Conference Update

Ignite 2016 Post-Conference Summary

Microsoft Ignite logo, a scene of downtown Atlanta with text overlaid

Last week, I was in Atlanta for the Microsoft Ignite conference! I had wonderful plans for making a few blog posts during the conference, but that didn’t happen. I’m in awe of those who were able to post great blog posts while participating in the conference, but between information overload, the wonderful fitness regimen that the conference attendees were subject to, and the after-hours events, it just doesn’t work for me. If you’ve been following the conference through blogs, or (my preference) via Twitter (plug: my Twitter), you probably are aware of the details of how large the conference was. This year, the conference was held at the Georgia World Congress Center.

tl;dr: All 1000+ words are the tl;dr!

The GWCC covers 360,000 m2, and I think I saw at least 300,000 of those. Microsoft said there’s approximately 23,000 attendees; there’s hundreds or thousands of Microsoft employees in attendance, and thousands of event staff. Overall, the traffic management was pretty good; I heard that lines were a problem last year but it really wasn’t a huge problem this year. I’m not going to talk about the food; this tweet says it all.

The technical content at the conference was generally excellent. There’s a few talks I’m going to review and attempt to summarize in further blog posts (hopefully).

The Keynotes were pretty fascinating, and helped set the stage for the rest of the conference. Of course, Microsoft is continuing its focus as a company on being a cloud-first, mobile-first company. They reiterated the fact that Azure has twice the number of datacenter locations as AWS, and it’s continuing to grow[footnote]After Ignite, they announced $3B in spending in Europe alone[/footnote]. The keynote discussed Microsoft’s improvements in Security, Intelligence, and Productivity. The interaction between the The focus this year, from my perspective, is around security and analytics based in the cloud, using Microsoft’s significant investments in AI. Satya Nadella has made it clear for several years that he’s a believer in the future of data processing and analytics to drive “AI” services.[footnote]Prior to Satya, Steve Ballmer continued to invest in the Bing division, despite the fact that on the surface it appeared to lose money. The lessons learned from running Bing have helped Microsoft with their data processing and scalability.[/footnote] Microsoft processes terabytes of data every day, on everything from logins and performance metrics to security events and usage patterns. Some of this data is processed and made available for customers to consume, but it’s hard to tie the data from your Azure subscription (changes and performance alerts), Azure Active Directory (logins, password resets), email messages, and antivirus alerts. During the Keynote, tooling was demonstrated to pull all the details together to view the path of an attacker in near real-time. Because it’s basically out-of-the-box, it can save organizations huge amounts of money. The Azure Blog has a post about an organization that cut monitoring costs by 90% by moving to Log Analytics.

There’s also great improvements in the productivity services from Microsoft but I’m more of a user in that space, and don’t have any particularly useful insights to share. Delve Analytics is renamed to MyAnalytics, which has little impact to me, and there’s some UI changes which are neat. It’s an interesting tool, and it’s fun to look through and see how my email and work habits are changing over time. PowerPoint Designer has new layout capabilities – hopefully this will improve death by PowerPoint slide decks, but that remains to be seen.

I attended Brad Anderson’s keynote, which focussed on information security and management. Microsoft has invested a lot of effort into security and information protection in the last few years, and the results are starting to really show promise. Between the companies they’ve purchased and the in-house capabilities they’ve built, there’s some fantastic capabilities.

A theme at Ignite this year was the “new” cloud paradigm – the old way of doing IT will not continue to work. Brad spoke about Bamburgh Castle, in the UK, which withstood attacks until a commander built cannons at a scale and capability that had never been seen before, and began to systematically defeat the castle’s defences. This is not dissimilar to the environment in which we are operating as IT Professionals – we’re constantly under attack, by attackers moving in ever-changing conditions. The traditional perimeter-based approach to security is simply not working – our electronic walls are falling. Microsoft’s solution is to make use of the tremendous data they collect and feed it to their advanced AI capabilities, to analyze, detect, and halt attacks across their thousands of customers, before the attacks can have significant impact. The amount of data that Microsoft collects is simply incredible – they’re in an unique position to profile attacks.

The message is that Microsoft is uniquely able to answer five questions about your data:

  1. Do you know who is accessing your data?
  2. Can you grant access to data, based on risk, in real time?
  3. Can you protect data on devices, in the cloud, and in transit?
  4. Can you find and react to a breach
  5. Do your users love their work experience?

The last question is key – and Brad stressed that, if your users are aware of a “security” solution, you’ve probably lost the battle of usability. Once they perceive a function as being security-related, bad memories start to surface, and the users start to look for ways ‘around’ the solution.

One of the benefits of shared services, such as Office 365 and Azure Active Directory, is that even small companies, with small IT teams can have access to advanced tools and analytics that otherwise would take a long time to set up – capabilities such as Operations Management Suite and Azure Identity Management. The cost, relatively speaking, is minimal. I’m always struck by how much easier it is to get started now.

The whole keynote is embedded below; it’s worth watching.

One of the best parts of the Microsoft Ignite conference was the Expo Hall floor. While there’s great sessions at Ignite, it’s both difficult to select which session to attend (there’s at least two or three worth attending simultaneously) and also to get to the room in which the session is held. Additionally, it’s sometimes challenging to determine which session is going to discuss newly-released capabilities, and which are going to discuss capabilities released within the last year. The Expo Hall is an opportunity to engage and learn about vendors in the IT marketplace, whether competitors or partners, as well as talk to people who manage the teams who actually build the services and products that we use. The vendors were a great source of T-shirts and stickers, and information – but the real value to me were the Microsoft employees who were on the floor. I’ve worked with a few of them via email or Skype, and it’s fantastic to put a real face to the name. The conversations I had with them were all very informative and helpful to me – more so in many cases than lengthy sessions.

There were a few other breakout keynotes on the first day, and dozens of important sessions that I really am looking forward to seeing in the next few months on YouTube. I’ll be tweeting (and perhaps blogging) about the ones that are important – the OMS sessions are going to be really interesting, and there’s definitely new Azure content to review in depth.

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