Business in the cloud: revolutionising the way we store and share information

We explore how Microsoft’s complete cloud offering is revolutionising the way businesses store and share information

Lindsay James
Lindsay James
By Lindsay James on 24 December 2014
Business in the cloud: revolutionising the way we store and share information

This article was first published in the Winter 2014 issue of OnWindows

The growth of the cloud in recent years has been one of the IT industry’s biggest success stories. Today it is transforming business processes and facilitating new ways for organisations to work, connect and collaborate. According to a new report, The Impact of Cloud, by the Economist Intelligence Unit, “it is a revolution in the way information is stored and shared that could prove as disruptive to business practices as the advent of computing itself.”

A recent study by Dell highlights just how applauded the technology has become. Nearly every IT decision-maker surveyed for its Global Technology Adoption Index said their company either uses or plans to use cloud solutions. The findings also show a strong correlation between cloud use and company growth. Of those using cloud, 72% of organisations surveyed experienced 6% growth or more in the last three years. This is in sharp contrast with companies not using cloud, where just 24% have growth rates of 6% or more, and 37% experienced either zero or negative growth.

This global shift toward the cloud comes at a time when everything we do centres around both ­mobility and data. Ericsson’s latest Mobility Report reveals that smartphones alone generate 2.1 exabytes of data per month, while PCs, tablets and mobile routers together account for 1.1 exabytes. What’s more, according to IDC, the internet of things will result in at least 20 billion connected devices within five years – and trillions of devices beyond that.

“We are well and truly in this mobile-first, cloud-first world,” said Microsoft CEO ­Satya Nadella in a recent Cloud Briefing in San ­Francisco. “And when we say ‘mobile-first,’ what we mean by that is the mobility of the individual experience. It is not about the mobility of the device, but it’s the mobility of the experiences that you as individuals interact with in your digital life and work every day, from the sensors to the small screens to the large screens.”

This ‘experience mobility’ is down to the cloud’s ability to orchestrate mobility and power it with intelligence. “It has the ability to reason over all of the data and bring the ubiquitous computing fabric and this power to help those experiences light up across all of these devices,” Nadella said. “That’s what we mean by a mobile-first, cloud-first world.”

It’s in this new operating environment that ­Microsoft is committed to staying ahead. ­“Microsoft’s strategy is to provide customers with cloud computing platforms that deliver the scale, enterprise performance and hybrid capabilities across customer data centres, partner clouds and Microsoft Azure,” explains Jason Zander, Microsoft’s chief vice president for the Microsoft Azure team.

The company has been rapidly innovating, and has shipped more than 300 new cloud-­related features and services in the last year alone. In October 2014, Nadella, along with Cloud and Enterprise executive vice president Scott Guthrie, showcased how Microsoft is delivering the industry’s most complete cloud that helps enterprises and start-ups thrive in the ­mobile-first, cloud-first world with announcements such as the general availability of the Azure Australia region, new ­G-Series Virtual Machine series, Azure Premium ­Storage, Cloud Platform System and a new ­Azure Marketplace with partners such as Cloudera and CoreOS.

Meanwhile, in November 2014, at TechEd ­Europe, Microsoft announced new offerings for IT professionals and developers to innovate in a mobile-first, cloud-first world. These solutions include Microsoft Azure Batch, Azure ­Operational Insights, mobile device management for Office 365 and much more.

The company is also applying its cloud developments to well-established business solutions such as Microsoft Dynamics. “To better engage with their customers, businesses are looking to the cloud for greater collaboration and the right insights to help them be more productive,” said Microsoft Business Solutions executive vice president Kirill Tatarinov in his opening keynote at the sold-out ­Convergence 2014 Europe conference. “Microsoft is reimagining and reinventing productivity by harnessing the power of the cloud through a flexible platform in Azure, a cloud productivity suite in Office 365 and customer-centric business applications delivered through ­Microsoft Dynamics solutions that are helping organisations transform the way they engage with customers and run their business.”

The result of all of these investments, Zander believes, is something quite extraordinary. “Our approach to the cloud spans three areas that, when combined, give customers the most choice and flexibility with the cloud,” he says. “These are: hyper-scale infrastructure; hybrid differentiation; and an enterprise-grade experience across both our infrastructure and higher level services on top.”

In terms of hyper-scale infrastructure, Microsoft is investing in the construction of new data centres around the globe. By the start of 2015, Azure will be available in 19 regions worldwide – more than any other public cloud provider. “This is important because, without hyper-scale, organisations can’t reach their customers,” Zander explains.

Hybrid differentiation is also key as, for many organisations, hybrid is the best onramp to cloud. “Microsoft is committed to moving its enterprise customers to the cloud in a way that makes sense for their business,” says Zander. “Flexibility is important – if customers want to move workloads to the cloud or keep it on premise, Microsoft enables that to happen. This is an important point of differentiation as other providers make this an either/or scenario.”

An enterprise-grade platform also needs to be secure, compliant and open to offer customers choice across a range of programming languages and tools. “Microsoft delivers on all of these facets from delivering a secure and compliant cloud for customers, to supporting multiple operating systems, programming languages and tools, providing flexibility and choice,” Zander explains. “Package all these pieces up and Microsoft is offering the most complete platform so that customers have the infrastructure, the platform, and the ­custom-made solutions in one cloud.”

It’s this unique position in the market that ­Nadella was keen to speak about back at the ­Microsoft Cloud Briefing. “Azure is our ­hyper-scale cloud that’s also part of Microsoft Cloud,” he said. “We also enable true hybrid and private cloud deployments. So this coming together of hyper-scale cloud infrastructure that even extends to the edge by supporting private cloud and hybrid cloud deployments, and powers the ubiquitous SaaS applications in Office 365 and Dynamics, is something that only Microsoft does. That’s the uniqueness of our Microsoft Cloud offering.”

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the potential of the Microsoft Cloud offering is to highlight the wide variety of applications that are already in existence. Take British fashion designer Paul Smith, for example. The organisation has been using Azure to virtualise more than 80% of its servers, improve data centre density by 200% and save more than £840,000 (US$1.4 million) in IT costs in one year. It also reduced recovery time from 48 hours to 5 minutes for its mission-critical applications.

Meanwhile, global automotive company Mazda has leveraged the cloud in its North American operations. Using a hybrid solution based on Azure, the organisation has achieved more reliable, real-time data protection and can restore data in minutes. It has eliminated back-up work for engineers and reduced data protection costs by 95%.

And it’s not just businesses that are leveraging the cloud; whole cities are using it too. The City of San Francisco, for example, is using Office 365 to empower its workforce and to help with disaster recovery. San Jose is using Microsoft Cloud to facilitate mobility. And Barcelona is leveraging Dynamics to not only achieve better communication and collaboration for its police force and firefighters, but to get better business insights and improve identity, security, and device management.

In addition to all of this, Microsoft is making Azure compute power available to the research community, and has recently been involved in helping to find a cure for Ebola. “We have some tools that Microsoft Research has built to be able to do vaccine discovery,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a recent Cloud Briefing in San Francisco. “And so we want to take all of that and make it available for the research community as the industry, government and everyone else comes together to be able to tackle the challenge of Ebola. So that’s just another example of how we believe that companies like ours can help in tackling some of the challenges that we as a society are faced with.”

Looking ahead, there are no signs that ­Microsoft’s investment in the cloud will wane anytime soon. “We will continue to evolve our cloud strategy to fit in with Satya Nadella’s mission to ‘reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to do more and achieve more,” says Zander. “For example, we will expand our Azure data centre footprint and increase capacity in existing regions. We will launch new higher level services, including Azure Machine Learning that currently is in preview. We will expand our hybrid solutions with new services such as ­StorSimple, InMage as well as our server products all offering cloud tiering, and we will expand our sales efforts to drive growth. Our long-range vision is to give customers choice and enable them to reap the full benefits of cloud computing – ­including flexibility, scalability and cost efficiencies – both now and in the future.”

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