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5 Partners On The Biggest Opportunities With Microsoft In 2020

Expanding work with Office 365, Azure Active Directory, security and Windows Virtual Desktop are among the key growth areas this year, solution providers told CRN.

Solution providers that work heavily with Microsoft are busy this year building upon Office 365 migrations to help customers expand into a range of useful new applications and functionality, partners told CRN.

At Salinas, Calif.-based Alvarez Technology Group, for instance, CEO Luis Alvarez said that he has "really started to see that the value that we provide our clients now is more around helping them implement the services that they're already paying for."

[Related: Microsoft Channel Chief On Growing Azure 'Preference' And Windows Virtual Desktop]

Meanwhile, in the realm of migrations to Microsoft's Azure cloud platform, the company's win of the highly sought JEDI cloud contract from the Pentagon is only pouring more fuel on the fire.

When making the case for going with Azure to clients, "everything is covered, because Microsoft has already gone through all the vetting," said Kelly Yeh, president of Chantilly, Va.-based Phalanx Technology Group.

In recent interviews with CRN, most partners mentioned opportunities such as helping customers to get more out of their existing Office 365 subscriptions and using Azure Active Directory to enable single sign-on with other applications, including non-Microsoft apps.

Several also pointed to opportunities such as securing Microsoft environments and Windows Virtual Desktop, which debuted last fall and aims to simplify and lower the cost of virtual desktop deployments.

"From a vendor perspective, I think they are the single biggest opportunity right now--no doubt about that," said Mike Jackson, president of Prairie Village, Kansas-based Pendello Solutions.

What follows are comments from five solution providers on the biggest opportunities they see with Microsoft in 2020.

Kelly Yeh, president of Chantilly, Va.-based Phalanx Technology Group

Azure: “If you looked at my practice three or four years ago, Phalanx was a completely different company--traditional MSP managing and deploying, mostly on-prem server systems. Doing in-place upgrades of Exchange and SQL and that kind of thing. Obviously with all the cloud compute coming out with Azure and all the other cloud systems out there, the need for on-prem systems has really gone down … In the last year, we've really been taking anything that's been on-prem and pushing it up to Azure. So in the last year it's been a huge increase.

Even though we're in DC and we don't do federal contracting--most of our clients are commercial--they still have to hit NIST and FedRAMP compliances in this market a lot. So, just having that out of the box with Azure is super easy.”

JEDI: “Microsoft winning that JEDI contract also helps. It's easy to say, we're in an Azure data center, U.S. East 1 [region]. And they go, ‘OK, that's all I needed to know.’

If you are a federal contractor, you know that they won the JEDI contract. We're kind of a unique market, but it really helps. What we found recently is we've been talking to insurance auditors about the cyber policies of our clients. When we sit there and tell them, here's our disaster recovery business continuity, as well as physical and logical security--the auditors just immediately say that's all I needed, thanks. Everything is covered, because Microsoft has already gone through all the vetting.”

Competing with Google and AWS: “I've been a Microsoft Certified engineer since '97, and I've been partnered with Microsoft since 1998. So, I love Microsoft. They may not always be the first to market with a product, but they definitely have the best business product. Office 365 is just kicking Google Docs' butt. They know how business wants to use their systems--that's what I always say is the best thing about Microsoft.

We do both Azure and AWS. With AWS, we only use it for our customers that are e-commerce sites or websites. The Microsoft Azure environment is far superior if you're trying to move your-prem server farm. So unless you're heavily invested in Linux servers on-prem, of course you're going to spin it up in Microsoft's Azure. It's just so much easier to manage than AWS.”

Windows Virtual Desktop: “We're heavily looking into that right now. We were trying to replicate that before using standard Microsoft licensing--they had VDI licensing that you could buy, and then we were spinning up servers in the cloud, but they didn't work that well. We're beta testing it right now as a disaster recovery strategy.

If you had a fire in your office, you can't buy 1,000 workstations overnight. But you can spin up 1,000 VDI Win 10 devices in 10 minutes. So, you can recover from catastrophic disaster pretty easily and quickly. That's how I'm positioning it now. And then also for temps--so you can keep old laptops around that are slow, but you don't care because the compute is happening in the cloud. So temp workforces and disaster recovery--basically when you have a fluctuation, that's the best implementation of it. Replacement of the fleet of workstations--I haven't quite been convinced of that yet. But again, it just came out so I have to see.”

Travis Adair, principal partner and vice president of Columbia, Mo.-based InfiniTech Consulting

Office 365: “Microsoft is moving to kind of a blended environment, where they're kind of intertwining a lot of functionality of Office 365 and adding new applications that are built upon SharePoint. So they're kind of changing their packaging a little bit, versus just saying, here's a wide-open Azure platform. Instead they're saying, let's break this down into easier, digestible chunks, and make them business functions that we can then market as apps as part of the Office 365 suite and as add-ons. That's really where we're starting to see a lot more success in the sales and implementation of additional Office 365 features that lead to some Azure functionalities.

The biggest easy one is Azure Active Directory. With Office 365, you get this Azure Active Directory basic, and then you can manage that via your Azure portal. But then if you are wanting to deploy some advanced features, such as single sign-on, with some of your other non-Microsoft applications, self service password resets, some additional auditing and security functions around Azure Active Directory--then there's some paid upgrades there. That's become a lot easier for us to sell and implement, as some of the Azure Active Directory functionality.”

Intune: “Then you start looking at device management. And it's easy to deploy Microsoft's Intune product. That's really been based on the Azure-Office 365 integrated platform, and then I can start to push out things like group policy and device control--not only to my Windows devices but also to iOS, Android. And then that becomes another business app on the Azure-Office 365 conjoined platform that people start seeing a lot of value in. I think that's the direction of Microsoft--we're going to start displacing our traditional technology and Windows Server, and on-premise Active Directory, and in group policy, with Azure Active Directory, Intune.”

SharePoint, Teams: “Then there's SharePoint to displace on-premise file shares. We've been doing massive SharePoint migrations. This is a big push for us and Microsoft. We're starting to see a lot more traction with Microsoft Teams as a customizable chat management, for internal messaging, for external conference creation. I can plug all these other apps into my Teams portal and that becomes my work portal there.

The digital transformation piece that they're starting to work with is their Power Apps and Flow application. I can then go in without having real coding experience and build my own software applications that tap into SharePoint and create automation with my Outlook, my SharePoint, my Teams apps and all kinds of third-party applications. I can plug into Gmail and various online accounting applications, Salesforce, etc. I'm creating automation. So, an email comes in from this certain client that has these keywords in it, and save this to this SharePoint space and create a record in Salesforce--all this automation from Power Automate. That's where we're starting to see [traction].”

Growth outlook with Microsoft products: “I would say it's pretty high. I would say we're probably looking at between 30 to 50 percent revenue growth in the next year. That's probably one of our fastest-growing areas.

The adoption rate with Office 365, at least from my understanding, is faster than most technologies we've seen. And now that Microsoft is getting people captive, they have a captive audience here and they can roll out additional functionality to deliver more value within the existing subscriptions--and create opportunities to enhance those subscriptions with additional functionality, security features, etc. The forward-thinking organizations are starting to adopt a lot of these things.

Basically Microsoft is putting their flag in the ground, staking their claim on the next 10 years of IT spend. Just like 20 years ago when they took out Corel in the office space, and now everyone has Windows and Windows Server basically because they want to run Office--they just did the same thing for the next generation of IT.”

Luis Alvarez, president and CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Alvarez Technology Group

Office 365: “Like a lot of people we started with Office 365--although we started long before that when it still had that really sexy name of the business productivity online suite--BPOS. We moved from there to Office 365 and Azure, and really started to see that the value that we provide our clients now is more around helping them implement the services that they're already paying for. They get Office 365 and they get Teams and all these really cool things that they never use because it's like, ‘We have Office 365--it's my email.’ And so, I think, Microsoft has done a brilliant job of creating an ecosystem that will capture their customers--our customers--pretty much everything that they do. So they're adding layers, adding functionality. Their latest focus on security I think is a little overdue but they finally got there. And that's presenting opportunities, because now we're going back to a lot of clients that we did our original implementation of Office 365 and saying, if you want to avoid the pains of the new login format, you really need to tie in Azure AD. And so now we're doing projects around that. And then saying, now that you have Azure AD, we can do some really cool things with single sign-on to enable single sign-on for other applications that you happen to be using, whether they're on-prem or in cloud.”

Microsoft 365 and security: “Then we're moving into Microsoft 365, the whole product suite--the entire stack including the security piece--for our more mature clients, the ones that really are more concerned about having security as central to whatever they do. That has a lot of opportunity, for either upgrading existing tenants to that full stack, or just bringing people on from the get-go.

I think especially now we're getting a lot of requests for people to do training. The value-add that we provide is all those additional services that we get paid to do. Nobody's making a ton of money selling Azure or Office 365, unless you have 1 million or more subscriptions. You're really using that as a way to keep your clients close, because I'm your partner of record--I manage your environment. And then also to leverage all of those features of the product and say, did you know it can do this or did you know it can do that? Let's talk about that ...

I think what Microsoft wants is partners that are focused on the cloud. And it becomes for us just an indication that this flag that we planted in the sand of becoming a cloud service provider, along with everything else that we do, was a good decision.”

Eric Rockwell, chief information security officer of Encino, Calif.-based MAP CyberSecure

Security: “I would say 95 percent of our clients [use Microsoft products]. We have a lot of clients that are government contractors or defense contractors, and we push a lot of these companies into the Microsoft government contractor cloud from other solutions that don't comply with some of the regulatory requirements they have. One thing about Microsoft is they've done a really good job aligning their 365 product suite with the NIST cybersecurity framework. So it doesn't come secure out of the box--it's actually extremely vulnerable out of the box--but you can make it very secure. That's one of the projects that we do right away with most clients.

[At Microsoft] they do have a system that a lot of companies utilize that has to be secured. And they've done a great job making it possible to secure their technology stack. And we have a whole recurring revenue program just based around keeping that Microsoft stack secured--whether it's a Windows operating system, or Office 365, or anything else.

And here's the other thing for any managed security company that's a huge opportunity--Microsoft isn't going to just say, ‘Hey, if you want to buy a secure Windows it's right here, it's this version.’ That's not how it works. It's got all these bazillions of features, and it's up to you to configure it how your company needs it be configured to operate. So that's a big opportunity for managed security companies because we can help companies to secure what they have, and still make it usable, but less vulnerable to cyber criminals.”

Mike Jackson, president of Prairie Village, Kansas-based Pendello Solutions

Microsoft 365: “It's changed from the days where we used to do a lot of migrations onto Office 365. Now, if I look at the opportunities we're currently working on, I think every single one of them except for one of them is on Office 365 already. Now it's more taking what they currently have, and then let's A.) refine, and B.) expand upon how they're using not only Office 365, but Microsoft 365--which is then getting onto Azure Active Directory for security and everything. We're doing a lot with Microsoft there, and really getting to the serverless environment--where the clients who had an on-premise domain controller and file share and minimal applications, let's take that fully to the cloud. And it's not so much deep Azure, but it's leveraging the services within Microsoft 365 file shares to SharePoint, to OneDrive. And then what it's really allowing us to do and provide our clients is access to their data, anytime, anywhere, in a secure environment. I think that's probably the biggest advantage we're seeing for our clients, and they're absolutely just clamoring for it, to be honest. It was something that we started to dip our toe into a little bit in 2019, and now we've got clients lining up to do this and get after it.

Microsoft 365 takes everything that's in Office 365, and then adds on a layer of security, as well as Azure Active Directory as-a-service--so that you can actually have your identity in the cloud, which is a deeper level of identity than just what you have adopted. So essentially where clients used to have an on-premise domain controller, now that's going 100 percent cloud-based. It's going to the cloud for that identity, so we can manage better. I think everybody has more mobile workforces today, and so, how do you provide them everything they need to do their job, wherever they are?

We're starting to push that. So whereas last year I think we had three or four clients who were really going towards that--this year it's going to be a lot more, as well as a lot of new opportunities where we're taking them to Microsoft 365 and Azure Active Directory as-a-service on day one. So it changes the conversation with a client.”

Security: “I think they're strengthening their opportunities also from the security perspective--as we look at deeper and Advanced Threat Protection, and DLP and everything. So I think it's about expanding that opportunity there too. Now, we believe in a layered security approach, as everybody does. But if we can start to have better security in that core stack of Microsoft, it's going to make it even stronger. From a vendor perspective, I think they are the single biggest opportunity right now--no doubt about that.”

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