Tag Archives: Business

The Real Cost of Microsoft 365 Revealed

Estimating the real cost of a technology solution for a business can be challenging. There are obvious costs as well as many intangible costs that should be taken into account.

For on-premises solutions, people tend to include licensing and support maintenance contract costs, plus server hardware and virtualization licensing costs. For Software as a Service (SaaS) cloud solutions, it seems like it should be easier since there’s no hardware component, just the monthly cost per licensed user but this simplification can be misleading.

In this article we’re going to look at the complete picture of the cost of Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365), how choices you as an administrator make can directly influence costs, and how you can help your business maximize the investment in OneDrive, SharePoint, Exchange Online and other services.

Office 365 & Microsoft 365

As covered in our recent blog there are naming changes afoot in the Office ecosystem. The personal Office 365 subscriptions have changed and are now called Microsoft 365 Family (up to six people) and Personal along with the Office 365 Business SKUs, that top out at 300 users, has also been renamed. The new SKUs are Microsoft 365 Business Basic, Apps, Standard, and Premium.

There’s no reason to believe that this name change won’t eventually extend to the Enterprise SKUs but until it does, from a licensing cost perspective it’s important to separate the two. Office 365 E1, E3 and E5 gives you the well-known “Office” applications, either web-based or on your device, along with SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and OneDrive for Business in the cloud backend.

Microsoft 365 F3, E3 and E5, on the other hand, includes everything from Microsoft 365 plus Azure Active Directory Premium features (identity security), Enterprise Mobility & Security (EMS) / Intune for Mobile Device Management (MDM) and Mobile Application Management (MAM) along with Windows 10 Enterprise.

Comparing M365 plans

Comparing M365 plans

So, a decision that needs to be looked at early when you’re looking to optimize your cloud spend is whether your business is under 300 users and likely to stay that way for the next few years. If that’s the case you should definitely look at the M365 Business SKUs as they may fulfill your business needs, especially as Microsoft recently added several security features from AAD Premium P1 to M365 Business.

If you’re close to 300, expecting to grow or already larger, you’re going to have to pick from the Enterprise offerings. The next question is then, what’s the business need – do you just need to replace your on-premises Exchange and SharePoint servers with the equivalent cloud-based offerings? Or is your business looking to manage corporate-issued mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) with MDM or protecting data on employee-owned devices? The latter is known as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), sometimes called Bring Your Own Disaster. If you have those needs (and no other MDM in place today), the inclusion of Intune in M365 might be the clincher. If on the other hand you need to protect your on-premises Active Directory (AD) against attacks using Azure Advanced Threat Protection (AATP) or inspect, understand and manage your users’ cloud usage through Microsoft Cloud App Security (MCAS) you’ll also need M365 E5, rather than just O365.

Microsoft 365 Cloud app security dashboard

Cloud app security dashboard

The difference is substantial, outfitting 1000 users with O365 E3 will cost you $ 240,000 per year, whereas moving up to M365 E3 will cost you $ 384,000. And springing for the whole enchilada with every security feature available in M365 E5 will cost you $ 684,000, nearly 3X the cost of O365 E3. Thus, you need to know what your business needs and tailor the subscriptions accordingly (see below for picking individual services to match business requirements).

Note that if you’re in the education sector you have different options (O365 A1, A3, and A5 along with M365 A1, A3, and A5) that are roughly equivalent to the corresponding Enterprise offerings but less costly. And charities/not-for-profits have options as well for both O365 and M365. M365 Business Premium is free for up to 10 users for charities and $ 5 per month for additional users.

A la carte instead of bundles

There are two ways to optimize your subscription spend in O365 / M365. Firstly, you can mix licenses to suit the different roles of workers in your business. For instance, the sales staff in your retail chain stores are assigned O365 E1 licenses ($8 / month) because they only need web access to email and documents, the administrative staff in head office use O365 E3 ($20 / month) and the executive suite and other high-value personnel use the full security features in E5 ($35 / month). Substitute M365 F3, E3, and E5 in that example if you need the additional features in M365.

Secondly, you don’t have to use the bundles that are encapsulated in the E3, E5, etc. SKUs, and you can instead pick exactly the standalone services you need to meet your business needs. Maybe some users only need Exchange Online whereas other users only need Project Online. The breakdown of exactly what features are available across all the different plans and standalone services is beyond the scope of this article but the O365 and M365 service descriptions is the best place to start investigating.

Excerpt from the O365 Service Description

Excerpt from the O365 Service Description

And if you’re a larger business (500 users+) you’re not going to pay list prices and instead these licenses will probably be part of a larger, multi-year, enterprise agreement with substantial discounts.

If you hate change

If you want to stay on-premises Exchange Server 2019 is available (only runs on Windows Server 2019), as is SharePoint Server 2019 and you can even buy the “boxed” version of Office 2019 with Word, Excel, etc. with no links to the cloud whatsoever. This is an option that moves away from the monthly subscription cost of M365 (there’s no way to “buy” M365 outright) and back to the traditional way of buying software packages every 2-5 years. Be aware that these on-premises products do NOT offer the same rich features that O365 / M365 provides, whether it’s the super-tight integration between Exchange Online and SharePoint Online, cloud-only services like Microsoft Teams that builds on top the overall O365 fabric or AI-powered design suggestions in the O365 versions of Word or PowerPoint. There’s no doubt that Microsoft’s focus is on the cloud services, these are updated with new features on a daily basis, instead of every few years. If your business is looking to digitally transform, towards tech intensity (two recent buzzwords in IT with a kernel of truth in them) using on-premises servers and boxed software licensing is NOT going to get you there. But if you want to keep going like you always have, it’s an option.

And if you’re looking at this from a personal point of view, a free Microsoft account through Outlook.com does give you access to Office Online: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in a browser. There’s even a free version of Microsoft Teams available.

Transforming your business

There’s a joke going around at the moment about the Covid-19 pandemic bringing digital transformation to many businesses in weeks that would have taken years to achieve without it. There’s no doubt that adopting the power of cloud services has the power to truly change how you run your business for the better. A good example is moving internal communication from email to Teams, including voice and video calls and perhaps even replacing a phone system with cloud-based phone plans.

But these business improvements depend on the actual adoption of these new tools. And that requires a mindset shift for everyone. Start with your IT department, if they still see M365 as just cloud-hosted versions of their old on-premises servers they’re missing the much bigger picture of the integrated platform that O365 has become. Examples include services such as Data Loss Prevention (DLP), unified labeling and automatic encryption/protection of documents and data, and unified audit logging that spans ALL the workloads. So, make sure you get them on board with seeing O365 as a technology tool to transform the business, not just a place to store emails and documents in OneDrive. And adding M365 unlocks massive security benefits, enabling zero-trust (incredibly important as everyone is working from home), identity-based perimeters, and cloud usage controls. But if your IT or security folks aren’t on board with truly adopting these tools, they’re not going to make you any more secure. Here’s a free IT administrator training for them.

Finally, you’re going to have to bring all the end-users on board with a good Adoption and Change Management (ACM) program, helping everyone understand these new services and what they can do to make their working lives better. This includes training but make sure you look to short, interactive, video-based modules that can be applied just when the user needs coaching on a particular tool, not long classroom-based sessions.

And all of that, for all the different departments, isn’t a once-off when you migrate to O365, it’s an ongoing process because the other superpower of the cloud is that it changes and improves ALL the time. This means you’ll need to assign someone to track the changes that are coming/in preview and ensure that the ones that really matter to your business are understood and adopted. The first place to look is the Microsoft 365 Message Center in the portal where you can also sign up for regular emails with summaries of what’s coming. Another good source is the Office 365 Weekly Blog.

M365 portal Message Center

M365 portal Message Center

A great course to help your IT staff is the free Microsoft Service Adoption Specialist (if you want the certificate at the end, it’s going to cost you $99). To help you track your usage and adoption of the different services in O365 there is a usage analytics integration with PowerBI. Use this information to firstly see where adoption can be improved and take steps to help users with those services and secondly to identify services and tools that your business isn’t using and perhaps don’t need, giving you options for changing license levels to optimize your subscription spend.

PowerBI Offie 365 Usage Analytics

PowerBI O365 Usage Analytics (courtesy of Microsoft)

Closing notes

There’s another factor to consider as you’re moving from on-premises servers to Microsoft 365 and that’s the changing tasks of your IT staff. Instead of swapping broken hard drives in servers these people now need to be able to manage cloud services and automation with PowerShell and most importantly, see how these cloud services can be adopted to improve business outcomes.

A further potential cost to take into account is backup. Microsoft keeps four copies of your data, in at least two datacentres so they’re not going to lose it but if you need the ability to “go back in time” and see what a mailbox or SharePoint library looked like nine months ago, for instance, you’ll need a third-party backup service, further adding to your monthly cost.

And that’s part of the overall cost of using O365 or M365, training staff, adopting new features, different tasks for administrators and managing change requires people and resources, in other words, money. And that’s got to be factored into the overall cost using Microsoft 365, it’s not just the monthly license cost.

The final question is of course – is it worth it? Speaking as an IT consultant with clients (including a K-12 school with 100 students) who recently moved EVERYONE to work and study from home, supported by O365, Teams, and other cloud services, the answer is a resounding yes! There’s no way we could have managed that transition with only on-premises infrastructure to fall back on.

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Author: Paul Schnackenburg

SAP, InstaFreight partner to reduce freight costs, complexity

Shipping goods across Europe may get easier for businesses as SAP Logistics Business Network is now integrated with InstaFreight’s digital forwarding services, which has digitized manual freight processes.

With the integration, SAP Logistics Business Network users can access InstaFreight services like automating administrative tasks and obtaining instant quotes from carriers. The idea is to reduce complexity in logistics, as well as save on time and costs in getting freight transportation contracts, said Paige Cox, SAP head of digital supply chain business networks. Users of the SAP Logistics Business Network will have access to more than 12,000 carrier companies through one contractual party via InstaFreight.

Paige CoxPaige Cox

The integration of SAP Logistics Business Network with InstaFreight in Europe is similar to a partnership SAP announced last year with Uber Freight, a North American based digital forwarding company.

Based on the SAP Cloud Platform, SAP Logistics Business Network enables companies to manage logistics transactions, exchange documents with business partners and get visibility across the digital supply chain, Cox said.

“We launched SAP Logistics Business Network a couple of years ago with the idea that logistics is an essential part of the supply chain for all parties — supplier, operator, manufacturer, customer,” Cox said. “Logistics, by its nature, is network-based because you always have to count on your relationship with your trading partner and the success of that relationship is very much determined by logistics providers.”

Aggregating and orchestrating logistics

SAP Logistics Business Network is essentially a logistics data aggregator and business process orchestrator that digitally connects the demand chain with the supply chain, Cox said.

It focuses on three aspects of logistics management, according to Cox. One is freight collaboration, which handles the processes of freight management, from getting a tender to settlement. Two is visibility, which enables global track-and-trace of goods in transit and allows companies to analyze shipper performance. Three extends the traceability and end-to-end supply chain visibility down to the level of the raw material provenance, so customers are able to know the origins not only of goods, but of all the parts of raw material in the supply chain.

Markus DoetschMarkus Doetsch

InstaFreight, based in Berlin, is a digital forwarding company that connects shippers and carriers across Europe, said Markus Doetsch, InstaFreight CTO.

For shippers, it offers an end-to-end platform for all transportation requirements, including the quotation process, booking, fulfillment, track-and-trace services with real-time ETAs and information about delays, and the bill settlement process, Doetsch said.

On the carrier side, InstaFreight relies on a network of about 12,000 carriers that can be matched to the shipper.

“It’s our job to find the right carrier for this load that we already accepted,” Doetsch said. “So we’ll find a carrier that has capacity available that matches the requirements of the load that the customer has. Ideally it’s a carrier that has driven that route before or has driven for that particular customer before.”

Reduced complexity

The integration with the SAP Logistics Business Network provides InstaFreight customers access to a system that reduces complexity and delivers services quickly, Doetsch said. For example, a shipper may have to call around to get quotes from carriers before they can contract to move their goods.

“This is a pretty tedious process, and, even if they have a sophisticated ERP platform like SAP, most of the carriers that they work with will not be integrated with such a platform,” he said. “In concrete terms, it just means that if you are sending out a request for quotation, you don’t have to send these around by email or by phone. Within the SAP Logistics Business Network, you can immediately get a quotation back within fractions of a second, and through InstaFreight, you have access to these smaller carriers that you would otherwise be unable to reach.”

InstaFreight’s flexibility in pricing and capacity is particularly useful now during the COVID-19 crisis when a company’s regular carrier network may not be able to accept shipments, Doetsch said.

SAP Logistics Business Network is essentially a network of networks that relies on partners like InstaFreight in Europe and Uber Freight in North America for digital freight forwarding services, Cox said.

“Our partner strategy has been to bring all the pieces together and bring that benefit of one-stop shopping on SAP Logistics Business Network,” she said. “Partners are selected not only for quality of technology, but also for quality of services and people. InstaFreight is one that we saw a lot of potential in, and now is the right time to really deliver this kind of agility to the customer.”

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Facebook Shops, Salesforce deliver quick e-commerce tools

E-commerce business is booming during the pandemic, with consumers and B2B companies working remotely to minimize COVID-19 exposure. This week, Facebook and Salesforce released new e-commerce tools to get even more stores online.

Salesforce Commerce Cloud traffic spiked 45% in March compared to last year, and the numbers held steady through May, according to Mike Micucci, CEO of Salesforce Commerce Cloud.

“We’re still running at holiday levels. I think we’re probably in a new normal right now,” Micucci said. “Customers are flexing new muscles from an e-commerce perspective.”

To enable even more e-commerce activity, Facebook unveiled Facebook Shops as a new social commerce channel for e-tailers to sell goods on its namesake social media platform and Instagram. Businesses can set up stores, supported on the back-end by integrations with Shopify and BigCommerce, two popular e-commerce payment and shipping platforms.

The offering expands the existing Facebook Marketplace, a simple member-to-member exchange akin to Craigslist, and rudimentary shopping tools for Instagram.

Sellers should view Facebook Shops not as a new platform, but a new channel to add to their existing operations, said Ryan Gellis, managing partner of RMG Media, a digital agency that builds e-commerce sites for medium-sized businesses and larger enterprises.

Helping struggling businesses that were forced to close their stores during the pandemic is laudable, Gellis said. But he sees Facebook Shops as a play for Facebook to increase its ad revenues. That said, Gellis added that the new e-commerce tool could unlock much potential revenue for its users when it builds support of sales in Facebook and Instagram live streams.

“I think that is going to be the groundbreaking technology that nobody else is doing well right now,” Gellis said. “When you can shop a live stream and see those products being used in the stream available for sale, that’s going to make influencer marketing an even stronger, more mature channel.”

Salesforce's Quick Start Commerce for D2C Consumer and Essential Goods
This mock-up of Salesforce’s Quick Start Commerce for D2C Consumer and Essential Goods shows the online store interface for desktop and mobile devices.

Salesforce releases Quick Start Commerce modules

In cooperation with its leading integration partners, Salesforce developed Quick Start Commerce Solutions for B2C and B2B businesses to enable e-commerce site setup in two to 10 weeks, depending on the complexity of the deployment. Many competing e-commerce vendors such as Magento already have turnkey reference builds that accelerate store setup, Gellis said, and Salesforce was lagging behind.

When you can shop a live stream and see those products being used in the stream available for sale, that’s going to make influencer marketing an even stronger, more mature channel.
Ryan Gellis Managing partner, RMG Media

“It’s a problem with those technologies … Salesforce doesn’t really want to be a systems integrator,” Gellis said. Instead, it relies on partners to develop reference builds that can be replicated by Salesforce users of similar size or in the same vertical markets.

“Magento [acquired by Adobe in 2018] has had a reference build since day one, and I think that’s why at its peak it represented something like 30% of the midmarket,” he said.

Salesforce offers four customizable store models: grocery and food service, for stores and restaurants setting up web ordering; B2B, which sets up ordering, reordering, AI product recommendations, live chat and online customer communities; a buy online and curbside pickup setup that manages payments and pickup times; and D2C Consumer and Essential Goods, for stores that currently have little or no e-commerce infrastructure.

The genesis of Quick Start Commerce Solutions came from D2C, wholesalers and manufacturing users who asked for help setting up online sales, many of them for the first time, according to Micucci.

The goal of the Quick Starts is to have the Salesforce partners set up a site for the Salesforce user in as little as two weeks, turn it on and operate it until the user either decides to continue with the partner or run it themselves.

“It’s not different software, because it’s the same platform,” Micucci said. “Once you get this running you can iterate it, grow it and expand it, launch new sites for new regions and all the things you want to do. We just tried to find a faster way to remove friction and get going.”

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HR use case shows value of Oracle Analytics Cloud

By detailing the business challenges of a waste management company, Myles Gilsenan demonstrated the value Oracle Analytics Cloud can give organizations.

Gilsenan, director of Oracle business analytics at Perficient, a consulting firm based in St. Louis that works on digital projects with enterprises, spoke about Oracle Analytics Cloud (OAC) at a breakout session of Oracle Analytics’ annual user conference May 19. The conference, which began on May 12 and has sessions scheduled through August 18, was held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unifying platforms

Oracle’s analytics platform had been a patchwork of nearly 20 business intelligence products until June 2019, when the software giant streamlined its BI platform into three products — Oracle Analytics Cloud, Oracle Analytics Server and Oracle Analytics for Applications. Oracle Analytics Cloud is its SaaS offering aimed at business users and featuring natural language generation and other augmented intelligence capabilities to foster ease of use.

It’s a transformation that’s been well received.

“The Oracle Analytics Cloud has enabled Oracle to rapidly play catch-up to some of the incumbents in the analytics space,” said Mike Leone, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. “It provides data-centric organizations with a cloud service anchored in simplicity. While OAC focuses on data visualization and augmented analytics, there’s a lot more under the covers — intelligent automation, recommendations, natural language querying and numerous third-party integrations.”

Daily traffic volume for the Washington, D.C., area is displayed on an Oracle Analytics Cloud dashboard.
An Oracle Analytics Cloud dashboard shows the traffic volume per day for the Washington, D.C., area.

Similarly, Doug Henschen, an analyst at Constellation Research, said the Oracle analytics reorganization was significant.

“Oracle has done a nice job of unifying its strategy and technology across cloud, on-premises and application-integrated deployments with Oracle Analytics Cloud, Oracle Analytics Server and Oracle Analytics for Applications, respectively,” he said. “It’s all one code base.”

The Oracle Analytics Cloud has enabled Oracle to rapidly play catch-up to some of the incumbents in the analytics space.
Mike LeoneSenior analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group

In addition, he added, the way the platform is packaged gives users flexibility.

“The packing gives them a data model, data integration capabilities, dashboards and reports that are prebuilt for Oracle’s cloud ERP and [healthcare management] apps, yet all of these prebuilt features can be extended to customer-specific data and analysis requirements,” Henschen said. “It’s a way to get started quickly but without being limited to prebuilt content.”

While Oracle Analytics Cloud is designed to be accessible to both technical and non-technical users alike, ironically it’s through one organization’s difficulty getting started that Gilsenan demonstrated what he said are its actual ease of use and capability to quickly deliver value.

Perficient’s client, which he did not name, was a provider of waste management services including waste removal, recycling and renewable energy. One of the company’s main goals when it began using Oracle Analytics Cloud was to join human resources data from Taleo and PeopleSoft, human resources software platforms owned by Oracle.

Specifically, according to Gilsenan, the client wanted greater visibility into such HR metrics as the cost of vacant positions, the time it took to fill vacant positions, quality of hires, employee career progression and talent optimization.

“What they really wanted was to track employees from the recruiting channel all the way through career progression at the company,” he said. “And over time, they wanted to build up a data set to be able to say that people who come through a certain channel turn out to be successful employees, and they would then of course emphasize those channels.”

The company’s data, however, came from disparate systems, including one that was on premises. And when the company started trying to unify its data in Oracle Analytics Cloud, it ran into trouble.

“They had a sense that OAC is an agile, cloud-based environment, and you should be able to get value very quickly,” Gilsenan said. “There were a lot of expectations, and people were expecting to see a dashboard very, very quickly. But there were organizational things that caused issues.”

One of the biggest was that the company’s expert in the subject matter was also working on many other things and didn’t have enough time to devote to the project. Other members of the team working on the project also had competing responsibilities.

As a result, according to Gilsenan, when it started taking longer to complete the project than originally planned, company management concluded that Oracle Analytics Cloud was too complicated.

“When it came to integrating data sources, there was some technical expertise that was needed, but by and large it was the idea that they couldn’t focus,” Gilsenan said. “It was a classic organizational issue.”

Rather than a different analytics platform, what the company really needed was some outside help, according to Glisenan. It brought in Perficient, and within four weeks delivered an HR analytics system in Oracle Analytics Cloud.

Perficient’s first step was to restore the waste management company’s confidence in Oracle Analytics Cloud by showing executives success stories. It then helped the company define success criteria, develop a plan and move into the execution phase.

Perficient helped the waste management company develop a dashboard and six reports that covered critical HR metrics such the quality of hires and the cost of open positions.

“They became very competent in the platform, and right then and there made plans to roll out Oracle Analytics Cloud to the rest of the company [beyond HR],” Gilsenan said.

Focus on HR

While the waste management company is now using Oracle Analytics Cloud throughout its organization, HR has been a particular focus of the platform. Oracle even unveiled a specialized HR version of Oracle Analytics for Cloud HCM at the start of its virtual user conference, though that’s not the tool Perficient’s client is now using.

“Oracle is looking to deliver a more holistic approach to HR analytics,” Leone said. “They’ve spent a ton of time researching various aspects of HR to deliver a comprehensive launching pad for organizations looking to modernize HR with advanced analytics. It’s about using more data from several entities together to help accurately measure success, failure and the likelihood of each. This is where Oracle is making significant strides in helping to modernize analytical approaches.”

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Facebook to launch Workplace Rooms in challenge to Zoom

Facebook plans to expand the video conferencing features of Workplace by Facebook, its business collaboration product. But the enhanced service, Workplace Rooms, will lack numerous advanced meeting features at launch in June.

Facebook is late to the game, analysts said. The social media giant has grown Workplace by Facebook to 5 million paid users over the past few years. But the company hasn’t attempted to build a business-class video service until now.

Facebook last month launched Messenger Rooms, a consumer video calling product. The company is now adapting that product for business use in Workplace. The Workplace product will integrate with single sign-on software and provide some control to IT admins.

But Workplace Rooms won’t initially support polls, in-meeting chat, breakout rooms, personal meeting rooms or virtual backgrounds. It also won’t give hosts the ability to control who can present or speak in a meeting. The service lets users invite external guests to meetings.

What’s more, the product will come with a size limitation. Only 50 people will be able to join a meeting. Rivals like Zoom and Cisco Webex let hundreds of people participate in sessions on their platforms.

Facebook Workplace Rooms will display up to 16 people on screen at one time, compared to 25 people in Webex and 49 people in Zoom. The ability to see many simultaneous video feeds has become an essential feature amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Facebook will undercut competitors on price, however. Zoom, for example, costs $14.99 to $19.99 per host, per month for a premium license. Businesses can get access to Workplace Rooms and the premium version of Workplace for $4 or $8 per user, per month.

screenshot of Workplace Rooms
Facebook plans to add Workplace Rooms, a video calling feature, to its business collaboration product in June.

Facebook also has a free version of Workplace and gives nonprofits complimentary access to a premium edition. Workplace mimics the interface and features of the consumer version of Facebook. But the two platforms are separate, requiring users to create different accounts on each.

Julien Codorniou, vice president of Workplace by Facebook, said the company did not intend to match more mature platforms like Webex on features. Instead, Facebook wants Workplace Rooms to do “85% of the job for 99% of the people,” he said.

Facebook intends to bring video conferencing to portions of the workforce that have never used such technology before, Codorniou said. Many Workplace by Facebook customers are multinational companies with a significant proportion of service workers.

“We don’t go after just the market of knowledge workers,” Codorniou said. “We go after the market of everybody who’s employed with a working mobile device. That’s billions of people who have never touched IT before.”

But it remains to be seen how many nonoffice workers will adopt video conferencing platforms. It’s also not certain that Workplace by Facebook customers will use Workplace Rooms.

Customers previously reported using Workplace by Facebook primarily as an intranet replacement, rather than a team collaboration service like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Facebook added a basic video calling feature to Workplace for internal use in 2017.

“They’re casting a line, and they’re going to see if they get any nibbles or not,” said Brian Doherty, an analyst at Gartner.

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Pandemic could accelerate convergence of audio, video calling

The coronavirus pandemic may decrease demand for traditional business phone services in favor of video conferencing. The crisis could also lead more companies to buy audio and video calling products from the same vendor. 

The pandemic has forced millions of workers to begin using video conferencing apps. People are now more comfortable with those platforms and are using them in place of the telephone in some cases.

Joshua Tretakoff used to participate in six or seven regularly scheduled phone calls a week as head of development for JustAnswer, a San Francisco-based online help service.

Those conversations are now taking place on video platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Tretakoff spends nearly double the amount of time on video calls that he did before the pandemic. “I’m not making phone calls at all,” he said.

Tretakoff also plans to tell his employees to cancel their subscriptions to a service that provides them each a virtual phone number through a mobile app. They should start calling each other in Microsoft Teams instead, he said.

Tretakoff’s experience highlights how the adoption of video platforms can reduce the need for traditional phone calls.

The pandemic will likely increase the adoption of video products permanently. In a recent Wainhouse Research survey, 76% of IT buyers said they expected the use of video conferencing to remain above pre-pandemic levels at least through the end of 2020.

Companies tend to pay for fewer connections to the public switched telephone network (PSTN) when they use video conferencing. Microsoft partners have reported reducing PSTN lines by 20% when installing Microsoft Teams, said Irwin Lazar, analyst at Nemertes Research.

Enterprises that had previously expected to buy a cloud calling license for every knowledge worker will likely reevaluate those plans, said Marc Beattie, managing partner of Wainhouse Research. “I think that you’ll see the impact of that probably in early or mid-2021.”

In the future, companies may be more likely to buy audio and video calling services from the same provider.

In the Wainhouse study, a significant number of the 222 businesses surveyed said they were already using calling services connected to Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex and Zoom.

The research found that 69% were using or considering Microsoft Office 365 for calling, 65% were using or considering Webex and 48% were using or considering Zoom Phone.

Business communications vendors have already begun responding to those shifting buying preferences.

Cloud telephony providers like RingCentral and 8×8 recently added video conferencing apps to their telecommunications suites. On the flip side, vendors like Zoom and LogMeIn have launched telephony services to complement their video offerings. 

As a result, the lines between the audio and video calling markets are blurring. Some communications apps now let users quickly shift between a phone call and a video call. The current pandemic should hasten that trend.

“With respect to video adoption, it’s been coming any day now for a long time,” said Brian Doherty, an analyst at Gartner. “PSTN calling has been kind of on the wane for a while.”

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Microsoft acquisition of Metaswitch aimed at carrier UCaaS

Microsoft plans to acquire Metaswitch Networks and offer its business communication services to carriers through Microsoft Azure. The announcement came less than a month after Microsoft completed the purchase of Affirmed Networks, which developed virtualized network software that Microsoft will use as the infrastructure for Metaswitch products.

Microsoft announced the Metaswitch deal this week. The company did not provide financial details or disclose when it expected to complete the transaction.

Metaswitch provides what the industry calls unified communications as a service. In general, UCaaS providers will run their software in their data centers or third parties’, including cloud providers AWS, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure.

Metaswitch provides telephony and team collaboration, and audio, video and web conferencing used by enterprises and contact centers. Its competitors include Netrio, Cisco and FreeSwitch.

The Microsoft acquisition of Affirmed Networks — completed on April 23 — gave the cloud provider an Evolved Packet Core. An EPC is a critical technology for cloud providers that want to offer their data centers as a platform for carriers’ services, such as UCaaS.

An EPC is essential because it’s a framework for providing converged voice and data on carriers’ 4G Long-Term Evolution networks. In the future, EPC will become the underpinning for 5G networks.

Microsoft is not the only cloud provider expanding its platform’s capabilities for carriers. AWS and Google are also on the same path.

Microsoft and the other cloud providers need to work with carriers because the latter is the primary channel for enterprise communication buyers. “MetaSwitch has hundreds of carrier partners that are now potential channels for Microsoft,” said Irwin Lazar, an analyst at Nemertes Research.

Metaswitch has hundreds of carrier partners that are now potential channels for Microsoft.
Irwin LazarAnalyst, Nemertes Research

Microsoft could get its Teams collaboration software into that channel by melding it with Metaswitch, Lazar said. Cisco is executing a similar strategy by rolling its Teams competitor, Webex, into the Broadsoft UCaaS product. Cisco acquired Broadsoft in 2018.

Metaswitch would also plug a hole in Microsoft’s business communications portfolio. Once the Microsoft acquisition is complete, it will have Metaswitch’s communication platform for contact centers.

However, Metaswitch’s session border controller portfolio could place Microsoft in competition with partners AudioCodes, Oracle and Ribbon Communications. An SBC is a necessary hardware for VoIP calling in offices and contact centers.

“I assume Microsoft will not do anything to jeopardize partner relationships,” Lazar said. “But it will have to spend some time ensuring that it doesn’t seek to take business away from its partners.”

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Adaptive Biotechnologies and Microsoft launch virtual ImmuneRACE study to inform novel COVID-19 diagnostics to address unmet needs in testing – Stories

LabCorp, through its Covance drug development business, will provide a safe, in-person COVID-19 sample collection service from the convenience of patients’ homes

De-identified data about immune response to COVID-19 will be made freely available to advance public health solutions

SEATTLE and REDMOND, Wash. — May 5, 2020 Adaptive Biotechnologies Corp. (Nasdaq: ADPT) announced on Tuesday it has begun enrolling a virtual clinical study, ImmuneRACE, as part of a broader effort it has undertaken with Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) to rapidly map and measure the immune response to the COVID-19 virus to inform improved diagnostics to fulfill the need for more reliable testing. The study calls for 1,000 participants in select U.S. metropolitan areas impacted by COVID-19. De-identified data will be made freely available to public health officials, academia and industry to help accelerate solutions to the pandemic. LabCorp (NYSE: LH), through its Covance drug development business, will manage the collection of blood samples and nose/throat swabs from participants in the comfort and safety of their own homes.

Additional multimedia resources are available at https://www.adaptivebiotech.com/about-us/media-resources/.

There are currently two types of tests for COVID-19. PCR tests indicate the presence of live virus from a nose or throat swab, and serology tests indicate exposure to and potential immunity against the virus by measuring the presence of antibodies in the blood. Adaptive and Microsoft believe a third type of test can potentially help address current challenges with testing, resulting in the following scenarios:

  • Complementary or alternative diagnostic testing for individuals with known exposures or symptoms
  • Ability to triage patients and inform treatment strategies based on risk
  • Ongoing immunity surveillance testing of the population to inform decisions on restrictions

“We’ve spent the past decade learning how the adaptive immune system naturally detects and treats all disease, and we are well-positioned to apply our immune medicine platform specifically to COVID-19. We’re hopeful that we can contribute important information that will become part of an immune scan to help reopen society,” said Chad Robins, CEO and co-founder of Adaptive Biotechnologies. “As many are sheltering in place wondering how they can help, we wanted to launch ImmuneRACE with Microsoft and give people an opportunity to participate. These efforts are complementary to many global initiatives underway to study the virus itself.”

As part of the study, the partners will measure the presence of specialized cells of the immune system in the blood, called T cells, that identify the disease early on and proliferate to combat the infection. Together, Adaptive and Microsoft are mapping and measuring the immune response of T cells specific to many diseases and are now applying their combined capabilities to COVID-19.

“We are dedicated to being part of the solution against COVID-19,” said Peter Lee, corporate vice president, AI and Research, Microsoft. “Immune response data may augment what we have been learning to date to help determine who is at greater risk of developing more severe symptoms and may help with future containment efforts. Anyone who has been affected by COVID-19 holds key information that can help contain and manage the virus.”

In March, the companies announced an expansion of their existing partnership to use machine learning to map the immune system response to many different diseases, including infectious diseases, autoimmune disorders and cancer, at scale to study COVID-19. The information obtained from study participants, including how the immune system identifies the virus and how people are responding to the virus, will be integrated with data obtained from samples provided by hospitals and other institutions across the globe. The accuracy of the immune response signature will be continually improved and updated online in real time as more study samples are sequenced and by using Microsoft’s hyperscale machine learning capabilities and the Azure cloud platform.

Other industry leaders, including Illumina and Providence, have also joined forces with Microsoft and Adaptive to accelerate this critical effort against COVID-19.

How to join ImmuneRACE

ImmuneRACE will enroll 1,000 individuals from more than 20 metropolitan areas in the U.S. You can be part of the solution if you are between the ages of 18 and 89 and:

  • Currently have COVID-19
  • Have recently recovered from COVID-19
  • Were exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19

If you decide to participate and qualify for the study, you will be asked to provide relevant information about your medical history, symptoms and previous diagnostic tests.

Patients who qualify for the study can schedule a blood draw and swab collection in the convenience of their own home. The phlebotomist completing sample collection will be using appropriate personal protective equipment to safely conduct the visit when entering participant’s homes.

Every effort will be made to ensure confidentiality of protected health information in accordance with HIPAA. Those wanting to participate or learn about more ways to join in the fight against COVID-19 should visit www.ImmuneRACE.com.

About the Adaptive and Microsoft partnership

Adaptive and Microsoft partnered in 2018 to create a TCR-Antigen Map, an approach to translating the genetics of the adaptive immune system to understand at scale how it works. Together we are using immunosequencing and machine learning to map T-cell receptor (TCR) sequences to diseases and disease-associated antigens. Using these data, we aim to develop a blood test for the early and accurate detection of many diseases, translating the natural diagnostic capability of the immune system into the clinic. In 2019, we confirmed clinical signals in two diseases, and established our first proof of concept in Lyme Disease. Adaptive expects to submit our first clinical application to the FDA in 2020.

About Adaptive Biotechnologies

Adaptive Biotechnologies is a commercial-stage biotechnology company focused on harnessing the inherent biology of the adaptive immune system to transform the diagnosis and treatment of disease. We believe the adaptive immune system is nature’s most finely tuned diagnostic and therapeutic for most diseases, but the inability to decode it has prevented the medical community from fully leveraging its capabilities. Our proprietary immune medicine platform reveals and translates the massive genetics of the adaptive immune system with scale, precision and speed to develop products in life sciences research, clinical diagnostics, and drug discovery. We have two commercial products, and a robust clinical pipeline to diagnose, monitor and enable the treatment of diseases such as cancer, autoimmune conditions and infectious diseases. Our goal is to develop and commercialize immune-driven clinical products tailored to each individual patient. For more information, please visit adaptivebiotech.com and follow us on www.twitter.com/adaptivebiotech.

About Illumina

Illumina is improving human health by unlocking the power of the genome. Our focus on innovation has established us as the global leader in DNA sequencing and array-based technologies, serving customers in the research, clinical, and applied markets. Our products are used for applications in the life sciences, oncology, reproductive health, agriculture, and other emerging segments. To learn more, visit www.illumina.com and follow @illumina.

About LabCorp

LabCorp (NYSE: LH), an S&P 500 company, is a leading global life sciences company that is deeply integrated in guiding patient care, providing comprehensive clinical laboratory and end-to-end drug development services. With a mission to improve health and improve lives, LabCorp delivers world-class diagnostics solutions, brings innovative medicines to patients faster, and uses technology to improve the delivery of care. LabCorp reported revenue of more than $11.5 billion in 2019. To learn more about LabCorp, visit www.LabCorp.com, and to learn more about LabCorp’s Covance drug development business, visit www.Covance.com.

About Providence

Providence is a national, not-for-profit Catholic health system comprising a diverse family of organizations and driven by a belief that health is a human right. With 51 hospitals, 1,085 physician clinics, senior services, supportive housing and many other health and educational services, the health system and its partners employ more than 119,000 caregivers serving communities across seven states – Alaska, California, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington, with system offices in Renton, Wash., and Irvine, Calif.

About Microsoft

Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) enables digital transformation for the era of an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge. Its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

For more information, press only:

Microsoft Media Relations, WE Communications for Microsoft, (425) 638-7777, [email protected]

Beth Keshishian, Adaptive Media, (917) 912-7195, [email protected]

Lynn Lewis or Carrie Mendivil, Adaptive Investor, (415) 937-5405, [email protected]

Note to editors: For more information, news and perspectives from Microsoft, please visit the Microsoft News Center at http://news.microsoft.com. Web links, telephone numbers and titles were correct at time of publication, but may have changed. For additional assistance, journalists and analysts may contact Microsoft’s Rapid Response Team or other appropriate contacts listed at https://news.microsoft.com/microsoft-public-relations-contacts.

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Canon breach exposes General Electric employee data

Canon Business Process Services suffered a security incident, according to a data breach disclosure by General Electric, for which Canon processes current and former employees’ documents and beneficiary-related documents.

GE systems were not impacted by the cyberattack, according to the company’s disclosure, but personally identifiable information for current and former employees as well as their beneficiaries was exposed in the Canon breach. The breach, which was first reported by BleepingComputer, took place between Feb. 3 and Feb. 14 of this year, and GE was notified of the breach on the 28th. According to the disclosure, “an unauthorized party gained access to an email account that contained documents of certain GE employees, former employees and beneficiaries entitled to benefits that were maintained on Canon’s systems.”

Said documents included “direct deposit forms, driver’s licenses, passports, birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, medical child support orders, tax withholding forms, beneficiary designation forms and applications for benefits such as retirement, severance and death benefits with related forms and documents.” Personal information stolen “may have included names, addresses, Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, bank account numbers, passport numbers, dates of birth, and other information contained in the relevant forms.”

GE’s disclosure also said Canon retained “a data security expert” to conduct a forensic investigation. At GE’s request, Canon is offering two years of free identity protection and credit monitoring services.

GE shared the following statement with SearchSecurity regarding the Canon breach.

“We are aware of a data security incident experienced by one of GE’s suppliers, Canon Business Process Services, Inc. We understand certain personal information on Canon’s systems may have been accessed by an unauthorized individual. Protection of personal information is a top priority for GE, and we are taking steps to notify the affected employees and former employees,” the statement read.

Canon did not return SearchSecurity’s request for comment. At press time, Canon has not released a public statement.

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Natural language query tools offer answers within limits

Natural language query has the potential to put analytics in the hands of ordinary business users with no training in data science, but the technology still has a ways to go before it develops into a truly transformational tool.

Natural language query (NLQ) is the capacity to query data by simply asking a question in ordinary language rather than code, either spoken or typed. Ideally, natural language query will empower a business user to do deep analytics without having to code.

That ideal, however, doesn’t exist.

In its current form, natural language query allows someone working at a Ford dealership to ask, “How many blue Mustangs were sold in 2019?” and follow up with, “How many red Mustangs were sold in 2019?” to compare the two.

It allows someone in a clothing store to ask, “What’s the November forecast for sales of winter coats?”

It is not, however, advanced enough to pull together unstructured data sitting in a warehouse, and it’s not advanced enough to do complicated queries and analysis.

Natural language query has the potential to democratize data throughout an organization.
Natural language query enables business users to explore data without having to know code.

“We’ve had voice search, albeit in a limited capacity, for years now,” said Mike Leone, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), an IT analysis and research firm in Milford, Mass. “We’re just hitting the point where natural language processing can be effectively used to query data, but we’re not even close to utilizing natural language query for complex querying that traditionally would require extensive back-end work and data science team involvement.”

Similarly, Tony Baer, founder and CEO of the database and analytics advisory firm DBInsight, said that natural language query is not at the point where it allows for deep analysis without the involvement of data scientists.

“You can’t go into a given tool or database and ask any random question,” he said. “It still has to be linked to some structure. We’re not at the point where it’s like talking to a human and the brain can process it. Where we are is that, given guardrails, given some structure to the data and syntax, it’s an alternative to structure a query in a specific way.”

NLQ benefits

At its most basic level, business intelligence improves the decision-making process. And the more people within an organization able to do data-driven analysis, the more informed the decision-making process, not merely at the top of an organization but throughout its workforce.

We’re just hitting the point where natural language processing can be effectively used to query data, but we’re not even close to utilizing natural language query for complex querying.
Mike LeoneSenior analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group

Meanwhile, natural language query doesn’t require significant expertise. It doesn’t force a user to write copious amount of code to come up with an answer to what might be a relatively simple analytical question. It frees business users from having to request the help of data science teams — at least for basic queries. It opens analytics to more users within an organization.

“Good NLQ will help BI power users and untrained business users alike get to insights more quickly, but it’s the business users who need the most help and have the most to gain,” said Doug Henschen, principal analyst at Constellation Research. “These users don’t know how to code SQL and many aren’t even unfamiliar with query constructs such as ‘show me X’ and ‘by Y time period’ and when to ask for pie charts versus bar charts versus line charts.”

“Think of all the people who want to run a report but aren’t able to do so,” echoed Jen Underwood, founder and principal consultant at Impact Analytix, an IT consulting firm in Tampa, Fla. “There’s some true beauty to the search. How many more people would be able to use it because they couldn’t do SQL? It’s simple, and it opens up the ability to do more things.”

In essence, natural language query and other low-code/no-code tools help improve data literacy, and increasing data literacy is a significant push for many organizations.

That said, in its current form it has limits.

“Extending that type of functionality to the business will enable a new demographic of folks to interact with data in a way that is comfortable to them,” Leone said. “But don’t expect a data revolution just because someone can use Alexa to see how many people bought socks on a Tuesday.”

The limitations

Perhaps the biggest hindrance to full-fledged natural language query is the nature of language itself.

Without even delving into the fact that there are more than 5,000 languages worldwide and an estimated 200 to 400 alphabets, individual languages are complicated. There are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, others that are spelled differently but sound the same, and words that bear no visual or auditory relation to each other but are synonyms.

And within the business world, there are often terms that might mean one thing to one organization and be used differently by another.

Natural language query tools don’t actually understand the spoken or written word. They understand specific code and are programmed to translate a spoken or written query to SQL, and then translate the response from SQL back into the spoken or written word.

“Natural language query has trouble with things like synonyms, and domain-specific terminology — the context is missing,” Underwood said. “You still need humans for synonyms and the terminology a company might have because different companies have different meanings for different words.”

When natural language queries are spoken, accents can cause problems. And whether spoken or written, the slightest misinterpretation by the tool can result in either a useless response or, much worse, something incorrect.

“Accuracy is king when it comes to querying,” ESG’s Leone said. “All it takes is a minor misinterpretation of a voice request to yield an incorrect result.”

Over the next few years, he said, people will come to rely on natural language query to quickly ask a basic question on their devices, but not much more.

“Don’t expect NLQ to replace data science teams,” Leone said. “If anything, NLQ will serve as a way to quickly return a result that could then be used as a launching pad for more complex queries and expert analysis.”

While held back now by the limitations of language, that won’t always be the case. The tools will get more sophisticated, and aided by machine learning, will come to understand a user’s patterns to better comprehend just what they’re asking.

“Most of what’s standing in the way is a lack of experience,” DBInsight’s Baer said. “It’s still early on. Natural language query today is far advanced from where it was two years ago, but there’s still a lot of improvement to be made. I think that improvement will be incremental; machine learning will help.”

Top NLQ tools

Though limited in capability, natural language query tools do save business users significant time when asking basic questions of structured data. And some vendors’ natural language query tools are better than others.

Though one of the top BI vendors following its acquisition of Hyperion in 2007, Oracle lost momentum when data visualizations changed the consumption of analytics. Now that augmented intelligence and machine learning are central tenets of BI, however, Oracle is again pushing the technological capabilities of BI platforms. Oracle Analytics Cloud and Day by Day support voice-based queries and its natural language query works in 28 languages, which Henschen said is the broadest language support available.

“Oracle raised the bar on natural language query a couple of years ago when it released its Day By Day app, which used device-native voice-to-text and introduced explicit thumbs-up/thumbs-down training,” Henschen said.

Another vendor Henschen noted is Qlik, which advanced the natural language capabilities of its platform through its January 2019 acquisition of Crunch Data.

“A key asset was the CrunchBot, since rebranded as the Qlik Insight Bot,” Henschen said.

He added that Qlik Insight Bot is a bot-building feature that works with existing Qlik applications, and the bots can subsequently be embedded in third-party applications, including Salesforce, Slack, Skype and Microsoft Teams.

“It brings NLQ outside of the confines of Qlik Sense and interaction with a BI system,” Henschen said.

Tableau is yet another vendor attempting to ease the analytics process with a natural language processing tool. They introduced Ask Data in February 2019 and Tableau’s September 2019 update included the capability to embed Ask Data in other applications.

“When I think about designing a system and taking it the next step forward, Tableau is doing something. [It remembers if someone ran a similar query] and it gives guidance,” Underwood said. “It has the information and knows what people are asking, and it can surface recommendations.”

Baer similarly mentioned Tableau’s Ask Data, while Leone said that the eventual prevalence of natural language query will ultimately be driven by the Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft.

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