Microsoft is Retiring Infopath

While rumoured and questioned since before the release of Sharepoint 2013 – Microsoft has now made it officialInfopath is now a dead (“retired” in official speak) product. Microsoft will continue to support the current version for a while but there will be no new releases.

Microsoft is working on a yet to be announced new forms engine technology that will be released at some future date.

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Microsoft has joined the Open Compute Project

In yet another move towards open source, Microsoft has announced that they will join the Open Compute Project.  Microsoft will be contributing its cloud server specifications for the most advanced hardware in its data centers for services such as Windows Azure, Office 365, Bing, etc.

Microsoft is also open sourcing all the code used to manage hardware operations such as power supply, server diagnostics and fan control.

Why is this strategically important for Microsoft and its customers?

  • In general, there is a Microsoft strategy towards transparency as part of its cloud services as a competitive advantage over more proprietary services.  This is an important consideration when reviewing key issues like security and privacy. 
  • Microsoft’s commit to hybrid cloud models aligns with this decision in that they are effectively sharing their designs that in theory could be adopted by other private or hybrid cloud providers.  Their bet is by sharing these models they will promote adoption of Windows Server technologies whether they are through its own public cloud or through partner hybrid cloud services.
  • By participating in the Open Compute Project, Microsoft is effectively sharing with other leading cloud vendors such as Facebook and IBM and leading hardware vendors such as AMD, Seagate, etc. their best practices so that as an industry the cloud computing movement can evolve better designs. 

In contrast, Microsoft’s competitors Google and Amazon have proprietary and closed data center designs. 

“When you’re the first company to design something, sometimes there’s an advantage to keeping it secret,” Zuckerberg said.

As more and more people access data, the odds of any single company figuring out how to deal with it efficiently goes down, said Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice president of infrastructure engineering.

“If we really want to connect seven billion people, we’re going to have to work together,” Parikh said. “I don’t see it working any other way.”

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SkyDrive is now OneDrive

Microsoft has had to change the name of its SkyDrive service because of a trademark dispute that it lost with BSkyB (better know as British Sky Broadcasting). 

The new name for the SkyDrive service is….OneDrive.  SkyDrive Pro will now be OneDrive for Business.  No details have been released yet as to whether there will be any difference in service in terms of storage limits, features, pricing, etc.

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Microsoft Reduces Azure Storage Pricing

As noted in my previous blog article, there is a price war going on for cloud services between the major players (Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Google, Salesforce, etc.) and this has become one of the key benefits to dynamic cloud usage.  As long as you only pay for what you use and the price goes down tomorrow, the customer wins in the long run because they can take advantage of new reductions in pricing.  For the foreseeable future, it looks like the price for cloud services will continue to go down as the competition for your cloud loyalty only gets stronger.

Microsoft announced today yet another storage price cut to compete with Amazon

Locally redundant storage on Azure now matches Amazon’s prices and Azure Storage transactions are getting a 50 percent price cut, which matches Amazon’s latest price cuts. In addition, Microsoft’s Locally Redundant Disks/Page Blobs Storage is seeing a 28 percent price reduction.

Note that the price reduction is not effective until March 13, 2014.

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Local Cloud is Becoming a Competitive Advantage

Thanks to fears about privacy, the NSA debacle, the Patriot Act, and various data sovereignty concerns around the world, there is a strong need for some organizations to keep data locally. 

The challenge with cloud is that scale matters – setting up a data center in Iceland, Canada, etc. simply isn’t as economical to compete with the larger data centers that service the world. 

Commitment to a location is also a massive capital investment – Microsoft, for example, just invested in building a Dutch data center at a cost of $2.7 billion for a single location!

Culture, laws and local concerns are having an impact on cloud.  Concerns about security, privacy and data sovereignty are not going away and organizations such as governments, health care providers, banks, utilities, etc. are expressing the need for a local option before fully embracing the cloud.

There are also technical reasons why local data centers are potentially better – the primary one being reduced latency.  While less of an issue in North America, in countries in Asia going through congested pipes across borders can be a significant drag on performance.

For the major cloud players (Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, etc.) there seems to be a recognition that local is becoming a competitive advantage:

As the concerns around privacy, data sovereignty and local service continue to be a top concern especially outside the United States, a key competitive advantage will be how data can be kept local while still maintaining the advantages of computing on demand, low cost, etc. provided by the massive scale of the cloud.

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Cloud Growth Rate = Many More Organizations Adopting Cloud Services

To understand why cloud is such an important trend right now, one just needs to look at the growth in cloud revenue globally.

As of last November, cloud revenue globally had grown by 46% year over year. 

Amazon cloud market Q3 Synergy

Gartner expects sales of infrastructure services to grow by 38% annually to $30.6 billion in 2017.  IDC expects cloud services to double in the same period.

Measuring cloud market share is a little bit challenging at the moment because it’s a) a moving target and b) it depends on what you include as “cloud revenue”.  While Amazon is clearly the market leader in IaaS cloud services, Microsoft, IBM, Salesforce and Google are all fighting it out for market share.  SAP is also claiming they are gaining market share as well with their cloud platforms. 

Each company is also now claiming various independent studies and numbers are wrong because of various methodology problems or the numbers are simply out of date – usually when a study puts them behind the competition.  Expect this to continue as the competition heats up and marketing departments in these companies use market share claims as a confidence booster for their customers.

The bottom line is that cloud growth will continue at a dramatic pace in the next 2-3 years…

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Microsoft is now one of Hadoop’s Biggest Supporters

Hadoop is the primary big data platform in use today.  What started out as an indexing engine originally developed by Google and then by Yahoo has become the leading engine for managing very large indexing tasks. 

Hadoop is a JAVA project governed by the Apache Software Foundation.  Yet what is interesting is Microsoft’s support for the project in multiple ways:

  • With their partnership with Hortonworks, Microsoft is actually one of the biggest contributors to the Hadoop project.  Microsoft has contributed more than 16,000 lines of code to the Hadoop open source project.
  • Hadoop can be run in the Azure Cloud through HDInsight.  One of the key competitive advantages of running Hadoop in the cloud is the simplicity of spinning up additional HDFS nodes as needed. 
  • Excel 2013 can now access Hadoop data using Power Query.
  • Microsoft has a technology called Polybase built into their Parallel Data Warehouse that allows you to combine non-relational data with traditional relational databases. 

It wasn’t always the case that Microsoft supported Hadoop – for a while they were actively competing it.  However, Microsoft has changed direction and has made significant contributions, platform support and started to build a competitive offering based on ensuring access to Hadoop based data is easy to manage and accessible to power users through Excel, Office 365 and Azure.  Microsoft seems to be committed to the Hadoop platform for the long term.

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A Wish List for Improved Azure and Office 365 Integration

Microsoft has two winning assets with Office 365 and Azure.  Both are growing at very high rates right now as organizations adopt cloud technologies. 

Microsoft has a unique competitive advantage with the two platforms compared to Amazon or Google by integrating the two platforms together in more serious ways.  One of the key reasons why third party integration will never be as successful is simply that the two networks are very close to each other which means very low latency between Office 365 and Azure.  This should in theory create scenarios that mean very fast performance when fetching data, apps, or media between them.

There are already a few ways that you can integrate Azure and Office 365 together:

  • Developing SharePoint apps and hosting them on Azure
  • Creating custom workflows that can execute in response to SharePoint actions
  • Integration of single sign-on between Azure and Office 365
  • Integration with a SQL Azure database through Business Connectivity Services

Here is my wish list of potential integration points that seem like obvious integration wins but are not available today in Office 365.  Some of these features exist on SharePoint 2013 on premise but are turned off in Office 365 – in other cases they don’t exist at all. 

Integration of Azure and Office 365 seems like a huge potential differentiator and would encourage adoption on both platforms by enterprise customers.

Search integration between Azure Blob Storage and Office 365

Imagine having a massive document library of engineering drawings sitting in Windows Azure Blog Storage.  Storing in Blob storage is very cheap so that has some appeal for those organizations with very large storage requirements.  Alternatively, imagine having a video library being served to the internet stored in Azure.

Office 365 could, in the future, index this content as part of search and provide access to the content.  Once part of the search index, we could harness search driven applications in Office 365 to build some really interesting catalogue views,

Integration of Azure Data Sources

In Power Query using Excel 2013, I can now create a power pivot model based on Azure Blog Storage, Azure SQL or Azure Table Storage.  It works awesome on my laptop – however, currently Office 365 doesn’t support refreshes of external data sources. 

This should be an easy win – the code to fetch the data is there in Power Query but it’s not available in Office 365.

Integration of NoSQL Data Sources into Office 365

Office 365 supports connecting to external line of business applications through WCF/SOAP based web services.  It also allows for connection to a SQL Server Azure database.

However, the number of data sources in Azure is rapidly expanding to include noSQL datasources such as Hadoop, Hive, Table Storage, Blog Storage, etc.  These are currently not supported.

Azure Backed High Performance Document Libraries

SharePoint 2013 has the concept of Remote Blog Storage which allows you to externalize blob storage outside the SharePoint content database.  From an end user perspective, they just see a regular document library but the content is now stored somewhere else.

Metalogix has an RBS product that supports storing large files on Azure Blog Storage.  However, Remote Blog Storage is currently not supported by Office 365. 

This would be helpful in particular for files that are larger than 2 gigabytes, which is the current upper limit for a file upload in Office 365.  It would also be helpful where there are existing repositories in Azure Blog Storage could now be surfaced and managed through Office 365.

Surfacing of Azure Monitoring in Office 365

Azure provides a really nice dashboard that allows you to monitor your infrastructure.  Imagine if I could surface this dashboard in my IT department intranet running on Office 365.   Imagine if I could surface a tailored version of the dashboard specific to a single department (e.g. the finance department wants to monitor their custom built finance application running on Azure). 

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Automate Cloud Provisioning Workflows

One of the ways we can use SharePoint workflows is for provisioning.  For example, we can have a form where users might request to create a new site and have our workflow create that site in SharePoint automatically with the appropriate approvals. 

Imagine we had a connector to Azure for provisioning in Office 365.  Now, I could create a workflow where if you wanted a new VM, a new Azure database, a new Storage account, etc. you could have the business process workflow for approving that action running in SharePoint.  On approval, the workflow would spin up the appropriate service in Azure.

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Key Limitations for Synchronizing Files with Office 365 and SkyDrive Pro

One of the most promising features with Office 365 and SkyDrive Pro is the ability to synchronize large volumes of files (e.g. your entire my documents folder or a large project archive) with your collaboration site in the cloud. 

Like any other SharePoint project, success with this model is going to be dependent on some reasonable governance, effective training with your users and roll-out support.  We have had some customers who have reported frustrations with the technology and we find most of the time it’s because a user is bumping up against some boundaries in the product.

The following are some of the key boundaries, limitations and best practices for enabling synchronization with Office 365 and Sky Drive Pro. 

The Hard Limits

Office 365 and SkyDrive Pro have some specific hard limits that impact offline synchronization.

  • No single file can be uploaded that is > 2 gigabytes
  • No more than 5,000 files can be uploaded in a single folder
  • No more than 100 gigabytes can be stored in a single site collection
  • No more than 30 million items total in a document library including all documents and folders

In addition, SkyDrive Pro has its own limitations:

  • No more than 25 gigabytes in a single Sky Drive personal site (although this can be increased to up to 100 GB if you have room in your bulk quota pool)

Synchronization Limits

There are specific limits on how many files can be synchronized at one time:

  • You can sync up to 20,000 items in your SkyDrive Pro library, including folders and files.

  • You can sync up to 5,000 items in other SharePoint libraries, including folders and files. These are the libraries you find in various SharePoint sites, such as team sites and community sites.

File Structure Limitations

There are some specific file name and directory name limitations for Office 365 and SkyDrive Pro:

  • Filenames must be less than 128 characters
  • Folder names must be less than 256 characters
  • Folder name / File name combinations must be less than 260 characters.

If you have files/folders that are beyond this limit, you will receive an error when you try to synchronize that file/folder.

Invalid Characters

You are not allowed to upload files with the following characters:

/:* ? ” < > | # { } % ~ &

Invalid File Types

There are some restrictions on the file types you can upload.  These include:

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