Microsoft Inspire 2018 was all about ushering in the "intelligent cloud and intelligent edge" era, and with it, several huge developments across cloud, data and Internet of Things (IoT).
With so many insightful keynotes from this year's conference, it's easy for the latest Azure feature upgrades and initiatives to get overshadowed in the wave of exciting news coming out of Mandalay Bay. We've taken the time to pick our four biggest Azure-related announcements from Inspire you should be paying attention to - especially if your business already leverages the many benefits of the platform.
1. Power BI gets enterprise and self-service feature upgrades
Power BI is playing an increasingly important role in helping businesses around the world efficiently leverage their data platform and produce better insights. From new analysis capabilities to deeper integration with Azure services, Microsoft rightfully put Power BI on the center stage during Inspire, with several new upgrades announced.
- Self-service prep for big data: The popular Power Query - an Excel add-in used to extract, clean, transform, aggregate and publish data into tables - is now directly available to use in the Power BI web service for big data ingestion and integration. You can use Power Query in Power BI to consolidate big data from a growing set of cloud and on-premises data sources, including Azure SQL Data Warehouse, Excel and Sharepoint. The new feature enables easier sharing of ingested data across Power BI dashboards, models and reports, and more efficient connection and management of disparate data sources.
- Integration with Azure Data Lake and AI services: Data is now more seamlessly accessible between Power BI and the second generation of Azure Data Lake Storage, currently in preview. This means if you use Data Lake Storage, you can now apply Power BI’s self-service capabilities to stored big data while taking advantage of its scalable capacity and linked analytics services, like Azure Machine Learning.
- Enterprise-scale BI upgrades: Power BI is getting an overall upgrade in its enterprise-scale capabilities - “larger data volumes, lifecycle management, and third-party BI tool connectivity”, in addition to “incremental refresh, higher dataset size limits, and aggregates" which will enable you to use large dataset sizes and maintain fast reporting for end users. There’s also new support for the XMLA protocol, which will allow businesses that use third-party BI tools with XMLA support to be able to work with Power BI datasets.
Power BI was recently named as a leader in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Analytics and Business Intelligence Platforms, and with the majority of the new feature announcements made ahead of Inspire, it’s easy to see why Microsoft are quite confident in what it has to offer.
2. Azure SQL Data Warehouse receives a big speed boost
Azure SQL Data Warehouse received several significant performance boosts and analytics capabilities ahead of Microsoft Inspire, which is helping further shape the big data tool’s important role among the crowded Azure data analysis toolset, among the likes of Azure Data Factory and Azure Data Lake.
- Double the speed: All businesses using SQL Data Warehouse can now expect double the speed for query performance from their workloads. This was achieved by “new instant data movement capabilities”, which has enabled more efficient movement between data warehouse compute nodes.
- New concurrent queries: There’s also faster and more accessible insights promised with the introduction of 128 concurrent queries, which allow users to query the same database and not experience delays behind other requests with the overall aim to enhance the speed of the service’s analytics tools.
- No price increase: The biggest part of the announcement, however, was the lack of a price hike. All query performance upgrades are, for now, available without any increased costs.
Unlike the Power BI announcements which are still in preview, all of these new features are already available to use for businesses leveraging Azure SQL Data Warehouse for their workload needs.
3. Extended Security Updates for SQL Server
The biggest surprise announcement to come out of Inspire 2018 is the new Extended Security Updates, which provides a three-year extension of official support for customers who are still running near legacy versions of Windows and who might be considering a cloud upgrade in the near future.
Anyone running SQL Server 2008 or SQL Server 2008 R2 will run out of official support on 9 July 2019, while Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008 R2 will be updated until 14 January 2020. However, if you move workloads to either an Azure SQL Database Managed Instance or Azure Virtual Machine, you will get three extra years of update support for vulnerabilities that are classed under the ‘Critical’ or ‘Important’ designations.
The only caveat? You will need to have Software Assurance to be eligible to move servers over to Azure and gain the three additional years of support. You can still sign up for Extended Security Updates if you can’t or won’t move on-premises workloads to Azure, but you would need to pay 75 per cent of the full license cost per year.
4. Azure IoT Central steps into the spotlight
Microsoft unveiled several significant updates for Azure IoT Central, their leading Software as a Service (SaaS) solution for Internet of Things applications currently in public preview, using Inspire to further highlight their growing initiatives in enterprise-grade IoT services.
- Business intelligence integration: Microsoft Power BI template is now natively supported within Azure IoT Central, which will allow users to analyse and display real-time data generated from your IoT devices with faster visualisations. For example, you can now more efficiently display measurements on which devices are most active and analyse long-term trends in a single Power BI dashboard within IoT Central.
- Better storage and data analysis: Microsoft has now added the ability to continuously export real-time data from Azure IoT Central directly to Azure Storage for future retrieval or further consumption in Azure Machine Learning.
- Workflow automation: Microsoft Flow is also useable within Azure IoT Central, allowing you to build workflows centered around your real-time insights easier without having to jump between applications. Businesses can also use the drag-and-drop function of Flow using pre-built connectors with other Azure services and popular SaaS apps to build quicker workflows that trigger when alerts are fired.
Prior to Inspire 2018, Microsoft confirmed they’re investing US $5 billion in the IoT space for the next four years. If you weren’t yet convinced on the capabilities IoT solutions, there’s no better time to re-examine what Azure's current IoT suite can offer your business.
How can I take advantage of these new features?
Whether you’re taking your first cloud steps or searching for new business value from your big data and IoT initiatives, it’s clear Azure is improving and offering more potential business value following Inspire 2018.
The next step is to determine how and why these solutions can fit your overall business strategy, and whether outside expertise is needed to help guide you in the right direction.