Microsoft Teases AI, Mixed Reality Integrations in Dynamics 365

New modules coming to Dynamics 365, Microsoft's business applications suite, promise to help businesses access cutting-edge AI and mixed reality technologies to solve their everyday problems.

Microsoft showcased five new apps for Dynamics 365 on Tuesday that integrate everyday business tasks with either the AI capabilities that increasingly permeate the Azure cloud or the mixed reality promise of the Microsoft HoloLens visor-based computer and Windows Mixed Reality immersive headsets from OEMs.

The demonstrations came as a teaser for the Microsoft Ignite and Microsoft Envision conferences next week in Orlando, Fla., where Microsoft will address IT and business applications audiences and unveil new products, features and services across its many platforms.

In a briefing for press and analysts, Alysa Taylor, corporate vice president of Business Applications & Industry Marketing at Microsoft, unveiled three AI modules that will be released as previews this fall: Dynamics 365 AI for Sales, Dynamics 365 AI for Customer Service and Dynamics 365 AI for Market Insights.

Taylor described the three products as "a new class of AI applications that will deliver out-of-the-box insights by unifying data and infusing it with advanced intelligence to guide decisions and empower organizations to take informed actions."

Dynamics 365 AI for Sales will be designed for both salespeople and their managers, providing next-step suggestions for the sales team and coaching recommendations based on pipeline analysis for their managers.

The Customer Service module will use natural language recognition and AI to both guide customer service employees and to provide virtual agents that can handle basic tasks and lower support costs. Again, the emphasis, Taylor said, is to deliver those benefits "without needing in-house AI experts and without writing any code."

The Market Insights module for Dynamics 365 is aimed at surfacing Web and social insights to improve the performance of marketing, social media and market research teams.

Also on Tuesday, Microsoft officials showed off two mixed reality modules for Dynamics 365 that have been previously discussed as part of the October 2018 release of Dynamics 365, which will be generally available on Oct. 1.

[Click on image for larger view.]

Microsoft Dynamics 365 Remote Assist (pictured above) provides for a new type of customer support that takes advantage of the hands-free nature of a HoloLens headset. The person needing assistance can wear the HoloLens, which both streams video to a remote support worker and allows the support worker to project spatial directions or diagrams onto the person's display. In technical terms, the solution consists of heads-up, hands-free video calling, image sharing and mixed reality annotations.

Microsoft Dynamics 365 Layout immerses planners and their customers in a 3-D version of potential room designs, floor plans or entire building configurations that help them collaborate on the finished setup. Leveraging various pieces of the Microsoft stack, including HoloLens or immersive goggles, the Layout module includes capabilities for scanning real spaces, loading new virtual layouts to overlay the physical version and the ability to view the results in mixed reality or via streaming to other screens.

Posted by Scott Bekker on September 18, 2018 at 2:31 PM0 comments


Meta Networks Unveils Partner Program

Software-defined perimeter (SDP) specialist Meta Networks on Monday launched a formal partner program.

SDP is an emerging area in IT security, with analysts at Gartner last year identifying it as one of the top 10 security approaches to keep an eye on. Generally replacing virtual private networks, an SDP uses software-defined policies to put users at the center of the network security model, identifying those users in policies and determining what resources they can access.

Meta Networks executives position their approach as zero-trust, meaning that users don't have default access to resources within the network. Instead, they only see and access resources that they need for their jobs. Meta layers its SDP as an encrypted cloud service, or Network as a Service (NaaS), delivered via points of presence around the world that customers connect to. The NaaS supports connections from on-site users and remote users, from datacenters and from clouds, including public clouds like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure.

Meta Networks calls its partner program the Meta NaaS Channel Program, and it is designed for managed security service providers, VARs, VADs, integrators and IT service providers. Current Microsoft channel partners are a key potential source of partners, said Director of Sales Royi Barnea, due to the tight integration of Meta's products with Microsoft infrastructure software and services.

The initial program is three-tier, with Silver, Gold and Platinum levels for financial rewards and incentives. The program also includes standard components, such as training, certification, demo solutions, sales and marketing materials, sales leads and market development funds.

Palo Alto, Calif-based Meta Networks has also built an indirect account management team and dedicated partner services team.

One early market opportunity for SDP is VPN replacement to provide secure, browser-based remote access to applications for contractors, partners and customers, company officials say. Another popular use case is secure remote access for employees.

The solution is tailored for medium-sized organizations, Barnea said. "Organizations with 300 to 5,000 users are a perfect fit and a very fast sales cycle," he said. "Sales average two weeks to a month, and sales reps like that very quick win and small and fast sales cycle."

Posted by Scott Bekker on September 17, 2018 at 12:53 PM0 comments


AccountabilIT Acquires ClearPointe Technologies

AccountabilIT, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., acquired Little Rock, Ark.-based ClearPointe Technologies this week in an acquisition that brings two managed service providers (MSPs) together.

WestView Capital Partners provided financing for the transaction. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

AccountabilIT was founded in August 2016 and has a portfolio of managed services that include cybersecurity, service desk, cloud and virtualization, and disaster recovery. ClearPointe has been around since 2000 and specializes in cloud-based transformations, migrations and managed services.

ClearPointe boasts Microsoft gold competencies in Datacenter and Cloud Productivity and a silver competency in Cloud Platform. The company's Microsoft-specific services include Azure migrations, Azure governance, Azure platform monitoring and modern workplace.

"This acquisition is critical in providing AccountabilIT with additional scale and experience needed to maintain our position in the industry," said Chuck Vermillion, AccountabilIT's CEO and founder, in a statement. "We are thrilled to add ClearPointe's leadership to our organization."

Jeff Johnson, CEO and founder of ClearPointe, said that his company's Microsoft-centric services will complement AccountabilIT's expertise in application management, database administration, Linux administration and managed security.

Posted by Scott Bekker on September 13, 2018 at 11:49 AM0 comments


Microsoft Details Azure Preparation for Hurricane Florence

Microsoft is battening down the hatches of its Azure infrastructure in advance of Hurricane Florence's approach to the U.S. East Coast.

As of Thursday afternoon, Florence was a Category 2 hurricane that was pounding the Carolinas from offshore with damaging waves and high winds that have already left tens of thousands of customers without power. The U.S. National Weather Service was forecasting that the storm would make landfall sometime late Thursday or early Friday with a storm surge equivalent to a higher-category hurricane, followed by catastrophic amounts of rain.

In a blog post on the Microsoft Azure site on Wednesday, Jeremy Hollett, partner engineering manager, Azure CXP, detailed the company's preparations to protect both customers and Microsoft's people.

"Our datacenters (US East, US East 2, and US Gov Virginia) have been reviewed internally and externally to ensure that we are prepared for this weather event. Our onsite teams are prepared to switch to generators if utility power is unavailable or unreliable. All our emergency operating procedures have been reviewed by our team members across the datacenters, and we are ensuring that our personnel have all necessary supplies throughout the event," Hollett said.

Hollett said primary communications channels for updates would be on the original blog post, through the Twitter handle @AzureSupport or on the Azure Service Health section of the Azure portal.

The hurricane is hitting a little over a week after a major outage for Azure and other Microsoft cloud services that resulted from a lightning strike that damaged infrastructure in the San Antonio, Texas-based South Central US datacenter. Microsoft released an after-action report detailing the causes and lessons learned from that incident earlier this week.

Posted by Scott Bekker on September 13, 2018 at 10:59 AM0 comments


Microsoft Adding App Migration Troubleshooting to FastTrack

Microsoft is prepping a new service to reduce friction involved in migrating applications to Windows 10 and Office 365.

The service, dubbed Desktop App Assure, will be delivered as a component of FastTrack, Microsoft's internal migration desk for moving customers to its cloud platforms.

Desktop App Assure was announced Wednesday in a blog post, with more details to come at the Microsoft Ignite show later this month. A North American preview of Desktop App Assure will start on Oct. 1, and worldwide availability is set for Feb. 1, 2019.

"Desktop App Assure operationalizes our Windows 10 and Office 365 ProPlus compatibility promise: We've got your back on app compatibility and are committed to removing it entirely as a blocker," wrote Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Office and Windows Marketing, in the post.

The service is designed to overcome concerns about app compatibility, which Spataro characterizes as disproportionate to the statistics Microsoft sees in customer diagnostic data. His post contends that 99 percent of apps are compatible with new Windows updates, and that apps that work on Windows 7 will generally continue to work on Windows 10 and subsequent feature updates.

"But if you find any app compatibility issues after a Windows 10 or Office 365 ProPlus update, Desktop App Assure is designed to help you get a fix," he said.

The program works on a service desk model. Customers who experience a problem file a ticket through FastTrack and receive follow-up from a Microsoft engineer.

Desktop App Assure will be included for customers of Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education.

Posted by Scott Bekker on September 06, 2018 at 4:39 PM0 comments


Kaseya Acquires RapidFire Tools

Kaseya is making moves to help managed service providers (MSPs) spin up compliance-related practices.

Kaseya on Wednesday announced that it had acquired RapidFire Tools, which specializes in IT assessment, internal threat detection and compliance products. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.

Kaseya will keep Atlanta-based RapidFire as a standalone business unit that will continue to sell and support its existing products. Foremost among them for the Kaseya deal is Audit Guru, which focuses on automating, documenting and achieving compliance. Other RapidFire products include Network Detective for network and security assessments, and Cyber Hawk for continuous threat detection and alerting.

A big part of the acquisition involves the already completed integration of RapidFire's compliance technology into Kaseya's core MSP products.

Simultaneous with the acquisition, Kaseya announced Kaseya Compliance Manager (KCM), which is based on RapidFire's tools. According to Kaseya, KCM is an all-in-one compliance management solution that is integrated with the Kaseya IT Complete platform and Virtual Systems Administrator (VSA) product.

In a statement, Kaseya CEO Fred Voccola described the compliance opportunity that he sees Kaseya's new integrated and standalone RapidFire solutions addressing.

"Over the past several years, small and mid-sized businesses, who are the customers of our MSPs, have experienced the same pains and challenges of dealing with various compliance requirements that the enterprise has had to deal with over the past decade," Voccola said. "These small and mid-sized businesses are looking to MSPs to help them manage and address the growing compliance requirements they face, including things like GDPR, HIPAA, PCI, ISO and others."

Posted by Scott Bekker on September 05, 2018 at 12:44 PM0 comments


Report: PC Market Slumps as Businesses Take Their Time

Longer refresh cycles are contributing to a gloomy outlook for personal computing devices, according to data published by market researcher IDC this week.

IDC is predicting that total unit shipments of traditional PCs, workstations and tablets will decline by 3.9 percent this year. The compound annual growth rate (CAGR), if growth is the right term, is -1.5 percent for the next five years.

Shipments for this year are expected to hit 407 million devices. By 2022, IDC is lowering that figure to 383 million devices.

Among the sub-sectors, commercial-focused PCs are a critical laggard. "Desktop PCs are expected to see a CAGR of -2.7% as most of these devices are destined for the commercial market where lengthy refresh cycles and saturation are contributing to a steady decline in shipments," the Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm said in a statement.

Some other sectors are predicted to do even worse over the next five years. Slate tablets have a five-year CAGR of -5.3 percent. Traditional notebooks and mobile workstations are expected to bomb even more, with a five-year CAGR of -9.1 percent.

Those organizations that are refreshing their PC inventory over the next five years are expected to put more of their money into two distinct categories.

"While the ramp of convertibles and detachables has been more crawl than run, the category on the whole continues to build momentum," IDC researcher Linn Huang said in a statement. The ultraslim notebook category is expected to have a CAGR of 7.8 percent, while the 2-in-1 device category has a projected CAGR of 9.3 percent, according to IDC.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 31, 2018 at 12:33 PM0 comments


The RCP CSP Directory Is Updated with 4 New Cloud Distys

A big deadline is approaching this week for the Microsoft Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) program. Partners who re-enroll as Direct Providers after this Friday will need to purchase one of two partner support plans.

Those plans start at $15,000 a year. While large-volume partners should be able to spread the costs evenly among their customers, it will be a hardship for many smaller partners.

In an infographic, Ingram Micro estimates that the changes will reduce the number of Direct Provider partners from 7,500 worldwide to around 1,000 "soon."

The changes coincide with increasing investment and emphasis by Microsoft over the last few years in enabling the big Indirect Provider partners, who act as cloud distributors and sit between Microsoft and the bulk of CSP partners, known as Indirect Resellers.

That Indirect Provider channel has been growing rapidly. Where a few years ago, there were five or six Indirect Providers in the United States, the choice has ballooned to 17 in recent months.

Given all the activity, we've updated the main page of the RCP "Microsoft CSP: Indirect Provider Directory" and we'll be posting new details about the programs from U.S. Indirect Providers as soon as we can get them. Visit now to check out newly posted questionnaires from Crayon, D&H Distributing, intY and Velosio.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 27, 2018 at 12:39 PM0 comments


Report: Microsoft Remains SaaS Powerhouse

A new analyst report on the Software as a Service (SaaS) market contends Microsoft's strength in collaboration services is making it tough for other vendors to catch up.

The report this week on the enterprise SaaS market from Synergy Research Group valued the whole sector at $20 billion in the second quarter of 2018, growing at 32 percent per year.

While the Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) sectors of public cloud computing are growing faster, Synergy contends that SaaS is the biggest piece of the cloud market. Within SaaS, which is a highly fragmented market, Microsoft is dominant.

"Microsoft has a worldwide market share of over 17% and is now the leading SaaS vendor by some distance, having overtaken Salesforce nine quarters ago. Thanks primarily to its leadership in the high-growth collaboration segment, Microsoft's annual revenue growth is running at 45%, far surpassing overall market growth," the research group said in a statement.

[Click on image for larger view.]

Rounding out the top five by market share are Salesforce, Adobe, Oracle and SAP, with Cisco, Google, IBM, ServiceNow and Workday in the group behind them.

The report is good news for Microsoft partners. While there are literally of thousands of SaaS apps to choose from, partners who have expertise in the Microsoft stack have a foot in the enterprise door with Office 365 and other Microsoft SaaS applications. Those who can put together solid bundles of SaaS offerings on top of, or adjacent to, the Microsoft stack are in a strong position to expand at those customers.

Meanwhile, the Synergy report indicates there is plenty of room for continuing growth. At this point, SaaS accounts for less than 15 percent of total enterprise software spending.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 23, 2018 at 11:05 AM0 comments


Microsoft Partners: Nominate Your Company for the RCP 200

Want to be recognized as one of the top Microsoft partners in the United States? The entry form is open for the third annual RCP 200 list.

This is a qualitative list of the Microsoft solution provider companies that demonstrate a laser focus on Microsoft technology and a strong commitment to providing great value for their customers.

There are a few requirements -- companies that get listed must belong to the Microsoft Partner Network (MPN), must have major end-user service operations in the United States and should have at least one Microsoft Gold Competency.

Beyond that, it's subjective. We're not just looking for the biggest companies or the broadest coverage of Microsoft technologies. Some winners are niche providers, focused on a narrow part of the Microsoft stack. Others have a great regional reputation. Still others are regular Microsoft regional award winners.

Does your company have what it takes? Fill out the application here by Sept. 28 to make sure you're considered.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 15, 2018 at 11:06 AM0 comments


Alexa-Cortana Public Preview Arrives

The wait for a functional and supported integration between the Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana digital voice assistants is over.

It took a little longer than the companies originally anticipated. An end of 2017 planned release came and went without comment, but Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana did appear together on stage for a successful demo at the Microsoft Build conference in May.

Officially, the integration that was announced on Wednesday is a "public preview," although what that term means anymore in this age of cloud services telemetry and constant feature upgrades is up for debate. Essentially, the integration is here.

Practically, the public preview has some limitations that will be expanded upon over time, in addition to the usual adding of new services and skills. It's only available for U.S. customers to start, and won't support music streaming, audio books, flash briefings or setting alarms. The public preview version will also query users about their experience with the integration.

What U.S. customers will be able to do during the public preview is call up Cortana from Echo devices or call up Alexa from Windows 10 PCs and Harman Kardon Invoke speakers. Each digital voice assistant is enabled as a skill on the other's platform.

To start off on an Echo device, users need to say, "Alexa, open Cortana." That command will bring up instructions and a requirement to sign into the Microsoft account that includes Cortana. Conversely, from a Windows 10 PC, a user will say, "Hey, Cortana, open Alexa," and follow the prompts on screen to sign into Alexa.

According to Amazon's announcement blog post, from Cortana within Alexa, users can say things like:

  • "What new e-mails do I have?"
  • "What's on my calendar for tomorrow?"
  • "Add 'order flowers' to my to-do list."

While going from Alexa within Cortana, a user can say:

  • "Turn on the lights."
  • "Play Jeopardy."
  • "What's my order status?"
  • "Add milk to my shopping list."

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 15, 2018 at 10:06 AM0 comments


Microsoft Shrinks Azure Stack's Attack Surface

In a move that could significantly reduce Azure Stack's attack surface and simplify network integration, Microsoft is consolidating a number of ports for the hybrid cloud platform.

Specifically, Microsoft plans to collapse port requirements for various Azure services running on Azure Stack from 27 different ports to just one. The services will communicate via Port 443, the standard port for HTTP over TLS/SSL. The change will take effect in an upcoming release, according to a Microsoft announcement last Friday.

Microsoft positions Azure Stack as a key differentiator versus other major public cloud providers, in that customers can run an integrated hardware and software system that is supposed to offer the exact same platform as Microsoft's Azure public cloud, but in a private datacenter. The approach enables customers to use the same application code in the public cloud and on the private cloud.

Early demand for the technology includes edge environments, disconnected environments, customers with specialized security requirements and those with specific compliance concerns. Hardware partners currently offering the 4-12 node integrated systems include Cisco, Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Huawei and Lenovo.

Because it runs the same underlying code as Azure in the public cloud, Azure Stack supports a number of Azure services. Up until now, Microsoft has added the functionality for each service to its Azure Stack portal via a portal extension using a separate network port.

In the announcement, Thomas Roettinger, senior program manager for Azure Stack, acknowledged customer pushback for managing and securing multiple ports. "As the number of Azure services increases, so do the number of ports that must be opened on a firewall that supports Azure Stack," Roettinger said.

Following in Azure's footsteps, the Azure Stack will soon adopt a so-called Extension Host technology to funnel all the ports through Port 443. "In its first release, the User and Admin portal default extensions have moved to this model, thereby reducing the number of ports from 27 to one. Over time, additional services such as the SQL and MySQL providers will also be changed to use the Extension Host model," Roettinger said.

The change will be fully implemented with the 1810 update of the Azure Stack. In preparation, Azure Stack customers will need to import a pair of wild card SSL certificates, one for the admin portal and one for the tenant portal.

The current build, 1807, was only released a few days ago, and Roettinger suggested users have some time to prepare. New deployments of Azure Stack will require the wild card certificates sometime in September, he said.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 13, 2018 at 12:28 PM0 comments


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