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Protocol Cloud
Your weekly guide to the future of enterprise computing.

Microsoft shores up Azure to pressure AWS

Microsoft building

Welcome to Protocol Cloud, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This week: Microsoft stokes the fires of cloud competition at Ignite, something crazy happened with the Oracle-TikTok deal, and would you reboot the software on a F-15 midflight?

Also, please join me tomorrow for Protocol's upcoming virtual cloud security event, Your Next Cybersecurity Moves, sponsored by Yubico. Securing the workforce is often referred to as a team sport, and as CISOs and cybersecurity executives know too well, the high-performing organizations are the ones that prepare most from top to bottom. Along with Protocol Braintrust's Kevin McAllister, I'll moderate a discussion featuring Danny Allan of Veeam, Joy Chik of Microsoft, and Michael Hamilton of CI Security. More details and registration here.

The Big Story

Flurries from the blue cloud

Microsoft's wholesale embrace of cloud computing was a fundamental moment in its history, and it has taken a lot of work to carve out its position against cloud pioneer AWS. In many ways, Microsoft approached the cloud from the outside in, leveraging strong relationships with enterprise decision makers to jumpstart demand for a small but steadily growing portfolio of services.

At this point Microsoft and Google both offer a sweeping set of battle-tested cloud services that might not cover exactly as much ground as AWS but provide plenty of options for both large enterprise corporations and cloud-native startups. At its virtual Ignite conference this week, designed for the IT professionals of the world, Microsoft introduced dozens of updates to Azure as part of its "War and Peace"-length, self-proclaimed "Book of News."

Only a few of Microsoft's updates are worth calling out as "News" for what they say about Microsoft Azure's current position in the market and where it wants to go. If you're looking for 800 words on .NET, you'll have to find another newsletter.

Let's start with one of the basics: reliability. That's something Microsoft is all too aware that it needs to improve about Azure.

  • Azure's capacity problems first became evident late last year, but exploded during the early days of the pandemic, prompting Gartner to give it a rap on the knuckles earlier this month.
  • Microsoft is responding by increasing the number of availability zones present in each cloud computing region. Availability zones create redundant capacity in a single region in case of weather-related problems or a catastrophic failure at a single data-center site, and Microsoft has been slower than its rivals to embrace this architectural principle.
  • Azure is also making it easier to move data between regions and restore backups across availability zones, although the latter service is only available in its UK South and Southeast Asia regions at launch.
  • Microsoft has made significant progress over the last 18 months, before which it trailed its competitors by a significant margin in reliability assessments. Service reliability will always be table stakes in the cloud, and it's a harder problem than making sure customers have a sufficient breadth of services.

Microsoft also pressed its advantage as a pioneer in a portion of the cloud it helped introduce: hybrid data-center/cloud services.

  • Microsoft's Azure Stack was the first cloud product to acknowledge that while lots of customers had no intention of giving up their hardware, they wanted an entry point into the cloud. Both AWS and Google have followed suit, and traditional data center vendors are also building products that incorporate cloud services into their wares.
  • In response to the competition, Microsoft introduced Azure Arc last year and expanded its capabilities this year. Azure Arc customers can now manage their on-premises Windows and Linux servers from within the Azure portal, and will soon be able to run managed versions of the SQL and PostgreSQL databases across that environment.
  • VMware customers will be able to move applications designed around VMware's data center software to Azure, as part of a partnership announced last year. AWS struck a similar deal with VMware a few years ago.
  • This is an area where Microsoft shines: AWS took an evangelical approach to the cloud in the early days, insisting that the public cloud was the only place that made sense for enterprise computing. Microsoft's more pragmatic approach appealed to late adopters that had already invested lots of money in data center equipment, and the industry has come around to its thinking.

So what comes next? Microsoft wants to be the phone company.

  • Forgive the overstatement, but Microsoft announced plans Tuesday to offer a suite of communications services within Azure, giving customers new options for incorporating voice calling, chat and texting services into their apps and sites.
  • Microsoft is calling Azure Communication Services the "first fully managed communication platform offering from a major cloud provider," although "fully managed" and "major" are doing a lot of work in that sentence.
  • The pandemic has forced businesses to incorporate digital communications tools into their services much faster, and much more widely, than they might have anticipated a year ago.
  • Still, Twilio is perhaps the most widely recognized vendor for these types of cloud tools, and the response to Azure Communication Services will be a good test of whether or not the "best of breed" approach to software-as-a-service is being undercut by the power of platforms.

There were a handful of other interesting announcements from Ignite, such as Microsoft's intention to duplicate AWS's cloud-to-space services, the general availability of Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare, and whatever vague plans the company has for OpenAI's GPT-3 language generator.

One topic left unmentioned — one which will become more interesting over the next few months — is Microsoft's plan for Azure instances based on processors from Arm.

  • AWS is on its second-generation Arm server processor already and is likely to announce further updates at its re:Invent conference later this year.
  • Even Oracle is jumping on the Arm train, announcing plans Tuesday to offer Ampere's server chips to its government-brokered cloud customers (and presumably the handful of other ones too).
  • This is all a little more complicated after Nvidia announced plans to acquire Arm. But Microsoft has dabbled in this world over the years, and if Arm proves to be a compelling option for cloud customers, it won't want to fall too far behind.

A MESSAGE FROM PURE STORAGE

Pure Storage

Pure Storage provides a consistent data platform across on-premises and public cloud environments with a unified hybrid consumption model and integrated management. Visit: purestorage.com/hybrid-cloud to learn how Pure enables a modern data experience for seamless application mobility.

This Week On Protocol

Zoom boom: "Zoom for X" is apparently a thing now, the same way "Uber for X" became an instantly nauseating startup pitch eight or so years ago. Protocol's Biz Carson took a look at startups that are building video calling services into all manner of applications, both on top of Zoom's technology and around it.

Swamp stomp: For a while over the weekend, it looked like the scenario described in last week's Protocol Cloud had come to pass, and the U.S. government had forced a tech company to switch cloud providers on a whim. As we head into Wednesday, however, the details of the bizarre and troubling ByteDance-Oracle-Walmart-Tiktok deal continue to evolve, and where it stops, nobody knows.

IPO show: Three major cloud software companies went public last week, and while Snowflake's stock has slipped a bit below the closing price of its first day of trading, it remains the big winner of the week. But don't overlook JFrog and Sumo Logic, whose IPOs set both companies up for success in two very important areas of cloud computing.

Five Questions For...

Asheem Chandna, Greylock Partners

What was your first tech job?

In 1980, I was a high school student in Bombay. A few friends and I started buying electronic alarm clocks — still a novelty in India — from a local importer. We then resold them to an India distributor for a small profit. We called our company Sigma Electronics, and it was my first introduction to the mechanics of buying, selling, price and profit.

What's the best piece of advice you could give to someone starting their first tech job?

Wherever you work, find a way to move the needle for a company. A friend of mine had his first job at a trucking logistics company. Rather than looking at it as a dead end, he quickly started using analytics to show how the company could generate more profit. Within a month or two, the CEO was calling him directly.

What was the first computer that made you realize the power of computing and connectivity?

The Sinclair ZX80, first produced in 1980, was my very first computer. But I soon moved on to the Apple II with a 300 baud modem, which magically connected me to the early world of online bulletin boards.

What was the biggest reason for the success of cloud computing over the past decade?

Agility and speed. Every company can do more faster. The cloud has also let every entrepreneur focus on their unique value. The nuts and bolts of running a business are becoming more automated.

What will be the biggest challenge for cloud computing over the coming decade?

Data privacy. The threats will become more numerous and the issue will become more complex in a world defined by data and sharing.

Around the Cloud

  • Turns out that Xbox preorder day was not a great day for the infrastructure folks at Microsoft and Amazon, although to be fair to their cloud siblings we don't know exactly where the scaling errors started.
  • Twitter is reviewing its image-cropping algorithms after users pointed out over the weekend that the service has the very unfortunate tendency of centering crops around white faces when images contain more than one person.
  • PagerDuty acquired Rundeck, which makes software designed to automate the process of responding to service incidents, for $100 million in order to help customers of its monitoring and alert system respond faster to problems.
  • VMware and AWS are doubling down on joint sales: VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger said that AWS's sales force is increasing the number of people working in conjunction with its sales folks to push their joint products.
  • Accenture also increased its commitment to reselling cloud services, announcing plans to spend $3 billion on a new group that will help enterprise clients make the leap.
  • Confused about service meshes? Forbes published a good overview of the reasons why these tools are drawing increased interest from cloud buyers and broke down the major players.
  • Alibaba unveiled what it is calling "a complete operating system on the cloud," promising that Alibaba Cloud 2.0 will make it easier for enterprise customers to get up and running on the cloud. Though we've heard that kind of line before.
  • Companies selling converged infrastructure had a good run over the last few years among cloud holdouts, but that momentum is stalling according to IDC.
  • "Huang's Law is the new Moore's Law," according to Christopher Mims of The Wall Street Journal. Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang might be poised to capitalize on the next wave of enterprise computing trends, but it's probably time to stop describing chip manufacturing trends as scientific laws.
  • I have to think I would hit "Try Later" if the Air Force jet I was flying prompted me to update its software midflight, but that's probably not how it really works.

A MESSAGE FROM PURE STORAGE

Pure Storage A MESSAGE FROM PURE STORAGE

Pure Storage provides a consistent data platform across on-premises and public cloud environments with a unified hybrid consumption model and integrated management. Visit: purestorage.com/hybrid-cloud to learn how Pure enables a modern data experience for seamless application mobility.

Thanks for reading — see you next week.

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