Gateway, VPC, Direct Connect, Systems Manager, Identity and Access Management, Directory Service, OpsWorks, and CodeDeploy. Google Cloud has Anthos (details here).
Azure Synapse Analytics
Microsoft announced a new analytics service called Azure Synapse Analytics, an offering that brings new capabilities to its Azure SQL Data Warehouse solution. The company says Azure Synapse will combine enterprise data warehousing and Big Data analytics and bring together structured and unstructured data. This is a Nirvana state.
While businesses typically have to maintain two different types of analytics systems (data lakes and data warehouses), Azure Synapse Analytics wants to bridge the gap so both can be utilized via a single cloud-native analytics service. It seeks to provide a unified space to perform data prep, management, warehousing, big data, and AI functions. The company touts the solution’s “limitless scale,” and claims it is the only data analytics system capable of running all TPC-H queries at petabyte-scale. Microsoft claims Synapse can process queries roughly 75 times faster than Google Cloud big query—fighting words to say the least.
Azure Synapse is integrated with Power BI and Azure Machine Learning, which should allow customers to apply ML models and derive insights from all their data. Going back to that trust thing, Azure Synapse also features an impressive number of security and privacy features, including always-on data encryption, automated threat detection, column-level security, native row-level security, and dynamic data masking. All in all, it’s a lofty undertaking on Microsoft’s part. Kudos to Microsoft for its ambition here.
Microsoft Power Platform enhancements
The Microsoft Power Platform is the company’s low-code developer platform and includes Power BI (biz analytics), PowerApps (app dev), Power Automate (workflow automation), and Power Virtual Agents (new) which sit on its Common Data Service, Data connectors (275+), and AI Builder. Net-net Microsoft wants to increase the amount of developers, increase their velocity and scale it through collaboration. This is in direct response to close the “talent gap”, which cited an Indeed survey which said that “86% of organizations struggle to find technical talent to build applications” and other studies saying there will be a 1M developer gap by 2030.
Microsoft announced a slew of big updates to Power Platform, its platform for visualizing data and writing custom business applications. These include the
renaming of Microsoft Flow to Microsoft Power Automate (not so big), but more consequentially, the addition of robotic process automation, or RPA, to Microsoft Power Automate. RPA is getting a ton of attention given the hige need for apps but the limited developer resources. The addition of RPA, makes Power Automate a full, end-to-end solution, by spanning AI, APIs, and UI. Microsoft’s new RPA capability, called UI flows, enables users to change manual tasks into automated workflows by recording and playing back human interaction with software systems that lack support for API automation. I saw a crazy (in a good way) demo where a new employee profile was created in Sharepoint automatically by pulling data from Microsoft Forms without APIs, but rather Windows UX locations and clicks.
Another new feature is Microsoft Power Virtual Agents, which is an app that enables people to create and deploy AI-powered virtual agents—no (or low) coding necessary. I see new “citizen dev” capabilities like this as essential moving forward, given the growing developer shortage. Along similar lines, Microsoft also announced a new set of prebuilt, more advanced models for AI Builder, including key phrase extraction, language detection, text recognition, and sentiment analysis. Additional enhancements include new data security enhancements to Power BI, and tighter integration between Power Platform and Microsoft Teams. My analyst take on all of this is that Microsoft Power Platform has the highest ratio of value/credit. Together with Dynamics 365 and Microsoft 365, it’s a killer combo—I’d say it poses a big threat to Salesforce, Tableau, Pega and maybe even SAP.
Visual Studio Online Preview
In addition to no and low-code “citizen” developer tools, Microsoft also has very robust developer tools and environments. Before I dive in, I wanted to say that I believe Microsoft doesn’t get enough credit for what it does for developers, but the facts speak for themselves:
- Visual Studio is the #1 dev tool with 17M monthly active developers and includes Visual Studio, Visual Studio Code and Visual Studio for Mac
- GitHub has 40M devs and is the place to store, iterate and from which to deploy code
- Azure is the #1 choice for PaaS for devs on Github
Visual Studio Online is exactly what developers would expect, which is to make Visual Studio available from a browser editor from the cloud. Everything, and I mean everything is being made cloud-accessible so why shouldn’t an IDE? Developers can literally work from anywhere on any kind of infrastructure. I also think there’s a case to be made that as dev collaboration increases and open source workflows become more popular, cloud-based IDes like Visual Studio Online make a lot of sense. You can try it here.
Microsoft 365: a new knowledge network and more
There was a raft of new enhancements announced to Microsoft 365. I wanted to hit on a few that seemed particularly noteworthy. The big announcement, in my opinion, was Project Cortex, Microsoft’s first new service since the introduction of Teams. Project Cortex is a so-called “knowledge network” that the company calls “a cross between a powerful organizer of enterprise content and a digital concierge that brings people the information they need in the context of their workflow.” Microsoft says Cortex leverages collective knowledge and utilizes AI to bring insights and information to customers within their everyday apps. It seems to me like Project Cortex is a real culmination of the “big data + AI = knowledge” equation. This is exactly what it should be in an enterprise.
Several other new Microsoft 365 experiences caught my eye. Microsoft announced a new Teams Chat button for Outlook, which allows you to move pesky back-and-forth email conversations into a Teams chat module. Additionally, it announced a new Outlook feature called “Play My Emails,” in which Cortana utilizes natural voice and language recognition to read your emails out to you aloud. Lastly, it announced a new “voice enhance” function for Stream, which leverages ML algorithms to detect and get rid of unwanted background video noise. Frankly, I think I’ll make good use of all of these new features. They all serve to streamline the work experience in helpful ways.
It’s going to be really, really hard to slow down Microsoft in its end user 365 experiences as it keeps its incumbent spot and keeps adding useful, ML-enhanced capabilities.
The new and improved Microsoft Edge and Bing
I wanted to mention the launch of the new Microsoft Edge and Microsoft Bing, which the company hails as “the browser and search engine of business.” The new Microsoft Edge features tracking prevention (set as default), which, in conjunction with SmartScreen, better insulate users from phishing schemes and malware. Both Edge and Bing now offer InPrivate mode, which is different from Chrome and Google search as incognito mode can still send data to Google search. Edge also now features Collections, a feature that lets users collect and organize web content for export into Word and Excel which will finally become a post-beta reality. According to Microsoft, the new Edge is twice as fast as the old version and is compatible on new sites and with IE. I believe that the new privacy features protecting search are a huge differentiator. Again, it all comes back to trust.
The new Microsoft Search in Bing looks nifty, because you can now search both the internet and your intranet in one single browse and search experience. For example, you can use the address bar to locate people in your company through searching by title, team name, or office location. Microsoft also announced that users can now access Microsoft Search in Bing on their mobile phones. All in all, it seems like Microsoft really upped the ante with Edge and Bing.
I have used the Canary Edge as my primary browser and this is the first time in years I can confidently say there are good reasons for both consumers and enterprises to use the new Edge as the primary browser. For enterprisers, it’s a no-brainer, as it’s a “two-fer” with IE mode. Enterprises can standardize on one, single browser instead of two which most do today with IE for legacy web apps and Chrome for modern sites.
Ignite 2019 was a great event, chock full of 87 pages of enterprise announcements spanning Azure, Power platform, Microsoft 365, and Edge. While I didn’t mention it in my analysis, Moor Insights & Strategy quantum analyst Paul Smith-Goodson wrote about Microsoft’s open hardware approach with Honeywell here.
Microsoft never fails to cram the announcements in during these events, and this year’s conference was no exception. Microsoft appears to be protecting its incumbent positions, aggressively attacking current markets it doesn’t hold high market share positions and investing in the right growth areas. I look forward to seeing all of these updates in action over the coming year.