Microsoft Cloud News Round Up

We Told You So: Microsoft Cloud Leads in Gartner Magic Quadrant, Yet Again 

Gartner Magic Quadrant ranks Microsoft as a “Leader” in the BI and Analytics section for 2017. Gartner highlighted multiple key benefits of using Microsoft’s OneDrive for Business for companies who already use productivity and collaboration tools offered by Microsoft (i.e. Office365, SharePoint).  

Our founder and CEO, Thomas Carpe, remarks “Finally business advisors officially recognize what Liquid Mercury Solutions has known for years – that Microsoft’s cloud services are quickly becoming the standard by which all others will be compared. Where Office 365 once provided an advantage to businesses willing to take a chance on the cloud, soon enough it’ll become ubiquitous in business.” 

Microsoft’s optimism and determination seems to promise a growing trend of advancements in this area. Kamal Hathi, Microsoft Power BI general manager, wrote “We’re humbled by this recognition for the innovation we’ve delivered with Microsoft Power BI in the past year … But more importantly, we’re encouraged by the progress we’ve made as a community in executing against the ambitious goal set when Power BI was made generally available only a short time ago in July 2015: Provide BI to more people than ever before, across all roles and disciplines within organizations.” 

Alara Rogers responds, “Microsoft has actually been an industry leader in BI for many years. Excel is the world’s most widely used BI tool by a large margin. Where Microsoft struggles is in communicating to customers about the power and abilities of their platform, especially when we see lots of changes like we have with the shift from traditional tools like PowerPivot and SQL Reporting Services to a cloud platform Power BI. There’s room for improvement, but things are headed in the right direction.” 

Whatever your opinion, it’s safe to expect even bigger and better collaborative innovations in the years to come. 

Read More: 

https://blogs.microsoft.com/firehose/2017/02/16/microsoft-named-a-leader-in-gartner-magic-quadrant-for-business-intelligence-and-analytics-platforms/ 

https://mspoweruser.com/microsoft-named-leader-2017-gartner-magic-quadrant-content-collaboration-platforms/ 

  

Office 365 Takes the Lead Over Traditional Office for the First Time 

This week marks the first time that Office 365 users exceed the number of users for traditional versions of Office, making it the clear favorite both among users and at Microsoft. That trend will only continue as Microsoft plans to officially end support for Office 2007 later this fall. 

But what’s made Office 365 such a success? Let’s look at a few benefits. 

  • For starters, no one needs to suffer with the frustration of losing files that weren’t backed up because someone was too lazy to keep the laptop charged, thanks to OneDrive for Business and SharePoint Online. 
  • All the relevant applications people use for themselves can be synced across devices. That means next time your computer has a spontaneous meltdown, you can just switch to another one, easy as pie. 
  • Files can be shared with anyone, both inside the company and with vendors, partners, and customers. No need to clutter folks’ email with bulky and potentially risky attachments. 
  • Multiple people can edit a Word document or Excel spreadsheet simultaneously and it updates in real time. It’s so much easier than passing it around the office for review and revision. 
  • Thanks for applications like Delve, everything you need can be found in one place so say goodbye to having 27 windows open at once. 
  • Best of all, your information is kept safe using the latest encryption, and you can protect your account with more than just a password by using multi-factor authentication such as your phone. 

Office 365 has all the perks you wished Office XP had back in 2002. No wonder the trend of moving everything to the cloud is here to stay, because it works beautifully. 

 

Microsoft Welcomes Our Robot Overlords 

There has been buzz of Microsoft creating an AI supercomputer and people in the industry have strong opinions on how this will impact the future. Will it be chaos like The Terminator come to life? Or will we all fall in love like Joaquin Phoenix did with Her? 

OpenAI, a non-profit AI research organization, has teamed up with Microsoft to implement accessibility of AI to the masses. Azure is the crucial component that will take this idea and cultivate it into a reality. 

Microsoft already has tools within this platform that can will assist in this development (i.e. Azure Batch, Azure N-Series Virtual Machines, and Azure Machine Learning) but they are in the process of creating further technology to aid in AI research. 

Some of these advancements have already come to light, including the upcoming Hardware Microservices via Azure. Microsoft aims to have FPGA (field-programmable gate arrays) processing power be accessible to developers sometime next year to have a cloud that is 100% configurable. There are major perks to having this type of access including increased speed and functionality. 

What the heck is an FPGA? Thomas Carpe explains “Simply put, FPGA are hardware, like your graphics card for example. Unlike special purpose hardware, they can be programmed and reconfigured as needed using software, potentially including AI. Thus, they’re super-fast, and can facilitate machine learning.” 

This all sounds wonderful, but some think converting and relying on AI technology is going too far. World renowned icons in the tech and science communities have conflicting ideas on what this means for the future of civilization. 

Elon Musk has spoken out against AI, referring to it as “our greatest existential threat” almost three years ago. He’s taken a precautionary role as a member of OpenAI. 

Stephen Hawking made a point to compare the speed of biological evolution versus advancements in AI to show that AI would eventually outgrow us. 

Mark Zuckerberg seems to favor the idea of a world more heavily dependent on AI. He believes it could create vast improvements in every day scenarios like healthcare and transportation. 

Where do you stand on the subject? Will you embrace AI? How would you like to maximize the cloud with the new capabilities of Hardware Microservices via Azure? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Learn More: 

http://www.techrepublic.com/article/microsoft-partners-with-openai-to-advance-ai-research-with-azure/ 

http://www.zdnet.com/article/how-microsoft-plans-to-turn-azure-into-an-ai-cloud/ 

http://observer.com/2015/08/stephen-hawking-elon-musk-and-bill-gates-warn-about-artificial-intelligence/ 

http://fortune.com/2017/07/26/mark-zuckerberg-argues-against-elon-musks-view-of-artificial-intelligence-again/ 

https://channel9.msdn.com/Blogs/Azure/Why-OpenAI-chose-Azure+video 

https://fossbytes.com/satya-nadella-microsoft-is-turning-azure-into-the-first-ai-supercomputer/ 

 

Stay Ahead of Emerging Cloud Security Threats  

Recently, a massive cybersecurity attack on Office 365 targeted several Fortune 500 companies. How?! 

Skyhigh Networks explained the attackers consistently tried variations in a skillfully discreet manner to get into the accounts of “…high value targets, including more than 100,000 failed Office 365 logins from 67 IP addresses and 12 networks. The attempts in all targeted 48 different organizations.” 

Evidence shows the attackers might have already known some employee names and passwords through phishing and tried different combinations of usernames and passwords based on that. 

Your business can be vulnerable too! Do you reuse the same easy password for everything? Do you interact with spam emails? Do you have a basic username-password authentication system? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to up your security game. 

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. But that’s exactly how and why something like this could happen to your business soon. Embrace the modern world and get educated on how you can protect your data. 

There has been a huge shift of bringing sensitive information to the cloud amongst enterprise corporations as well as SMBs in recent years. Almost 60% of all sensitive corporate data in the cloud is based in Office 365. Additionally, it works on a myriad of devices which makes it even more appealing to users. 

The downside to this is that it’s also the hackers’ bull’s eye. It is often said “[w]ith great power comes great responsibility” …to protect your data. 

Slawomir Ligier, senior vice president of engineering at Skyhigh elaborates on this. “While companies traditionally have invested extensively in perimeter security, those without a dedicated cloud security solution will lack visibility and control for a growing category of attacks. Enterprise cloud providers secure their infrastructure, but the ultimate responsibility to control access to sensitive data lies with the customer.” 

Thomas Carpe goes on to say, “Many existing security experts as well as their tools and standards are seriously behind the times when it comes to including the cloud into their security plans. Where our customers have sensitive data, we must consider not just things like their firewalls or patching Windows, but also whether they’re subscribing to the right mix of cloud services to fully protect themselves.” 

Let that sink in for a moment. 

Protect your business! Now, wanna upgrade your security? Contact Liquid Mercury Solutions today to set yourself up with high quality cloud security and data protection to fit your business needs. 

Read More About It: 

https://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/news/widespread-bruteforce-office-365/ 

 

Microsoft Renaming Kiosk Plans to Frontline Worker Plans 

For years, we’ve struggled to explain to our clients what a Kiosk plan is, often calling it the “deskless worker” plan instead in favor of Microsoft’s preferred naming. Now Microsoft seems to be catching on to the longstanding communication gap. This week, they’ve announced a naming change to the K1 plan, which will henceforth be known as… wait for it… the F1 plan! 

What’s the F for? Well, all joking aside (and, yes, we’ve had some good-natured fun at Microsoft’s expense), the F is for Frontline Worker – but it could easily mean Field, Fleet, Factory, First-line, or one of those other words that starts with the same letter. 

Whatever way you spell it or decide that it stands for, the F1 plan is still the cheapest way to get your non-IT, non-administrative employees into Office 365. The price is still the same at $4 a month, and while the plan doesn’t include a copy of Office it does have email, Skype, and access to OneDrive and SharePoint – which is fine since a key requirement to the F1 plan is that the user doesn’t have their own PC. The F1 plan is perfect for users who’ll access Office 365 primarily via their smartphone or tablet, and may use a shared computer (kiosk) on occasion. 

So, if just the name is changing, what do Office 365 subscribers need to know? Not a heck of a lot, just keep it in mind when you get your next billing statement. Nothing’s really changed at all, so you’re not getting “F”ed. ;-) 

Outrageous Claims: SP Claims and Auth Will Lag Behind the Industry

Principal Architect Thomas Carpe shares his thoughts and opinions on the state of the art in SharePoint security, including predictions about things to come. This blog post is part of a continuing series leading up to and following the official launch of Liquid Mercury Solutions' new product Beowulf Identity Server.

Okay, this isn't really fair, since it's really more a case of predicting the present.


To be honest, I was completely caught off guard back in 2013 when the new version of SharePoint was released into the wild without even mediocre support for basic things like FederationMetadata.xml, token encryption, or a half-decent people picker for claims. I'd previously assumed that developing anything in this area was a lost cause; Since Microsoft could easily catch up, and whatever they implemented would inevitably become the standard.

Seems that I was mistaken about where they'd put their energy, and this got me thinking about why SharePoint, which was among the first Microsoft products to fully embrace the claims authentication model, would be so slow to mature.

First thing that comes to mind is that SharePoint really suffers from early adopter syndrome. Back in 2010 when claims authentication was still pretty new, SharePoint was one of the first to implement its own Secure Token Service. Unlike other web applications than can be easily adapted to use an external claims service, this STS still serves as the backbone of SharePoint security to this day, even when external providers are in the mix. At that time it was built with a still-beta version of Windows Identity Framework. Likewise, when 2013 was developed, it's also true that it was one of the first MS products built on .NET 4.5. However, at that time WIF still hadn't been fully integrated into the .NET framework - though parts of it had.

Lately I've been doing a lot of digging around in SharePoint's STS using Reflector, and I can see that a lot of design choices were made here without interoperability or extensibility in mind.

Just as one example, let's take the relationship between SPTrustedLoginProvider and the STS itself. Leaving aside the unusual naming convention (sometimes it's a trusted identity token issuer and other times it's called a login provider), it's interesting to note that much of the information actually needed to federate with another provider isn't actually part of this object, but has to be read from the STS itself. Compare this design with ADFS, which also serves as a kind of STS but has the structure for Relying Party configuration, wherein practically everything that you need to form a relationship between ADFS and another server is stored in one location.

Additionally, a lot of critical functionality here is internal and sealed. While I have never been shy about using reflection to invoke critical methods where needed, this is going to make life difficult for anyone who wants to develop capabilities that require these functions. Just from a support perspective alone, it means that you can't count on Microsoft not to change these functions later on - though from the look of things most of this stuff has not changed much in the past few years. IMHO, MS would do well to open up some of these classes and methods, since sealing them doesn't really provide much in the way of code security anyway. Until they do, it will always be a race to make sure that any patch they release don't radically change things.

Finally, the last reason that I think MS will continue to lag behind others in terms of supporting claims in SharePoint comes down to one simple thing. Microsoft's SharePoint strategy is cloud-first, and the fact is that what federation they needed to support SharePoint Online access via WAAD and externally shared MS accounts has already been implemented. Plus, they have their roadmap in place for SSO using ADFS. So, in essence, they have no impetus to make major improvements to the way this is being done. Sure, there'll continue to be improvements in the API for apps, client side code, etc. But don't expect future versions of SharePoint to be oriented around major usability enhancements for authentication - at least until there's something in it for Microsoft.

This op-ed piece is by no means the end of the story. What experiences have you had with configuring SharePoint security and do you agree with me or disagree that a lot of ground will continue to be left uncovered? Leave your opinion in the comments.

AgilePoint Anounces Office 365 and Forms Capabilities at SPC14

Well, it's that time of year again where all the SharePoint product companies trot out to Las Vegas to strut their stuff.

Today, we have a big anouncement from the SPC 2014 Keynote Sponsor, AgilePoint.

AgilePoint - SharePoint Conference New Product Highlights

In this release, there are two things I noticed right away that we've been eagerly awaiting for a long time. 1) AgilePoint support for Office 365 not just as something that can be manipulated by workflow, but in a fully integrated fashion similar to Nintex workflow. 2) An alternative to InfoPath forms that emphasizes responsive web design.

As readers of our blog will know, we're quite fond of AgilePoint's product. One of the difficulties we face in working with it, however is that it didn't really play well with customers working in Office 365. We're happy to see now that is a possibility, and we'll be putting together some demonstrations in the next few weeks, as we definitely want to be able to take this out for a test drive and see what's possible.

Why Choose Office 365 Instead of Buying Office 2013?

Back in August, I received a call from a new customer asking for a quote for Office 2013 licenses.

While I was looking for pricing, I came across an interesting article, Microsoft really doesn't want you to buy Office 2013. The gist of this seemed to be that MS has structured things to make buying Office 2013 unattractive.

How outrageous! But can it be true? And if it was ever the case, does this still hold water today?

I was really curious about the ROI of the subscription pricing vs. pricing conventional software. I decided to do a little napkin math. So, let's do some cost comparison and explore the return on investment from renting Office 2013 instead of buying it.

Comparing Traditional Office 2013 with Office 365


Firstly, we need to decide what we're comparing to what.

For my example, I'll stick to pricing for small business. This is where most of the interest in Office 2013 prices seems to come from - at least based on the calls I get here in the office. Microsoft refers to their small business discounted pricing as "MS Open for Small Business".

Also, I am going to stick to MS Office Professional Plus. You could save some money buying MS Office Standard, but there are a lot of components missing from the cheaper package. Since Office 365 is Professional Plus edition, we'll compare similar options here.

Office 2013 Professional Plus comes in two flavors, you can buy it with software assurance or without. If you buy without SA, you're basically saying that you want to pay the full price to go ahead and upgrade to 201x whenever that version comes out. If you buy with SA, then you'll pay about 50% more, and you'll have to renew the SA in 2 years, but your cost for the upgrade is covered by keeping the SA agreement current.

Here are our MS Office Professional Plus prices for MS Open Small Business: 

  • without SA is about $475*
  • with SA is about $740* 
    *Prices are from October 2013; if you need current prices, please contact us using one of the the links below.

Let's use an office of 25 staff as an example. This is pretty typical, although I've certainly worked with customers who have as few as 10 - or even 5 - employees.

If you consider that Office P+ with SA is going to cost about $740 per user, then 25 users is an $18,500 up front investment. That’s not tiny. Assuming a shelf life of 3 years, which is typical for MS software, you’d be looking at a monthly “budget” of $513.89. Say I took that budget and broke it up across the 25 users. Your cost will be about $20.56 per user per month.

Suppose you run the same numbers without software assurance, which is probably the better apples-to-apples comparison - since at the end of the product's useful life you'll be spending the full amount all over again. Your total up-front investment would be $11,875 for the fleet, at a monthly budget of $329.86 or $13.19 per user per month – compared to $12.00 if you subscribe to the license via Office 365.

Can that really be right?

I ran these numbers again at the wholesale prices that my distributor gives us. Even at that slightly discounted rate, I was only able to shave a few cents off the monthly cost compared to Office 365.

And these calculations assume that you can actually pay the monthly cost over time, interest free. If you finance the purchase obviously you'd pay even more.

Different Prices for Different People


One important thing to keep in mind here is that Microsoft will require you to buy a different license - and thus pay different prices - depending on who you are and what kind of organization you work for.

There are also different prices for with and without Software Assurance and different editions of Office such as Standard, Professional, and Ultimate. And then there's OEM pricing, which assumes you're buying a new PC to go with your software. This leads to the most confusing matrices of prices and options humanly possible!

Here's some more example pricing for Office '13 (P+ w/o SA) that I found from CDW and other major chains**:

MS Select Plus Academic $58.99 (CDW)
MS Business Academic $86.99 (CDW)
Product Key Card $379.99 (NewEgg)
Retail Box $399.99 (Office Depot)
MS Select Level D $379.99 (CDW)
MS Select Level A $479.99 (CDW)
MS Open for Small Business $495.99 (CDW)
MS Corporate Business $505.99 (CDW)
**Prices as of 11/11/2013 - YMMV

So, as you can see, the ROI of subscription software is going to be different depending on whether you work for or attend a college, are employed by a gigantic mega-corporation, or are part of the government. Everybody else is paying more. I'm assuming this is usually because smaller groups buy less volume, though the evidence doesn't always bear that out.

So which way should you go? The magic number appears to be $432. Taken over a 3 year lifetime, this translates to $12 a month. So if you have a pile of cash sitting around, and you can get Office for less than this price, you may want to just go ahead and buy it. Everyone else most likely does better paying for it monthly.

Some More Reasons to Choose the Office 365 Subscription Model

Assets, liabilities, and business property taxes


This is the distinction between assets, capital expenses, and operating expenses. Office 365 is considered an expense and will generally treated that way by accountants. I don’t know if you pay business property taxes, but here in Maryland we pay a tax on any software “asset”, whereas with Office 365 we write 100% of it off, no depreciation, and no taxes. Also, there's no need to worry about depreciation with expenses. (Note that some localities will let you depreciate 100% of the cost of software, so it depends on where your business is located).

Up-front Costs, Budget Approvals, and CAPX vs. OPEX
In the above example $18k is a sizable investment. If you have more than 10 workstations to license, your finance people may prefer it if you subscribe rather than buy. Otherwise, it may be a while before you could get the funding approved. It might even be CAPX, and nobody likes that.

Buying it All at Once vs. Pay as You Go
In the above example, if you truly need all 25 copies right now, your cost would average out to $320 or $520 per month over the 3 years you use the software. (There are a lot of reasons that you wouldn't want to keep running back to buy more licenses every few months in this way.) With Office 365, you can start with only 10 or 15 copies and easily add new licenses as you need them. This way, your cost would only be $120 (for 10x) or $180 (for 15x) month to start. On that budget, it's about the same as buying just one “boxed” copy of Office every 3 to 4 months.

Additional Cost to Renew SA
SA (Software Assurance) is a 2 year deal, not three. You’d incur an extra fee to renew the SA agreement at the end of the second year. And - many companies either forget to do it, which means paying full price for Office anyway the next time you upgrade it. Others forgo the SA pricing, and end up buying the software all over again later. Some folks pay for SA and then later decide they can’t afford to renew. These folks then end up using older copies of office for 4 or 5 years which ultimately affects productivity, drives up IT support costs, and that adds up to greater expenses down the road.

Same Price with Added Value
Finally, there are other bundled cloud services that make Office 365 even more worthwhile. MS charges $12 a month for Office Pro 365 which is a pretty advantageous cost, but the whole suite including Exchange Online e-mail and a SharePoint intranet (and public facing web site) is just $20 a month. Just moving e-mail service alone can save many thousands per year in server maintenance and licensing costs.

Where to from Here?


Whether or not you're sure that what I've described here is the right option for your small business, you can reach out to me and I'll help you figure out your individual ROI on Office 365.

When you're ready to go, we can help you choose the right combination of Microsoft Online Services tailored especially for you. I’d also be pleased to set up an appointment to walk you through creating your O365 account and setting it up.

If your needs are straightforward and you already know the number of seats you need, here are some links where you can start a free trial or purchase a subscription. These links include delegated administration from LMS, so we can help you get the most out of your account.

Office 365 ProPlus

30 day trial 25 users

Buy 5 users

Buy 10 users

Buy 25 users

Mid-sized Buisness Plan

30 day trial for 25 users

Buy 5 users

Buy 10 users

Buy 25 users

Enterprise E3 Plan

30 day trial for 25 users

Buy 5 users

Buy 10 users

Buy 25 users


if you're outside the US, want to integrate your Office 365 accounts with your current Active Directory, or have more complex needs that don't quite fit into the table above, please contact me with your specific requirements so we can create a custom solution that's right for your business.

Also, please note that there are significant technical differences between the Mid-size Business and Enterprise plans - and you can't readily migrate from one to the other - so ask us if you have questions about which one is right for you.

Well, that’s about all I have to have about buying Office – rent it; don’t buy it. It’s a no brainer.