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Inspire Preview: Microsoft To Focus on Partners, Azure and Microsoft 365

Microsoft on Thursday made dozens of product and partnering announcements in advance of the Microsoft Inspire 2018 partner conference that kicks off on Sunday.

The pre-conference unveilings in blog posts and media briefings covered partner programs, Azure and Microsoft 365.

Editor's Note: Microsoft has prohibited press and analysts from attending Inspire this year, marking the first time since 2005 that RCP won't have a presence at Microsoft's annual partner conference. If you see or hear something newsworthy at the show, shoot us a tip at [email protected].

The announcements from Thursday should form a rough outline of the topics and themes Microsoft that will focus on during the conference in Las Vegas and the co-located Ready conference for Microsoft's internal sales teams. However, it's likely that Microsoft is holding a few major revelations back for keynote speakers throughout the week, including Executive Vice President of the Worldwide Commercial Business Judson Althoff and President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith on Monday, channel chief Gavriella Schuster on Tuesday, and CEO Satya Nadella on Wednesday.

Partner Programs and Tools
Partners can look forward to several major tweaks to the way they interact with Microsoft, although none appear overwhelmingly sweeping. Microsoft's main engagement model with partners will continue to be the Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) program, which Schuster called Microsoft's "lead sales motion" for partners in a media call. Revenue growth for the CSP program is 234 percent year over year, Microsoft declared in a momentum slide. Another slide boasted that Microsoft has 72,000 cloud partners worldwide.

Expect a continued emphasis next week and a continued focus throughout Microsoft's fiscal 2019, which started at the beginning of this month, on co-selling. Microsoft made a big deal at the Inspire conference last year of launching its co-selling programs, which provide for Microsoft field sellers to represent partners' Azure solutions and get compensation from Microsoft based on those sales to spark Azure consumption. "This was the first year that we allowed Microsoft sellers to retire their quota through partner solution sales," Schuster said. The result was $5 billion in sales of partner solutions through the fiscal year. "We're going to continue to invest in selling together in many more ways," Schuster said.

While the broad outlines of the aging, competency-based Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) appear to be in place for the coming year, the tweaks involve a new program for managed service providers around Azure, some advanced specializations and some competency benefits changes.

The MSP program is called the Azure Expert Managed Service Provider program. "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.

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 in the customer-focused blog post.

The exclusive program started as a pilot last year, said Schuster during the media call, adding that partner participants experienced a similar pattern at customer sites. "During our pilot, the data showed that customers...start small...and then they grow really fast. They basically start and say, 'Is this going to work?' and then they turn over their whole infrastructure."

Schuster also briefly outlined, without providing much more detail, a new program of advanced specializations, apparently within competencies. In the current MPN, partners earn gold or silver competencies in a generally horizontal solution area -- such as Cloud Productivity or Enterprise Resource Planning. Microsoft has been paring down the number of competencies, and there are currently 19 displayed on Microsoft's Web page. However, the specializations could mean Microsoft is about to start expanding the labels it places on partners again. "It's a way for customers to discover just the partners with the right capabilities," Schuster said in her presentation.

Schuster also said competency partners should stay tuned for changes to benefits. "Starting later this year, partners with competencies will have a choice of benefits packages based on their business focus. We're expanding core benefits to include access to services that support generating leads, improving lead velocity and increasing close rates for app or service offerings," she wrote in a blog post.

Microsoft will also use Inspire to roll out a number of tools for partners in the form of profitability guidance, playbooks and digital transformation e-books.

Azure and Microsoft 365
As one of Microsoft's signature conferences with a worldwide audience, Microsoft always uses Inspire to highlight some product news. 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 Jason Zander, executive vice president of Microsoft Azure. 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.

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 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 July 12, 2018