Tag Archives: cloud computing

Microsoft Azure Stack: a matter of compliance

At the Ignite conference last week in Orlando, Microsoft’s hardware partners were showing off their latest Azure Stack boxes.

In conversation, one mentioned to me that Azure Stack was selling better in Europe than in the USA. Why? Because stricter compliance regulations (perhaps alongside the fact that the major cloud platforms are all based in North America) makes Azure Stack more attractive in Europe.

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Lenovo’s Azure Stack

Azure Stack is not just “Azure for your datacentre”. It is a distinctive way to purchase IT infrastructure, where you buy the hardware but pay for the software with a usage-based model.

Azure / Azure Stack VMs are resilient so you cannot compare the value directly with simply running up a VM on your own server. Azure Stack is a premium option. The benefits are real. Microsoft mostly looks after the software, you can use the excellent Azure management tools, and you get deep integration with Azure in the cloud. Further, you can diminish the cost by scaling back at times of low demand; especially easy if you use abstracted services such as App Service, rather than raw VMs.

How big is the premium? I would be interested to hear from anyone who has done a detailed comparison, but my guess is that running your own servers with Windows Server Datacenter licenses (allowing unlimited VMs once all the cores are licensed) is substantially less expensive.

You can see therefore that there is a good fit for organizations that want to be all-in on the cloud, but need to run some servers on-premises for compliance reasons.

Microsoft’s 82 Ignite announcements: what really matters

Microsoft’s PR team has helpfully summarised many of the announcements at the Ignite event, kicking off today in Orlando. I count 82, but you might make it fewer or many more, depending on what you call an announcement. And that is not including the business apps announcements made at the end of last week, most notably the arrival of the HoloLens-based Remote Assist in Dynamics 365.

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Not all announcements are equal. Some, like the release of Windows Server 2019, are significant but not really news; we knew it was coming around now, and the preview has been around for ages. Others, like larger Azure managed disk sizes (8, 16 and 32TB) are cool if that is what you need, but hardly surprising; the specification of available cloud infrastructure is continually being enhanced.

Note that this post is based on what Microsoft chose to reveal to press ahead of the event, and there is more to come.

It is worth observing though that of these 82 announcements, only 3 or 4 are not cloud related:

  • SQL Server 2019 public preview
  • [Windows Server 2019 release] – I am bracketing this because many of the new features in Server 2019 are Azure-related, and it is listed under the heading Azure Infrastructure
  • Chemical Simulation Library for Microsoft Quantum
  • Surface Hub 2 release promised later this year

Microsoft’s journey from being an on-premises company, to being a service provider, is not yet complete, but it is absolutely the focus of almost everything new.

I will never forget an attendee at a previous Microsoft event a few years back telling me, “this cloud stuff is not relevant to us. We have our own datacenter.” I cannot help wondering how much Office 365 and/or Azure that person’s company is consuming now. Of course on-premises servers and applications remain important to Microsoft’s business, but it is hard to swim against the tide.

Ploughing through 82 announcements would be dull for me to write and you to read, so here are some things that caught my eye, aside from those already mentioned.

1. Azure confidential computing in public preview. A new series of VMs using Intel’s SGX technology lets you process data in a hardware-enforced trusted execution environment.

2. Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise. Currently invite-only, this is intended to make it easier to write business bots “to improve workforce productivity” – or perhaps, an effort to reduce the burden on support staff. I recall examples of using conversational bots for common employee queries like “how much holiday allowance do I have remining, and which days can I take off?”. As to what is really new here, I have yet to discover.

3. A Python SDK for Azure Machine Learning. Important given the popularity of Python in this space.

4. Unified search in Microsoft 365. Is anyone using Delve? Maybe not, which is why Microsoft is bringing a search box to every cloud application, which is meant to use Microsoft Graph, AI and Bing to search across all company data and bring you personalized results. Great if it works.

5. Azure Digital Twins. With public preview promised on October 15, this lets you build “comprehensive digital models of any physical environment”. Once you have the model, there are all sorts of possibilities for optimization and safe experimentation.

6. Azure IoT Hub to support the Android Things platform via the Java SDK. Another example of Microsoft saying, use what you want, we can support it.

7. Azure Data Box Edge appliance. The assumption behind Edge computing is both simple and compelling: it pays to process data locally so you can send only summary or interesting data to the cloud. This appliance is intended to simplify both local processing and data transfer to Azure.

8. Azure Functions 2.0 hits general availability. Supports .NET Core, Python.

9. Helm repositories in Azure Container Registry, now in public preview.

10 Windows Autopilot support extended to existing devices. This auto-configuration feature previously only worked with new devices. Requires Windows 10 October Update, or automated upgrade to this.

Office and Office 365

In the Office 365 space there are some announcements:

1. LinkedIn integration with Office 365. Co-author documents and send emails to LinkedIn contacts, and surface LinkedIn information in meeting invites.

2. Office Ideas. Suggestions as you work to improve the design of your document, or suggest trends and charts in Excel. Sounds good but I am sceptical.

3. OneDrive for Mac gets Files on Demand. A smarter way to use cloud storage, downloading only files that you need but showing all available documents in Mac Finder.

4. New staff scheduling tools in Teams. Coming in October. ”With new schedule management tools, managers can now create and share schedules,employees can easily swap shifts, request time off, and see who else is working.” Maybe not a big deal in itself, but Teams is huge as I previously noted. Apparently the largest Team is over 100,000 strong now and there are 50+ out there with 10,000 or more members.

Windows Virtual Desktop

This could be nothing, or it could be huge. I am working on the basis of a one-paragraph statement that promises “virtualized Windows and Office on Azure … the only cloud-based service that delivers a multi-user Windows 10 experience, is optimized for Office 365 Pro Plus … with Windows Virtual Desktop, customers can deploy and scale Windows and Office on Azure in minutes, with built-in security and compliance.”

Preview by the end of 2018 is targeted.

Virtual Windows desktops are already available on Azure, via partnership with Citrix or VMWare Horizon, but Microsoft has held back from what is technically feasible in order to protect its Windows and Office licensing income. By the time you have paid for licenses for Windows Server, Remote Access per user, Office per user, and whatever third-party technology you are using, it gets expensive.

This is mainly about licensing rather than technology, since supporting multiple users running Office applications is now a light load for a modern server.

If Microsoft truly gets behind a pure first-party solution for hosted desktops on Azure at a reasonable cost, the take up would be considerable since it is a handy solution for many scenarios. This would not please its partners though, nor the many hosting companies which offer this.

On the other hand, Microsoft may want to compete more vigorously with Amazon Web Services and its Workspaces offering. Workspaces is still Windows, but of course integrates nicely with AWS solutions for storage, directory, email and so on, so there is a strategic aspect here.

Update: A little more on Microsoft Virtual Desktop here.

More details soon.

Google announces Cloud Build: CI/CD for the Google Cloud Platform

Google Cloud Next is under way in San Francisco, and yesterday saw the announcement of Cloud Build, Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment for the Google Cloud Platform.

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Cloud Build runs a series of automated build steps and then optionally pushes built images to Googles container registry. It is a natural fit with Kubernetes but can be used with both containerised and direct deployments.

You can create your own build steps or use a prebuilt one. The prebuilt steps are:

  • bazel: runs the bazel tool
  • curl: runs the curl tool
  • docker: runs the docker tool
  • dotnet: run the dotnet tool
  • gcloud: runs the gcloud tool
  • git: runs the git tool
  • go: runs the go tool
  • gradle: runs the gradle tool
  • gsutil: runs the gsutil tool
  • kubectl: runs the kubectl tool
  • mvn: runs the maven tool
  • npm: runs the npm tool
  • wget: runs the wget tool
  • yarn: runs the yarn tool

Note that dotnet is in there so you can use this immediately with .NET Core.

There is also an option to  build locally. For example, you could build locally and only after a successful local build, invoke Cloud Build.

Cloud Build integrates with GitHub:

With this new integration, you can easily set up CI through Cloud Build and automate builds and tests as part of your GitHub workflow.

I doubt Google celebrated when Microsoft acquired GitHub but it is good to see GitHub continuing to support diverse platforms.

Overall this is an important feature as Google races to extend its cloud platform to match what is on offer from its key competitors, AWS and Microsoft Azure.

Microsoft’s strong financials, and some notes on Azure vs AWS and the risks of losing in mobile

Microsoft delivered another strong set of figures in its latest financial results, for the period April-June 2018. Total revenue of $30.085 million was up 17% year on year, and all three of the company’s sectors (Office, Azure and consumer) showed strong growth.

What’s notable? Largely this is more of the same. A few things to note. Linked in revenue increased 37% year on year – an acquisition that seems to be making sense for the company. Dynamics 365 revenue grew by 65%. The Dynamics story is all about cloud synergy. As an on-premises product Dynamics CRM (the part of the suite I know best) was relatively undistinguished but as a cloud product the seamless integration between Office 365 and Dynamics 365 (and Azure Active Directory) makes it compelling.

Windows 10 is doing OK, possibly as more businesses heave themselves off Windows 7 and buy new PCs with OEM licenses as they do.

Even areas in which Microsoft is far from dominant did well. Gaming was up 39%, Surface 25% and Search advertising up 17%.

The biggest growth in the quarter, according to the breakdown here, was in Azure. up 89%. This growth is not without pain; the Register reports capacity issues in the UK South region, for example, with users getting the message “Unfortunately, due to high demand for virtual machines in this region, we are not able to approve your quota request at this time.” You can still create VMs, but not necessarily in the region you want.

Will Microsoft outpace AWS? My take on this has not changed. AWS does very little wrong and remains the pre-eminent cloud for IAAS and many services by some distance. What AWS does not have is Office 365, or armies of Microsoft partners helping enterprise customers to shunt more and more of their IT infrastructure into Azure. Microsoft makes more money from licensing: Windows Server, SQL Server, Office 365 and Dynamics seats, and so on. AWS does more business at a lower margin. These are big differences. I see it as unlikely that Azure will overtake AWS in the provision of essential cloud services like VMs, containers, cloud storage and so on. AWS also has a better reliability track record. However, the success of Azure means that enterprise customers no longer need to go to AWS to get the benefits of cloud. Perhaps the more interesting question is the extent to which AWS (or Google) can persuade enterprise customers to shift away from Microsoft’s high-margin applications.

Longer term, there is significant risk for the company in its retreat from mobile. We are now seeing Google work hard in the laptop market with Chromebooks alongside Android mobile. Coming sometime is Google Fuchsia which may be a single operating system for both. It is worth recalling that Microsoft built its success on winning users for its PC operating system; and that IBM lost its IT dominance by ceding this to Microsoft.

Here is the breakdown by segment, such as it is:  

Quarter ending June 30th 2018 vs quarter ending June 30th 2017, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 9668 +1140 3466 +575
Intelligent Cloud 9606 +1784 3901 +990
More Personal Computing 10811 +1576 3012 +826

The segments break down as:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and on-premises Dynamics, LinkedIn

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

More Personal Computing: Consumer including Windows, Xbox; Bing search; Surface hardware

AWS embraces hybrid cloud? Meet Snowball Edge

Amazon has announced Snowball Edge, an on-premises appliance that supports Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud), AWS Lambda (“serverless” computing) and S3 (Simple Storage Service), all running locally.

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Sounds like Microsoft’s Azure Stack? A bit, but the AWS appliance is tiny by comparison and therefore more limited in scope. Nevertheless, it is a big turnaround for the company, which has previously insisted that everything belongs in the cloud. One of the Snowball Edge case studies is the same general area as one used by Microsoft for Azure Stack: ships.

The specifications are shy about revealing what is inside, but there is 100TB storage (82TB usable), 10GB, 20GB and 40GB network connections (GBase-T, SFP+ and QSFP+), size is 259x671x386mm (pretty small), and power consumption 400 watts.

Jeff Barr’s official blog post adds that there is an “Intel Xeon D processor running at 1.8 GHz, and supports any combination of instances that consume up to 24 vCPUs and 32 GiB of memory.”

You can cluster Snowball Edge appliances though so substantial systems are possible.

Operating systems currently supported are Ubuntu Server and CentOS7.

Amazon’s approach is to extend its cloud to the edge rather than vice versa. You prepare your AMIs (Amazon Machine Instances) in the cloud before the appliance is shipped. The very fast networking support shows that the intent is to maintain the best possible connectivity, even though the nature of the requirement is that internet connectivity in some scenarios will be poor.

A point to note is that whereas the documentation emphasises use cases where there are technical advantages to on-premises (or edge) computing, Barr quotes instead a customer who wanted easier management. A side effect of the cloud computing revolution is that provisioning and managing cloud infrastructure is easier than with systems (like Microsoft’s System Center) designed for on-premises infrastructure. Otherwise they would not be viable. Having tasted what is possible in the cloud, customers want the same for on-premises.

Amazon offering Linux desktops as a service in WorkSpaces

Amazon Web Services now offers Linux desktops as part of its WorkSpaces desktop-as-a-service offering.

The distribution is called Amazon Linux 2 and includes the MATE desktop environment.

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Most virtual desktops run Windows, because most of the applications people want to run from virtual desktops are Windows applications. A virtual desktop plugs the gap between what you can do on the device you have in front of you (whether a laptop, Chromebook, iPad or whatever) and what what you can do in an office with a desktop PC.

It seems that Amazon have developers in mind to some extent. Evangelist Jeff Barr (from whom I have borrowed the screenshot above) notes:

The combination of Amazon Linux WorkSpaces and Amazon Linux 2 makes for a great development environment. You get all of the AWS SDKs and tools, plus developer favorites such as gcc, Mono, and Java. You can build and test applications in your Amazon Linux WorkSpace and then deploy them to Amazon Linux 2 running on-premises or in the cloud.

Still, there is no problem using it for any user for productivity applications; it works out a bit cheaper than Windows thanks to removing Microsoft licensing costs. Ideal for frustrated Google Chromebook users who want access to a less locked-down OS.

Cosmos DB or SQL Server? Do you need Kubernetes? VM or App Service? A guide to Azure worth checking out

One of the best features of Microsoft Build, possibly the best, is the exhibition. Microsoft sets up stands for each of its product teams, and the staff there generally include the people who actually build that product, making this a great way to interact with them and get authoritative answers to questions.

I interviewed several executives at Build and asked a couple of times, how can your customers work out which Azure service is the best fit for what they need? It is not a trivial question, now that there are so many different services which overlapping functionality.

It is critically important. You can waste a large amount of money and cause unnecessary frustration by selecting the wrong services.

None of these executives mentioned that Microsoft has a rather good guide for exactly this question. It is called the Azure Architecture Center and I discovered it on the show floor.

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The stand was called Azure Clinic and I told the guy his costume reminded me of Dr GUI. He was too young to remember this MSDN character of old but another guy on the stand overheard and said it brought back bad memories!

You can find the Azure Architecture Center here. It does not make any assumptions about the depth of knowledge you have, which seems right to me since it is aimed at developers who are not sure exactly what they need. There is a ton of useful material, like this decision tree for the compute services (click to enlarge):

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Recommended.

Microsoft Build: Azure-powered Drones, another go with Kinect, and other key announcements

Microsoft Build is kicking off today in Seattle, and the company has made a ton of announcements.

See here for some background on Build and what is happening with Microsoft’s platform.

The most eye-catching announcement is a partnership with drone manufacturer DJI which says it will make Azure its preferred cloud provider. Microsoft has announced an SDK. There is much obvious value in drones from a business perspective, for example examining pipes for damage. Sectors such as construction, agriculture and public safety are obvious candidates.

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Microsoft’s Kinect sensor was originally launched as a gaming accessory for Xbox 360 and then Xbox One. It has been a flop in gaming, but the technology has plenty of potential. Coming in 2019 is Project Kinect for Azure, a new device with upgraded sensors for connecting “AI to the edge”, in Microsoft’s words. More here.

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The Azure IoT Edge runtime is going open source. More cognitive services will now run directly on the runtime, in other words without depending on internet connectivity, including Custom Vision for image recognition (handy for drones, perhaps). A partnership with Qualcomm will support camera-powered cognitive services.

AI for Accessibility is a new initiative to use AI to empower people via assistive technology, building on previous work such as the use of Cognitive Services to help a visually impaired person “see” the world around them.

Project Brainwave is a new project to accelerate AI by running calculations on an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) in partnership with Intel.

On the Windows front, a new application called Microsoft Layout uses Mixed Reality to let customers design spaces in context, using 3D models.

Windows Timeline, new in the April 2018 Windows 10 update, is coming to iOS and Android. On Android it is a separate application, while on iOS it is incorporated into the Edge browser.

Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana are getting integration (in limited preview) such that you can call up Cortana using an Amazon Echo, or summon Alexa within Cortana on Windows.

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There is more to come, including AI updates to Visual Studio (not IntelliSense but IntelliCode), Visual Studio Live Share collaboration in preview, and a partnership with GitHub to integrate with App Center (DevOps for apps for mobile devices).

And big .NET news at Build: .NET Core 3.0 in 2019 will run Windows desktop applications, via frameworks including Windows Forms, Windows Presentation Framework (WPF), and UWP XAML.

As Microsoft Build 2018 begins, what is happening to Microsoft’s developer platform?

Microsoft’s Build developer conference starts today in Seattle.

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Ahead of Build though, it is worth noting that this Build is different in feel than previous events. The first Build was in 2011 and it was focused on Windows 8, released there in preview.Historically it has always been a Windows-focused event, though of course with some sessions on Microsoft’s wider platform.

Microsoft is changing, and the key document for those interested in the company’s direction is this one from 29th March 2018 – the most significant strategic move since the June 2015 “aligning engineering to strategy” announcement that dismantled the investment in Windows Phone.

In the March announcement CEO Satya Nadella explains that the Windows and Devices Group (WDG) has become the Experiences and Devices Group – no longer just Windows. Former WDG chief Terry Myerson is leaving Microsoft, while Rajesh Jha steps up to run the new team.

I regard this new announcement as a logical next step following the departure of Steven Sinofsky in November 2012 (the beginning of the end for Windows 8) and the end of Windows Phone announced in June 2015. Sinofsky’s vision was for Windows to be reinvented for a new era of computing devices based on touch and mobile. This strategy failed, for numerous reasons which this is not the place to re-iterate. Windows 10, by contrast, is about keeping the operating system up to date as a business workhorse and desktop operating system, a market that will slowly decline as other devices take over things that we used to do with PCs, but which will also remain important for the foreseeable future.

Windows, let me emphasise, is neither dead nor dying. We still need PCs to do our work. The always-enthusiastic Joe Belfiore is now in charge of Windows and we will continue to see a stream of new features added to the operating system, though increasingly they will work in tandem with new software for iOS and Android. However, Windows can no longer be an engine of growth at Microsoft.

Microsoft has positioned itself to succeed despite the decline of the PC, primarily through cloud services. It has made huge investments in cloud infrastructure – that is, datacenters and connectivity – as well as in the software to make that infrastructure useful, from low-level server and network virtualisation to a large range of high level services (which is where the biggest profits can be made).

The company’s biggest cloud success is not Azure as such, but rather Office 365, now running a substantial proportion of the world’s business email, and building on that base with a growing range of collaboration and storage services. It is a perfect upsell opportunity, which is why the company is now talking up “Microsoft 365”, composed of Office 365, Windows 10, and Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS).

Nadella’s new mantra is “the intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge”, where the intelligent cloud is all things Office 365 and Azure, and the intelligent edge is all the computing devices that connect to it, whether as small as a Raspberry Pi running Azure IoT Edge (a small cross-platform runtime that connects to Azure services), or as large as Azure Stack (an on-premises cloud in a box that uses the Azure computing model).

We need an “intelligent edge” because it makes no sense at all to pump all of the vast and increasing amounts of data that we collect, from sensors and other inputs, directly into the cloud. That is madly inefficient. Instead, you process it locally and send to the cloud only what is interesting. Getting the right balance between cloud and edge is challenging and something which the industry is still working out. Nothing new there, you might think, as the trade-off between centralised and distributed computing has been a topic of endless debate for as long as I can remember.

Coming back to Build, what does the above mean for developers? From Microsoft’s perspective, it is more strategic to have developers building for its cloud platform than for Windows itself; and if that means coding for Linux, iOS or Android, it matters little.

At the same time, Belfiore and his team are keen to keep Windows competitive against the competition (Mac, Linux, Chromebook). Even more important from the company’s point of view is to get users off Windows 7 and onto Windows 10, which is more strategic in every way.

Just because Microsoft wants you to do something does not make it in your best interests. That said, if you accept that a cloud-centric approach is right for most businesses, Windows 10 does make sense in lots of ways. It is more secure and, increasingly, easier to manage. Small businesses can log in directly with Azure Active Directory, and larger organisations get benefits like autopilot, now beginning to roll out as the PC OEMs ready the hardware.

The future of UWP (Universal Windows Platform) is less clear. Microsoft has invested heavily in UWP and made it an integral part of new Windows features like HoloLens and Mixed Reality. Developers on the other hand still largely prefer to work with older frameworks like Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), and the value of UWP has been undermined by the death of Windows Phone. In addition, you can now get Store access and the install/uninstall benefits of UWP via another route, the Desktop Bridge – which is why key consumer applications like Spotify and Apple iTunes have turned up in the Store.

Finally, Build did not sell out this year; however I have heard that it has doubled in size, so these things are relative. Nevertheless, this is perhaps an indication that Microsoft still has work to do with its repositioning in the developer community. The challenge for the company is to keep its traditional Windows-focused developers on board, while also attracting new developers more familiar with non-Microsoft technologies. Anecdotally, I would say there are more signs of the former than the latter.

Microsoft financials: Azure revenue grows 93% year on year

Microsoft delivered excellent figures in its latest financial results, for the period Jan-March 2018. Total revenue of $26,819 million was up 16% year on year, within which Azure revenue grew 93%.

The overall story is that cloud services and subscription income is working well for the company. Azure is not the whole of Microsoft’s cloud; in fact I would argue that Office 365 (built around hosted Exchange) is equally important, since it drives uptake for other products and services including desktop Office and Dynamics. Office 365 commercial revenue grew 42% and Office consumer grew 12%.

Perhaps more surprising is that this was also a good quarter for Windows and Xbox. Windows OEM revenue up 4%, Surface up 32%, Xbox up 24%. Why is Windows growing? One reason is that businesses really are upgrading to Windows 10, where perhaps they sat out Windows 8 as best they could. This is necessary for security reasons if nothing else. The uptake for Windows 10 has had spin-off benefits for things like Surface sales, as CFO Amy Hood explained in the financial webcast.

Even LinkedIn is doing well, with revenue growth of 37%, driven by job advertising and sponsored content.

In the webcast, CEO Satya Nadella talked up “the intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge” and the role of AI in securing the cloud.

GDPR is also seen as an opportunity. It is less costly to host applications in our GDPR-complaint cloud than to achieve this on-premises, said Microsoft.

So everything is fine for Microsoft? Perhaps, perhaps not. The company has transitioned not only to cloud, but to enterprise, and is becoming less and less visible to consumers. The home PC is not the ubiquitous thing it once was, and in mobile there is no longer any Windows, aside from the occasional Windows 10 tablet. Xbox and gaming PCs are the only bright spots in consumer.

This means the company has changed its character. It has also missed out on things like mobile payments, home assistants and home automation. You can see how Google, Amazon and to some extent Apple are jostling for position as a kind of portal to everything for the consumer, with great strategic advantage as powerful intermediaries to consumer purchases. Microsoft is absent.

Every business person is also a consumer and retreating from this market could prove costly long-term.

For now though, the company is delivering nicely on Nadella’s cloud strategy.

Here is the breakdown by segment, such as it is:   

Quarter ending March 31st 2018 vs quarter ending March 31st 2017, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 9006 +1299 3115 +575
Intelligent Cloud 7896 +1166 2654 +506
More Personal Computing 9917 +1142 2523 +488

The segments break down as:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and on-premises Dynamics, LinkedIn

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

More Personal Computing: Consumer including Windows, Xbox; Bing search; Surface hardware