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.


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.

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:


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.


“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.

Azure Stack on show at Microsoft Ignite

At the Expo here at Microsoft’s Ignite you can see Azure Stack – though behind glass.


Azure Stack is Microsoft’s on-premises edition of Azure, a private cloud in a box. Technical Preview 2 has just been released, with two new services: Azure Queue Storage and Azure Key Vault. You can try it out on a single server just to get a feel for it; the company calls this a “one node proof of concept”.

Azure Stack will be delivered as an appliance, hence the exhibition here. There are boxes from Dell, HP Enterprise and Lenovo on display. General availability is planned for mid-2017 according to the folk on the stand.

There is plenty of power in one of these small racks, but what if there is a fire or some other disaster? Microsoft recommends purchasing at least two, and locating them some miles from one another, so you can set up resilience just as you can between Azure regions.

Incidentally, the Expo at Ignite seems rather quiet; it is not on the way to anything other than itself, and I have to allow 10-15 minutes to walk there from the press room. I imagine the third party exhibitors may be disappointed by the attendance, though I may just have picked a quiet time. There is a huge section with Microsoft stands and this is a great way to meet some of the people on the various teams and get answers to your questions.

Microsoft pivot: Ignite is now its key conference

I have been covering Microsoft for quite a few years and it was always clear to me that the must-attend event, if you want to keep up with the company, was the Professional Developer Conference (PDC), and after that was scrapped, its successor developer event Build.

The reason for this is that at PDC or Build the company gives in-depth presentations on the latest features of its developer platform. Pivotal events that I recall include PDC 2003 where we learned about the “Three pillars of Longhorn”, PDC 2008 where Windows 7 was previewed, and Build 2011 where Windows 8 was unveiled.

Two of these three worked out badly for the company, and one fantastically well. The three pillars of Longhorn became the two pillars of Vista after a notorious “reset” of Windows development, while Windows 8 was so hated in the PC community that Microsoft retreated to the more familiar and desktop-oriented Windows 10 a few years later.

Windows 7 on the other hand was such a success that even today, more than a year after the release of Windows 10, many PCs ship with Windows 7 pre-loaded and 10 as an upgrade option. Well, maybe that is a sign of failure (of the later versions) rather than success; but however you choose to spin it, it has been hugely popular.

Perhaps I should also mention PDC 2000 where the .NET Framework was announced (strictly, it was announced at TechEd Europe the previous week, but I digress). That one worked out pretty well I guess, though not without internal conflict between the C++ folk and the .NET Folk – played out in both the Longhorn story and the Windows 8 story.


The reason though why these events were so strategically revealing was that nothing at Microsoft mattered more than the direction of Windows. These events were about informing and attracting developers to the Windows platform.

Alongside its developer events, Microsoft has always held others aimed more at system administrators, events like TechEd (especially the USA variant), MEC (Microsoft Exchange Conference) and Microsoft Management Summit (last held in 2013). While always interesting, it seemed to me that these IT Admin events were less strategic than the developer events, because the Windows platform was the foundation of the company’s business and it was at the developer events that you saw this platform evolve.

In August 2013 Microsoft co-founder Steve Ballmer stepped down as CEO, to be replaced by server guy Satya Nadella, accelerating the company’s pivot away from Windows and towards Office 365 and Azure as its key platform. Microsoft’s cloud runs on Windows of course, even if many of the VMs on Azure end up running Linux, but the company is now keen to emphasize its support for any operating system – or to be more precise, Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and that vague thing IoT – presumably on the basis that broad endpoint support makes its cloud offering more compelling.

I could write screeds about Windows 10 and its evolution, about which I have mixed feelings. Windows for sure remains critically important to Microsoft, and indeed to all of us who feel that it meets needs that its competition does not address. (The answer is not always “just use a Mac”, if only because of Apple’s addiction to premium pricing and high profit margins).

Nevertheless, it is the cloud and hybrid cloud offerings that come first in today’s Microsoft, and Windows server rather than Windows 10 that is more strategically important.

That is why Microsoft Ignite, which starts on Monday 26th September 2016 and is aimed primarily at IT administrators, that is now the key event. Here we will see the formal launch of Server 2016 as well as Azure and Office 365 news; and I plan to pay close attention.

On GitHub and GitHub Universe

I’ve been at GitHub Universe in San Francisco for the last few days. Around 1500 developers (not sure if that figure includes staff and exhibitors) in a warehouse at Pier 70. The venue was beautifully converted into an interaction space. Here is the view from outside as we were leaving; Octocat seems to be waving goodbye:


The main stage done up like a spaceship:


There was a large area for mingling, overseen by Octocat:


Plenty of space outside too, with a high standard of food and drink on offer.


There was also a “send a postcard” area where you could write a card; with cards, pens, stamps and postbox supplied there was no excuse not to do so:


You are probably thinking, when do we get to the techie stuff; but in some ways it is better to look at the space GitHub created and ask what it tells you about the company.

Running an event like this is not cheap, and I think we can conclude that GitHub has a business model that works. Further, there was a generous and inclusive spirit to the event which was good to experience. Kimberly Bryant from Black Girls Code spoke at the opening keynote – the event concert was a Black Girls Code benefit – and while there is often an element of PR in the causes which businesses choose to sponsor, I don’t question the authenticity of GitHub’s efforts to promote both coding and diversity in our sadly imbalanced software industry.


In some ways then the actual technical content was not the most important thing about this event. That said, there was some excellent content on themes including how GitHub scales its own service, new project management and code review features in GitHub, and how the product is evolving its add-in or “integrations” platform.

I also learned a bit about Electron, a framework for “creating native Desktop applications with web technologies” based on Chromium and Node.js. Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code uses Electron, as does GitHub’s own Atom editor.

If you are developer, you will be familiar with GitHub; it is the obvious choice for hosting an open source project (free) and a popular option for private repositories. When Google Code closed in 2015, the announcement cited the migration of developers to GitHub as the key reason and acknowledge that it was among “a wide variety of better hosting services” than Google’s own. “To meet developers where they are, we ourselves migrated nearly a thousand of our own open source projects from Google Code to GitHub,” remarked Google’s Chris DiBona. That was a pivotal moment, showing how GitHub has become a core part of the open source ecosystem as well as a strong commercial product for private and enterprise repositories.

GitHub does seem to take its responsibilities seriously and the fact that is has found a successful balance between free and commercial services is something to be thankful for.

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:


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


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.


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.

HP’s Elite Slice and the problem with modular PCs

“HP reinvents the desktop” says the press release announcing the Elite Slice, a small modular PC, composed of square sections which you stack together.


“It is the first modular commercial desktop with cable-less connectivity” adds the release, which caused me to pause. I was sure I had seen something like it before; and certainly it looks not unlike Acer’s Revo Build:


Acer’s Revo Build

Nevertheless, I have a high regard for HP’s PC products, and often recommend them, so I was interested in the Elite Slice.

The base unit is 6.5″ (16.51cm) square and 1.38″ (3.5cm) deep and can be powered from a display using a USB Type-C cable to minimise cables. Various specifications are available, with 6th gen Intel Core i3, i5 or i7, and up to 32GB RAM. HDMI and DisplayPort video output is included. Storage is SSD from 128GB to 512GB. Availability is from the end of September 2016, and price is “from £500”.

In practice you are likely to spend more than that. On HP’s US site, you can order an Elite Slice G1 with Windows 10 Pro, Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, USB mouse, 65 watt power supply for $1235.00 (around £950).

So what modules can you get? On offer currently is an optical disk drive and a Bang & Olufsen audio module. There is also a mounting plate that lets you fix the unit to the wall.

There are other options that are not actual modules, but can be specified when you purchase. These include a wireless charging plate (so you can charge your phone by placing it on top of the Slice) and a fingerprint reader.

There is also a HP Collaboration Cover which once again has to be specified with your original purchase. This is for conferencing and adds the functionality of a Skype for Business (Lync) phone. You can buy this bundled with the audio module as the “Elite Slice for Meeting Rooms”, priced from £649.

I looked at the Elite Slice at the Showstoppers press event just before the IFA show in Berlin last week. It is a good looking unit and will likely be fine as a small business PC.

That said, I am a sceptic when it comes to the modular concept. For a start, the HP Elite is not all that modular, with several options only available on initial purchase (fingerprint reader, wireless charging, conferencing cover). “Covers … require factory configuration and cannot be combined with other Slice covers” says the small print; so if you want wireless charging as well as conferencing, bad luck.

Second, the HP Elite Slice is actually less modular than a traditional PC. While I was looking at the PC, another visitor asked whether a more powerful GPU is available. “We are looking at doing a GPU module” was the answer. However, buy a standard PC with a PCI Express slot and you can choose from a wide range of GPUs, though you might need to upgrade the power supply to run it; that is also easily done.

The downside of a traditional PC is that it is bulky and clunky compared to a neat thing like the Elite; but it sits under the desk so who cares?

Be warned too that if you buy a HP Elite in the hope of a regular flow of exciting modules over the next year or two, you may well be disappointed. Another bright idea will come along and the Elite will be forgotten – just as we heard nothing from Acer about the Revo Build at this year’s IFA.

More details on the Elite Slice are here.