Microsoft Partners Fired Up By Azure Stack, Windows 10 Updates

Terry Myerson, Microsoft's executive VP of operating systems

Microsoft is scoring big with a number of partners, who say Redmond’s latest Azure cloud moves and tweaks to its Windows and Office franchises will help them drive significant new business in 2016. Microsoft also has put together an impressive mobile and cloud playbook that will turn up the heat on cloud competitors Amazon and Google in the year ahead, they said.

That’s the verdict after day one here at Microsoft Ignite, taking place in Chicago this week. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, flanked by a small army of executives, Monday released a cavalcade of updates to Windows 10 and its "Windows as a service" strategy centered around the Azure cloud here at Ignite.

"2016 is going to be huge for Microsoft and its partners," said Steve Whited, a systems analyst with Tyler Technologies, a Microsoft partner based in Longview, Texas, who was commenting on news revealed Monday that in 2016 Microsoft will update key applications such as Office, SharePoint Server, Exchange Server and SQL Server all on the heels of the release of Windows 10 expected late in 2015.

[Related: Microsoft Announces Office 2016 Public Preview, Windows Update For Business]

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"It's a perfect storm for Microsoft, in a good way," Whited said. "The Azure Stack and new Microsoft Advanced Threat Analytics are a powerful one-two punch against its rivals."

Microsoft Monday said that this summer it would be previewing Azure Stack, which it bills as a next-generation hybrid cloud. Azure Stack brings the Azure user experience -- both infrastructure and Platform-as-a-Service capabilities -- into a customer's data center.

"Microsoft is really setting itself apart, allowing companies to put the cloud OS inside the data center," said Olivier Debonne, technical expert at Savaco, a computer support and services firm. "Azure Stack brings the benefits of the Azure platform behind the enterprise firewall. It allows customers to own the Azure infrastructure and value. And when and if a customer wants, it can port features to the cloud without a hiccup."

Technically, Azure Stack is mix of Windows Server 2016, Azure Pack and Azure Service Fabric that can run on top of Windows Server and Systems Center. For Debonne and other partners, they said Azure Stack enables companies that are gun-shy about a full public cloud deployment to have a secure way to take the plunge with Azure with all the benefits and no risks.

Security is another differentiator Microsoft is bringing to the table this week, according to partners attending Ignite. Microsoft Monday unveiled its Microsoft Advanced Threat Analytics (ATA), which is based on its acquisition of Active Directory security firm Aorato last year.

ATA uses behavioral analysis to automatically learn and identify normal vs. abnormal behavior from users, devices and other company resources. The security service can deliver instant feedback when it identifies suspicious behavior, allowing businesses to see graphical relationships between users and events.

During a keynote demo on stage Monday, Microsoft showed how an admin was alerted when a Massachusetts-based worker's credentials were used by an IP address in Shanghai, China, to access company resources in Boston. Microsoft also said that part of its security suite of tools included alerting a company when it discovered a customer's user credentials became available on the black market.

’Security and identity is everything,’ said Matt Katzer, cloud solution adviser at Kamind, a Microsoft partner based in Portland, Ore. "I’m impressed with the security tools baked into Azure." Microsoft is putting some distance between Amazon and Google when it comes to cloud security, he added.

Also on the security front, Microsoft unveiled Windows Update for Business, a new management option for Windows 10. The new update tool offers an alternative to once-a-month Patch Tuesday updates and gives administrators more control over what updates their company receives and when, allowing for continual updates through the month as an option.

’I’m encouraged that Microsoft is headed in the direction of taking a more open posture in the market and playing nice with the rest of the industry,’ said Jeffrey Whiting, a software developer with American Public University System, in Charles Town, W.Va.

A proof point behind Microsoft’s openness is its support for Docker and a container strategy that allows companies to streamline application development and deployment by bypassing the need for VMware and costly Microsoft licenses, said Akeel Ahmed, CTO of Intelliflo, a U.K.-based Microsoft partner. "The key thing is we are going to be able to develop around the Docker API," he said. "Frankly, I'm a little surprised that we are now so aligned with Microsoft when it comes to application architecture."

At Microsoft Build Conference last week, Microsoft released details of its Windows Server Containers and Hyper-V Containers. It said support for support for Docker will show up in the next release of Windows Server. That, partners said, will help Microsoft compete with Linux as a platform for next-generation cloud applications. Microsoft has also said it will offer stripped-down Nano Server for running Windows containers.

’This is a fundamentally different Microsoft we are seeing,’ Whiting said. ’Microsoft is acting less like a big monolithic company and now is contributing more and more to the greater IT good of the industry.’

For Stephen O’Connor, principal consultant at Paragon Solutions, a Microsoft partner in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., it comes down to driving new business with new products. ’Microsoft is making steady progress on Windows 10 as it nears the finish line,’ he said. Between the Microsoft Universal Apps approach, Azure, beefed-up security and Office 2016, O’Connor said, 2016 is shaping up to be a good year for talking to customers about new Microsoft software, services and solutions. ’New products drive new sales,’ he said.