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This content is part of the Conference Coverage: Microsoft Ignite 2018 conference coverage
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Microsoft embraces Azure cloud platform as its strategic heart

Microsoft's showcase of Azure-based offerings asserts the cloud at the heart of the company's future, and further cements its position against cloud archrival AWS.

ORLANDO -- Microsoft has pounded home the point that Azure is the driving force behind all of the company's major corporate strategies, with an avalanche of products and services that exploit its cloud platform's capabilities -- and  squarely target archrival AWS.

Microsoft showed off more than 70 offerings at its Ignite 2018 conference here today, from technical previews to enhanced available products, many laced with AI and machine learning capabilities. The thread that ties many of them together is the Azure cloud platform.

"The message here is that Azure is the future of the company and they are going to give AWS a run for its money everywhere [AWS] plays," said Dave Bartoletti, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Microsoft's placement of the Azure cloud platform at the heart of all of its strategic initiatives comes as little surprise. For several years, the company has touted a "cloud-first" strategy, promising to deliver cloud versions of every core product. And today, its nearest competitor in terms of platform and customer adoption is AWS, noted Carl Brooks, a research analyst at 451 Research.

"They should be focusing entirely on Azure; it is the set piece of their strategy right now," he said.

The timing to showcase such a broad array of enterprise-class products and technologies is appropriate, as Microsoft has established dozens of physical data centers around the world to deliver cloud-based products, and make sure it's in every market it needs to be, Bartoletti said.

"Now it's about service depth and [product] expansion, delivering the sort of enterprise products that make it easier for larger shops to connect data centers to cloud," he said.

On-premises updates for Windows Server, Azure Stack

Microsoft formally introduced the long-awaited Windows Server 2019, intended to bridge on-premises environments with Azure services, and Windows Server 1809, aimed at users focused on containers and microservices. Windows Server will be available this week, according to Scott Guthrie, executive VP of Microsoft's cloud and enterprise group, in a keynote presentation.*

The message here is that Azure is the future of the company and they are going to give AWS a run for its money everywhere.
Dave Bartolettivice president and principal analyst, Forrester Research

Azure Stack can now support up to 16 nodes, up from the four- and eight-node configurations previously available. This capability will be available in the coming weeks, from Dell, Cisco, HPE, Lenovo, Huawei and Avanade, according to Microsoft.

Despite Microsoft officials' claims of Azure Stack's adoption by larger customers, some analysts believe the product's acceptance has been tepid.

"[Microsoft has] been fairly quiet about it, mostly because the uptake has been slow," 451's Brooks said.

However, expansion to 16 nodes suggests Azure Stack has gained some traction.

"You can already do a lot within an Azure Stack with a four- or eight-node environment, so going to 16, to me, says they must be getting increased interest from larger customers," Forrester's Bartoletti said.

Microsoft expands machine learning through the cloud

Microsoft also debuted an improved version of Azure Machine Learning that helps developers build and train AI models faster and better identifies algorithms for improved performance.

Meanwhile, Ideas is a new capability in Office that consolidates AI features across Office 365. As a user creates documents, Ideas makes suggestions, such as adding designs and images in a PowerPoint presentation.

Some of the latest incremental, AI-flavored improvements in Office should contribute to the cloud-based product's momentum in larger accounts, analysts said.

"Office 365 has been the [cloud] leader for Microsoft getting into larger customer accounts and helping cement its subscription model," said Joshua Trupin, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "But as successful as Office has been, Azure is quickly catching up in terms of its usage."

Microsoft also shored up its product lineup to move data in and out of the Azure cloud platform. Azure Data Box Edge, which rivals the AWS Snowball device and is now in preview, uses AI-enabled edge features to analyze and process on-premises data before it gets uploaded to the cloud. And the ruggedized Azure Data Box device, first shown at last year's Ignite show, is now available with 100 TB of storage to handle offline transfer of large amounts of data to Azure, and a 1 petabyte version is in preview.

The plethora of cloud-based products and services from larger companies with public clouds will be the norm, as enterprises' cloud expenditures approach their spending on traditional on-premises products.

"AWS and Microsoft are going back and forth to see who can deliver the most products. That's what these companies feel they need to do to remain competitive," one analyst said. "It's a big pig breakfast of incremental updates, but not all of it is edible."

* Information updated after publication

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