Microsoft Azure is expanding its cloud computing portfolio with additional multi-cloud and multi-edge hybrid capabilities including Azure Arc and Azure Stack updates, a fully managed communication platform, new cloud region availability zones and its next-generation Azure VMware Solution.
The No. 2 cloud provider unveiled the deepened catalog of product and services—and the targeted release date for its first industry-specific cloud platform—for Tuesday’s start of its Microsoft Ignite 2020 conference for IT professionals and developers.
“Since the beginning, Azure has always been hybrid by design, providing customers consistency and flexibility in meeting their business needs and empowering them to invent with purpose,” said Julia White, corporate vice president of Microsoft Azure. “As we expand our Azure hybrid capabilities, we give customers a holistic and seamless approach to run and manage their apps anywhere across on-premises, multi-cloud and the edge.”
Microsoft shifted the usually in-person conference—its last major event of the year —to a free, online-only event due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Its announcements included the public preview of Azure Communication Services, which is built natively on top of Azure. Microsoft is calling it the first fully managed communication platform offering from a major cloud provider.
“In this remote-first world, businesses are looking to quickly adapt to customers’ needs and connect with them through engaging communication experiences,” said Scott Van Vliet, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of intelligent communication.
“Building new communication solutions or integrating them into existing applications can be complex and time-consuming, often requiring considerable investment and specialized expertise. Azure Communication Services makes it easy to add voice and video calling, chat and SMS text message capabilities to mobile apps, desktop applications and websites with just a few lines of code.”
Read about the new Microsoft Azure features, which also include Azure Cognitive Services enhancements, the private preview of Azure Orbital, the general availability of Azure SQL Edge, a Cosmos DB serverless option, an integrated SaaS collaboration with New York City’s Datadog and Delta Engine For Azure Databricks.
Azure Arc updates
As part of its hybrid cloud portfolio, Microsoft Azure unveiled updates to Azure Arc, which allows for the deployment of Azure services anywhere and extends Azure management to any infrastructure.
Introduced in November in public preview for Windows Server, Linux and Kubernetes clusters, Azure Arc has attracted interest and adoption across all industries with customers including Africa’s Talking, Avanade, DexMach, Ferguson, Fujitsu, KPMG and Siemens Healthineers, according to White.
“They use Azure Arc to manage and govern their resources more efficiently in distributed environments, and they use Azure Arc to bring Azure data services on-premises,” White said.
Azure Arc-enabled data services is now in public preview with open access to Azure SQL Managed Instance and Azure Database for PostgreSQL Hyperscale that can run on any infrastructure.
“Customers can now take advantage of the latest Azure managed database innovation, such as staying always current with evergreen SQL, elastic scale and a unified data management experience, regardless of whether it’s running in Azure, running in their data center or running in a different public cloud,” White said. “And these data services work in both connected and disconnected modes.”
Azure Arc-enabled servers are now generally available for Windows and Linux servers for production workloads including inventory, organization and governance. Customers can tag servers, organize in hierarchies, search from a single location and set guardrails on server configurations through Azure Policy.
“Customers can seamlessly organize and govern Windows and Linux servers—both physical and virtual machines—across their multi-cloud, multi-edge environment, all from the Azure Portal,” White said. “Customers can now use Azure management services to monitor, secure and update servers, and audit them with the same Azure Policy across multi-cloud and multi-edge deployments. In addition, customers can implement standardized role-based access control across all their servers to meet important compliance requirements.”
Azure Arc-Enabled SQL Server is now in public preview. Microsoft released it in private preview in July, allowing customers to use the Azure Portal to register and track the inventory of their SQL Server instances across on-premises, edge sites and multi-cloud environments in a single view; use Azure Security Center to produce reports of vulnerabilities in SQL Servers and receive real-time security alerts for threats to SQL Servers and operating systems; and use Azure Sentinel to investigate threats in SQL servers.
New Azure availability zones
Microsoft is working to deploy availability zones to Azure cloud regions in every country where it operates data centers in the next 24 months.
New availability zones will be available its Canada Central and Australia East regions this month, bringing its total number to 14.
Availability zones provide a high-availability option for comprehensive business continuity and disaster recovery strategies, 99.99 percent uptime service-level agreements on virtual machines, flexible high-performance architecture and multizone support with built-in security, Microsoft said.
Azure certified device program
A new Azure Certified Device program will help builders connect the right devices to the right solutions through the Azure Certified Device Catalog.
The catalog will focus on device compatibility and differentiation through three Azure certifications: Azure Certified Device, an entry-level certification that validates that a device can connect with Azure IoT Hub and securely provision through the device provisioning service; IoT Plug and Play, a new certification unveiled last month to simplify building devices without custom device code; and edge-managed certification, which focuses on management standards for Azure connected devices for Internet of Things devices running Windows, Linux or RTOS.
New Azure cognitive services features
Microsoft unveiled two new features that are generally available for Azure Cognitive Services, which are cloud-based services with REST APIs and client library software developer kits (SDKs) designed to help developers build cognitive intelligence into applications without direct artificial intelligence (AI) or data science skills.
Private Endpoints and Managed Identities help customers securely access data for their search services and register them as trusted devices.
Private Endpoints allows indexers to connect to a data source behind Azure Virtual Network (VNet). Customers can request Azure Cognitive Search to create an outbound private endpoint connection to securely access data from data sources via indexers.
Managed Identities provides role-based, access-control assignments, enabling a secure connection between an indexer and the data source, and allows users to connect to a data source without entering data-source credential information as part of the configuration.
Microsoft also introduced new decision, vision and speech capabilities for Azure Cognitive Services.
Metrics Advisor Preview, in the decision category, proactively monitors metrics in near-real-time and diagnoses issues related to organizations’ growth engines, providing granular analysis with diagnostics and alerting.
Metrics Advisor is built on Anomaly Detector, which now is generally available to help businesses apply advanced anomaly detection to production-level deployments.
Spatial Analysis is a feature of Computer Vision that helps organizations maximize the value of their physical spaces by understanding people’s movements and presence in near-real-time, and can help organizations reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic by creating in-room layouts supporting social distancing and other health requirements.
New speech category updates help more customers benefit from speech services, regardless of their deployment environments with containers.
Azure Communication Services
Microsoft bills Azure Communication Services, now in public preview, as the first fully managed communication platform offering from a major cloud provider.
The fully managed platform is built on the Microsoft Azure cloud. It allows developers and organizations to build and deploy communications features and user experiences across applications and devices using the same low-latency communications network used for Microsoft Teams. It allows them to leverage Azure services such as Azure Cognitive Services for translation and sentiment analysis and other contextual interactions.
“Azure Communication Services makes it easy to add voice and video calling, chat and SMS text message capabilities to mobile apps, desktop applications and websites with just a few lines of code,” Van Vleit said. “Developer-friendly APIs and SDKs make it easy to create personalized communication experiences in a matter of minutes, without having to worry about complex integrations. These capabilities can be used on any platform and any device.”
SMS service and phone numbers will be available in October. The latter will enable end-to-end communication with telephony capabilities, including provisioning numbers that support inbound and outbound calling, porting existing numbers and requesting new numbers. Another planned benefit is to allow integration into existing on-premises equipment and carrier networks with session initiation protocol.
Azure Communication Services could be used for customer service calls about maintenance and installation problems for which a technician is unable to go to a customer’s home, Van Vliet noted.
“While some problems can be addressed remotely, troubleshooting over the phone can be a challenge,” he said. “There aren’t many tools that are easy to use and deploy which connect a service rep and end user over video, especially built right into a company’s app or home page. With Azure Communication Services, integrating voice and video calling into a multichannel communication experience is simple.”
Microsoft has created a new first-party voice channel for Dynamics 365 Customer Service that’s built on Azure Communication Services and will be available in private preview in October.
Azure Orbital provides access to physical satellite data and communication capabilities to process and analyze data in Microsoft Azure with reduced costs and increased efficiency, according to Microsoft.
The new managed service, which takes advantage of a low-latency, global fiber network when working with large satellite datasets, now is available to select customers in private preview.
Azure SQL Edge GA
Azure SQL Edge, a small-footprint container that supports built-in data streaming, storage and AI in ARM- and x64-based devices in connected, disconnected or semi-connected environments, now is generally available.
The relational database is optimized for IoT gateways and edge devices, and it’s built on the same codebase as Microsoft SQL Server and Microsoft Azure SQL Database.
Azure Stack updates
Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) on Azure Stack HCI now is in public preview, enabling users to deploy and manage containerized apps at scale on Azure Stack HCI, a service that combines the price-performance of hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) with native Azure hybrid capabilities.
“This now provides a consistent, secure, and fully managed Kubernetes experience for customers who want to use Azure Stack HCI within their data centers,” White said.
Customers can take advantage of Azure AKS on Azure Stack HCI’s consistent experience with AKS on Azure, extend to Azure with hybrid capabilities, run apps with built-in security and use familiar tools to modernize Windows apps, according to Microsoft.
Azure Stack Hub now is available with GPUs so customers can run AI, machine learning (ML) and inferencing capabilities on-premises and at the edge.
Microsoft partnered with AMD to bring the AMD Mi25 GPU to Azure Stack Hub to power visualization-intense applications. The Nvidia V100 Tensor Core GPU allows customers to run compute-intense ML workloads in disconnected or partially connected scenarios, while the Nvidia T4 Tensor Core GPU provides visualization, inferencing and ML for workloads that are less compute-intense.
With the Azure Stack Edge Pro series powered by the Nvidia T4 Tensor Core GPU, customers now can use visualization, inferencing and ML at the edge.
Microsoft unveiled two new Azure Stack Edge rugged devices now generally available to run analytics in remote areas. The lightweight Azure Stack Edge Mini R, a portable device designed to operate in harsh conditions, is small enough to be carried in a backpack. The Azure Stack Edge Pro R is available with Nvidia’s T4 GPU.
Azure VMware solution
The next generation of Azure VMware Solution (AVS), announced in preview in May, now is generally available to extend and migrate VMware workloads to Microsoft Azure in Azure’s U.S. East and West, West Europe and Australia cloud regions.
Designed and supported by Azure and endorsed by VMware, the service features the latest VMware Cloud Foundation components, including vSphere, NSX-T, HCX and vSAN running on Azure infrastructure.
AVS supports backup solutions from Azure partners Commvault, Veeam Software and Veritas, and GitHub enterprise solutions to move customers’ on-premises GitHub repositories to the cloud. Azure is working to add disaster recovery capabilities from Zerto and JetStream.
AVS integrates with native Azure Migrate tools, so customers can build AVS-specific assessments for cloud migration.
Azure also is offering VMware’s HCX Enterprise Edition, which includes Replication Assisted vMotion for large bulk migration when transitioning workloads to Azure VMware Solution environments.
Cosmos DB serverless option
Azure Cosmos DB, a NoSQL database with open APIs, now has a serverless option for database operations with small workloads with occasional traffic surges and moderate performance requirements.
The consumption-based model, which allows application developers to build and scale smaller apps and run tests without the cost of provisional throughput, now is in preview.
Microsoft Azure and Datadog have collaborated on an integrated Datadog SaaS solution expected to be available in October through Azure Marketplace.
The monitoring and security offering, which is built on Azure, provides a seamless experience for Datadog’s cloud monitoring solution, allowing organizations to fully map their legacy and cloud-based systems, monitor real-time data during all phases of their cloud transition and ensure that migrated applications meet performance targets. It’s a fully managed offering that doesn’t require customers to set up and operate the infrastructure.
Delta Engine for Azure Databricks
Photon-powered Delta Engine for Azure Databricks, designed to accelerate big data and AI workloads, is in preview.
Delta Engine, built on top of Apache Spark 3.0, includes an improved query optimizer, a caching layer between the execution layer and the cloud object storage, and a native vectorized execution engine that’s written in C++.
Azure Databricks is 20X faster than the open-source Apache Spark, according to Microsoft.
Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare
Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare—the company’s first industry-specific cloud that was announced in public preview in May—is expected to be generally available at the end of October.
The new cloud service is designed to help health-care customers and partners deliver better patient experiences, insight and care while improving workflow efficiency, streamlining collaboration and connecting data across sources. Its architecture has built-in governance and privacy capabilities that support compliance with the U.S.’ HIPAA, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the HITRUST CSF and other regulatory requirements.
It incorporates the cloud platform, collaboration, productivity, customer relationship, business application and analytics solutions from Microsoft Azure, Microsoft 365, Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Microsoft Power Platform in addition to partner health-care solutions.
Private Azure Marketplace
Private Azure Marketplace will enable organizations to create their own online private marketplaces of pre-approved, third-party solutions that their employees are allowed to use.
The new service, which is in public preview in the Azure Portal, will help organizations ensure their offers comply with company policies and regulations. All users under the tenant administrator will be able to see the same curated list of solutions.