Microsoft uses symbiotic relationship with partners to bootstrap cloud, AI, collaboration services

Profile picture for user kmarko By Kurt Marko July 16, 2019
Summary:
Microsoft is working its ecosystem and partnerships to good effect.
hand holding

There is an inherent fear as an IT professional or IT-centric business, namely that the very technologies one advances and proliferates might ultimately lead to one’s obsolescence and unemployment.

Nowhere is the paradox of IT efficiency enhancement and employment displacement more acute than in the cloud, where innovative software and services disrupt both established business models and traditional IT job categories. Scary stories of cloud-induced job losses have been common for almost a decade, and the intervening years have seen many jobs focused on the care-and-feeding of IT systems have been eliminated by automation and cloud services. However, automation anxiety and the fear of technology-induced job loss aren’t unique to IT and are nothing new, yet decades of economic history show that productivity-enhancing technology does not create massive job losses.

IT professionals and independent service providers dreading cloud-induced extinction can not only take solace then from the experiences of other industries that have successfully navigated similar technological transitions, but look to the actions of cloud leaders like Microsoft to see that the cloud creates more opportunities than it destroys. Indeed, the virtuous circle of disruptive innovation leading to business expansion is a central theme this week at Microsoft’s premier partner event, Microsoft Inspire.

Cloud services - the latest growth opportunity of IT partners and managed service providers

Partners are the focus of Microsoft Insight and while such events are often glad-handing snooze-fests full of inside baseball deal announcements, but few new products or services, this year Microsoft is spicing things up. The company realizes that its vast army of partners, MSP and certified professionals provide a unique strategic advantage against its two largest competitors. Gavriella Schuster, Microsoft VP head of partners notes the symbiotic relationship between Microsoft and its partners in her introduction to an Inspire news summary by characterizing the event as geared towards “anyone interested in growing their business and strengthening their partnership with Microsoft.” (Emphasis added)

These should be bountiful times for Inspire attendees, since as I wrote earlier this year, “By all accounts, things couldn't be better in MSP land thanks primarily to robust enterprise demand for cloud services.” The reason, as I went on to summarize, is that, like IT itself, cloud services aren’t an end in themselves, but a means to create new revenue-producing products and services, or revenue-enhancing process efficiencies and business models. As I concluded then:

Most enterprises aren't obsessing over market share stats and vendor strategic posturing, but want to adapt existing infrastructure, applications and business services to exploit cloud services. Herein lies the partner opportunity: assisting with the cloud transition through design, consulting and migration services, handling cloud operations and insulating organizations from unnecessary complexities so that they can focus on exploiting cloud services to improve their business.

Microsoft understands this and is using Inspire to highlight several new offerings designed to help partners expand both their business and their customers’.

Lighthouse - simplifying cloud management

One of the biggest challenges when delivering cloud services to a multitude of customers is resource management, not only because of the number of accounts involved, but due to the design of cloud management consoles that target individual subscriptions or, at best, a single organization. Although there are workarounds and third-party add-on’s that ease the pain, Microsoft tackles the problem directly with the new Lighthouse service. Targeted at IT partners and MSPs, Lighthouse includes the following features:

  • Delegated resource management that securely aggregates resources from multiple clients in a single UI.

 

 

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Source: What is Lighthouse; Azure Documentation

 

  • Different views optimized for the needs of service providers and customers, including the ability for MSPs to view an aggregate listing of all services under management or individual resources, for example all Azure VMs, grouped by customer.
  • Templates for Azure Resource Manager (ARM)  to automate various management tasks.
  • Support for offering and managing partner services via the Azure Marketplace.

 

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  • The ability to package custom applications that can be deployed as needed by customers and then managed via customer-specific screens within Lighthouse.

Microsoft Azure CTO Mark Russinovich describes some of the technology underlying Lighthouse this way (emphasis added),

Powering Azure Lighthouse is an Azure Resource Manager capability called delegated resource management. Delegated resource management lets customers delegate permissions to service providers over scopes, including subscriptions, resource groups, and individual resources, which enable service providers to perform management operations on their behalf. After customers delegate resources to a service provider, the provider can provide access to users or accounts in provider’s tenant within the constraints specified by the customer, using the standard role-based access control (RBAC) mechanisms. The standard RBAC mechanisms work as if customer resources were resources in provider’s own subscriptions. Finally, delegated resource management works consistently regardless of the licensing construct service providers and their customers might choose—enterprise agreement (EA), cloud solution provider (CSP), and pay-as-you-go.

 

Source: How Azure Lighthouse enables management at scale for service providers; Azure blog by Mark Russinovich.

 

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The Azure architect at Intercept, a Dutch-based MSP,  highlights the benefits to service providers trying to manage cloud resources for dozens or hundreds of clients,

“Azure Lighthouse will change the way we manage our customers’ Azure resources. With this set of capabilities, we will be able to manage all subscriptions with centralized monitoring, alerting, compliance, and security from a single portal.”

Smoothing the path for AI services, cloud migration

One area where cloud services excel is in the development and delivery of sophisticated AI and data analytics services that are beyond the technical and financial capabilities of many organizations, particularly SMBs. MSPs and partners can play a critical role in facilitating the use of AI to improve decision making and business processes. To that end, Microsoft is making it easier for partners to incorporate its AI services in their portfolio via two new programs:

  • AI Business School which educates partners in how to strategically apply AI to various business problems
  • Azure AI Accelerate Program to assist in the development and delivery of custom services based on Azure’s Machine Learning, Knowledge Mining, Cognitive Services and Azure Bot Services. At the outset, the program includes 15 “strategic AI partners” including global consulting firms like Ernst and Young, Accenture, Capgemini and KPMG and technology providers like NVIDIA, Blue Prism and SparkBeyond.

Microsoft is also helping partners port workloads and data to the cloud through a new Azure Migration Program that includes best practices, advice, utilities and training. Part of the program is the Microsoft Cloud Adoption Framework for Azure which provides a structured methodology for introducing cloud services to an organization through a set of process, planning and design recommendations.

Source: Microsoft Cloud Adoption Framework for Azure documentation

 

Networking is an area of particular difficulty for cloud users as the expertise needed to design, secure and integrate cloud networks is considerable. Adding to the frustration is the need for organizations to work with different carriers and ISPs to connect existing WANs with cloud network services. MSPs are often called on to provide such network integration and to assist these efforts Microsoft has introduced the Azure Networking MSP partner program. Using Lighthouse as a management UI, the program simplifies the process of incorporating network services like virtual WANs, Azure virtual firewalls, ExpressRoute and Front Door (Azure’s application delivery network) into a customer’s portfolio.

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Source: Enhancing the customer experience with the Azure Networking MSP partner program: Azure blog

 

Microsoft used Inspire to introduce changes to its partner rewards program while also succumbing to partner backlash by rolling back planned changes to its licensing terms and competency requirements after

My take

The PC has long since evolved from being a revolutionary tool that liberated users from mainframe tyranny into the primary vehicle for delivering digital business processes and IT services. Much of this transformation has been facilitated by MSPs and Microsoft has shrewdly used the partner business model to strengthen its position in enterprises of all sizes and to speed the delivery and spread of new products and services. Inspire shows that the company understands that partners provide it with a critical advantage over its two primary competitors in the latest IT battleground: cloud services.

 

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Microsoft shared data showing the sizeable scope of its partner ecosystem along with the financial opportunities cloud services present for partners, namely almost $10 of revenue for every dollar of Microsoft cloud service usage. These kind of numbers are undoubtedly behind the proliferation of Microsoft cloud services, including in areas like data analytics and collaboration where it didn’t have the first-mover advantage. Indeed, many tech watchers were undoubtedly shocked when Microsoft released numbers for its Teams service showing that it now has about 30 percent more daily active users than presumptive market leader Slack. Microsoft acknowledges the critical role partners played in such rapid growth. While other Microsoft cloud services might not see the hockey stick usage curve demonstrated by Teams, the partner model and new MSP programs will be a primary factor in Microsoft’s cloud success.

Ultimately, the symbiotic relationship between Microsoft and its partners might be the one factor that enables the company to leapfrog the seemingly invincible cloud behemoth that is AWS.

 

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Source: Microsoft Teams reaches 13 million daily active users, introduces 4 new ways for teams to work better together; Microsoft PR