Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
Photo: David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Protocol Cloud: The underwhelming reality of a virtual Build

Protocol Enterprise

Welcome to Protocol Cloud, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This week: A cloudy forecast for virtual events, Microsoft's journey to the right side of history, and the evolution of remote work strategies.

Speaking of virtual events: Tomorrow at noon PDT, Republican Rep. Will Hurd will talk to Protocol's Issie Lapowsky and Emily Birnbaum about tech and cybersecurity.Sign up here.

The Big Story

Microsoft talks cloud, from the cloud

Why do people go to tech events? Sure, there's plenty of interesting content, from high-profile executive speeches to hands-on deep dives on specific technologies. But the best tech events have always been gathering places for communities of like-minded people to bounce ideas off each other and make lifelong connections.

We all know that's not happening this year. Still, Microsoft attempted to be the first major tech company to replace one of its signature in-person events with a virtual event this week. And it went … OK.

  • Microsoft's version of the slickly produced infomercials that dominate the tech conference circuit ballooned into a 20-minute pregame show with stilted studio banter before CEO Satya Nadella gave his keynote. That was all … pretty awkward.
  • Nadella, blessed with presentation skills perhaps better than any other CEO in his league, was still unable to impart the energy that usually accompanies one of his keynotes. (Bonus nerd points for spotting references on his carefully arranged bookcase.)
  • And as the rest of the speakers — including some of Microsoft's most prominent executives — ran through their scripts, it served to highlight how compelling live events are: There's just something different about a room full of tens of thousands of people taking in a shared experience.

Maybe I'm being a bit unfair: This was the first real attempt at a virtual tech event by one of the big platform companies, and there's no real playbook for running Build at scale over the internet. And nothing went wrong, it was just underwhelming.

And on a more positive note, there were some interesting ideas on display at the event:

  • Microsoft's first "large-scale AI supercomputer" was perhaps the most notable cloud announcement. It built one of the world's most powerful supercomputers in six months for OpenAI to train machine-learning models on huge datasets.
  • The company showed off a preview of its Fluid Framework, which could make Office documents and emails more dynamic by decoupling elements like charts, graphs and tables from individual files, making them available and updatable across email, Office and Microsoft Teams.
  • The U.S. health care system is straining right now, and Microsoft introduced a new Azure service designed specifically for the needs of health care providers that pulls together several different Microsoft cloud technologies into a single package.
  • Cloud database nerds seemed very intrigued by Azure Synapse Link, a new service available as a preview that makes it easier to analyze data from working databases without a lot of extra work needed to avoid interfering with those databases.
  • There were also plenty of this-thing-we-announced-last-year-is-now-available announcements. Which, you know, great, I guess?

But this year's Build will be remembered mostly for reminding us that virtual experiences are no substitute for the real thing. Microsoft did the best it could, opening up Teams channels to attendees for chatting and livestreaming an enormous amount of technical content, but I'd bet everyone who logged onto the Build site Tuesday will be thrilled to grumble about the chilly drizzle and gridlocked traffic of downtown Seattle in May 2021. See you there. Hopefully.


Nasdaq Cloud

Tailored to meet client demand, the Nasdaq Cloud Data Service (NCDS) provides real-time streaming of exchange, index, fund and analytic data. Data is made available through a suite of APIs, allowing for effortless integration and a dramatic reduction in time to market for customer-designed applications.

This Week In Protocol

Quick starts: When Olivia Nottebohm came over from Google Cloud to assume an important operational role at Dropbox in late January, she couldn't have predicted how chaotic her first three months would be. The company's new COO talked with me about a surge in Dropbox usage, the company's plans for its employees in 2020, and what she learned from her experience at Google.

Remote control:The Braintrust panel discussed the uncertainty of planning around this period of remote work when we still don't really know how the pandemic will unfold in the second half of the year. Different companies will have different needs, and pivoting to a permanent work-from-home strategy is just not going to work for everyone.

Travel for closers: Splunk CEO Doug Merritt told my colleague Shakeel Hashim in Protocol Index that business travel will come back as soon as it is safe, even if it's a hassle: "While doing deals with existing customers is holding up OK, Merritt said, 'for brand-new customers, it's a different journey right now.'"

Five Questions For...

Mathew Prince, co-founder and CEO, Cloudflare

Thanks to everyone for continuing to send in new ideas for our question and answer session! Email me at, and a special request: Let's hear from some folks in technical leadership positions at companies that aren't in the technology business.

What was your first tech job?

I was a student network tech in college in the early 1990s. There were three student techs on campus. We answered questions and fixed network issues if there were problems after hours. It was a pretty sweet gig: Not only was it among the highest paying jobs on campus, and I got priority selection in on-campus housing, but I also got to learn all about networking right as the internet was taking off.

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

Learn how to speak and write well. Being a good communicator is what differentiates great engineers from good ones.

What has changed the most at your company over the past two months?

We were very much a work-from-office culture. The COVID-19 crisis forced us into a massive work-from-home experiment. I think we've all been pretty surprised how well it's gone. There are clearly some things that are much better remote. It has caused us to start to think about what aspects we'll want to keep when we're able to return to the office.

Will the pandemic usher in a new era of remote working, or will we all come back together when it is safe to do so?

We'll see. At Cloudflare, we're talking about how we can take what we've learned from all working remotely and not "get back to normal," but "get back to better."

Mac or PC?

Mac. First computer was an Apple ][+ my grandmother gave me for Christmas in 1980. I learned how to program on it. Then in 1997, I heard Steve Jobs was returning to Apple and bought some stock in the company as a result. It's how I paid for graduate school. As a result, my loyalty to Apple runs deep.

Around the Cloud

  • Nadella casually mentioned Microsoft's purchase of Softomotive during his keynote address. It will slot into the company's Power Platform to help automate Windows tasks.
  • Microsoft was on "the wrong side of history" with open-source software, its president, Brad Smith, acknowledged the week before Build. Open source is now a key part of its strategy after years of it being Public Enemy No. 1 in Redmond.
  • When companies finally return to office buildings, emerging technologies that help office managers track how effectively they're using their allotted space could be an important part of alleviating concerns about social distancing.
  • Nvidia's pivot into the data center continues with the release of new Ampere GPUs that will help cloud companies provide the specific types of computing power that work well for machine-learning applications.
  • Digital Ocean is an interesting cloud provider, geared around providing a boutique experience to developers. It raised $50 million in new funding last week, which values the company at $1.15 billion.
  • The sudden departure of Jennifer Morgan from the role of SAP co-CEO turned heads across the enterprise software industry last month. Christian Klein, now the sole CEO of the database company, sat down with Bloomberg to discuss the tumult.
  • Facebook continues to push the envelope on data center hardware design. Last week it took the wraps off a new design for future servers at the virtual Open Compute Project Summit.
  • Khan Academy's online learning services saw a huge jump, with demand more than doubling over a two-week period in March as schools closed or moved to remote education.
  • Gartner expects overall IT spending in 2020 to fall 8% compared to last year as the fallout from the pandemic continues. Although we're still talking about a whopping $3.46 trillion in spending. (Yes, trillion.)


Nasdaq Cloud

Tailored to meet client demand, the Nasdaq Cloud Data Service (NCDS) provides real-time streaming of exchange, index, fund and analytic data. Data is made available through a suite of APIs, allowing for effortless integration and a dramatic reduction in time to market for customer-designed applications.

Thanks for reading — see you next week.

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