Nov
22
2019
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Making sense of a multi-cloud, hybrid world at KubeCon

More than 12,000 attendees gathered this week in San Diego to discuss all things containers, Kubernetes and cloud-native at KubeCon.

Kubernetes, the container orchestration tool, turned five this year, and the technology appears to be reaching a maturity phase where it accelerates beyond early adopters to reach a more mainstream group of larger business users.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of work to be done, or that most enterprise companies have completely bought in, but it’s clearly reached a point where containerization is on the table. If you think about it, the whole cloud-native ethos makes sense for the current state of computing and how large companies tend to operate.

If this week’s conference showed us anything, it’s an acknowledgment that it’s a multi-cloud, hybrid world. That means most companies are working with multiple public cloud vendors, while managing a hybrid environment that includes those vendors — as well as existing legacy tools that are probably still on-premises — and they want a single way to manage all of this.

The promise of Kubernetes and cloud-native technologies, in general, is that it gives these companies a way to thread this particular needle, or at least that’s the theory.

Kubernetes to the rescue

Photo: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

If you were to look at the Kubernetes hype cycle, we are probably right about at the peak where many think Kubernetes can solve every computing problem they might have. That’s probably asking too much, but cloud-native approaches have a lot of promise.

Craig McLuckie, VP of R&D for cloud-native apps at VMware, was one of the original developers of Kubernetes at Google in 2014. VMware thought enough of the importance of cloud-native technologies that it bought his former company, Heptio, for $550 million last year.

As we head into this phase of pushing Kubernetes and related tech into larger companies, McLuckie acknowledges it creates a set of new challenges. “We are at this crossing the chasm moment where you look at the way the world is — and you look at the opportunity of what the world might become — and a big part of what motivated me to join VMware is that it’s successfully proven its ability to help enterprise organizations navigate their way through these disruptive changes,” McLuckie told TechCrunch.

He says that Kubernetes does actually solve this fundamental management problem companies face in this multi-cloud, hybrid world. “At the end of the day, Kubernetes is an abstraction. It’s just a way of organizing your infrastructure and making it accessible to the people that need to consume it.

“And I think it’s a fundamentally better abstraction than we have access to today. It has some very nice properties. It is pretty consistent in every environment that you might want to operate, so it really makes your on-prem software feel like it’s operating in the public cloud,” he explained.

Simplifying a complex world

One of the reasons Kubernetes and cloud-native technologies are gaining in popularity is because the technology allows companies to think about hardware differently. There is a big difference between virtual machines and containers, says Joe Fernandes, VP of product for Red Hat cloud platform.

“Sometimes people conflate containers as another form of virtualization, but with virtualization, you’re virtualizing hardware, and the virtual machines that you’re creating are like an actual machine with its own operating system. With containers, you’re virtualizing the process,” he said.

He said that this means it’s not coupled with the hardware. The only thing it needs to worry about is making sure it can run Linux, and Linux runs everywhere, which explains how containers make it easier to manage across different types of infrastructure. “It’s more efficient, more affordable, and ultimately, cloud-native allows folks to drive more automation,” he said.

Bringing it into the enterprise

Photo: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

It’s one thing to convince early adopters to change the way they work, but as this technology enters the mainstream. Gabe Monroy, partner program manager at Microsoft says to carry this technology to the next level, we have to change the way we talk about it.

Nov
15
2019
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Why Salesforce is moving Marketing Cloud to Microsoft Azure

When Salesforce announced this week that it was moving Marketing Cloud to Microsoft Azure, it was easy to see this as another case of wacky enterprise partnerships. But there had to be sound business reasons why the partnership came together, rather than going with AWS or Google Cloud Platform, both of which are also Salesforce partners in other contexts.

If you ask Salesforce, it says it was ultimately because of compatibility with Microsoft SQL.

“Salesforce chose Azure because it is a trusted platform with a global footprint, multi-layered security approach, robust disaster recovery strategy with auto failover, automatic updates and more,” a Salesforce spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Marketing Cloud also has a long standing relationship with Microsoft SQL which makes the transition to SQL on Azure a natural decision.”

Except for the SQL part, Microsoft’s chief rivals at AWS and Google Cloud Platform also provide those benefits. In fact, each of those reasons cited by the spokesperson — with the exception of SQL — are all part of the general cloud infrastructure value proposition that all the major cloud vendors provide.

There’s probably more to it than simply compatibility. There is also a long-standing rivalry between the two companies, and why in spite of their competition, they continue to make deals like this in the spirit of co-opetition. We spoke to a few industry experts to get their take on the deal to find out why these two seeming rivals decided to come together.

Retailer’s dilemma

Tony Byrne, founder and principal analyst at Real Story Group, thinks it could be related to the fact it’s a marketing tool and some customers may be wary about hosting their businesses on AWS while competing with Amazon on the retail side. This is a common argument for why retail customers in particular are more likely to go with Microsoft or Google over AWS.

“Salesforce Marketing Cloud tends to target B2C enterprises, so the choice of Azure makes sense in one context where some B2C firms are wary of Amazon for competitive reasons. But I’d also imagine there’s more to the decision than that,” Byrne said.

Nov
14
2019
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AWS confirms reports it will challenge JEDI contract award to Microsoft

Surely just about everyone was surprised when the Department of Defense last month named Microsoft as the winner of the decade-long, $10 billion JEDI cloud contract — none more so than Amazon, the company everyone assumed all along would be the winner. Today the company confirmed earlier reports that it was challenging the contract award in the Court of Federal Claims.

The Federal Times broke this story.

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson suggested that there was possible bias and issues in the selection process. “AWS is uniquely experienced and qualified to provide the critical technology the U.S. military needs, and remains committed to supporting the DoD’s modernization efforts. We also believe it’s critical for our country that the government and its elected leaders administer procurements objectively and in a manner that is free from political influence.

“Numerous aspects of the JEDI evaluation process contained clear deficiencies, errors, and unmistakable bias — and it’s important that these matters be examined and rectified,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch.

It’s certainly worth noting that the president has not hidden his disdain for Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, who also is owner of The Washington Post newspaper. As I wrote in Even after Microsoft wins, JEDI saga could drag on:

Amazon, for instance, could point to Jim Mattis’ book where he wrote that the president told the then Defense Secretary to “screw Bezos out of that $10 billion contract.” Mattis says he refused, saying he would go by the book, but it certainly leaves the door open to a conflict question.

Oracle also filed a number of protests throughout the process, including one with the Government Accountability Office that was later rejected. It also went to court and the case was dismissed. All of the protests claimed that the process favored Amazon. The end result proved it didn’t.

The president interjected himself in the decision process in August, asking the defense secretary, Mark T. Esper, to investigate once again if the procurement process somehow favored Amazon, and the week the contract was awarded, the White House canceled its subscription to The Washington Post.

In October, the decision finally came and the DOD chose Microsoft . Now Amazon is filing a challenge in federal Court, and the JEDI saga really ain’t over until it’s over.

 

Nov
14
2019
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Salesforce announces it’s moving Marketing Cloud to Microsoft Azure

In the world of enterprise software, there are often strange bedfellows. Just yesterday, Salesforce announced a significant partnership with AWS around the Cloud Information Model. This morning, it announced it was moving its Marketing Cloud to Microsoft Azure. That’s the way that enterprise partnerships shimmy and shake sometimes.

The companies also announced they were partnering around Microsoft Teams, integrating Teams with Salesforce Sales Cloud and Service Cloud.

Salesforce plans to move Marketing Cloud, which has been running in its own data centers, to Microsoft Azure in the coming months, although the exact migration plan timeline is not clear yet. This is a big deal for Microsoft, which competes fiercely with AWS for customers. AWS is the clear market leader in the space, but Microsoft has been a strong second for some time now, and bringing Salesforce on board as a customer is certainly a quality reference for the company.

Brent Leary, founder at CRM Essentials, who has been watching the market for many years, says the partnership says a lot about Microsoft’s approach to business today, and that it’s willing to partner broadly to achieve its goals. “I think the bigger news is that Salesforce chose to go deeper with Microsoft over Amazon, and that Microsoft doesn’t fear strengthening Salesforce at the potential expense of Dynamics 365 (its CRM tool), mainly because their biggest growth driver is Azure,” Leary told TechCrunch.

Microsoft and Salesforce have always had a complex relationship. In the Steve Ballmer era, they traded dueling lawsuits over their CRM products. Later, Satya Nadella kindled a friendship of sorts by appearing at Dreamforce in 2015. The relationship has ebbed and flowed since, but with this announcement, it appears the frenemies are closer to friends than enemies again.

Let’s not forget though, that it was just yesterday that Salesforce announced a partnership with AWS around the Cloud Information Model, one that competes directly with a different partnership between Adobe, Microsoft and SAP; or that just last year Salesforce announced a significant partnership with AWS around data integration.

These kinds of conflicting deals are confusing, but they show that in today’s connected cloud world, companies that will compete hard with one another in one part of the market may still be willing to partner in other parts when it makes sense for both parties and for customers. That appears to be the case with today’s announcement from these companies.

Nov
07
2019
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How Microsoft is trying to become more innovative

Microsoft Research is a globally distributed playground for people interested in solving fundamental science problems.

These projects often focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence, and since Microsoft is on a mission to infuse all of its products with more AI smarts, it’s no surprise that it’s also seeking ways to integrate Microsoft Research’s innovations into the rest of the company.

Across the board, the company is trying to find ways to become more innovative, especially around its work in AI, and it’s putting processes in place to do so. Microsoft is unusually open about this process, too, and actually made it somewhat of a focus this week at Ignite, a yearly conference that typically focuses more on technical IT management topics.

At Ignite, Microsoft will for the first time present these projects externally at a dedicated keynote. That feels similar to what Google used to do with its ATAP group at its I/O events and is obviously meant to showcase the cutting-edge innovation that happens inside of Microsoft (outside of making Excel smarter).

To manage its AI innovation efforts, Microsoft created the Microsoft AI group led by VP Mitra Azizirad, who’s tasked with establishing thought leadership in this space internally and externally, and helping the company itself innovate faster (Microsoft’s AI for Good projects also fall under this group’s purview). I sat down with Azizirad to get a better idea of what her team is doing and how she approaches getting companies to innovate around AI and bring research projects out of the lab.

“We began to put together a narrative for the company of what it really means to be in an AI-driven world and what we look at from a differentiated perspective,” Azizirad said. “What we’ve done in this area is something that has resonated and landed well. And now we’re including AI, but we’re expanding beyond it to other paradigm shifts like human-machine interaction, future of computing and digital responsibility, as more than just a set of principles and practices but an area of innovation in and of itself.”

Currently, Microsoft is doing a very good job at talking and thinking about horizon one opportunities, as well as horizon three projects that are still years out, she said. “Horizon two, we need to get better at, and that’s what we’re doing.”

It’s worth stressing that Microsoft AI, which launched about two years ago, marks the first time there’s a business, marketing and product management team associated with Microsoft Research, so the team does get a lot of insights into upcoming technologies. Just in the last couple of years, Microsoft has published more than 6,000 research papers on AI, some of which clearly have a future in the company’s products.

Nov
04
2019
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The 7 most important announcements from Microsoft Ignite

It’s Microsoft Ignite this week, the company’s premier event for IT professionals and decision-makers. But it’s not just about new tools for role-based access. Ignite is also very much a forward-looking conference that keeps the changing role of IT in mind. And while there isn’t a lot of consumer news at the event, the company does tend to make a few announcements for developers, as well.

This year’s Ignite was especially news-heavy. Ahead of the event, the company provided journalists and analysts with an 87-page document that lists all of the news items. If I counted correctly, there were about 175 separate announcements. Here are the top seven you really need to know about.

Azure Arc: you can now use Azure to manage resources anywhere, including on AWS and Google Cloud

What was announced: Microsoft was among the first of the big cloud vendors to bet big on hybrid deployments. With Arc, the company is taking this a step further. It will let enterprises use Azure to manage their resources across clouds — including those of competitors like AWS and Google Cloud. It’ll work for Windows and Linux Servers, as well as Kubernetes clusters, and also allows users to take some limited Azure data services with them to these platforms.

Why it matters: With Azure Stack, Microsoft already allowed businesses to bring many of Azure’s capabilities into their own data centers. But because it’s basically a local version of Azure, it only worked on a limited set of hardware. Arc doesn’t bring all of the Azure Services, but it gives enterprises a single platform to manage all of their resources across the large clouds and their own data centers. Virtually every major enterprise uses multiple clouds. Managing those environments is hard. So if that’s the case, Microsoft is essentially saying, let’s give them a tool to do so — and keep them in the Azure ecosystem. In many ways, that’s similar to Google’s Anthos, yet with an obvious Microsoft flavor, less reliance on Kubernetes and without the managed services piece.

Microsoft launches Project Cortex, a knowledge network for your company

What was announced: Project Cortex creates a knowledge network for your company. It uses machine learning to analyze all of the documents and contracts in your various repositories — including those of third-party partners — and then surfaces them in Microsoft apps like Outlook, Teams and its Office apps when appropriate. It’s the company’s first new commercial service since the launch of Teams.

Why it matters: Enterprises these days generate tons of documents and data, but it’s often spread across numerous repositories and is hard to find. With this new knowledge network, the company aims to surface this information proactively, but it also looks at who the people are who work on them and tries to help you find the subject matter experts when you’re working on a document about a given subject, for example.

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Microsoft launched Endpoint Manager to modernize device management

What was announced: Microsoft is combining its ConfigMgr and Intune services that allow enterprises to manage the PCs, laptops, phones and tablets they issue to their employees under the Endpoint Manager brand. With that, it’s also launching a number of tools and recommendations to help companies modernize their deployment strategies. ConfigMgr users will now also get a license to Intune to allow them to move to cloud-based management.

Why it matters: In this world of BYOD, where every employee uses multiple devices, as well as constant attacks against employee machines, effectively managing these devices has become challenging for most IT departments. They often use a mix of different tools (ConfigMgr for PCs, for example, and Intune for cloud-based management of phones). Now, they can get a single view of their deployments with the Endpoint Manager, which Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella described as one of the most important announcements of the event, and ConfigMgr users will get an easy path to move to cloud-based device management thanks to the Intune license they now have access to.

Microsoft’s Chromium-based Edge browser gets new privacy features, will be generally available January 15

What was announced: Microsoft’s Chromium-based version of Edge will be generally available on January 15. The release candidate is available now. That’s the culmination of a lot of work from the Edge team, and, with today’s release, the company is also adding a number of new privacy features to Edge that, in combination with Bing, offers some capabilities that some of Microsoft’s rivals can’t yet match, thanks to its newly enhanced InPrivate browsing mode.

Why it matters: Browsers are interesting again. After years of focusing on speed, the new focus is now privacy, and that’s giving Microsoft a chance to gain users back from Chrome (though maybe not Firefox). At Ignite, Microsoft also stressed that Edge’s business users will get to benefit from a deep integration with its updated Bing engine, which can now surface business documents, too.

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You can now try Microsoft’s web-based version of Visual Studio

What was announced: At Build earlier this year, Microsoft announced that it would soon launch a web-based version of its Visual Studio development environment, based on the work it did on the free Visual Studio Code editor. This experience, with deep integrations into the Microsoft-owned GitHub, is now live in a preview.

Why it matters: Microsoft has long said that it wants to meet developers where they are. While Visual Studio Online isn’t likely to replace the desktop-based IDE for most developers, it’s an easy way for them to make quick changes to code that lives in GitHub, for example, without having to set up their IDE locally. As long as they have a browser, developers will be able to get their work done..

Microsoft launches Power Virtual Agents, its no-code bot builder

What was announced: Power Virtual Agents is Microsoft’s new no-code/low-code tool for building chatbots. It leverages a lot of Azure’s machine learning smarts to let you create a chatbot with the help of a visual interface. In case you outgrow that and want to get to the actual code, you can always do so, too.

Why it matters: Chatbots aren’t exactly at the top of the hype cycle, but they do have lots of legitimate uses. Microsoft argues that a lot of early efforts were hampered by the fact that the developers were far removed from the user. With a visual too, though, anybody can come in and build a chatbot — and a lot of those builders will have a far better understanding of what their users are looking for than a developer who is far removed from that business group.

Cortana wants to be your personal executive assistant and read your emails to you, too

What was announced: Cortana lives — and it now also has a male voice. But more importantly, Microsoft launched a few new focused Cortana-based experiences that show how the company is focusing on its voice assistant as a tool for productivity. In Outlook on iOS (with Android coming later), Cortana can now read you a summary of what’s in your inbox — and you can have a chat with it to flag emails, delete them or dictate answers. Cortana can now also send you a daily summary of your calendar appointments, important emails that need answers and suggest focus time for you to get actual work done that’s not email.

Why it matters: In this world of competing assistants, Microsoft is very much betting on productivity. Cortana didn’t work out as a consumer product, but the company believes there is a large (and lucrative) niche for an assistant that helps you get work done. Because Microsoft doesn’t have a lot of consumer data, but does have lots of data about your work, that’s probably a smart move.

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – APRIL 02: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella walks in front of the new Cortana logo as he delivers a keynote address during the 2014 Microsoft Build developer conference on April 2, 2014 in San Francisco, California (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Bonus: Microsoft agrees with you and thinks meetings are broken — and often it’s the broken meeting room that makes meetings even harder. To battle this, the company today launched Managed Meeting Rooms, which for $50 per room/month lets you delegate to Microsoft the monitoring and management of the technical infrastructure of your meeting rooms.

Nov
04
2019
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Microsoft launches the first public preview of its Fluid Framework for collaborative editing

One of the most interesting (and confusing) news announcements of Microsoft’s Build developer conference earlier this year was the first public demo of the company’s Fluid Framework. Fluid is meant to make building collaborative real-time editing experiences easier for developers, but Microsoft is also building it into some of its own tools, like Office and Outlook. It’s nothing less than a re-imagining of what documents should look and feel like.

Today, at its Ignite conference in Orlando, Fla., Microsoft launched the first public preview of the Fluid Framework end-user experience, as well as a private preview for developers.

As Microsoft notes, the Fluid Framework has three main capabilities: the multi-person co-authoring features, the componentized document model and the ability to plug in intelligent agents that can, for example, translate text in real-time or suggest edits. To some degree, this isn’t all that different from Google Docs or even Microsoft’s own collaboration features in Office. But what’s new is that Microsoft is opening this up to developers and that it is looking at the Fluid Framework as a new way to deconstruct and componentize documents, which can then be used across applications.

Microsoft plans to build the Fluid Framework into lots of experiences across Microsoft 365, including Teams, Outlook, SharePoint, OneNote and Office. If you want to see it in action, you can now try the public preview to see what editing documents with it feels like.

Nov
04
2019
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Cortana wants to be your personal executive assistant and read your emails to you, too

Only a few years ago, Microsoft hoped that Cortana could become a viable competitor to the Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri . Over time, as Cortana failed to make a dent in the marketplace (do you ever remember that Cortana is built into your Windows 10 machine?), the company’s ambitions shrunk a bit. Today, Microsoft wants Cortana to be your personal productivity assistant — and to be fair, given the overall Microsoft ecosystem, Cortana may be better suited to that than to tell you about the weather.

At its Ignite conference, Microsoft today announced a number of new features that help Cortana to become even more useful in your day-to-day work, all of which fit into the company’s overall vision of AI as a tool that is helpful and augments human intelligence.

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The first of these is a new feature in Outlook for iOS that uses Microsoft text-to-speech features to read your emails to you (using both a male and female voice). Cortana can also now help you schedule meetings and coordinate participants, something the company first demoed at previous conferences.

Starting next month, Cortana also will be able to send you a daily email that summarizes all of your meetings, and presents you with relevant documents and reminders to “follow up on commitments you’ve made in email.” This last part, especially, should be interesting, as it seems to go beyond the basic (and annoying) nudges to reply to emails in Google’s Gmail.

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Nov
04
2019
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Microsoft Teams gets Yammer integration, secure private channels and more

You’re forgiven if you thought Yammer — Microsoft’s proto-Slack, not quite real-time chat application — was dead. It’s actually still alive (and well) — and still serves a purpose as a slower-moving social network-like channel for company and team-wide announcements. Today, Microsoft announced that, among other updates, it will offer a Yammer integration in Teams, its Slack competitor. Yammer in Teams will live in the left-hand sidebar.

With this, Microsoft’s two main enterprise communications platforms are finally growing together and will give users the option to use Teams for fast-moving chats and Yammer as their enterprise social network in the same way Facebook messenger and its news feed complement each other.

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Oh, and Yammer itself has been redesigned, too, using Microsoft’s Fluent Design System across all platforms. And Microsoft is also building it into Outlook, too, to let you respond to messages right from your inbox. This new Yammer will roll out as a private preview in December.

With this update, Teams is getting a number of other new features, too. These include secure private channels, multi-window chats and meetings, pinned channels and task integration with Microsoft To Do and Planner (because having one to-do app is never enough). Microsoft is also making a number of enhancements to Teams Rooms, with upcoming support for Cisco WebEx and Zoom meetings, the Teams Phone System, which is getting emergency calling, and the IT management features that help admins keep Teams secure.

A Teams client for Linux is also in the works and will be available in public preview later this year.

Nov
04
2019
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You can now ask Excel questions about your data

Microsoft today announced an update to Excel that brings natural language queries to the venerable spreadsheet tool. Available now to Office Insiders, this new feature allows you to talk to Excel like you’re talking to a person, and get quick answers to your queries without having to write a query.

“Natural language query is another step toward making data insights and visualization more approachable and accessible to users with various levels of Excel experience,” Microsoft explains. “Novice users will not need to know how to write a formula to gain useful insights from their data, while power users will be able to save time by automating the data discovery process by simply asking the right questions and quickly adding charts and tables they need for better and faster decisions.”

It’s worth noting that Google already offers similar features in Google Sheets. In my experience, Google sometimes does a pretty good job at finding data but also regularly fails to find even a single relevant data point, so it remains to be seen how good Excel is compared to that.

Today’s announcement is one in a series of recent launches for Excel that brought a number of new machine learning smarts to the spreadsheet. Among those is Excel’s ability to better understand your entries and provide you with additional information about stocks, geographical data and more.

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