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Office 365 – What’s the Best Plan?

Didn’t you always wonder which plan to pick in the O365 family? So many different SKU’s providing distinct features, storage capabilities, tools, etc. I know while talking to customers one of the initial and biggest question has been around which plan is perfect for them and can they downgrade or upgrade from there. Looks like Microsoft heard and responded; very recently they released a great new resource that will help you recommend and sell the right Office 365 plan to your customers.

The Office 365 Plan Selector Tool is an Excel based tool, which recommends the appropriate core Office 365 Plan, based on the answers to a few questions around your customer’s technology and productivity needs. In addition to the recommended plan, it also provides upsell and scale back plan options, if the customer needs more or less features than in the recommended plan. I highly recommend checking out the video before you download and play with it.

Demo Video: Office 365 Selector Tool Demo

Download Link: Selector Tool

Would be interested in hearing your feedback on how do you plan to use this tool and how does it solve your current and future Office 365 engagements.

Busy Pre-Build week for Microsoft and Azure!

The Microsoft Build Conference is set to kick off next week but the company got off to an early start this week with several different announcements.

Windows Azure now generally available in China
This may not sound like a huge accomplishment worthy of being called out individually but a little known fact is that Windows Azure is the first major public cloud service that China has made available.  This opens Azure up to an enormous user base that cloud competitors Google and Amazon don’t yet have access to.

Windows Azure will soon be re-branded Microsoft Azure
In an effort to strengthen the Azure brand, Microsoft is removing “Windows” from the name.  This is the help emphasize that the Azure platform is completely open and a variety of technologies can utilize it, not just Microsoft and Windows based technology.  The name “Windows Azure” has been a source of confusion since its introduction.  People who are new to cloud computing often did not know if only technologies supported by Windows were designed to work on the Azure platform.  This name change should clear up any lingering confusion.

Office for iPad debuts along with Enterprise Mobility Suite 
On Thursday Microsoft announced a fully functional, touch friendly edition of their Office suite tailored for iPads.  This has been a long time coming as millions of iPad users have had to find other methods of editing documents on their tablets.  The entire Office suite is free to download and use to view documents and presentations.  In order to edit documents an Office 365 subscription is needed, priced at $99 a year.  This subscription also provides you with desktop versions of Office 2013 as well as an Exchange Online account.

The Enterprise Mobile Suite is aimed to bring Single Sign On to all users for a variety of devices across services.  This would allow an Android tablet, iPad or Windows 8 machine using Azure Active Directory to authenticate against Office 365, Dynamics CRM and Windows Intune  as well as a variety of already available third party products.  This allows Microsoft technologies to be at the very core of the Enterprise Cloud while allowing users to “Bring Your Own Device”.

Microsoft is sure to provide more insight into this strategy next week at the Build Conference, in addition to their future road map for Windows!

Strengthen Company Culture with Yammer enhanced by HDInsight

In a world of broadband internet connections, online collaboration tools and the ability to work from almost anywhere – office culture can be difficult to sustain.  This especially holds true for people who live in large cities (where the commute can be problematic) or in harsh climates (like the never ending winter in Chicago this year).   Yammer can help by creating remote social interactions.

Strengthen Company Culture with Yammer enhanced by HDInsightYammer is an enterprise social network that aims to connect people in the office.  A few of its features are instant messaging, user profiles, a primary news-feed, interest groups, recommendations for people to follow, groups to join as well and a recent activity feed.  The interface is clean and well designed.  One of the great things is that once you start using Yammer it is really easy to continue.

There is one area where Yammer seems to fall short.  There is no clear way to bring people together who have common interests.  The other users and groups that are recommended to me by Yammer are made based on the groups I am a part of and people I follow.  It does not take into consideration any of the data in my user profile.

Perficient recently held a hack-a-thon where my team identified this short coming.  Social interaction via online collaboration tools wasn’t cutting it.  In an online culture how can we leverage all of our tools to help facilitate more meaningful social gatherings?  The answer was to use interest data that co-workers have provided through Yammer to generate meaningful recommendations.  A Yammer profile consists of many different “interest groups”.  It lists categories such as Expertise, Interests, Previous Company and Schools Attended.  All of these can be classified as conversation topics and can be used as a common social interest.

This is where HDInsight powered by Hadoop and Mahout can help.  Mahout can consume massive quantities of information and return logical connections represented within the data.  For additional reading about Hadoop and Mahout click here.

Using an HDInsight Hadoop cluster in coordination with the Mahout recommendation engine we could provide meaningful recommendations to users based on their individual interests.  This wouldn’t just recommend topics that a user might be interested in but also groups they could create or join with other users based on their mutual interests – similar to the recommendations Facebook suggests regarding people you may know, groups to join or pages you may like.

Creating these logical, online groups would “connect the dots” to uncover a similarity between people where it might otherwise remain hidden.  It could also help facilitate in-person group outings, social gatherings or simply more friends and comraderie in the office.  Through this you are creating a more meaningful environment aided by technology.

A thriving office culture can stand out in a world where telecommuting tends to be more convenient.  This may not convince everyone to come to the office. However, instead of viewing it as obligatory, implementing a solution like this can encourage more people to choose to commute to the office for the social comraderie.  All of this can be done for free through the Yammer API and a Windows Azure account.

What is Net Neutrality and why is it important?

The idea behind Net Neutrality has been a topic of increasing scrutiny recently.  There are groups of people who are very out spoken about the importance of Net Neutrality and deregulation of the Internet.  For the majority of internet users the topic falls on deaf ears.  This is generally because Net Neutrality is attempting to protect the Internet against regulation and monetization that has not happened yet, but could happen and some may argue has started happening.  It is difficult to explain Net Neutrality and what can happen if the Internet was heavily regulated because the explanation has no historical evidence.

What is Net Neutrality and Why is it Important?The fight for Net Neutrality means the fight for the open and unregulated Internet.  Supporters of Net Neutrality want the Internet to remain completely open, belonging to no-one.  Access to the Internet should be hassle free, available to everyone,uncensored and extremely competitive where possible.  If this sounds familiar it is because until 2014 this is how the Internet has operated (for the most part in the United States).  Heavy Internet regulation has never happened before so its hard to point a finger at an example and state with conviction, “this will happen”.  What I can tell you is what is happening and why Net Neutrality is important.

Typically this is how the Internet works; a customer will subscribe to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for a connection to the Internet.  That customer will also subscribe to a variety of services available to them through their internet connection.  I may have a Netflix subscription, stream or download music, play games online, watch YouTube videos and connect to an encrypted VPN connection.  These services are either free or I pay for a subscription to a service which is delivered to me through my connection to the Internet provided by my ISP, which I also pay for.  You expect these services to be available to you regardless of what ISP you subscribe to.  You also expect the service quality to be in line with how fast of an internet connection you have and how fast the service can be delivered.  For example if I have an internet connection through Comcast @ 25Mbps downstream I would expect the quality of Netflix videos to be the same if I was on an internet connection through AT&T @ 25Mbps downstream.  Assumptions like this are common sense.  As a customer you expect to have access to the entire Internet at the speed you pay for.  What if that wasn’t the case?

Imagine a world where you must choose an internet provider based on the different services you consume.  A world where I choose an ISP because the services I subscribe to are delivered in better quality.   For example, on Comcast perhaps I can stream Netflix at full high definition quality but on AT&T I can only stream Netflix at standard definition even though my internet connection on either service is 25Mbps downstream.  To take this a step further; imagine a world where I have to look at what internet services are available to me through that subscription.  I have to make sure services like Netflix, iTunes and Spotify are included in my subscription with the 25Mbps downstream I am paying for.  Then notice that in order to stream HBOGo I have to pay an extra monthly fee to have that service included.  Previously I had written about how Windows Azure delivers the Winter Olympics online.  The extra service fee argument can be made to stream special events like the Olympics, World Cup or Superbowl.  This sounds a lot like another cable subscription model we are all familiar with but in this case I am paying for premium services instead of premium channels.  This could be very problematic for a world that is starting to become comfortable and reliant on cloud computing services.

This imaginary world is already starting to take shape in reality.  Netflix, who has been a strong Net Neutrality advocate, is the largest generator of traffic on the Internet.  Some ISP’s have demanded Netflix pay extra fee’s due to the amount of traffic the service generates.  Netflix has repeatedly refused to pay stating that it violated Net Neutrality.  The service has been plagued with performance degradation ever since.  With the FCC losing the battle for Net Neutrality, Netflix has changed its mind and entered into an agreement with Comcast, the nations largest ISP, which sets a dangerous precedent.  Comcast will now stream Netflix videos faster than competitors and will undoubtedly be a selling point for customers.  Suddenly quality of service is no longer dependent on your internet connection speed but your provider.  Essentially the first “premium service” has been created even though the cost has not been passed to consumers.

Prioritizing specific content is a direct violation of Net Neutrality and that is precisely what has happened with Netflix.  Based on this outcome it can be argued that any internet service will be treated the same way if they generate large amounts of traffic.  It does not matter if the service runs on Amazon Web Services, Windows Azure or Google AppEngine; if it is popular and generates enough traffic be prepared to pay for delivery.

Net Neutrality is important because breaking it can fundamentally change how the Internet works.  The more Net Neutrality is violated the harder it might be to re-establish.  The Internet is arguably the greatest tool ever made by man.  It has worked the way it was designed since its inception.  For the first time its fundamental design and the way it works is being challenged and that should be a very scary thing for everyone not just power users.

Click here for additional reading on Net Neutrality.

Windows Azure: How to create a streaming media service (GUI)

In my previous post I discussed how Microsoft and NBC were streaming every single event live and on demand at the Sochi Olympic Games.  Azure makes publishing and streaming videos easier than ever before.  This post will walk you through creating a media service, uploading content (video or audio), encoding it and publishing it for consumption.  We will do this all using the Azure management portal.

  • To start log into Azure and go to the portal (if you don’t have an Azure account you can get one for free at http://windows.azure.com).  Select ‘Media Services’ on the left hand navigation bar, then select ‘New’. NewMediaService
  • Fill in the requested information.  Note that in order to create your Media Service.  You must use and existing storage account or create a new one.  In this example we will be creating a new storage account.  This storage account will hold all of the media that we would like to stream from Azure.
    NewMediaService2
  • After you Media Service is created your dashboard should look similar to this.  Our next step is to upload some content.  Click on the ‘Upload’ button.
    NewMediaService3
  • You can select content to stream in two ways.  You can upload content you have stored locally on your computer, or you can “upload” content to Media Services that is already located in Azure blob storage.  The content can be located in any storage account you have access to in Azure.

Read the rest of this post »

How Windows Azure delivers the Olympics

NBC and Microsoft recently publicized they are streaming every event of the 2014 Winter Olympics to any iOS, Android, Windows device using Windows Azure Media Services.  What is Windows Azure Media Services (WAMS) and how does it work?

WAMS is a cloud optimized edition of the Microsoft Media Platform (MMP) which handles a variety of tasks such as format conversion, media encryption, analytics with on-demand and live streaming capabilities.  Microsoft Media Platform is traditionally confined to a server farm but by leveraging Windows Azure WAMS has nearly limitless compute and streaming capabilities.

How Windows Azure Delivers the OlympicsWhen considering infrastructure it is important to consider which configuration we will be using.  There are two options to consider Infrastructure as a Service and Platform as a Service.

  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).  Using this method we must setup and configure virtual machines (VM) to connect to our WAMS setup.  To utilize IaaS auto-scaling we must create additional VM’s to handle requests when demand is high.  This means we must forecast an approximate number of active streaming requests, create the right amount of VM’s to handle the requests and turn on the auto-scale feature to utilize the dormant, yet pre-configured VM’s.
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS).  Using PaaS there is no extensive VM configuration.  After deploying your cloud service and configuring IIS once you can now depend on Azure to auto-scale your cloud service automatically without having to configure additional VM’s for a “just incase” scenario.  There will be no need to forecast the number of concurrent requests at any given time.  As long as IIS is setup to provide on-demand and live streaming media correctly once then it is setup for your cloud application no matter how great the demand.  Essentially by giving up some control in configuration we can save a lot of work.  This is the method most likely being utilized to deliver the Olympics.

The setup for live streaming and on-demand will slightly differ in how they are captured and consumed by the public.

  • The live streaming setup involves the footage being captured, encoded and then sent to web roles in Azure (typically referred to as an “ingest” server).  This can work with a single web role but for redundancy additional web roles can be used.  The additional  web roles can consume the data as long as they are at a different DNS address.  In this situation multiple web roles are probably used for world wide redundancy.  As the data is being pushed to the cloud content delivery web roles begin to pull the data and push it to the requesting parties.
  • On Demand streaming does not require the high speed capture and encoding of live footage but does require an enormous amount of storage capacity.  Every event during the Olympics will be available for on demand streaming, which means every even must be captured and stored in Azure blob storage.  Every event is being captured in full HD (1920 x 1080 resolution).  You can imagine this will amount to a substantial amount of data, probably several terabytes. While the live streaming web roles need to pull the streaming encoded content, the on demand web roles need to the stream the media files.  Sending a full HD stream to a device such as a cell phone with limited bandwidth is not the most efficient distribution process so Azure utilizes a technology called Smooth Stream.

Smooth Stream is a dynamic content delivery technology that will adapt the stream that is sent to the requester based on their bandwidth.  It is being utilized for both on-demand and live streaming events.  In order to deliver content at a consistent frame rate free of lag or pixelation the video is broken up into small fragments.  As the fragments are delivered and played, the time it took to play the fragment as well as the playback quality will be sent back to Azure.  If the quality or playback time does not meet standards set on the server then the next fragment will be sent at a lower quality and the process will repeat.  If bandwidth increases during the next fragment a higher quality version of the next fragment will be sent.  As you can imagine this means every Olympic event needs to be stored in full HD and in several tiers of lower quality fragments to deliver content to every type of device over any kind of bandwidth.

The Olympics is no doubt one of the most watched events of the year.  By utilizing dozens of Azure data centers capturing, replicating and delivering content all over the world Microsoft is once again showing the power of what can be accomplished using Windows Azure.  Microsoft began streaming the Olympics in 2008 and since has quietly become a media streaming powerhouse with the ability to deliver content to millions at a moments notice.

Power BI for Office 365: Self-Service BI Webinar Recap

Yesterday, we hosted a webinar on Power BI for Office 365: Using SharePoint Online to Deliver Self-Service Business Intelligence. During the well attended session, Andy Tegethoff, Microsoft BI architect at Perficient, first reviewed what Power BI is all about, who is likely to be a user, and the components of it. He then dug deeper into Excel self-service BI, explaining and walking through Power Query, Power Pivot, Power View and Power Map.

Next, Andy went into Power BI with Office 365, which includes Power BI Sites (an app in SharePoint Online), Data Management, and Power BI for Mobile (currently available in the Windows Store for Windows 8 and 8.1 devices). He also gave a detailed walkthrough here, illustrating the features. Lastly, he discussed IT management for Power BI.

In closing, Andy provided several helpful links to get started with Power BI:

The attendees asked many great questions, and Andy had time to answer a large portion of them. You can view the webinar replay here, including the Q&A. Read the rest of this post »

An Interview with Perficient’s Newest Microsoft MVP, Ryan Duclos

First of all, congratulations to my colleague, Ryan Duclos, who received the Microsoft MVP award on January 1, 2014. You can read more about the announcement in the Microsoft MVP Award Program Blog here:

These individuals were chosen because they have demonstrated their deep commitment to helping others make the most of their technology, voluntarily sharing their passion and real-world knowledge of Microsoft products with the community.

They are nominated by Microsoft, other community individuals, or in some cases themselves. Candidates are rigorously evaluated for their technical expertise, community leadership, and voluntary community contributions for the previous year.

ryanduclosA dedicated professional who is passionate about Microsoft development, Ryan was kind enough to sit down for a few minutes and talk about his path to becoming a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional.

Who are you, where are you, and what do you do?
Ryan Duclos:
I’m Ryan Duclos and I’m a Lead Technical Consultant for the Perficient New Orleans Business Unit. I live in South Alabama near Mobile.

What are your specialties and what do you focus on?
Ryan
Duclos: I’m primarily focused on custom application development utilizing Microsoft and related technologies. I’m passionate about development utilizing .Net, SQL Server and Windows Azure technologies.

What did it take to be awarded a Microsoft MVP?
Ryan Duclos:
There are several different ways to obtain this recognition. For me, it is mostly based on my involvement in the community by sharing my knowledge and experiences. I speak at events; I blog about Microsoft technologies; I organize events based on Microsoft technologies; I mentor developers in my area; I occasionally contribute to forums. Read the rest of this post »

Perficient’s Top 5 Sitecore Related Blog Posts of 2013

Last week, we shared the top five SharePoint posts from 2013, as well as the top Office 365 posts. Today, it’s all about Sitecore. As a Sitecore Certified Solution Partner, Perficient has designed, architected, implemented and delivered numerous large, public-facing sites powered by Sitecore – one of which is Perficient.com. Recently, our corporate site won  the North American Sitecore Site of the Year – Best Partner Site award. Needless to say, we are big fans of Sitecore and are proud of the work we’ve done on the platform (as seen firsthand in the webinar with Lamar Advertising). So without further ado, here are the top five Sitecore posts from 2013:

Sitecore as a Semantic Content Management SystemMark Servais
In this post, Mark digs into the definition of Semantic Web and Semantic CMS, explaining that a Semantic CMS is an extended CMS as we know it today. A Semantic CMS needs to include semantic functionality such as the storage and processing of data from semantic services, as well as an enTop-5-Sitecoregine to process reasoning and knowledge relation of that data. The post illustrates Sitecore architecture versus proposed Semantic CMS (SCMS) architecture. From this, he concludes that Sitecore contains everything and more on the content side of the SCMS stack, as well as the presentation capabilities, but at this time, does lack a knowledge and reasoning engine that is built in.

Opportunity Costs of Responsive Design with SitecoreJamie Stump
Responsive Design is a pretty big buzzword – not just within the tech industry, but in any business that wants to be relevant in today’s ever changing world. Responsive Design is the concept of using one set of HTML / CSS markup that looks optimal for any screen size. Jamie explains the benefits of developing your Sitecore site with Responsive Design. Of course, Responsive Design is a choice, and a choice that comes with an opportunity cost and various things to consider, and this post explores that as well. Read the rest of this post »

Windows Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V – Overview of Generation 2 VM’s

With the release of Windows Server 2012 R2 comes many great new features, including a improved virtual machine named generation 2.

Generation 2 virtual machines provide quite a few enhancements across the spectrum of Hyper-V VM technology. Perhaps most notable is the removal of legacy emulated hardware. Removal of the legacy network adapter, IDE controller, floppy controller, serial controller (COM ports), and PCI bus, results in a more efficient VM. You should see faster boot times, and quicker installations from .iso. How does a VM boot without these integral components? Where necessary, they have been replaced with software based versions.

Other enhancements include:

  • Replaced BIOS with UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface)
    • Faster boot times
    • Support for boot volumes up to 64TB (Uses GPT instead of MBR)
  • Enhanced Security
    • Smaller attack surface
    • Secure Boot – Prevents unauthorized firmware, drivers and OS from running during boot.
  • Expansion of data and boot disks while VM is running. Nice!
  • Complete reliance on VHDX file format resulting in much better performance (VHD’s are no longer supported).
  • Enhanced Session Mode
    • This allows device redirection and the ability to control display configuration when connected via the Virtual Machine Connection tool.

Some things to keep in mind with generation 2 machines: Read the rest of this post »