Microsoft has the broadest portfolio of software of any company, and at the firm’s annual Ignite conference, it proved it by introducing a raft of new products and services in cloud, development, security and management, and productivity. These include Azure Arc, a multi-cloud management solution; Azure Synapse, a much faster data warehouse and big data platform; Power Automate with robotic process automation capabilities; changes to Microsoft Office, including a combined Office app for mobile and a number of new AI-based enhancements; and Project Cortex, an ambitious but still nascent plan to take the data your organization creates and turn it into “knowledge” that can help users.
Many of the new announcements seemed somewhat incremental, improving previous products rather than being new. In many cases, the products show how by integrating functions that used to be separate, they can make things easier for users and IT professionals; and thus extend Microsoft’s reach into new adjacent markets, particularly in security and management areas. But there were also some very new things—a Quantum computing initiative, a method of storing information on glass, and the Project Cortex concept—that aren’t ready for business use now but could be important going forward.
Most of the new products were summarized in the opening keynote by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who focused on “tech intensity,” which he defined as a formula that includes adoption and capability, but with trust as paramount importance.
“Our goal is to commoditize digital technology,” Nadella said, meaning it shouldn’t be confined to a few companies on the west coast of the United States and the east coast of China. “We want every company out there to be a tech company in its own right…and our mission is to empower you to do that.”
Azure Cloud and Synapse
He talked about the company’s Azure cloud business. There will be 50 billion connected devices by 2030 and 175 Zettabytes of data by 2025, up from about 40ZB today. Microsoft today operates 54 Azure regions worldwide which he described as “more than anybody else”; and it has the right certifications for data centricity and supports openness and sustainability. He said the company is moving toward “100 percent renewable energy, zero-waste operations” starting with a new data center in Sweden.
He said the Azure Stack Portfolio now includes Azure Stack Hub, a fully integrated on-premises “cloud solution” with Kubernetes management, and showed new Azure Stack Edge appliances with a variety of new options, including ruggedized and portable versions.
Most importantly, the company introduced Azure Arc, a hybrid cloud management solution. This was described as a control plane for multi-cloud, multi-edge scenarios that extends Azure management facilities and data services to the data center, so you can do things like run Azure SQL Database and Azure Database for PostgreSQL on any Kubernetes cluster, whether on-premises, in Azure, or even on Amazon Web Services.
On the data side, he announced Azure Synapse Analytics, which brings together enterprise data warehousing and big data analytics. This is the next generation of the Azure SQL Data Warehouse, but now designed to include structured and unstructured data, and be available either serverless or through provisioned resources. The goal is a faster, more integrated way to ingest, prepare, manage, and serve data for business intelligence and machine learning
In a demo, Microsoft’s Rohan Kumar said this brings a “whole new level of performance and scale” and could work with multiple petabytes of SQL and non-SQL data. He showed a demo of a query that took 9 seconds on Synapse versus 11 minutes on Google’s Big Query; and how with a petabyte of data, it could handle more concurrent users much faster than Big Query or Amazon’s Red Shift. It could handle up to 10,000 concurrent users while the others get overloaded with 150 users. (As always, take such benchmarking with a grain of salt; companies always show off the scenarios they do best at, not necessarily the ones you will want to run).
This solution is integrated with the firm’s Power BI analytics tool; with Azure Data Share for sharing data with partners; and with Azure ML for predictive analytics. It is in preview now.
Nadella talked about Microsoft’s goal to “democratize AI” including infrastructure, tools, and frameworks. He also talked about Microsoft’s new Autonomous Systems platform, designed for use in controlling physical items, such as in industrial manufacturing, energy, or robotics. (Later, Microsoft’s Mark Hammond explained to me that this is separate from things like Azure Cognitive Services in that it focuses on “atoms not bits” and items that have a tight-loop control system.)
This includes a new paradigm, which Microsoft calls “machine teaching,” in which engineers apply their domain knowledge to set boundaries for the application. It uses a lot of simulation, with companies such as Mathworks tying in their simulation engines.
Project Silica and Quantum Computing
Perhaps the most surprising demo was a new storage system. Nadella showed off a piece of quartz glass that had been etched with femtosecond lasers to encode the entire 1978 Superman movie from Warner Brothers. This is called Project Silica, which was actually announced a couple of years ago. Nadella said it offers superior reliability to anything that currently exists. This was only a proof of concept; it has yet to be slated for actual availability.
Nadella also unveiled Azure Quantum, a cloud ecosystem for developing quantum computing applications. It supports Q#, a quantum programming language Microsoft unveiled two years ago and a companion Quantum Development Kit (QDK). You will be able to run these algorithms on quantum simulation (simulating qubits on traditional hardware), or soon with various quantum hardware solutions, including ion-trap solutions from IonQ and Honeywell and a superconducting solution from Quantum Circuits Inc. (QCI). Eventually, the goal is to also have it work with the topological qubits that Microsoft has been working on for years, which theoretically could be much more reliable. The Azure Connect platform will also support software from 1Qbit, which offers a variety of quantum algorithms.
Even before quantum hardware is ready, some businesses are now using “quantum-inspired” algorithms, with the keynote describing how Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic were using such algorithms to get a 30 percent improvement in MRI precision.
(Later, Microsoft’s Julie Love explained to me that in research of how quantum computing might work, developers have figured out new algorithms that simulate the kind of “tunneling” that would happen in a quantum computer, and thus are much faster at optimization. The Case Western example actually optimizes the sequence of pulses in the MRI machine, she said, which can improve the speed of an MRI by up to a factor of 3. She said that much of the effort is being spent on creating packages that engineers with no expertise in quantum computing can use, and said that similar libraries are aimed at things like chemistry and materials.)
Nadella discussed security, saying “We have to ensure trust is in every system we build.” He claimed the cost of cybercrime reached $1 trillion last year, and small-and-medium businesses and consumers were most vulnerable. He talked about the new Microsoft Endpoint Manager which combines the functions of its Configuration Manager and its Intune service for mobile devices into a single console, along with other security enhancements and improvements into it’s Azure Sentinel security information and event management (SIEM) product.
Other security announcements at the show include Improvements to the Azure Security Center to make it easier to find misconfigurations and threats in Azure, along with fast remediation tools; making Microsoft Authenticator, its multi-factor authentication project, free as part of Azure AD free; improved Compliance features; and a new feature called Application Guard for Office, which lets users open an untrusted file in a virtualized container and still print, edit, and save changes. This is due to be out by next summer.
Development Tools for Pros and Business Users
For developers, Nadella mentioned that 61 percent of software engineering jobs are now outside of the tech sector and discussed how Microsoft offers a complete toolchain for developers. New is the Visual Studio Online environment, and new tools for code completion in its Intellicode features, and new ways to consult with a manager of mentor using Visual Studio Live Share.
I was more impressed by the progress in the low-code or no-code tools. Nadella said there will be 500 million new business applications created by 2023, more than all the apps that have ever been created. He said Microsoft now has 2.5 million “citizen developers” using its Power platform, which he said, “will help democratized digital technology across the world.”
The most important new announcement was Power Automate, a new and renamed version of its old Microsoft Flow tool that now includes robotic process automation (RPA) features, so you can create an automation that spans a variety of applications and adds in AI features. The firm also announced Power Virtual Agents, a no-code approach to creating intelligent “bots,” as well as new models for the firm’s AI Builder (which ties into the Power platform) and tighter integration between the Power Platform and Microsoft Teams.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the week’s announcements dealt with productivity, with Nadella saying “the next step forward for us is knowledge.” He talked about the importance of focusing on a task. He shared numbers saying it takes 25 minutes to return to the original task after being interrupted; and a 40 percent decrease in productivity when you are multitasking, saying Microsoft wants to help people concentrate on what they are doing.
As part of this, he said, “We want to infuse AI into every experience out there,” pointing to new AI-based tools with PowerPoint and Excel, and the ability to make more content accessible through Cortana. In this space, he talked about the growth of Microsoft Teams, which he said now was being used by more than 350 organizations that have more than 10,000 users each. Within Teams, he talked about new private channels, and new integrations of data within Yammer and Outlook.
But the big news was something called Project Cortex, which takes the data already inside your company and uses AI to make it more accessible, thus “putting your data to work for you.” Essentially, this uses the information your organization is already storing in Office 365 places like OneDrive and SharePoint, and surfaces it in other applications, creating such things as topic cards that can tell you about internal acronyms or projects. This can show up in email or other applications; or can be used in such things as creating an internal Wiki with company knowledge. It looks to be very ambitious if still early—it is in private preview and due to be released in the first half of next year.
The most interesting other new imitative in productivity is the Fluid Framework, designed to allow you to have components of a document being edited and available simultaneously to a large number of users in a variety of applications. For instance, you could have a table with data that can be simultaneously edited in Teams, Outlook, and Excel. The concept is far from new, and parts of this were first shown at Microsoft Build in the spring, but it is interesting. An early preview should be out in four weeks.
Other changes include a new app just called Office for iOS and Android designed to be a single place where you can access and create content of all types, with various mobile tasks, such as converting images to text, creating and signing PDFs, and sharing files between devices. This is in public preview now. (I’ll have more details on the productivity solutions in another post.)
Edge and Bing
Noting that 50 percent of the time people spend on the PC is spent in the browser, Nadella said we should expect more in terms of keeping data private and protected, finding information from within our organizations, and integrating the web into our applications.
As part of this, Microsoft announced that the release candidate of its new version of its Edge browser, based on the Chromium engine, would be available this week, with general availability targeted for January 15.
Microsoft’s Yusuf Mehdi said the new browser was business-focused and would be on a different schedule than the operating system, with updates every four to six weeks on iOS, Android, Windows 10, and Windows 7. Because it is built on Chromium, he said it will have “world-class performance and compatibility,” saying it was twice as fast as the earlier version of Edge. (I remember when Microsoft claimed Edge was faster than Chrome, but since it’s now based on the same open-source browser, they should be similar.)
There are some unique features in Edge, such as a personalized home page, with corporate content if you are logged into Active Directory; tracking prevention and an improved InPrivate browsing mode; and perhaps most importantly, a version of the old Internet Explorer browser running as a tab within Edge. Mehdi said that 75 percent of companies today run IE (later Microsoft’s Chuck Friedman explained that is because they have corporate applications that still run ActiveX or Silverlight components). Another unusual feature is Collections, a scratchpad that lets you easily collect information from multiple web pages in a single pane, then easily share that collection with others, or export the data to Excel.
Mehdi also talked about “uniting the internet and the intranet” so that when you are logged in, you can use Microsoft search in Bing to find links within your company, such as how many days I can take off for jury duty. This will work with data in Office 365, and also from other applications via over 100 connectors, including new ones from Box, SAP, Salesforce, and Service Now.
Nadella finished his keynote by participating in a demonstration of Minecraft Earth, which is in a preview now and just rolled out in the UK. This involved taking part in adventures that use holograms placed in various locations around the planet (that you see on your phone), and uses the Azure Spatial Anchors service, which is also in preview. Minecraft Earth was shown before but is a good reminder of the breadth of services Microsoft now offers.