In-Depth

Microsoft Hits the Refresh Button

A refreshed technology portfolio and roadmap revealed at Ignite suggests Satya Nadella's hybrid cloud, modern workspace management and intelligent communications vision is blooming.

Focus and vision. If there's a simple way to describe what Satya Nadella has brought to Microsoft in his few short years as CEO, the company now has a clear and far more consistent and relevant direction.

Upon taking the helm in Redmond nearly four years ago, Nadella wasted no time in resetting Microsoft's mission and technical roadmap with a fresh direction. The goal was to map with emerging business requirements and rapid changes in the workplace environment. Incorporating Microsoft's vast technology assets with its broader ecosystem to meet those needs, he dispensed with entrenched and once unshakable rules and philosophies that had defined the company.

Nadella didn't just come in and rip up Microsoft's entire playbook. If anything, he took the vision of founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates that every desktop and home would have a computer and evolved it to being that Microsoft should help make information available to anyone or any machine from any type of device. The result of this entire company refresh is that Microsoft is now more relevant, not only to its longtime stakeholders, but to a vast community of critics. Not only does Microsoft now have a clear direction, it's remarkably consistent and tied together. Nadella's executive team has articulated his worldview in precise lockstep.

Microsoft brought together key pieces of that worldview at its annual Ignite conference, held in late September. Having laid the groundwork over the past few years, Nadella signaled that the core deliverables of a transformed Microsoft are now in place with a fleshed-out roadmap and that the time is right for customers to accelerate their own modernization efforts. Indeed, much of the conference was scripted for that effect. It started out with the release of Satya Nadella's autobiography "Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft's Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone," the story of how his personal life experiences have shaped his view on how information needs to be delivered to people and help businesses achieve more.

"Every piece of technology should help embellish the capability of human beings," Nadella said in his keynote address at Ignite. "We definitely want more productivity and efficiency, but we do not want to degrade humanity. We want technology to provide new levels of inclusiveness. Lastly, how do we build trust? Trust in how we secure data, how we ensure privacy, and the control and transparency that we build all around? These timeless values and this opportunity of digital transformation is what grounds us at Microsoft."

While Microsoft unleashed the typical large array of announcements at Ignite, almost all of them appeared to address and frequently intermingle at least one of three key imperatives:

  • Modernizing the workplace with a new approach to deploying and managing devices and providing a new framework for productivity, collaboration and communications.
  • Accelerating the move to enable that modern workplace by making public and hybrid cloud accessible with fewer barriers.
  • Providing access to data in new ways, including voice and new forms of visualization brought together by advances in machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and the company's database management portfolio.

Microsoft didn't declare "mission accomplished" at Ignite, but it appeared the company reached an inflexion point with the release or evolution of some key long-expected deliverables, along with announcements and preview releases that build on Nadella's vision. Among the important takeaways from this year's Ignite conference:

  • Microsoft 365: The company's new bundle designed to deliver on its strategy to deliver a modern workplace environment with Windows 10, Office 365 and the Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS) service, which includes Intune for device enrollment and management, Azure Active Directory Premium for single sign-on authentication, and Azure Information Protection to provide data loss protection and conditional access.
  • Microsoft Teams: Microsoft wants its new chat-based tool to become every user's Office 365 dashboard, which is why the company is bringing the Skype for Business telephony and conferencing service to Microsoft Teams.
  • Azure Stack: The appliance that lets organizations run Azure in their own datacenters is now available, providing what Microsoft and observers see as a key bridge to the cloud by offering private and hybrid implementations.
  • Migration to Azure: While Microsoft is the established No. 2 global cloud provider, its rival Amazon Web Services Inc. (AWS) remains dominant. A new migration tool aims to make it easier, and in Microsoft's view more cost-effective, either to make it more appealing to move workloads or use Azure as an alternative.
  • Data: If there was one common theme across almost every major technology discussion, it was the intelligence tapped from the Microsoft Graph, Azure Machine Learning and advances in database technology, including the release of SQL Server 2017 for Windows and Linux servers.
  • Intelligence: Tapping into the Microsoft Graph and all these other data sources is conversational computing, language translation and more intelligent search with the preview of Bing for Business. Likewise, Microsoft is making a big push to drive this intelligence into new forms of automation in the growing world of Internet of Things (IoT) and to bring mixed reality to the mainstream to enhance everything from gaming to manufacturing and to enable advances in medical research.

It's no secret that looking to the future, analysts see the majority of applications that don't have to run in a local datacenter to be cloud-based. AWS and Google Inc. don't have enterprise software or hardware businesses to protect, presumably giving them much more financial flexibility than incumbent IT providers such as Microsoft, IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp. Riding on that fact and that its existing installed base isn't going to scrap everything they have—yet aware that the shift is inevitable—is the reason Microsoft aggressively built out the Azure public cloud, and has crafted a hybrid offering it thinks will provide a transition path that will ease the move over many years, if not indefinitely, should customers choose.

Azure Stack Finally Released
The delivery of the first Azure Stack appliance is an important milestone and its success, or lack thereof, will be a key measure of Microsoft's ability to take its customers with it. "Azure Stack provides a consistent cloud experience with the same management API, the same set of developer services, same management portal that's available in Azure, and it's one that you can deploy and run literally anywhere," said Scott Guthrie, executive VP running Microsoft's cloud and enterprise business, speaking in his keynote session at Ignite. By anywhere, Guthrie has said there are customers testing Azure Stack on cruise ships, freight liners and oil rigs, and others who merely have regulatory restrictions that require them to keep certain data on-premises or within the confines of a specific geography.

"Microsoft has a good hybrid cloud strategy in that regard because they have the code, all the integration points with Active Directory and the whole security model and the management systems across the different environments," said Sid Nag, Gartner Inc.'s research director covering cloud services. "From that perspective it's a pretty smart thing. The command and control is identical. I don't have to learn new skills, I can start off in the private [cloud] with Azure Stack and transition very smoothly without a learning curve."

Likewise, those customers who have run applications in Azure could extend their deployments within their own datacenters, to run workloads on-premises. Guthrie pointed to the Ernst & Young (EY) professional services business, which has a client in Russia, where by law companies can't host data in a datacenter outside of that country. "The beauty of Azure Stack is that it gives EY now the ability to write their application once and deploy it both in Azure and run it in their own facilities in those countries with Azure Stack," Guthrie said.

Microsoft at a Crossroads
Gartner's Nag says time will tell if Microsoft's broad customer base buys into Azure Stack over the long haul, but success is critical for the company. "I think Microsoft has been at a crossroads in general because they've owned the enterprise for the longest time and now they're making a big push to the cloud. But they're doing it with a push-and-pull thing because they don't want to let go of their enterprise seat at the table with the CIOs and CTOs at major organizations," he says.

Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Lenovo and Cisco Systems Inc., are all taking orders for Azure Stack appliances, and Huawei is expected to offer its own early next year. Azure Stack isn't the first hybrid cloud solution available from the company or others. IBM, VMware Inc. and others have offered their own platforms and systems based on OpenStack for some time. But if Azure Stack works as company officials have promoted it over the past two years, it could find its way into many datacenters and offered by hosting providers.

Hosting providers such as Atos and Rackspace are awaiting delivery of their first Azure Stack systems. At Ignite, officials at Dell EMC and HPE said they were seeing strong early demand. "We have over 200 customers in our pipeline right now," said Armughan Ahmad, senior VP and general manager for solutions and alliances at Dell EMC. "That is a very large chunk of Microsoft's overall Azure Stack pipeline because we were really early. We were early to partner with this."

Aaron Spurlock, senior product manager at HPE, didn't want to give a specific figure, but he said it's perhaps the most widely demanded new system he's seen. "We have the strongest pipeline of any product I have seem from my tenure here at HPE, at least from the outset," Spurlock said. "It's very strong for a solution offering for us. And we keep seeing indicators that the demand may be even stronger than we previously thought."

Asked if he believes it will outpace HPE's OpenStack appliances, Spurlock qualified his response that he's not an expert in OpenStack. "It's kind of an apples-to-oranges comparison," he said. "OpenStack is a fine solution if you're willing to take on the complexity of spinning up that infrastructure, and managing and maintaining it to keep that going," he said. "Azure Stack is really great because it really represents a packaged solution. If you want to get up and running with a hybrid cloud solution in a matter of a few days, Azure Stack is a great solution."

Enabling Hybrid SQL with Azure
While Azure Stack is Microsoft's infrastructure gateway to Azure, SQL Server 2017 bridges the database system to Azure SQL Database. Guthrie announced the release of SQL Server 2017, the first time it's commercially available on Linux and also simultaneously available for Windows Server and Docker. At the time of his keynote, Guthrie said the SQL Server for Docker Hub had 2 million pull requests over a three-month period.

"SQL Server 2017 also delivers unparalleled performance with our new adaptive query processing engine, making it the fastest release of SQL Server ever," Guthrie said. "And we now enable you to use machine learning models built with R and Python, and run them in memory directly inside the data­base, making your apps more intelligent than ever before."

The hybrid capabilities come when building modern apps for SQL Server 2017, which are compatible with Microsoft's new Azure SQL Database managed instance. Applications with complex database requirements often require SQL Server agents, CLR objects, cross-database joins or VNETs, said Lara Rubbelke, principle software development engineer at Microsoft, who demonstrated the migration process during Guthrie's Ignite speech. "In the past, these dependencies prevented you from taking advantage of the modern [Platform-as-a-Service] database experience," she said. "Now, the great news is that all of these and more are now supported with the new Azure SQL [Database] managed instance."

Microsoft also announced a new data migration service that will move all versions of SQL Server going back to 2005 and non-Microsoft databases, including Oracle, to Azure SQL Database. Guthrie said it provides fully automated workflow and can perform the migration without requiring code changes or down time.

The Database Migration Service and Azure SQL Database Managed Instance combo that's now available fills an important hole in Microsoft's effort to keep its SQL Server install base as they move existing and new applications to the cloud. As customers consider their database migration strategies, AWS has a strong Database-as-a-Service offering, according to Gartner's Nag, noting its own support for different database services and tools that enable schema conversions.

"AWS is going at the heart of different companies and businesses, including Oracle, obviously, but also Microsoft," he says. "I'm sure that Microsoft is a bit concerned that many of these database applications may end up running on AWS infrastructure. Microsoft has to protect its whole SQL Server business by bringing it to Azure."

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