Tag Archives: office 365

Microsoft announces free version of Teams, ahead of Inspire partner conference

Microsoft’s partner conference, Inspire, kicks off in Las Vegas next week; and as part of the event the company has announced big news concerning Teams: a free version.

image

What is Teams? It is a collaboration tool for Office 365, or at least it was, since the new free version can be used with any email address and without Office 365. Here is what you get:

  • Chat
  • Audio and video calling
  • 10GB online storage, plus 2GB for each additional team member (SharePoint/OneDrive)
  • Word, Excel and PowerPoint online
  • Ability to install unlimited additional applications

Teams is a strategic product for Microsoft – see here for the reason. A free version is way for the company to promote Office 365, and you will see an upgrade link in the user interface.

There are also new features coming to Teams. One seems minor, but will be popular. It deals with the problem of video conferencing from home, and not being sure what may happen behind you. You may remember this:

image

So now Teams video conferencing will let you blur the background. Here is Raanah Amjadi, Marketing Manager, Microsoft Teams, demonstrating the feature:

image

In addition, Teams is getting a new Live Events feature. This is where you broadcast a presentation or meeting to others in your company. Automatic speech-to-text will do close captions (so you can watch with the sound done, if you trust it enough), and this then enables text search of the event with index points into the video. Bing Translate is also included in Teams so you can have multi-lingual conversations.

image

Microsoft Workplace Analytics is getting enhancements including “My Analytics” which will give you AI-powered “nudges” in Outlook online. I am not sure I trust this to be much real-world use; but the example shown was intriguing: alert you if you try to schedule a meeting with someone out of their working hours.

Whiteboard, a collaboration canvas, is now generally available for Windows 10 and mobile.

image

Free Teams is available immediately here.

On Microsoft Teams in Office 365, and why we prefer walled gardens to the Internet jungle

Gartner has recently delivered a report called Why Microsoft Teams will soon be just as common as Outlook, which gave me pause for reflection.

The initial success of Office 365 was almost all to do with email. Hosted Exchange at a reasonable cost is a an obvious win for businesses who were formerly on on-premises Exchange or Small Business Server. Microsoft worked to make the migration relatively seamless, and with strong Active Directory support it can be done with users hardly noticing. Exchange of course is more than just email, also handling calendars and tasks, and Outlook and Exchange are indispensable tools for many businesses.

The other pieces of Office 365, such as SharePoint, OneDrive and Skype for Business (formerly Lync) took longer to gain traction, in part because of flaws in the products. Exchange has always been an excellent email server, but in cloud document storage and collaboration Microsoft’s solution was less good than alternatives like DropBox and Box, and ties to desktop Office are a mixed blessing, welcome because Office is familiar and capable, but also causing friction thanks to the need for old-style software installations.

Microsoft needed to up its game in areas beyond email, and to its credit it has done so. SharePoint and OneDrive are much improved. In addition, the company has introduced a range of additional applications, including StaffHub for managing staff schedules, Planner for project planning and task assignment, and PowerApps for creating custom applications without writing code.

We have also seen a boost to the cloud-based Dynamics suite thanks to synergy between this and Office 365.

Having lots of features is one thing, winning adoption is another. Microsoft lacked a unifying piece that would integrate these various elements into a form that users could easily embrace. Teams is that piece. Introduced in March 2017, I initially thought there was nothing much to it: just a new user interface for existing features like SharePoint sites and Office 365/Exchange groups, with yet another business messaging service alongside Skype for Business and Yammer.

Software is about usability as much or more than features though, and Teams caught on. Users quickly demanded deeper integration between Teams and other parts of Office 365. It soon became obvious that from the user’s perspective there was too much overlap between Teams and Skype for Business, and in September 2017 Microsoft announced that Teams would replace Skype for Business, though this merging of two different tools is not yet complete.

image

To see why Teams has such potential you need only click Add a tab in the Windows client. Your screen fills with stuff you can add to a Team, from document links to Planner to third-party tools like Trello and Evernote.

image

This is only going to grow. Users will open Teams at the beginning of the day and live there, which is exactly the point Garner is making in its attention-grabbing title.

A good thing? Well, collaboration is good, and so is making better use of what you are paying for with an Office 365 subscription, so it has merit.

The part that troubles me is that we are losing diversity as well as granting Microsoft a firmer hold on its customers.

It all started with email, remember. But email is a disaster, replete with unwanted marketing, malware links, and some number of communications that have some possible value but which life is too short to investigate. In the consumer world, people prefer the safer world of Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, where messages are more likely to be wanted. Email is also ancient, hard to extend with new features, and generally insecure.

Business-oriented messaging software like Slack and now Teams have moved in, to give users a safer and more usable way of communicating with colleagues. Consumers prefer Facebook’s walled garden to the internet jungle, and business users are no different.

It is a trade-off though. Email, for all its faults, is open and has multiple providers. Teams is not.

This will not stop Teams from succeeding, even though there are plenty of user requests and considerable dissatisfaction with the current release. Performance can be poor, the clients for Mac and mobile not as good as for Windows, and there is no Linux client at all.

Third-parties with applications or services that make sense in the Teams environment should hasten to get their stuff available there.

Unhealthy Identity synchronization Notification: a trivial solution (and Microsoft’s useless troubleshooter)

If you use Microsoft’s AD Connect, also known as DirSync, you may have received an email like this:

image

It’s bad news: your Active Directory is not syncing with Office 365. “Azure Active Directory did not register a synchronization attempt from the Identity synchronization tool in the last 24 hours.”

I got this after upgrading AD Connect to the latest version, currently 1.1.553.

The email recommends you run a troubleshooting tool on the AD Connect server. I did that. Nothing wrong. I rebooted, it synced once, then I got another warning.

This is only a test system but I still wanted to find out what was wrong. I tweaked the sync configuration, again without fixing the issue.

Finally I found this post. Somehow, AD Connect had configured itself not to sync. You can get the current setting in PowerShell, using get-adsyncscheduler:

image

As you can see, SyncCycleEnabled is set to false. The fix is trivial, just type:

set-adsyncscheduler –SyncCycleEnabled $true

Well, I am glad to fix it, but should not Microsoft’s troubleshooting tool find this simple configuration problem?

Microsoft Office 365 Activation Hassles

Imagine you are a customer of Microsoft’s Office 365 service, including a subscription to the Office desktop applications like Word, Excel and Outlook.

One day you click on the shortcut for Word, but instead of opening, it just shows a “Starting” splash screen which never progresses.

Being smart, you try to start Word in safe mode by holding down the Ctrl key, but the exact same thing happens.

Annoying, when you want to do your work. What is going on?

I took a look at a case like this. Two things you should do (after the usual reboot):

1. Look in the event viewer. Here, I found a clue that the issue is related to software activation, specifically Event 2011 “Office Subscription Licensing exception”:

image

2. For all things related to Office licensing, open a command prompt, go to (for example) C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft Office\Office16, and type:

cscript ospp.vbs /dstatus

In this case I got the following:

image

This told me that Windows thinks TWO product keys for Office are installed. One has expired, the other is fine.

The guilty party may (or may not) be the trial version of Office typically pre-installed with a new PC. Or it could be a consequence of changing your Office 365 subscription. Neither would be the fault of the user, who is fully licensed and has done nothing other than follow Microsoft’s normal procedures for installing Office 365.

Solution: we reinstalled Office from the Office 365 portal, and attempted to remove the dud product key with:

cscript ospp.vbs /unpkey:<Last five characters of product key>

as explained here. All is well for the moment.

This kind of thing drives me nuts though. Activation and subscription license checking is for the benefit of the vendor, not the user, and should never get in the way like this.

Further, cannot Microsoft find some way of informing the user when this happens, and not have Word simply hang on starting? How difficult is it to check for licensing and activation issues, and throw up a message?

Hands on with Microsoft’s ADConnect

I’ve been trying Microsoft’s ADConnect tool, the replacement for the utility called DirSync, which synchronises on-premises Active Directory with Azure AD, the directory used by Office 365.

It is therefore a key piece in Microsoft’s hybrid cloud story.

In my case I have a small office set-up with Active Directory running on Server 2012 R2 VMs. I also have an Office 365 tenant that I use for testing Microsoft’s latest cloud stuff. I have long had a few basic questions about how the sync works so I created a small Server 2012 R2 VM on which to install it.

ADConnect can be installed on a Domain Controller, though this used to be unsupported for DirSync. However it seems to be tidier to give ADConnect its own server, and less likely to cause problems.

There are a number of pre-requisites but for me the only one that mattered was that your domain must be set up on the Office 365 tenant before you configure ADConnect. You cannot configure it using the default *.onmicrosoft.com domain.

Adding a domain to Office 365 is straightforward, provided you have access to the DNS records for the domain, and provided that the domain is not already linked to another Office 365 tenant. This last point can be problematic. For example, BT uses Office 365 to provide business email services to its customers. If you want to migrate from BT to your own Office 365, detaching the domain from BT’s tenant, to which you do not have admin access, is a hassle.

When I tried to set up my domain, I found another problem. At some point I must have signed up for a trial of Power BI, and without my realising it, this created an Office 365 tenant. I could not progress until I worked out how to get admin access to this Power BI tenant and assign my user account a different primary email address. The best way to discover such problems is to attempt to add the domain and note any error messages. And to resist the wizard’s efforts to get you to set up your domain in a different tenant to the one that you want.

That done, I ran the setup for ADConnect. If you use the Express settings, it is straightforward. It requires SQL Server, but installs its own instance of SQL Server Express LocalDB by default.

image

You enter credentials for your Office 365 tenant and for your on-premises AD, then the wizard tells you what it will do.

image

I was interested in the link on the next screen, which describes how to get all your Windows 10 domain-joined computers automatically “registered” to Azure AD, enabling smoother integration.

image

If you follow the link, and read the comments, you may be put off; I was. It involves configuring Active Directory Federation Services as well as Group Policy and looks fiddly. I suspect this is worth doing though, and hope that configuration will be more automated in due course.

The next step was to look at the outcome. One thing that is important to understand is that synced users are distinct from other Office 365 users. Imagine then that you have existing users in Office 365 and you want to match them with existing on-premises users, rather than creating new ones. This should work if ADConnect can match the primary email address. It will convert the matching Azure AD user into a synced user. Otherwise, it will just create new users, even if there are existing Azure AD users with the same names. If it goes wrong, there are ways to recover. Note that the users are not actually linked via the email address, they are linked by an attribute called an ImmutableID.

The Office 365 admin portal is fully aware of synced users and the user list shows the distinction. Users are designated as “In Cloud” or “Synced with Active Directory”.

image

Synced users cannot be deleted from the Office 365 portal. You delete them in on-premises AD and they disappear.

The next obvious issue is that if you dive in like me and just install ADConnect with Express Settings, you will get all your on-premises users and groups in Azure AD. In my case I have things like “ASP.NET Machine Account”, various IUSR* accounts, users created by various applications, and groups like “DHCP Administrators” and “Exchange Trusted Subsystem” that do not belong in Office 365.

These accounts do not do much harm; they do not consume licenses or mess up Office 365. On the other hand, they are annoying and confusing. You may also have business reasons to exclude some users from synchronization.

Fortunately, there are various ways to fine-tune, both before and after initial synchronization. You can read about it here. This document also states:

With filtering, you can control which objects should appear in Azure AD from your on-premises directory. The default configuration takes all objects in all domains in the configured forests. In general, this is the recommended configuration.

I find this puzzling, in that I cannot see the benefit in having irrelevant service accounts and groups synced to Office 365 – though it is not entirely obvious what is safe to exclude.

I went back to the ADConnect tool and reconfigured, using the Domain and OU filtering option. This time, I selected what seems to be a minimal configuration.

image

The excluded objects are meant to be deleted from Office 365, but so far they have not. I am not sure if this will fix itself. (Update: it did, though I also re-ran a full initial sync to help it along). If not, you can temporarily disable sync, manually delete them in the Office 365 portal, then re-enable sync.

What if you want to exclude a specific user? I used the steps described to create a DoNotSync filter based on setting extensionAttribute15. You use the ADConnect Synchrhonization Rules Editor to create the rule, then set the attribute using ADSIEdit or your favourite tool. This worked, and the user I marked disappeared from Office 365 on the next sync.

image

Incidentally, you can trigger an immediate sync using this PowerShell command:

Start-ADSyncSyncCycle -PolicyType Delta

Complications

Setting up ADConnect does introduce complexity into Office 365. You can no longer do everything through the portal. It is not only deletion that does not work. When I tried to set up a mailbox in Office 365 I hit this message:

image

“This user’s on-premises mailbox hasn’t been migrated to Exchange Online. The Exchange Online mailbox will be available after migration is completed.”

I can see the logic behind this, but there might be cases where you want a new empty mailbox; I am sure there is a way around it, but now there is more to go wrong.

Update: there is a rather important lesson hiding here. If you have are running Exchange on-premises and want to end up on Office 365 with ADConnect, you must take care about the order of events. Once ADConnect is running, you cannot do a cutover migration of Exchange, only a hybrid migration. If you don’t want hybrid (which adds complexity), then do the cutover migration first. Convert the on-premise mailboxes to mail-enabled users. Then run ADConnect, which will match the users based on the primary email address.

It is also obvious that ADConnect is designed for large organisations and for administrators who know their way around Active Directory. There is a simplified sync tool in Windows Server Essentials, though I have not used it. It would be good though to see something between Essentials and the complexity of ADConnect. For example, I had imagined that there might be a mapping tool that would let you see how ADConnect intends to match on-premises users with Office 365 users and let you amend and exclude users with a few clicks.

Microsoft has been working on this stuff for some time and is not done yet. In preview for example is Group Writeback, which lets you sync Office 365 groups back to on-premises AD.

image

Maybe Microsoft might also consider using different icons for the various ADConnect utilities as they do look a bit silly if you pin them to the taskbar:

image

The tools are:

  • Azure ADConnect (Wizard)
  • Synchronization Rules Editor (advanced filtering)
  • Synchronization Service WebService Connector Config (SOAP stuff)
  • Synchronization Service Key Management (what it says)

On the plus side, I have not hit any mysterious Active Directory errors and it has all worked without having to set up certificates, reverse proxies, special DNS entries (other than the standard ones for Office 365), or anything too fiddly, though note that I avoided ADFS and automatic Windows 10 registration.

Final thoughts

If you need to implement this, you will find doing what I did and trying it out on a test domain is worth it. There seem to be quite a few pitfalls, and as ever, it is easier to get it right at the start rather than trying to fix things up afterwards.

Notes from the field: Office 365 Cutover Migration for a small business and the mysteries of mail-enabled users

I assisted a small company in migrating from Small Business Server 2011 to Office 365.

SBS 2011 was the last full edition of Small Business Server, with Exchange included. It still works fine but is getting out of date, and Microsoft has no replacement other than full Exchange and multiple servers at far greater cost, or Office 365.

There must be hundreds of thousands of businesses who have done this or will do it, and you would expect Microsoft’s procedures to be pretty smooth by now. I have done this before, but not for a couple of years, so was interested to see how it now looks.

The goal here is to migrate email (I am not going to cover SharePoint or other aspects of migration here) in such a way that no email or other Oulook data in lost, and that users have a smooth transition from using an internal mail server to using Office 365.

What you do first is to set up the Office 365 tenant and add the email domain, for example yourbusiness.co.uk. You do not complete the DNS changes immediately, in particular the MX record that determines where incoming mail is sent.

Now you have a few choices. In the new Office 365 Admin center, in the Users section, there is a section called Data Migration, which has an option for Exchange. “We will … guide you through the rest of the migration experience,” it says.

If you select Exchange you are offered the Office 365 Hybrid Configuration Wizard. You do not want to use this for Small Business Server. It sets up a hybrid configuration with Exchange Federation Trust, for a setup where Office 365 and on-premises Exchange co-exist. Click on this image if you want to know more. I have no idea if it would work but it is unnecessarily complicated.

image

No, what you should do is go down the page and click “Exchange Online migration and deployment guidance for your organisation”. Now we have a few options, the main relevant ones being Cutover and Hybrid 2010. Except you cannot use Hybrid 2010 if you have a single-server setup, because this requires directory synchronization. And you cannot install DirSync, nor its successor Azure AD Connect, on a server that is a Domain Controller.

So in most SBS cases you are going to do a Cutover migration, suitable for “fewer than 2000 mailboxes” according to Microsoft. The SBS maximum is 75 so you should be fine.

Click Cutover Migration and you get to a nice migration assistant with 15 steps. Let’s get started.

image

So I did, and while it mostly works there are some gotchas and I am not impressed with the documentation. It has a combination of patronising “this is going to be easy” instructions with links that dump you into other documents that are more general, or do not cover your exact situation, particularly in the case of the mysterious “Create mail-enabled users” of which more below.

Steps 1-5 went fine and than I was on step 6, Migrate your mailboxes. This guides you to the Migration Batch tool. This tool connects to your SBS Exchange, creates Office 365 users for each Exchange mailbox if they do not already exist, and then copies all the contents of those mailboxes to the new mailboxes in Office 365.

image

While this tool is useful, I found I had what seemed to me obvious questions that the documentation, such as it is, does not address. One is, what do you do if one or more mailboxes fail to sync, or sync with errors reported, which is common. The document just advises you to look at the log files. What if you stop and then resume a migration batch, what actually happens? What if you delete and recreate a migration batch (as support sometimes advises), do you get duplicate items? Do you need to delete the existing users? How do you get to the Finalized state for a mailbox? It would be most helpful if Microsoft would provide detailed documentation for this too, but if it does, I have not found it.

The migration can take a long time, depending of course on the size of your mailboxes and the speed of your connection. I was lucky, with just 11 users it tool less than a day. I have known this tool to run for several days; it could take weeks over an ADSL connection.

Note that even when all mailboxes are synced, mail is still flowing to on-premises Exchange, so the sync is immediately out of date. You are not done yet.

The mysteries of converting to Mail-Enabled Users

I got to Synced after only a few hiccups. Now comes the strange bit. Step 7 is called Create mail-enabled users.

 

image

There are numerous problems with this step. It does not fully explain the implications of what it describes. It does not actually work without tweaking. The documentation is sloppy.

Do you need to do this step at all? No, but it does have some advantages. What it does is to remove (actually disconnect rather than delete) the on-premises mailbox from each user, and set the TargetAddress attribute in Active Directory, which tells Exchange to route mail to the TargetAddress rather than trying to deliver it locally. The TargetAddress, which is only viewable through ADSI Edit or command-line tools, should be set to the unique Office 365 email address for each users, typically username@yourbusiness.onmicrosoft.com, rather than the main email address. If I have this right (and it is not clearly explained), this means that any email that happens to arrive at on-premises Exchange, either because of old MX records, or because the on-premises Exchange is hard-coded as the target server, then it gets sent to Office 365.

Update: there is one scenario where you absolutely DO need this step. This is if you want to use ADConnect to synch on premise AD with Office 365, after doing the mail migration. See this thread and the comment:

“To covert on-premises mailboxes to mail-enabled users is required. When you convert on-premises mailboxes to mail-enabled users (MEUs), the proxy addresses and other information from the Office 365 mailboxes are copied to the MEUs, which reside in Active Directory in your on-premises organization. These MEU properties enable the Directory Synchronization tool, which you activate and install in step 3, to match each MEU with its corresponding cloud mailbox.”

The documentation for this step explains how to create a CSV file with the primary email addresses of the users to convert (this works), and then refers you to this document for the PowerShell scripts to complete the step. You will note that this document refers to Exchange 2007, though the steps also apply to Exchange 2010, and to a Staged Exchange migration, when you are doing a Cutover. Further, the scripts are embedded in the text, so you have to copy and paste. Further, the scripts do not work if you try to follow the instructions exactly. There are several issues.

First, this step seems to be in the wrong place. You should change the MX records to route mail to Office 365, and then leave an interval of at least a few hours, before doing this step. The reason is that once you convert SBS users to mail-enabled users, the Migration tool will not be able to re-sync their mailbox. You must complete a sync immediately before doing the conversion. The only way I know to force a sync is to stop and then resume the Migration Batch. Check that all mailboxes are synced, which only takes a few minutes, before doing the conversion. You may still lose an email if it arrives in the window between the last sync and the conversion, which is why you should change the MX records first.

Second, if you run ExportO365UserInfo.ps1 in the Small Business Server Exchange Shell, it will not work, since “By default, Import-PSSession does not import commands that have the same name as commands in the current session.” This means that when the script runs mailbox commands they run against the local Exchange server rather than Office 365, unless you use the –AllowClobber parameter. I found the solution was to run this script on another machine.

Third, the script still does not work, since, in my case at least, the Migration Batch did not populate the onmicrosoft.com email address for imported users. I fixed this with a handy script.

Note that the second script, Exchange2007MBtoMEU.ps1, must be run in the SBS server Exchange Shell, otherwise it will not work.

Bearing in mind all these hazards, you might think that the whole, not strictly necessary, step of converting to mail-enabled users is not worth it. That is perfectly reasonable.

Finishing the job

Bearing in mind the above, the next steps do not altogether make sense. In particular, step 11, which says to make sure that:

“Office 365 mailboxes were synchronized at least once after mail began being sent directly to them. To do this, make sure that the value in the Last Synced Time box for the migration batch is more recent than when mail started being routed directly to Office 365 mailboxes.”

In fact, you will get errors here if you followed Step 7 to create mail-enabled users. Did anyone at Microsoft try to follow these steps?

Still, I have to say that the outcome in our case was excellent. Everything was copied correctly, and the Migration Batch tool even successfully replicated fiddly things like calendar permissions. The transition was smooth.

Note that you should not attempt to point an existing Outlook profile at the Office 365 Exchange. Instead, create a new profile. Otherwise I am not sure what happens; you probably get thousands of duplicate items.

One puzzle. I did not spot any duplicates in the synced mailboxes, but the item count increased by around 20% compared to the old mailboxes, as reported by PowerShell. Currently a mystery.

Closing words

I am puzzled that Microsoft does not have any guidance specifically for Small Business Server migrations, given how common these are, as well as by the poor and inaccurate documentation as noted above.

There are perhaps two factors at play. One is that Microsoft expects businesses of any size to use partners for this kind of work, who specialise in knowing the pitfalls. Second, the company seems so focused on enterprises that the needs of small businesses are neglected. Note, for example, the strong push for businesses to use the Azure AD Connect tool even though this requires a multi-server setup. There is a special tool in Windows Server Essentials, but this does not apply for businesses using a Standard edition of Small Business Server.

Finally, note that there are third-party tools you can use for this kind of migration, in particular BitTitan’s MigrationWiz, which may well be easier though a small cost is involved.

Microsoft at Ignite: Building on Office 365, getting more like Google, Adobe mysteries and FPGA magic

I’m just back from Microsoft’s Ignite event in Atlanta, Georgia, where around 23,000 attendees mostly in IT admin roles assembled to learn about the company’s platform.

There are always many different aspects to this type of event. The keynotes (there were two) are for news and marketing hype, while there is lots of solid technical content in the sessions, of which of course you can only attend a small fraction. There was also an impressive Expo at Ignite, well supported both by third parties and by Microsoft, though getting to it was a long walk and I fear some will never find it. If you go to one of these events, I recommend the Microsoft stands because there are normally some core team members hanging around each one and you can get excellent answers to questions as well as a chance to give them some feedback.

The high level story from Ignite is that the company is doing OK. The event was sold out and Corporate VP Brad Anderson assured me that many more tickets could have been sold, had the venue been bigger. The vibe was positive and it looks like Microsoft’s cloud transition is working, despite having to compete with Amazon on IaaS (Infrastructure as a service) and with Google on productivity and collaboration.

My theory here is that Microsoft’s cloud advantage is based on Office 365, of which the core product is hosted Exchange and the Office suite of applications licensed by subscription. The dominance of Exchange in business made the switch to Office 365 the obvious solution for many companies; as I noted in 2011, the reality is that many organisations are not ready to give up Word and Excel, Outlook and Active Directory. The move away from on-premises Exchange is also compelling, since running your own mail server is no fun, and at the small business end Microsoft has made it an expensive option following the demise of Small Business Server. Microsoft has also made Office 365 the best value option for businesses licensing desktop Office; in fact, I spoke to one attendee who is purchasing a large volume of Office 365 licenses purely for this reason, while still running Exchange on-premises. Office 365 lets users install Office on up to 5 PCs, Macs and mobile devices.

Office 365 is only the starting point of course. Once users are on Office 365 they are also on Azure Active Directory, which becomes a hugely useful single sign-on for cloud applications. Microsoft is now building a sophisticated security story around Azure AD. The company can also take advantage of the Office 365 customer base to sell related cloud services such as Dynamics CRM online. Integrating with Office 365 and/or Azure AD has also become a great opportunity for developers. If I had any kind of cloud-delivered business application, I would be working hard to get it into the Office Store and try to win a place on the newly refreshed Office App Launcher.

image

Office 365 users have had to put up with a certain amount of pain, mainly around the interaction between SharePoint online/OneDrive for Business and their local PC. There are signs that this is improving, and a key announcement made at Ignite by Jeff Teper is that SharePoint (which includes Team Sites) will be supported by the new generation sync client, which I hope means goodbye to the ever-problematic Groove client and a bit less confusion over competing OneDrive icons in the notification area.

A quick shout-out too for SharePoint Groups, despite its confusing name (how many different kinds of groups are there in Office 365?). Groups are ad-hoc collections of users which you set up for a project, department or role. Groups then have an automatic email distribution list, shared inbox, calendar, file library, OneNote notebook (a kind of Wiki) and a planning tool. Nothing you could not set up before, but packaged in a way that is easy to grasp. I was told that usage is soaring which does not surprise me.

I do not mean to diminish the importance of Azure, the cloud platform. Despite a few embarrassing outages, Microsoft has evolved the features of the service rapidly as well as building the necessary global infrastructure to support it. At Ignite, there were several announcements including new, more powerful virtual machines, IPv6 support, general availability of Azure DNS, faster networking up to an amazing 25 Gbps powered by FPGAs, and the public preview of a Web Application Firewall; the details are here:

My overall take on Azure? Microsoft has the physical infrastructure to compete with AWS though Amazon’s service is amazing, reliable and I suspect can be cheaper bearing in mind Amazon’s clever pricing options and lower price for application services like database management, message queuing, and so on. If you want to run Windows server and SQL server in the cloud Azure will likely be better value. Value is not everything though, and Microsoft has done a great job on making Azure accessible; with a developer hat on I love how easy it is to fire up VMs or deploy web applications via Visual Studio. Microsoft of course is busy building hooks to Azure into its products so that if you have System Center on-premises, for example, you will be constantly pushed towards Azure services (though note that the company has also added support for other public clouds in places).

There are some distinctive features in Microsoft’s cloud platform, not least the forthcoming Azure Stack, private cloud as an appliance.

I put “getting more like Google” in my headline, why is that? A couple of reasons. One is that CEO Satya Nadella focused his keynote on artificial intelligence (AI), which he described as “the ability to reason over large amounts of data and convert that into intelligence,” and then, “How we infuse every application, Cortana, Office 365, Dynamics 365 with intelligence.” He went on to describe Cortana (that personal agent that gets a bit in the way in Windows 10) as “the third run time … it’s what helps mediate the human computer interaction.” Cortana, he added, “knows you deeply. It knows your context, your family, your work. It knows the world. It is unbounded. In other words, it’s about you, it’s not about any one device. It goes wherever you go.”

I have heard this kind of speech before, but from Google’s Eric Schmidt rather than from Microsoft. While on the consumer side Google is better at making this work, there is an opportunity in a business context for Microsoft based on Office 365 and perhaps the forthcoming LinkedIn acquisition; but clearly both companies are going down the track of mining data in order to deliver more helpful and customized experiences.

It is also noticeable that Office 365 is now delivering increasing numbers of features that cannot be replicated on-premises, or that may come to on-premises one day but Office 365 users get them first. Further, Microsoft is putting significant effort into improving the in-browser experience, rather than pushing users towards Windows applications as you might have expected a few years back. It is cloud customers who are now getting the best from Microsoft.

While Microsoft is getting more like Google, I do not mean to say that it is like Google. The business model is different, with Microsoft’s based on paid licenses versus Google’s primarily advertising model. Microsoft straddles cloud and on-premises whereas Google has something close to a pure cloud play – there is Android, but that drives advertising and cloud services rather than being a profit centre in itself. And so on.

There were a couple more notable events during Nadella’s keynote.

image
Distinguished Engineer Doug Burger and one of Microsoft’s custom FPGA boards.

One was Distinguished Engineer Doug Burger’s demonstration of the power of FPGA boards which have been added to Azure servers, sitting between the servers and the network so they can operate in part independently from their hosts (see my short interview with Burger here).

During the keynote, he gave what he called a “visual demo” of the impact of these FPGA accelerators on Azure’s processing power. First we saw accelerated image recognition. Then a translation example, using Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a demo:

image

The FPGA-enabled server consumed less power but performed the translation 8 times faster. The best was to come though. What about translating the whole of English Wikipedia? “I’ll show you what would happen if we were to throw most of our existing global deployment at it,” said Burger.

image

“Less than a tenth of a second” was the answer. Looking at that screen showing 1 Exa-op felt like being present at the beginning of a computing revolution. As the Top500 supercomputing site observes, “the fact the Microsoft has essentially built the world’s first exascale computer is quite an achievement.” Exascale is a billion billion operations per second.

However, did we see Wikipedia translated, or just an animation? Bearing in mind first, that Burger spoke of “what would happen”, and second, that the screen says “Estimated time”, and third, that the design of Azure’s FPGA network (as I understand it) means that utilising it could impact other users of the service (since all network traffic to the hosts goes through these boards), it seems that we saw a projected result and not an actual result – which means we should be sceptical about whether this would actually work as advertised, though it remains amazing.

One more puzzle before I wrap up. Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen appeared on stage with Nadella, in the morning keynote, to announce that Adobe will make Azure its “preferred cloud.” This appears to include moving Adobe’s core cloud services from Amazon Web Services, where they currently run, to Azure. Narayen:

“we’re thrilled and excited to be announcing that we are going to be delivering all of our clouds, the Adobe Document Cloud, the Marketing Cloud and the Creative Cloud, on Azure, and it’s going to be our preferred way of bringing all of this innovation to market.”

Narayen said that Adobe’s decision was based on Microsoft’s work in machine learning and intelligence. He also looked forward to integrating with Dynamics CRM for “one unified and integrated sales and marketing service.”

This seems to me interesting in all sorts of ways, not only as a coup for Microsoft’s cloud platform versus AWS, but also as a case study in migrating cloud services from one public cloud to another. But what exactly is Adobe doing? I received the following statement from an AWS spokesperson:

“We have a significant, long-term relationship and agreement with Adobe that hasn’t changed. Their customers will want to use AWS, and they’re committed to continuing to make that easy.”

It does seem strange to me that Adobe would want to move such a significant cloud deployment, that as far as I know works well. I am trying to find out more.

UK South or UK West? Microsoft opens new data centres for Azure and Office 365

Microsoft has opened “multiple data centre locations in the UK” to run Azure and Office 365 cloud services.

I went to the Azure portal to create a new VM, to see the new options. It looks like you have to use the new portal. Here is what I got in the old portal:

image

In the new one though, I can choose between UK South and UK West.

image

An Azure region is composed of multiple data centres so this looks like a substantial investment. According to this document, the new regions are located in Cardiff and London.

image

The new infrastructure supports Azure and Office 365 today, with Dynamics CRM Online promised for the “first half of 2017”, according to the announcement.

Early customers are the Ministry of Defence, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, Aston Martin, Capita and Rosslyn Analytics.

The announcement will help Microsoft and its partners sell these services to UK businesses concerned about compliance issues; there may also be some latency benefit. That said, Microsoft is a US corporation and the US government has argued that it can access this data with only a US search warrant. Microsoft has resisted this and won an appeal in July 2016; however there could always be new legislation. There is no simple answer.

Amazon Web Services has also announced plans for UK data centres; in fact, AWS was the first to reveal plans, but Microsoft has been quicker with implementation.

Notes from the field: Office 365 pain following Windows 10 upgrade

I got involved in looking at a PC where a few Office 365 problems had arisen following an upgrade to Windows 10 (prompted by Microsoft supposedly ending its free upgrade offer).

In particular, SharePoint online was crashing Internet Explorer. Internet Explorer? Don’t Windows 10 users stick to Edge?

Unfortunately Edge is problematic with certain sites. It works OK with Office 365 but there are some issues. For example, open a SharePoint document library in IE and you get the very useful option to “Open with Explorer”, an Explorer UI for your cloud-hosted files.

image

Try this in Edge and you get:

image

Note how the help information does not tell you how to fix the problem.

For reasons like this, the user still had a shortcut to SharePoint online in IE on the Windows 10 taskbar. Click it though, and IE would crash with its “Internet Explorer has stopped working” dialog.

Probably an add-on, I thought. This was proved right when I opened IE with add-ons disabled – try running:

"%ProgramFiles%\Internet Explorer\iexplore.exe" –extoff

– and found that SharePoint online worked fine. After some experimentation, I discovered that the SharePoint Export Database Launcher add-on was causing the problem. Disabled it and SharePoint worked fine.

image

This add-on is installed by Microsoft Office. It prompts a couple of thoughts.

I do not know if every Windows 10 PC is similarly afflicted, but problems like this do suggest a lack of quality control in some areas. It is also unfortunate that when you install Office 365 Professional Plus you do not get any options; you get everything. Including, in this case, a buggy add-on.

Second, I wish Microsoft would pause from its energetic feature work with Office 365 and sort out the core functionality of working with documents in SharePoint online. As someone pointed out to me on Twitter today, the situation with OneDrive sync clients remains a mess, and when it goes wrong it is not always easy to troubleshoot.

Incidentally, I cannot resist telling you how to fix another OneDrive for Business issue. Here’s the problem: you open a document library in a web browser (even works in Edge), hit Sync, and OneDrive for Business fires up. If this is the first document library to be synced you might be prompted to sign in. So you enter your email address, hit Next, and then enter your password and click Sign in. Sometimes though nothing happens and you can’t sign in. What’s the fix? Don’t click Sign-in, press Enter!

Microsoft financials April-June 2016: on track but continued drift away from consumers

Microsoft has announced its latest financials, and I have made a quick table summarising the year-on-year comparison for the quarter. See the end of this post for what the confusing segment categories represent.

Quarter ending  June 30th 2016 vs quarter ending June 30th 2015, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 6969 +308 3000 -167
Intelligent Cloud 6711 +415 2190 -443
More Personal Computing 8897 -346 964 +359
Corporate and Other -1963 -1943 -3074 +5384

A few observations.

Office 365 is Microsoft’s current big success. According to the company’s press release, Office 365 revenue grew 54%, which is huge. However, on-premise sales declined which meant that overall revenue growth in “Office commercial products and cloud services” was only 5%. Still, that’s a successful transition.

The picture was similar in consumer Office, with Office 365 consumer increasing by 23.1% while overall revenue grew by only 19%.

Dynamics CRM is moving to the cloud. Microsoft says that Dynamics CRM online grew by more than 2.5 times, while overall revenue grew only 6%. The maths may be deceptive, if CRM online grew from a small base, but it is a clear trend. Not to be confused with Dynamics 365, which is ERP/Business process management, though Nadella is also bullish on the latter.

Azure revenue grew 102%.  Microsoft’s cloud results are not quite as sparkling as those from Amazon Web Services, but still impressive.

Enterprise Mobility is growing. This is a suite of tools built around InTune, Microsoft’s Mobile Device Management solution.

Surface is doing OK. Revenue up 9% thanks to Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book.

Windows news is mixed. “Windows OEM non-Pro revenue grew 27% and OEM Pro 2%” says the release, which given the weak PC market is decent. Windows 10 is at 350 million active devices, which Nadella said in the earnings webcast is the fastest ever adoption rate for a new version Windows; hardly surprising given the free upgrade offer and high-pressure upgrade marketing.

Xbox news is mixed. Gaming revenue is down 9%. Xbox Live revenue grew 4% but Xbox console revenue is down.

Windows Phone dives towards oblivion. Revenue is down 71%, from a base that was already tiny.

Microsoft cares less and less about consumers. “We will deliver more value and innovation” in Windows, says Nadella, “particularly for enterprise customers.” I also note the remark in the press release that “Search advertising revenue excluding traffic acquisition costs grew 16% (up 17% in constant currency) with continued benefit from Windows 10 usage,” suggesting that part of the Windows 10 consumer strategy is to use it as a vehicle for advertising; this is known in the business as “adware” and does not encourage me; it will push canny users towards Mac or Linux. In the earnings call, Nadella said that 40% of search advertising revenue is from Windows 10 devices. “The Cortana search box has over 100 million monthly active users with 8 billion questions asked to date,” said Nadella.

A reminder of Microsoft’s segments:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, both commercial and consumer, including retail sales, volume licenses, Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Skype for Business, Skype consumer, OneDrive, Outlook.com. Microsoft Dynamics including Dynamics CRM, Dynamics ERP, both online and on-premises sales.

Intelligent Cloud: Server products not mentioned above, including Windows server, SQL Server, Visual Studio, System Center, as well as Microsoft Azure.

More Personal Computing: What a daft name, more than what? Still, this includes Windows in all its non-server forms, Windows Phone both hardware and licenses, Surface hardware, gaming including Xbox, Xbox Live, and search advertising.