Azure Enhancements Outlined at the Microsoft Inspire Partner Event

Microsoft described a bunch of Azure enhancements at its Inspire event for partners.

Partners can help steer customers toward "more resilient infrastructure" by helping with Azure migrations. They also can apply their own artificial intelligence solutions to "accelerate" AI's  value with customers, suggested Alysa Taylor, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Azure and industry, in a Tuesday announcement.

Improved Azure tools for partners were announced this week, plus partner program additions. The program enhancements represent "an unprecedented three times investment" by Microsoft in its partner community, according to Taylor.

New and Revamped Azure Partner Programs
Microsoft has revamped and renamed its flagship Azure program for partners. It also added a new program called "Azure Innovate."

The flagship Azure Migration and Modernization Program is now called "Azure Migrate and Modernize." It was described as getting "deeper partner incentives, as well as support for additional workloads like high performance computing (HPC), Oracle, Linux, SAP, and mainframe migrations," per this Tuesday Azure blog announcement.

The new Azure Innovate program aims to assist partners with "advanced innovation needs such as infusing AI into your apps and experiences, advanced analytics, and building custom cloud native applications." It'll provide partners with guided assistance through the various stages, "from planning to development." Microsoft also will assist partners in "deploying your own AI copilot using your data." The new Azure Innovate program represents a "dedicated $100M plus investment we are making in response to the heightened demands for analytics and AI," Taylor indicated.

The workloads supported by these two Azure partner programs were illustrated in the following graphic:

[Click on image for larger view.] Figure 1. Workload support for the Azure Migrate and Modernize partner program (formerly Azure Migration and Modernization) and the new Azure Innovate partner program (source: July 18, 2023 Microsoft Azure blog).

Azure Migrate Enhancements
The free Azure Migrate tool has been updated to let partners "analyze cost more comprehensively" prior to cloud migrations, and it will help them "generate a business case with security features," according to this Tuesday Azure blog. Microsoft has also worked with Tanium to analyze "real-time operational data" when presenting a business case for Azure migrations.

Azure Migrate now addresses the coming end-of-support milestones for Windows Server 2012 and later products by supporting "in-place upgrades." Windows Server 2012 is set to fall out of support on Oct 10, 2023. Partners can "detect and mitigate any app-compatibility risks by upgrading to a test environment in Azure without any impact on production workloads." The Azure Migrate tool creates a replica of the original server to address possible issues, and it's able to "upgrade up to 500 servers in parallel while migrating to Azure."

System Center Operations Manager for Migration Planning
Microsoft described a new capability in System Center Operations Manager that will let users generate a business case for Azure migrations. It works with the Azure Migrate tool, a Tuesday System Center blog explained:

This new capability in SCOM allows you to discover and understand everything you need to know about your on-premises environment by generating a complete inventory that can be used in Azure Migrate to assess machines at scale with a comprehensive business case analysis calculating cost savings from migration and modernization.

Microsoft promised to improve the overall cost assessments generated by this new capability in System Center Operations Manager by adding a "Management costs & capabilities" feature to it at some point.

Azure Arc Support for Extended Security Updates (Preview)
Azure Arc, Microsoft's multicloud management tool, now lets users "purchase and seamlessly deploy" Extended Security Updates (ESUs) for both multicloud and on-premises environments. This capability is currently available now at the preview stage for SQL Server 2012, "with billing starting in September 2023." It will be available for Windows Server in September 2023, per an Azure update announcement.

ESUs offer a year of security-only patch support for Windows Server and SQL Server products that have exceeded their lifecycle support dates. The ESU Program just permits three years total of extended support. It was priced much like an insurance plan, with the costs going up each year. Update 7/20: However, a Microsoft spokesperson clarified that "as of yesterday, our pricing pages were updated to reflect that the price of ESUs does not go up each year; it is the same price for all 3 years." Microsoft offers ESUs for free for organizations when they move their on-premises server workloads to Azure virtual machines.

One advantage of deploying ESUs via Azure Arc is that users get "more flexibility with a pay-as-you-go subscription model, compared to the classic ESU offered through the Volume Licensing Center which are purchased in yearly increments," the announcement explained. Microsoft also argued that "Extended Security enabled by Azure Arc is the best way for customers to get trusted security updates and benefit from cloud capabilities including discovery, management, and patching, all in one offering," per this Azure Arc blog announcement.

Azure Arc SSH Support General Availability
Microsoft announced that SSH support when using Azure Arc reached the general availability stage this month. It enables secure connections to Azure Arc via command-line interfaces, the announcement explained:

SSH for Azure Arc enables you to securely connect to any of your Azure Arc-enabled servers via SSH, without the need for a public IP address or additional inbound ports. This allows you to SSH into your Azure Arc-enabled servers via an Azure CLI or Azure PowerShell command.

Azure Boost Preview
Microsoft on Tuesday announced an Azure Boost preview for organizations tapping Azure's higher end networking and storage capacities. Azure Boost enables the "fastest" storage at a throughput of "up to 10 GBps and 400K IOPS," along with "200 Gbps networking throughput."

Azure Boost achieves its networking and performance gains by switching out traditional hypervisor and host OS processes onto dedicated software and hardware, the announcement explained:

By separating hypervisor and host OS functions from the host infrastructure, Azure Boost enables greater network and storage performance at scale, improves security by adding another layer of logical isolation, and reduces the maintenance impact for future Azure software and hardware upgrades.

Azure Boost is a software and hardware component of the Microsoft Azure Network Adapter (MANA), which is also at the preview stage. MANA is an Azure "next-generation network interface" that's designed to optimize the networking performance of Linux- and Window-based virtual machines.

Microsoft is currently using Azure Boost with its higher performance Azure VM product offerings. It's being used to enhance the "remote storage performance of the Ebsv5 VM series and networking throughput and latency improvements for the entire Ev5 and Dv5 VM series," the announcement indicated.

Crash-Consistent Restore Points Preview
Microsoft is previewing Crash-Consistent Restore Points for Azure virtual Machines, per an announcement. It's an agentless solution that "stores the VM configuration and point-in-time write-order consistent snapshots for all managed disks attached to a VM."

Crash-Consistent Restore Points supports Windows and Linux guest operating systems and can be set for "1 hour frequency enabling lower RPO [restore point objective] for applications running on Azure VMs."

Azure Confidential Computing Support for Azure Virtual Desktop
Microsoft also announced that Azure Virtual Desktop, its virtual desktop service offering, now can run on "confidential VMs" by using the Azure Confidential Computing service.

The capability, which encrypts processes when running, is now at the "general availability" release stage. Microsoft currently offers Azure Confidential Computing support for Azure Virtual Desktop when running an "AMD SEV-SNP DCasv5 or ECasv5-series confidential VM for their Windows 11 virtual desktop."

Personal Desktop Autoscale Preview for Azure Virtual Desktop
Microsoft announced that Personal Desktop Autoscale is now at the public preview stage for Azure Virtual Desktop users.

Personal Desktop Autoscale is Azure Virtual Desktop’s "native scaling solution." It can be used to automatically start, or schedule starts, for session host virtual machines. It can "save costs by shutting down idle session hosts," as well as ensuring that resources for end users are available.

Microsoft has expanded its support for Personal Desktop Autoscale to "all regions where Azure Virtual Desktop host pool objects" are located. The preview can be managed using the Azure Portal.

Microsoft also this week published this Microsoft Mechanics video on how to set up automated scaling for the Azure Virtual Desktop service.

Windows 365 Frontline at General Availability
Windows 365 Frontline is the latest product addition to the Microsoft 365 desktop-as-a-service offerings. It reached the general availability stage earlier this month. This product is for shift workers, and it lets organizations allocate "enough Cloud PCs for the maximum number of active users at any given time," per Microsoft's announcement

IT pros get a report on Cloud PC use. They can use Microsoft Intune to manage Windows 365 Frontline Cloud PCs alongside other Cloud PCs. The Frontline Cloud PCs get powered off when not in use, so IT pros may need to carve out some time periods for initiating remote actions.

Microsoft Fabric Public Preview
Microsoft Fabric, an umbrella name for Azure data and analytics tools that work with "Azure Data Factory, Azure Synapse Analytics, and Power BI," has reached the public preview stage. It promises to cut through data siloes via the use of its "multi-cloud data lake called OneLake," and it uses "Parquet as the common format for all workloads," according to Microsoft.

Microsoft Fabric's tools are bolstered using the Azure OpenAI service, including a "Copilot in Microsoft Fabric" addition.

Additionally, Microsoft Fabric is supported with new capabilities in Microsoft Purview, adding data governance controls. The new capabilities include "integration with Information Protection sensitivity labels, Microsoft Purview Hub support and Audit logs support," per this announcement.

Azure Data Manager for Energy General Availability
Microsoft on Wednesday announced the general availability of Azure Data Manager for Energy, which is designed to address data silo issues in the energy industries.

"The offering [Azure Data Manager for Energy] integrates with almost any dataset and source, enables management of compute-intensive workloads at global scale, and quickly ingests data for analytics and decision-making," the announcement explained.

Microsoft further described Azure Data Manager for Energy as "an open, fully managed OSDU Data Platform service powered by the Microsoft Cloud." OSDU is a trademark of the Open Group's OSDU Forum, which provides standards for open source solutions.

Other Azure and Copilot Announcements
There were plenty of Azure tooling, Copilot and other such announcements during the week of Inspire. Note that while Microsoft started out describing its service that uses OpenAI's large language models in Azure as its "Azure OpenAI" service, it also has an Azure AI service, which can use OpenAI's models. It's either a distinction that Microsoft is making or it's an evolving branding change that isn't too well described.

Here are some quick Inspire mentions:

  • Availability of the Azure OpenAI service was expanded in North America and Western Europe, and it is now "available for Asia for the first time."
  • Microsoft Security Copilot has an Early Access Program that's "coming soon," and access will be prioritized for Microsoft Defender for Endpoint customers.
  • Other Copilots that now have Early Access Programs include Copilot in Teams Chat and Copilot in Teams Phone, as described in this announcement.
  • Copilot in Microsoft Viva "will begin rolling out to customers later in 2023," according to this announcement. Microsoft is planning Copilot releases for various Microsoft Viva "modules," namely Goals, Engage, Learning, Topics and Answers. Microsoft also indicated that Viva Glint "will formally join the Viva Suite in July 2023."
  • Vector search in Azure Cognitive Search is at the public preview stage. Vector search "determines search results based on the similarity of numerical representations of data, called vector embeddings," Microsoft explained in this announcement.
  • Meta's Llama 2 family of large language models is supported on Azure AI and Windows, and Microsoft described how to "responsibly" deploy it on Azure AI in this article.
  • OpenAI's Whisper model will be coming in preview "soon" to the Azure OpenAI Service and Azure AI Speech, offering "precise and efficient transcription of human speech in 57 languages, and translation into English."
  • Azure AI Speech now has a public preview of real-time diarization, which transcribes speech "while simultaneously identifying speakers." Also, Microsoft announced the general availability of a "multilingual custom neural voice feature" in Azure AI Speech that "allows you to create a natural branded voice capable of expressing different emotions and speaking different languages."
  • Azure Form Recognizer, which is used to extract data from various document formats, was renamed as "Azure AI Document Intelligence." Users can interact with documents in natural language and generate new content, per this announcement.
  • Azure for Operators, Microsoft's high-bandwidth services for augmenting 5G telecom networks, added several new partners to its Independent Software Vendor partner program, as described here.
  • Microsoft Entra ID Governance, which reached general availability last month, will be getting some dashboard improvements "soon." Microsoft also announced Microsoft Entra ID Governance Entitlement Management capabilities that reached the general availability stage. Other notable features include "machine learning (ML) powered access review recommendations and user inactivity access review scoping" in Microsoft Entra ID Governance.  Microsoft also announced that Lifecycle Workflows is now at the general availability stage in Microsoft Entra ID Governance.
  • Azure Media Services "will be retired on 30 June 2024," which means that "customers won’t have access to their Azure Media Services accounts," so organizations will need to "transition to Azure Video Indexer" before that date.

Microsoft's general landing page with links to Inspire 2023 news can be found here.


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