Jul
12
2018
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Microsoft launches new wide-area networking options for Azure

Microsoft is launching a few new networking features today that will make it easier for businesses to use the company’s Azure cloud to securely connect their own offices and infrastructure using Azure and its global network.

The first of these is the Azure Virtual WAN service, which allows businesses to connect their various branches to and through Azure. This basically works like an airline hub and spoke model, where Azure becomes the central hub through which all data between branches flows. The advantage of this, Microsoft argues, is that it allows admins to manage their wide-area networks from a central dashboard and, of course, that it makes it easy to bind additional Azure services and appliances to the network. And with that, users also get access to all of the security services that Azure has to offer.

One new security service that Microsoft is launching today is the Azure Firewall, a new cloud-native security service that is meant to protect a business’s virtual network resources.

In addition to these two new networking features, Microsoft also today announced that it is expanding to two new regions its Azure Data Box service, which is basically Microsoft’s version of the AWS Snowball appliances for moving data into the cloud by loading it onto a shippable appliance: Europe and the United Kingdom (and let’s not argue about the fact that the U.K. is still part of Europe). There is also now a “Data Box Disk” option for those who don’t need to move petabytes of data. Orders with up to five of those disks can hold up to 40 terabytes of data and are currently in preview.

Jul
12
2018
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Microsoft wants to make you a better team player by nudging you into submission

Microsoft announced a number of new tools for its MyAnalytics tool for Office 365 users today that are geared toward giving employees more data about how they work, as well as ways to improve how teams work together. In today’s businesses, everybody has to be a team player, after all, and if you want to bring technology to bear on this, you first need data — and once you have data, you can go into full-on analytics mode and maybe even throw in a smidge of machine learning, too.

So today, Microsoft is launching two new products: Workplace Analytics and MyAnalytics nudges. Yes, Office 365 will now nudge you to be a better team player. “Building better teams starts with transparent, data-driven dialog—but no one is perfect and sticking to good collaboration habits can be challenging in a fast-paced job,” Microsoft’s Natalie McCullough and Noelle Beaujon, using language only an MBA could love, write in today’s announcement.

I’m not sure what exactly that means or whether I have good collaboration habits or not, but in practice, Office 365 can now nudge you when you need more focus time as your calendar fills up, for example. You can block off those times without leaving your Inbox (or, I guess, you could always ignore this and just set up a standing block of time every day where you don’t accept meetings and just do your job…). MyAnalytics can also now nudge you to delegate meetings to a co-worker when your schedule is busy (because your co-workers aren’t busy and will love you for putting more meetings on your calendar) and tell you to avoid after-hours emails as you draft them to co-workers so they don’t have to work after hours, too (that’s actually smart, but may not work well in every company).

With this new feature, Microsoft is also using some machine learning smarts, of course. MyAnalytics was already able to remind you of tasks you promised to co-workers over email, and now it’ll nudge you when you read new emails from those co-workers, too. Because the more you get nudged, the more likely you are to finish that annoying task you never intended to do but promised your co-worker you would do so he’d go away.

If you’re whole team needs some nudging, Microsoft will also allow the group to enroll in a change program and provide you with lots of data about how you are changing. And if that doesn’t work, you can always set up a few meetings to discuss what’s going wrong.

These new features will roll out this summer. Get ready to be nudged.

Jul
12
2018
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Microsoft Teams gets a free version

Microsoft opened up the news floodgates this morning, in the kick off to its annual Inspire event in Vegas. One of the more compelling announcements of the bunch is the addition of a free version of Teams.

The Slack competitor has been kicking around in some form or other since late-2016, but the $60 a year fee has likely made it a bit of a nonstarter for smaller businesses. After all, it’s Slack’s free tier that helped the work chat app gain so much traction so quickly. A free version makes a lot of sense for Microsoft.

Signing users up for Teams is way to get more feet into the door of its application ecosystem, which was once ubiquitous in offices. Once they’ve download teams, workplaces will be hooked into the Microsoft 365 suite.

The free tier actually brings a fair bit of the app to up to 300 people per workplace. Here’s the full rundown of features per Microsoft,

  • Unlimited chat messages and search.
  • Built-in audio and video calling for individuals, groups, and full team meetups.
  • 10 GB of team file storage plus additional 2 GB per person for personal storage.
  • Integrated, real-time content creation with Office Online apps, including built-in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
  • Unlimited app integrations with 140+ business apps to choose from—including Adobe, Evernote, and Trello.
  • Ability to communicate and collaborate with anyone inside or outside your organization, backed by Microsoft’s secure, global infrastructure.

The company’s done a good job hooking in enterprise customers, but as it notes, SMBs constitute 90+ percent of businesses globally, so that’s a whole lot more devices to tap into. The free tier is available in 40 languages starting today.

Jul
12
2018
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GitHub Enterprise and Business Cloud users now get access to public repos, too

GitHub, the code hosting service Microsoft recently acquired, is launching a couple of new features for its business users today that’ll make it easier for them to access public repositories on the service.

Traditionally, users on the hosted Business Cloud and self-hosted Enterprise were not able to directly access the millions of public open-source repositories on the service. Now, with the service’s release, that’s changing, and business users will be able to reach beyond their firewalls to engage and collaborate with the rest of the GitHub community directly.

With this, GitHub now also offers its business and enterprise users a new unified search feature that lets them tap into their internal repos but also look at open-source ones.

Other new features in this latest Enterprise release include the ability to ignore whitespace when reviewing changes, the ability to require multiple reviewers for code changes, automated support tickets and more. You can find a full list of all updates here.

Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub wasn’t fully unexpected (and it’s worth noting that the acquisition hasn’t closed yet), but it is still controversial, given that Microsoft and the open-source community, which heavily relies on GitHub, haven’t always seen eye-to-eye in the past. I’m personally not too worried about that, and it feels like the dust has settled at this point and that people are waiting to see what Microsoft will do with the service.

Jul
12
2018
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Snowflake expands beyond Amazon to Azure cloud

Snowflake, the cloud data warehouse, announced a partnership with Microsoft today to expand their offering to the Azure cloud. The new product is still in Preview for now.

Given that Snowflake CEO Bob Muglia worked at Microsoft for more than 20 years, it’s certainly not surprising that Microsoft is the company’s second partner after working with only Amazon since its inception. But Muglia says it was really about seeing customer demand in the marketplace more than any nostalgia or connections at Microsoft. In fact, he says the company is on boarding one to two new Azure customers a day right now.

The plan is to open up a private preview today, then become generally available some time in the fall when they work out all of the kinks involved with porting their service to another provider.

The partnership didn’t happen overnight. It’s been developing for over a year and that’s because Muglia says Azure isn’t quite as mature as Amazon in some ways and it required some engineering cooperation to make it all work.

“We had to work with Microsoft on some of the things that we needed to make [our product] work [on their platform], particularly around the way we work with Azure Blob Storage that we really had to do a little differently on Azure. So there are changes we needed to make internally in our product to make it work,” he explained.

Overall though the two company’s engineers have worked together to solve those issues and Muglia says that when the Azure version becomes generally available in the Fall, it should basically be the same product they offer on Amazon, although there are still some features they are trying to make work on in the Preview. “Our goal is to have literally the same product on Azure as on Amazon, and we are very confident we’ll get there with Microsoft,” he said.

For Snowflake of course, it represents a substantial market expansion because now they can sell to companies working on Azure and Amazon and that has opened up a whole new pipeline of customers. Azure is the number two cloud provider behind Amazon.

The interesting aspect of all this is that Amazon and Microsoft compete in the cloud of course, but Snowflake is also competing with each cloud provider too with their own product. Yet this kind of partnership has become standard in the cloud. You have to work across platforms, then compete where it makes sense.

“Almost all of the relationships that we have in the industry, we have some element of competition with them, and so this is a normal mode of operation,” he said.

Jul
10
2018
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Slack wants to make search a little easier with search filters

Slack’s search functions are getting another little quality-of-life update today with the introduction of filters, which aims to make search a little more granular to find the right answers.

The company also says searches are going to be more personalized. All of this is an attempt to get to the right files or conversations quickly as Slack — a simple collection of group chats and channels that can get out of hand very fast — something a little more palatable. As companies get bigger and bigger, the sheer amount of information that ends up in it will grow faster and faster. That means that the right information will generally be more difficult to access, and if Slack is going to stick to its roots as a simple internal communications product, it’s going to have to lean on improvements under the hood and small changes in front of users. The company says search is now 70 percent faster on the back end.

Users in Slack will now be able to filter search results by channels and also the kinds of results they are looking for, like files. You can go a little more granular than that, but that’s the general gist of it, as Slack tries to limit the changes to what’s happening in front of users. Slack threads, for example, were in development for more than a year before the company finally rolled out the long-awaited feature. (Whether that feature successfully changed things for the better is still not known.)

Slack now has around 8 million daily active users, with 3 million paid users, and is still clearly pretty popular with smaller companies that are looking for something simpler than the more robust — and complex — communications tools on the market. But there are startups trying to pick away at other parts of the employee communications channels, like Slite, which aims to be a simpler notes tool in the same vein as Slack but for different parts of the employee experience. And there are other larger companies looking to tap the demand for these kinds of simpler tools, like Atlassian’s Stride and Microsoft’s Teams.

Jun
27
2018
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Microsoft launches two new Azure regions in China

Microsoft today launched two new Azure regions in China. These new regions, China North 2 in Beijing and China East 2 in Shanghai, are now generally available and will complement the existing two regions Microsoft operates in the country (with the help of its local partner, 21Vianet).

As the first international cloud provider in China when it launched its first region there in 2014, Microsoft has seen rapid growth in the region and there is clearly demand for its services there. Unsurprisingly, many of Microsoft’s customers in China are other multinationals that are already betting on Azure for their cloud strategy. These include the likes of Adobe, Coke, Costco, Daimler, Ford, Nuance, P&G, Toyota and BMW.

In addition to the new China regions, Microsoft also today launched a new availability zone for its region in the Netherlands. While availability zones have long been standard among the big cloud providers, Azure only launched this feature — which divides a region into multiple independent zones — into general availability earlier this year. The regions in the Netherlands, Paris and Iowa now offer this additional safeguard against downtime, with others to follow soon.

In other Azure news, Microsoft also today announced that Azure IoT Edge is now generally available. In addition, Microsoft announced the second generation of its Azure Data Lake Storage service, which is now in preview, and some updates to the Azure Data Factory, which now includes a web-based user interface for building and managing data pipelines.

Jun
13
2018
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Microsoft gives Office a refreshed look and feel

Microsoft today announced that it’s bringing a new user interface design to its Office apps like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. This new look will be in line with the Fluent Design System the company launched last year and will roll out to both the Office.com online apps and the Office desktop tools over the course of the next few months.

Besides the overall switch to the Fluent Design System, which is essentially Microsoft’s take on what Google is doing with Material Design, there are three major changes to the design of the Office apps.

The most obvious is the redesigned and simplified Ribbon — though Microsoft is taking a very cautious approach with rolling this new feature out to all users. While it was a bit controversial when it first launched in Office 2007, most users quickly got used to the Ribbon and Microsoft quickly brought it to virtually all its Windows and online applications. With this update, Microsoft is collapsing the traditional three-row view into a single line that highlights the most important features. Users who want the traditional view can still expand the simplified Ribbon and get that full view.

Microsoft is clearly aware that this is going to be a controversial move, so it’s only launching the new Ribbon for the web version of Word for now. Some Office Insiders will also see it in Outlook for Windows in July. For now, though, the company is holding back on a wider rollout.

“Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on Windows offer our deepest, richest feature set – and they’re the preferred experience for users who want to get the most from our apps,” the company writes in today’s announcement. “Users have a lot of ‘muscle memory’ built around these versions, so we plan on being especially careful with changes that could disrupt their work. We aren’t ready to bring the simplified ribbon to these versions yet because we feel like we need more feedback from a broader set of users first. But when we do, users will always be able to revert back to the classic ribbon with one click.”

The other major visual overhaul here is a new set of colors and icons. Unlike the new Ribbon, these design changes will make their way to all the Office applications soon. The Web version of Word at Office.com will get it first, followed by an Insider release for Word, Excel and PowerPoint on Windows later this month. Outlook for Windows will follow in July, with Outlook for Mac getting it this update in August.

Another new feature that’s less about the design but the user experience is the launch of what Microsoft calls ‘zero query search.” This AI- and Microsoft Graph-powered feature is meant to bring up useful recommendations for your searches every time you place your cursor into the search box. For commercial users, this feature is already live in Office.com, SharePoint Online and the Outlook mobile app. It’ll roll out to Outlook on the web in August.

Jun
11
2018
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Workday acquires financial modelling startup Adaptive Insights for $1.55B

Workday, the cloud-based platform that offers HR and other back-office apps for businesses, is making an acquisition to expand its portfolio of services: It’s buying Adaptive Insights, a provider of cloud-based business planning and financial modelling tools, for $1.55 billion. The acquisition is notable because Adaptive Insights had filed for an IPO as recently as May 17.

Workday says that the $1.55 billion price tag includes “the assumption of approximately $150 million in unvested equity issued to Adaptive Insights employees” related to that IPO. This deal is expected to close in Q3 of this year.

IPO filings are known to sometimes trigger M&A. Most recently, PayPal announced it would acquire iZettle just after the latter filed to go public. Skype was acquired by Microsoft in 2011 while it was waiting to IPO after previous owner eBay said it would spin it off.

Workday itself went public in 2012 and currently has a market cap of nearly $27 billion.

The deal will give Workday another string to its bow, in its attempt to become the go-to place for all for back-office services for its business customers: the company plans to integrate Adaptive Insights’ tools into its existing platform.

“Adaptive Insights is an industry leader with its Business Planning Cloud platform, and together with Workday, we will help customers accelerate their finance transformation in the cloud,” said Aneel Bhusri, Co-Founder and CEO, Workday, in a statement. “I am excited to welcome the Adaptive Insights team to Workday and look forward to coming together to continue delivering industry-leading products that equip finance organizations to make even faster, better business decisions to adapt to change and to drive growth.”

The two have been working together as partners since 2015.

In the case of Adaptive Insights, which says it has ‘thousands’ of customers, its growth mirrors that both of cloud services and specifically about how business intelligence has developed into a distinct software category of its own over the years, with not just the CFO but an army of in-house analysts relying on analytics of a business’ data to help make small and big decisions.

“The market opportunity here is huge as the CFO has become a power player in the C-Suite,” CEO Tom Bogan told TechCrunch when it raised $75 million in 2015, when it first passed the billion-dollar mark for its valuation. Bogan previously also held a role as chairman of Citrix. “As a former CFO myself, I have seen this first hand and it is accelerating.” Other examples of this force includes Twitter’s Anthony Noto catapulting from CFO to COO (and is now a CEO running SoFi). Around 25 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are former CFOs.

Adaptive Insights had raised $175 million prior to this.

Bogan will stay on and lead the business and report directly to Bhusri.

“Joining forces with Workday accelerates our vision to drive holistic business planning and digital transformation for our customers,” said Bogan, in a separate statement. “Most importantly, both Adaptive Insights and Workday have an employee-first and customer-centric approach to developing enterprise software that will only increase the power of the combined companies.”

More generally, while we have certainly seen a much wider opening of the door for tech IPOs this year, there is also an argument to be made for continuing consolidation it enterprise IT, in particular with regards to cloud services that might have small or potentially negative margins.

Adaptive Insights was not immune to that: the company in its public listing filing said that its previous fiscal year brough tin $106.5 million in revenues, up 30 percent from the year before, but it also posted a loss of $42.7 million in the same period. That was narrower than the $59.1 million it posted in 2016. Combined with the bigger trend of all-in-one platforms packing a bigger punch with businesses, it might have meant that Workday’s offer was too compelling to refuse. 

This looks like Workday’s biggest acquisition yet, but the company has been on a spree of sorts: just last week it announced the acquisition of RallyTeam to beef up its machine learning.

Jun
05
2018
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Microsoft program provides a decade of updates for Windows IoT devices

If you have an essential Internet of Things device running Windows 10 IoT Core Service, you don’t want to be worried about security and OS patches over a period of years. Microsoft wants to help customers running these kinds of devices with a new program that guarantees 10 years of updates.

The idea is that as third-party partners build applications on top of the Windows 10 IoT Core Services, these OEMs, who create the apps, can pay Microsoft to guarantee updates for these devices for a decade. This can help assure customers that they won’t be vulnerable to attack on these critical systems from unpatched applications.

The service does more than provide updates though. It also gives OEMs the ability to manage the updates and assess the device’s health.

“The Windows IoT Core service offering is enabling partners to commercialize secure IoT devices backed by industry-leading support. And so device makers will have the ability to manage updates for the OS, for the apps and for the settings for OEM-specific files,” Dinesh Narayanan, director of business development for emerging markets explained.

It gives OEMs creating Windows-powered applications on machines like healthcare devices or ATMs this ability to manage them over an extended period. That’s particularly important as these devices tend to have a more extended usage period than say a PC or tablet.”We want to extend support and commit to that support over the long haul for these devices that have a longer life cycle,” Narayanan said.

Beyond the longevity, the service also provides customers with access to the Device Update Center where they can control and customize how and when the devices get updated. It also includes another level of security called Device Health Attestation that allows the OEMs to evaluate the trustworthiness of the devices before they update them using a third party service.

All of this is designed to give Microsoft a foothold in the growing IoT space and to provide an operating system for these devices as they proliferate. While predictions vary dramatically, Gartner has predicted that at least 20 billion connected devices will be online in 2020.

While not all of these will be powered by Windows, or require advanced management capabilities, those that do can be assured if their vendor uses this program that they can manage the devices and keep them up-to-date. And when it comes to the Internet of Things, chances are that’s going to be critical.

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