Apr
02
2018
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Microsoft launches 2 new Azure regions in Australia

Microsoft continues its steady pace of opening up new data centers and launching new regions for its Azure cloud. Today, the company announced the launch of two new regions in Australia. To deliver these new regions, Azure Australia Central and Central 2, Microsoft entered a strategic partnership with Canberra Data Centers and unsurprisingly, the regions are located in the country’s capital territory around Canberra. These new central regions complement Microsoft’s existing data center presence in Australia, which previously focused on the business centers of Sydney and Melbourne.

Given the location in Canberra, it’s also no surprise that Microsoft is putting an emphasis on its readiness for handling government workloads on its platform. Throughout its announcement, the company also emphasizes that all of its Australia data centers are also the right choice for its customers in New Zealand.

Julia White, Microsoft corporate VP for Azure, told me last month that the company’s strategy around its data center expansion has always been about offering a lot of small regions to allow it to be close to its customers (and, in return, to allow its customers to be close to their own customers, too). “The big distinction is the number of regions we have. “White said. “Microsoft started its infrastructure approach focused on enterprise organizations and built lots of regions because of that. We didn’t pick this regional approach because it’s easy or because it’s simple, but because we believe this is what our customers really want.”

Azure currently consists of 50 available or announced regions. Over time, more of these will also feature numerous availability zones inside every region, though for now, this recently announced feature is only present in two regions.

Mar
30
2018
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Azure’s availability zones are now generally available

No matter what cloud you build on, if you want to build something that’s highly available, you’re always going to opt to put your applications and data in at least two physically separated regions. Otherwise, if a region goes down, your app goes down, too. All of the big clouds also offer a concept called ‘availability zones’ in their regions to offer developers the option to host their applications in two separate data centers in the same zone for a bit of extra resilience. All big clouds, that is, except for Azure, which is only launching its availability zones feature into general availability today after first announcing a beta last September.

Ahead of today’s launch, Julia White, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Azure, told me that the company’s design philosophy behind its data center network was always about servicing commercial customers with the widest possible range of regions to allow them to be close to their customers and to comply with local data sovereignty and privacy laws. That’s one of the reasons why Azure today offers more regions than any of its competitors, with 38 generally available regions and 12 announced ones.

“Microsoft started its infrastructure approach focused on enterprise organizations and built lots of regions because of that,” White said. “We didn’t pick this regional approach because it’s easy or because it’s simple, but because we believe this is what our customers really want.”

Every availability zone has its own network connection and power backup, so if one zone in a region goes down, the others should remain unaffected. A regional disaster could shut down all of the zones in a single region, though, so most business will surely want to keep their data in at least one additional region.

Mar
28
2018
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Microsoft can ban you for using offensive language

A report by CSOOnline presented the possibility that Microsoft would be able to ban “offensive language” from Skype, Xbox, and, inexplicably, Office. The post, which cites Microsoft’s new terms of use, said that the company would not allow users to “publicly display or use the Services to share inappropriate content or material (involving, for example, nudity, bestiality, pornography, offensive language, graphic violence, or criminal activity)” and that you could lose your Xbox Live Membership if you curse out a kid Overwatch.

“We are committed to providing our customers with safe and secure experiences while using our services. The recent changes to the Microsoft Service Agreement’s Code of Conduct provide transparency on how we respond to customer reports of inappropriate public content,” said a Microsoft spokesperson. The company notes that “Microsoft Agents” do not watch Skype calls and that they can only respond to complaints with clear evidence of abuse. The changes, which go into effect May 1, allows Microsoft to ban you from it services if you’re found passing “inappropriate content” or using “offensive language.”

These new rules give Microsoft more power over abusive users and it seems like Microsoft is cracking down on bad behavior on its platforms. This is good news for victims of abuse in private communications channels on Microsoft products and may give trolls pause before they yell something about your mother on Xbox. We can only dare to dream.

Mar
21
2018
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Microsoft Power Apps update includes new Common Data Service

Microsoft announced the spring update to its Power BI and Power Apps platform today with a significant enhancement, a new common data service that enables companies to build data-based applications from a variety of data sources.

This is part of a wider strategy that is designed to remove some of the complexity associated with gathering, processing and incorporating data into applications.

Microsoft is essentially giving customers access to the same set of tools and services it has used internally to build Dynamics 365, its enterprise suite of tools that includes CRM, marketing automation and field service along with enterprise resource planning tools (ERP).

While the company has been allowing third party developers to build application on the platform for about 18 months with its Power Apps tools, they haven’t been able to take advantage of the data under the hood without some heavy lifting. Microsoft aims to change that with the Common Data Service.

Diagram: Microsoft

“What that service means, practically speaking, is that it’s not only a place to store data, but a model (schema) that is stamped out there with everything you would need to build a business app around [elements] such as contacts, events, customers [and so forth], Ryan Cunningham, Microsoft program manager for Power Apps explained. This allows the programmer to take advantage of pre-built relationships and rules and how they should be enforced without having to code them from scratch.

Cunningham points out that they tried to make it fairly simple to build the apps, while still providing a level of customization and the ability to use Microsoft data or data from another source. That’s where the Common Data Store comes in.

He says that developers can take advantage of the 200 connectors that come pre-built out of the box and connect to all that data you’ve been collecting in the Microsoft products, but they aren’t limited to the Microsoft data. “You can still build custom applications on top of the platform, and get the benefit of the platform we’ve built our tools on,” he said.

The Common Data Store is part of a much broader set of announcements around the spring releases of Dynamics 365, Office 365 and Power BI platforms all announced today.

Mar
20
2018
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Windows Server 2019 is now available in preview

Microsoft today announced the next version of Windows Server, which launches later this year under the not completely unexpected moniker of “Windows Server 2019.” Developers and operations teams that want to get access to the bits can now get the first preview build through Microsoft’s Insider Program.

This next version comes with plenty of new features, but it’s also worth noting that this is the next release in the Long-Term Servicing Channel for Windows Server, which means that customers will get five years of mainstream support and can get an extra five years of extended support. Users also can opt for a semi-annual channel that features — surprise — two releases per year for those teams that want to get faster access to new features. Microsoft recommends the long-term option for infrastructure scenarios like running SQL Server or SharePoint.

So what’s new in Windows Server 2019? Given Microsoft’s focus on hybrid cloud deployments, it’s no surprise that Windows Server also embraces these scenarios. Specifically, this means that Windows Server 2019 will be able to easily connect to Microsoft Azure and that users will be able to integrate Azure Backup, File Sync, disaster recover and other services into they Windows Server deployments.

Microsoft also added a number of new security features, which are mostly based on what the company has learned from running Azure and previous version of Windows. These include new shielded VMs for protecting Linux applications and support for Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection, one of Microsoft’s flagship security products that helps guard machines against attacks and zero-day exploits.

With this release, Microsoft is also bringing its container technologies from the semi-annual release channel to the long-term release channel. These include the ability to run Linux containers on Windows and the Windows Subsystem for Linux that enables this, as well as the ability to run Bash scripts on Windows. And for those of you who are really into containers, Microsoft also today noted that it will offer more container orchestration choices, including Kubernetes support, soon. These will first come to the semi-annual channel, though.

You can find a more detailed breakdown of what’s new in this release here.

Mar
14
2018
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Microsoft announces its first cloud regions in the Middle East

Microsoft today announced its plans for a major expansion of the Microsoft Cloud with the launch of its first cloud regions in the Middle East. These new regions, which are scheduled to go online in 2019, will be located in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and will host the company’s usual Azure, Office 365 and Dynamics 365 services.

“Microsoft has been present in the Middle East for more than two decades and is deeply invested in the region in many ways,” said Sayed Hashish, Regional General Manager, Microsoft Gulf, in today’s announcement. “Driven by strong customer demand for cloud computing, local data centers were the logical next step given the enormous opportunity that the cloud presents. In areas like digital transformation, and the development of new intelligent services, our ambition is for the Microsoft Cloud to form a strategic part of the backbone for regional economic development.”

The region of the Middle East is relatively late in adopting cloud computing, but that also means that it has a lot of room left to grow. Microsoft is clearly trying to get ahead of this trend.

It’s worth noting that Amazon, too, has already announced its plans for a region in Bahrain which will open in about a year, while Google has not announced any plans to enter this market yet.

In addition to the new Middle East regions, Microsoft also today announced its first region in Switzerland (with data centers around Geneva and Zurich), which is scheduled to go online in 2019. In Germany, the company is launching an additional cloud region and in France, the Microsoft Cloud is now generally available.

In total, Microsoft now offers 50 regions around the globe, with plans for 12 new regions in the works already.

Mar
12
2018
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Microsoft Teams will integrate with Cortana, add transcription and translation features

 Microsoft Teams, the company’s team collaboration software and challenger to Slack, announced this morning — on its first anniversary — a suite of new features that will roll out to the software throughout 2018. This includes features that will allow users to record, transcribe and save meetings to the cloud, integrations with voice assistant Cortana, inline message… Read More

Mar
12
2018
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Microsoft Teams will integrate with Cortana, add transcription and translation features

Microsoft Teams, the company’s team collaboration software and challenger to Slack, announced this morning — on its first anniversary — a suite of new features that will roll out to the software throughout 2018. This includes features that will allow users to record, transcribe and save meetings to the cloud, integrations with voice assistant Cortana, inline message translation and several others.

The added integration with Cortana’s voice assistance could give Microsoft an edge in its battle with Slack, given the increasing importance of voice-based computing in the workplace and within business productivity applications.

Microsoft and Amazon announced last year their voice assistants, Cortana and Alexa, would work together, for example. Meanwhile, companies — including Microsoft — have been working to make their applications and services work well with voice assistants given the potential of voice computing in the workplace.

According to Microsoft, Cortana voice integrations for Teams-enabled devices will launch later this year, allowing users to easily make a call, join a meeting or add people to meetings using natural, spoken language. What’s more, these voice capabilities will extend to IP phones and conference room devices, as well.

This feature alone could be a big selling point for Microsoft Teams, but it’s one of several the company announced are in the works.

Also coming in 2018 is cloud recording — another that takes advantages of advances in voice technology in recent years. Microsoft Teams will be able to record meetings with a click, then create an automatic transcription of what was said. Meeting attendees can choose to play back the meeting in full, or just a key part, using the transcription as reference.

This feature will also be advanced in the future to include facial recognition, so meeting remarks can be properly attributed.

Meeting transcription is an area other startups are working in, as well. For example, recently launched Otter is offering an automatic transcription tool for meetings, as is Voicera, which just landed $20 million for its automated note-taking assistant. (It wouldn’t be surprising to see Slack snatch up a company like this in the future, to help it compete by way of native voice and transcription features.)

Microsoft is also promising inline messaging translations between languages in channels and chat; a background blur option for video calls (great for meetings from home offices); proximity detection for adding available Skype Room Systems to meetings; and mobile sharing in meetings.

This last item will allow attendees to share a live video stream, photo or screen share from their mobile device.

In addition to the planned features, Microsoft announced new enterprise-grade calling features arriving today, including consultative transfer and call delegation and federation. It’s also now rolling out Direct Routing, which allows customers to integrate existing telephony infrastructure with Teams for calling.

Related to this, Teams is also now enabled across meeting room devices, including Microsoft Surface Hub; devices from new partners Lenovo and HP (which join Logitech, Crestron and Polycom); Skype Room Systems; new solutions from BlueJeans, Pexip and Polycom that will connect with Teams; new desk phones from AudioCodes and Yealink and new conference room phones from Crestron, Polycom and Yealink, all of which will run a native Teams app; and new mobile phone stations from Plantronics.

Microsoft today gave an update on Teams’ traction, given it’s now been a year since its worldwide debut. There are today 200,000 organizations in 181 markets and 39 languages on Teams, including A.P. Moller-Maersk, ConocoPhillips, Macy’s, NASCAR, Navistar, RLH Corporation and Technicolor and, as of another announcement today, General Motors.

By comparison, Slack reports 9 million weekly active users across 50,000+ paying companies in over 100 countries, according to stats on its website. It said in September it had grown to more than 6 million daily users, as well.

Mar
06
2018
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Worklytics wants to cut down on lame meetings and help make teams more efficient

 If you’ve ever been stuck in a boring meeting, chances are you might spend the time busy answering messages from email or Slack — or even just browsing around the Internet while you wait for it to finally end. And there are a lot of factors that go into making that meeting boring, from the content to the person actually delivering it. Phillip Arkcoll knows that problem quite well,… Read More

Mar
01
2018
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Microsoft advances several of its hosted artificial intelligence algorithms

 Microsoft Cognitive Services is home to the company’s hosted artificial intelligence algorithms. Today, the company announced advances to several Cognitive Services tools including Microsoft Custom Vision Service, the Face API and Bing Entity Search . Joseph Sirosh, who leads the Microsoft’s cloud AI efforts, defined Microsoft Cognitive Services in a company blog post announcing… Read More

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