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Azure, Microsoft 365 in Focus at Microsoft Inspire Next Week

Microsoft will highlight new features and programs around Azure and Microsoft 365 during the Microsoft Inspire 2018 partner conference that kicks off on Sunday.

In advance of the partner conference, which runs most of next week and will be co-located in Las Vegas with the Microsoft Ready internal sales conference, the company on Thursday made dozens of product and partnering announcements.

The announcements should form a rough outline of the major topics and themes Microsoft that will focus on at the conferences. However, it's likely that Microsoft is holding a few major revelations back for Microsoft keynote speakers throughout the week, including Jason Zander, executive vice president for Azure; Ron Markezich, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365; Anand Eswaran, a corporate vice president in the enterprise business; and CEO Satya Nadella.

Many of the biggest announcements involve the flagship Azure cloud platform, and will be featured on Tuesday. Also likely to be featured in the Tuesday keynote lineup are a series of announcements involving Microsoft 365, which is Microsoft's term for the technology bundle that includes Windows 10, Office 365 and Enterprise + Mobility Security (EMS).

For Azure, Microsoft is rolling out several significant previews. One is Azure Data Box Disk for moving data into Azure. Building on the Azure Data Box appliance for data migrations, the Data Box Disk is an SSD-disk based option for migrating up to 35TB for either one-time or recurring migrations. Meanwhile, availability of the original Azure Data Box is being expanded to a preview version in Europe and the United Kingdom.

New Azure services entering preview include Azure Virtual WAN and Azure Firewall. The Virtual WAN networking service provides optimized and automated branch-to-branch connectivity, and provides mechanisms to connect on-premises routers and SD-WAN systems, according to a blog post by Zander. As for the firewall, Zander described it as, "a fully stateful firewall as a service with built-in high availability and unrestricted cloud scalability."

A full general availability release on Thursday was a next-generation version of Azure SQL Data Warehouse with doubled query performance, optimizations for data movement and the ability to support up to 128 concurrent queries. On the Power BI front, the data-related cloud service received several enhancements to make it more practical for business analysts to work with Big Data. For customers with on-premises versions of Windows Server and SQL Server 2008/2008 R2, Microsoft unveiled an offer that would allow them to migrate those workloads to Azure and get critical security updates for them past the end-of-support deadline at no charge.

As another way to assist customers in moving to Azure, Microsoft unveiled a new category of specialized managed service provider (MSP) partners with expertise in Azure migrations. "These expert partners have proven real world proficiency and skills, for datacenter lift-and-shift, born-in-cloud new applications, and everything in-between," wrote Corey Sanders, corporate vice president of Azure, in a blog post about the new program, which is called the Azure Expert Managed Service Provider program.

Sanders detailed the requirements for MSPs to join and remain in the program. "Azure Expert MSPs complete a rigorous audit by an independent third party, and also provide multiple customer references of Azure managed services projects delivered over the last 12 months. Furthermore, to retain the badge, these expert partners need to continue to meet pre-requisites annually and complete a progress audit every year," Sanders wrote.

Under the Microsoft 365 umbrella, Microsoft announced several end user-focused enhancements around Inspire. First among those is a free version of Microsoft Teams that is remarkably robust and available immediately in 40 languages. Features in the free version include support for up to 300 people, unlimited chat messages, search, built-in audio and video calling for individuals and groups, 10GB of team file storage, an additional 2GB per person of personal storage, and real-time content creation integration with Office Online apps.

In an e-mail, Dux Raymond Sy, CMO of AvePoint, a major Microsoft SharePoint ISV partner, called the announcement a big blow for Microsoft against Slack. "With this new freemium model, it's hard to see how smaller organizations would choose Slack for their chat based collaboration over the superior integration and security features that Microsoft Teams provides," he said.

Another major new capability within Microsoft 365 is intelligent events. Calling them artificial intelligence-powered, Microsoft said the event infrastructure is designed to allow anyone in an organization to create live and on-demand events. Enhancements to the event experience include a speaker timeline using facial detection to identify speakers, speech-to-text transcription with timecoding and closed captions.

In an effort to help organizations improve efficiency and enforce work-life balance, Microsoft announced features called Workplace Analytics and MyAnalytics nudges. Using Office 365 data, Workplace Analytics identifies collaboration patterns that impact productivity, workforce effectiveness and employee engagement, according to Microsoft. The nudges, meanwhile, are aimed at encouraging employees to reduce after-hours impacts on co-workers, preserving blocks of "focus time" in employees' schedules and running more effective meetings. MyAnalytics nudges will start to appear in Outlook starting this summer.

One product that hit general availability on Thursday is the Microsoft Whiteboard app for Windows 10, which Microsoft describes as a "freeform, intelligent canvas for real-time ideation, creation and collaboration." The app was previewed in December, and more previews will be on the way for iOS and Web versions of Whiteboard.

Posted by Scott Bekker on 07/13/2018 at 8:42 AM


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