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Microsoft’s Ignite Announcements Take Direct Aim at the Competition
Below we highlight six of the major announcements made at this week’s Microsoft Ignite conference. It is clear to see that Microsoft is broadening the ecosystem in a way that will enable the continuing migration from a products/services company to a platform-based offering; one that seeks to displace competition from multiple angles in the IT enterprise space. Microsoft has spent the last five years re-inventing itself across many layers of the organization and its product lineup. Satya Nadella has turned the company’s external outlook and internal culture upside down and has made great progress in getting product teams operating in silos to play nice in the same sandbox. This accomplishment enables synergies to be realized across product lines, resulting in innovative new offerings that can directly compete with de facto products from Amazon, Google, Slack, and VMware, among others. Without further ado, let us see what Microsoft has announced so far this week at Ignite.
The Open Data Initiative (ODI)
Microsoft is teaming up with Adobe and SAP, with whom it already has Azure partnerships, to launch the Open Data Initiative. ODI will allow participating partners to more easily share and pool data across partner applications for use in AI/ML and analytics projects. This is a major announcement, as Adobe’s press release states:
“Based on these principles, the core focus of the Open Data Initiative is to eliminate data silos and enable a single view of the customer, helping companies to better govern their data and support privacy and security initiatives. With the ability to better connect data across an organization, companies can more easily use AI and advanced analytics for real-time insights, “hydrate” business applications with critical data to make them more effective and deliver a new category of AI-powered services for customers.”
This initiative takes open aim at Salesforce, and possibly Oracle, should they choose to go their own way. In fact, Salesforce may be doing just that with its Dreamforce announcement touting the new release of the MuleSoft Anypoint platform, which seeks to accomplish many of the same goals as ODI. ODI is a perfect example of how Microsoft is taking the lead in transforming to a platform enterprise, where data is viewed as the domain of the customer, while the various vendors simply enable the data access and transfer across the customer organization as defined by the customer!
Competitors targeted: Salesforce.com, Oracle
Expanded AI-Based Azure Services
The Big 3 in public cloud, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, have been incorporating developer-oriented AI products into their cloud platforms for some time now (e.g. AutoML). AI has firmly been established as the differentiator that will drive selection of public cloud vendors point forward, with Google firmly carving out a niche in this area.
To this end, Microsoft is increasing its AI presence with the release of Cortana Skills for Enterprise, which seeks to build upon Azure services in the area of natural language processing (NLP), Chabot development, and speech analysis to enable “assistant services.” An example of the type of service this technology can provide is the automation of filing an IT help desk ticket using Cortana’s “help desk skill.” In this sense, Microsoft seeks to mirror the Amazon Alexa skills-based mechanism for the enterprise. Interestingly, Microsoft and Amazon have a partnership that integrates Skype for video calls with Amazon’s Echo Show and brings Alexa into Windows 10 and Cortana into Echo speakers.
Microsoft also announced the launch of cloud services that enable developers to build AI models without relying on a data scientist, for which demand is huge and supply is scarce. This development is critical to increasing the scalability of AI functionality to the broader IT eco-system that is constrained by high-priced, specialized labor today.
Finally, Microsoft debuted Azure Data Box Edge. This is a server/storage appliance containing Field Programmable Grid Array (FPGA) chips to allow for on-premises processing of AI computations without the need for specialized hardware/chips…and has a 100 TB storage capacity. This product uses the same FPGAs utilized in Microsoft’s Azure cloud. This product enables stronger customer use cases in the area of deep learning and the appliance integrates with Microsoft’s open-source IoT Edge software.
Competitors targeted: Cisco (Spark Assistant, Alexa for Business), Google (AutoML), Amazon (Snowball)
Microsoft customers are seeing a resurgence in the focus on SQL Server. After the SQL Server 2017 release, less than a year ago, brought Linux and Machine Learning (ML) support and features, the public preview of SQL Server 2019 is now upon us. Microsoft has revamped the internal engine for SQL Server and added PolyBase functionality, which allows SQL transactions and queries to be executed from Hadoop environments.
Enhancements to the legacy Symmetric Multiprocessing (SMP) architecture will now enable the ability to connect to Oracle, Teradata, and MongoDB, among other ODBC data sources. SQL Server 2019 now accommodates in-database execution of Java code in like-manner, as it currently does for R and Python.
Database-managed services is a new service offering, entitled Azure SQL Database Managed Instance, which provides equivalent on-premises functionality, but Microsoft (DBaaS) manages the server instances.
Microsoft’s cloud native database, Cosmos DB is expanding as well via the introduction of Cassandra API compatibility, allowing these applications to be ported to Cosmos DB, previously limited to MongoDB and HBase NoSQL.
Competitors targeted: Oracle
Windows Virtual Desktop
Unbelievably, Microsoft has truly missed the virtual desktop wave of the last decade that is dominated by the likes of VMware and Citrix, and even recently with Amazon’s WorkSpaces service. Microsoft says “no more” as it introduces the Windows Virtual Desktop, an Azure native-cloud service. Microsoft will be offering this service FREE with Windows E3/E5 or Microsoft 365 E3/E5/F1 enterprise plans.
This is a potential game changer, as organizations frequently struggle with the stacked licensing costs and deployment complexities encountered with current VDI initiatives. Now Microsoft customers can contain the VDI stack under one vendor, eliminate dual license fees, and only pay for the Azure cloud IaaS consumption.
Competitors targeted: VMware, Citrix
Not as much to report on in the Office segment, however, Microsoft Ideas is a new feature that leverages ML, further enhancing the user experience by offering tips and suggestions as Office applications are used. This feature becomes more “intelligent” as it learns about a specific user’s behavior. Microsoft Ideas initially debuts in Excel and PowerPoint with additional Office applications to follow.
Another feature for Excel is image recognition where Excel will automatically convert a photo of a data table into an Excel file. Integration with LinkedIn also gets stronger with the ability for Outlook users to co-author Office documents with LinkedIn contacts.
Competitors targeted: Google
Unified Search for Windows and Office
Initially launching on Bing and Office.com, and soon to be followed for Microsoft Edge, Windows and Office is the unified search feature. Integrating data from Microsoft Graph and AI from Bing, users will be able to search across contacts, files, and applications in a seamless fashion. While touted as a profound development by Microsoft Office VP Jeff Taper, it really is an attempt to close the gap with Google’s G-Suite where integrated search has been present for some time.
Competitors targeted: Google
- Make the decision to “go platform” or “go it alone.” The next shift in the enterprise software segment is upon us, moving from Everything as a Service (XaaS) to the Platform Economy, where vendors deploy AI-powered and cloud-native services with powerful integration features across multiple functional service towers.
- Give Microsoft another look. Vendor lock-in is unavoidable. As support and service costs mount over time, with limited new functionality delivered, Microsoft now offers options to the legacy solutions of the past.
- Get the most out of your software bundle. A huge positive for the new suite bundle world is the ability for vendors to continuously update, patch, and enhance the suite offerings in real time. Microsoft embraces this philosophy and continues to add robust feature/functionality to existing subscription bundles.
Microsoft demonstrates that it has embraced the concept of agnostic deployment of its technology across multiple environments and clouds, thus starting to break down the walled gardens of the past in the world of enterprise software. By taking a dual approach to opening up Microsoft software that can run in non-Microsoft platforms, increasing data portability across systems, and adding robust features to its product offerings, a clear picture of the enterprise technology provider for the next decade has emerged.