What the swarm of new Azure announcements mean


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This week at Microsoft Ignite, a number of new developments to Azure were in focus. While there were dozens of updates to the world’s second-largest public cloud, data was once again in the spotlight. The company made a series of announcements to enable users to extract more value from the exponential increase in data.

Satya Nadella, in his Ignite keynote, provided a new visionary direction, or at least a new way of expressing the company’s cloud endeavors. These newly minted focuses included:

  • Ubiquitous and decentralized computing
  • Sovereign data and ambient intelligence
  • Empowered creators and communities everywhere
  • Economic opportunity for the global workforce
  • Trust by design

In short, the Microsoft cloud is evolving to further embrace edge, privacy, security, AI, and developers (both coders and no coders), and to serve as an engine of job creation.

On the surface, this shift appears subtle. In reality, reaching these ambitions requires a seamless edge-to-cloud toolbox that can bring data to life at an almost unbounded scale. Microsoft took steps to meet these needs with key announcements around Azure Arc, Azure Synapse, Azure Percept, Azure Purview, and Azure Cognitive Search, among a slew of other announcements.

Azure Percept. Azure Percept is designed to enable customers to use pre-built Azure AI models for object detection, shelf analytics, anomaly detection, keyword spotting, and other functions at the edge. The Percept platform will come as a fully contained development kit with the Azure Percept Vision intelligent camera, a carrier board and mounting tools. As edge continues to become the preeminent location for data creation, it will be critical for organizations to be able to development and scale edge applications.

Azure Arc. For those unfamiliar, Azure Arc is a suite of technologies designed to simplify management, expedite app development, and deliver consistent Azure services across multi-cloud, on-premises, and edge environments. This week at Ignite, Microsoft announced that it is updating Arc to run apps across on-premises data centers, multiple clouds (including AWS), and edge devices. A big piece of news was that Azure Arc-enabled machine learning is now in preview. This enhancement fills a significant gap that will allow users to deploy Azure ML to engage any Kubernetes cluster for model training, no matter where the data is located.

Azure Synapse. Synapse is an analytics service that brings together data integration, enterprise data warehousing, and big data analytics through a unified experience that enables ingestion, exploration, preparation, management, and data service to meet enterprise ML and BI requirements. Underneath the Synapse umbrella, the company rolled out a few new vital data and migration services.

Synapse Link. Microsoft announced that Azure Synapse Link for Azure Cosmos DB and v4.0 server support in Azure Cosmos DB API for MongoDB are both generally available. While those services are a mouthful, they serve an essential purpose by breaking down an important barrier between OLTP (online transactional processing) and OLAP (online analytical processing) through linking Azure Cosmos DB to Azure Synapse. In simpler terms, this tool enables cloud-native and near-real-time analytics over the NoSQL data in Azure Cosmos DB, including support for MongoDB.

Synapse Pathway. Pathway is a tool that designed to speed up migration from legacy and/or cloud data warehouses to Azure Synapse Analytics. It scans source systems and automatically translates existing scripts into TSQL rapidly (up to hundreds of thousands of lines per minute). Microsoft sees this tool as an enabler to support and simplify customer migrations from Snowflake, Netezza, AWS Redshift, Teradata, SQL Server, and Google BigQuery.

Azure Cognitive Search. Cognitive Search is an AI-powered cloud search service for mobile and web app development. One of the capabilities I found to be important was that Azure Cognitive Search includes semantic search capabilities so that organizations can deliver search results based on user intent — such as natural language and concept matching — instead of just entered keywords. I believe we’ll see much more of this in the future.

Azure Migrate. Just like it sounds, Azure Migrate is a set of tools and capabilities to simplify the migration of workloads from either on-premises or other clouds to Azure. At Ignite, Microsoft announced new capabilities in preview to make Azure SQL migrations easier. With these updates, users can discover and assess SQL servers and databases for Azure migration from within Azure Migrate. An update that caught my attention was a new app containerization tool with support for ASP.NET and Java web apps to help customers migrate apps to containers running on Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS). Also of interest is a new Azure PowerShell module that supports the Server Migration tool’s agentless method to make migrating VMware VMs to Azure less complicated.

Azure Purview. Purview is a less highlighted but essential unified data governance service that helps organizations manage and govern on-premises, multi-cloud, and software-as-a-service (SaaS) data to build an up-to-date mapping of the enterprise data landscape with automated data discovery, sensitive data classification, and end-to-end data lineage. As we continue to hear about the importance of compliance and governance, these capabilities will see increasing demand. Newly announced capabilities are now in preview; they include automatic scanning and data classification in Amazon AWS Simple Storage Services (S3), SAP ECC, SAP S4/HANA, and Oracle Database. These services will allow user organizations to scan and classify data in numerous on-premises data stores with the Azure Purview Data Map to meet data governance requirements more efficiently.

What it all means

As expected, the announcements around Azure were fast and furious at this year’s Ignite virtual event. It felt similar to AWS re:Invent, with the rapid-fire announcements bouncing between infrastructure, data, edge/IoT, platform, services, and software — which makes sense given the two companies’ rivalry for leadership in the cloud space. Microsoft’s Ignite announcements successfully addressed key gaps in the company’s capabilities while directionally putting the company on course with Nadella’s evolving vision for the Microsoft Cloud. The key, as always, is tying together the technical complexities, with the desired business outcomes — and the company seemed to accomplish this.

These announcements show that Microsoft is continuing to provide enterprise customers with the complete set of capabilities they need. That means: more hybrid, more multi-cloud, more data-dependent, and of course, doing all of this with increased velocity and reduced friction. What is apparent from the announcements is that Microsoft is leaning hard into the proliferation of data and its complexities to expand its services and make it easier for enterprises to build, migrate, and scale around Azure. It is also increasingly apparent, to Azure and virtually all the cloud providers, that data and workload placement will continue to be transient. Having tools and services to support data regardless of its residency will be critical to growth.

It’s also important to note that the competition will continue to be significant for Microsoft. Most notably from AWS, which has an expansive set of tools for edge, migration, governance, hybrid/multi, and AI/ML. This is the focal point of the competitive cloud landscape. Other cloud vendors, including Oracle, IBM, and Google, all have strong growth ambitions and continue to mature services and instances to appeal to a growing demand for cloud and manage the unparalleled pace and volume of data creation.

Daniel Newman is the principal analyst at Futurum Research, which provides research, analysis, advising, and/or consulting to high-tech companies in the tech and digital industries.

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