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Can Cortana-Alexa Alliance Lead Digital Voice Assistants from Gimmickry to Utility?

A few years ago, I remember thinking that if Siri, Cortana and their digital voice assistant peers aspired to be more than gimmicks, their corporate parents would need to teach them to play nice with each other.

Few people live their entire digital lives on one platform. As an example, Cortana can be deeply integrated into your Microsoft-based work life, Siri into the iOS part of your personal life, Google Assistant into the Android portion of your personal life and Alexa into your shopping existence. Getting those assistants talking could open a lot of possibilities to simplify and unify things, rather than complicating and compartmentalizing them.

In the interim, I haven't thought about it much, mostly because the whole question seemed less important.

While Alexa has emerged as the humanized AI of the moment, it's obvious that despite her many cool capabilities, she exists in the world for one reason and one reason only -- to move more product from the silo, albeit the massive silo, of's e-commerce operation.

Cortana became steadily less relevant as Microsoft abandoned its once grand smartphone ambitions. Granted, she's on the ubiquitous Windows 10, but the voice interface is much less critical for a PC than a smartphone. It's clearly preferable to talk to a phone rather than to tap away on softkeys with your thumbs in many situations. There are far fewer use cases on a PC where talking is as efficient, let alone more efficient, than using a physical keyboard and mouse. Meanwhile, Microsoft seemed to be pivoting its efforts to concentrate on improving voice recognition services and APIs for developers rather than for Cortana, the personified digital voice assistant.

Siri, meanwhile -- and this is my completely anecdotal experience -- seems to be inexplicably getting less useful over time. When I first started using Siri two years ago, the voice recognition seemed better and the responses seemed more relevant, helpful and often fun. Lately the hit-to-miss ratio has been so low that I've mostly stopped asking Siri anything.

All of which is to say, the digital voice assistants launched as gimmickry, understandably and necessarily, but don't seem to be maturing into highly functional assistants that can make it easier to navigate your 21st-century life.

Then this week, out of the blue, Microsoft and declared that they'll have Cortana and Alexa talking to one another and asking one another for favors by the end of this year.

"This collaboration will allow you to access Alexa via Cortana on Windows 10 PCs, followed by Android and iOS in the future. Conversely, you'll be able to access Cortana on Alexa-enabled devices like the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Show," said Andrew Shuman, corporate vice president for Cortana Engineering at Microsoft, in a blog post Wednesday.'s news release on the deal Wednesday extrapolated on the applications: "Alexa customers will be able to access Cortana's unique features like booking a meeting or accessing work calendars, reminding you to pick up flowers on your way home, or reading your work email -- all using just your voice. Similarly, Cortana customers can ask Alexa to control their smart home devices, shop on, interact with many of the more than 20,000 skills built by third-party developers, and much more."

In a New York Times interview, CEO Jeff Bezos said he hoped that similar integrations with Apple and Google could be forthcoming, although both of those companies declined comment. While much focus will be on whether it's in Apple's or Google's interest to cooperate, that misses the point.

For digital voice assistants to have real value, these types of integrations are critical. Let's hope this two-member club becomes a four-member club in short order. A non-gimmicky future for digital voice assistants depends on it.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 31, 20170 comments

IT Industry Poised To Help in Harvey's Wake

Vendors and solution providers were poised to help in Hurricane Harvey's wake as the record-rain-producing storm made its third, and what looked like its final, pass at the Texas-Louisiana coast Wednesday.

Harvey first struck the Texas coast on Friday night, and as it lingered the storm dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some places, causing deep flooding over a wide area including Houston.

With public officials and infrastructure experts saying the storm recovery could take years, the process of restoring IT was still a lower priority for many businesses.

"A lot of people are in survival mode still," said Patrick Murray, a senior consultant with Houston-based ERGOS, one of the largest MSPs in South Texas. ERGOS, which didn't lose power or experience outages at its Houston datacenter, has been proactively checking on customer systems, even those that haven't called to check in.

"We've got ways to determine if this customer or that customer is affected and what part of the technology is affected," Murray said. "I would say a good 5 percent to 10 percent of our customers were hit pretty heavy."

One customer that was heavily affected has been spun up and virtualized. For such remote virtual environments, ERGOS uses a mix of its own ERGOS-branded cloud at the Houston datacenter and StorageCraft's cloud.

Other than that, Murray said, "We've had to do some mild file restores here and there where some customer offices are down due to power or due to flooding."

He credits that partly to the extensive backup and recovery checks the company ran before the storm and pre-storm queries that poured in even before the storm was officially upgraded to a hurricane last Thursday.

"The No. 1 question I got two days prior to the storm, since we anticipated things so much, was, 'Hey, are my backups working?' The second question was, 'Are my offsite backups working?'" said Murray. "I probably answered 50 of the same questions from internal colleagues and associates, as well as customers directly."

Special Offers
Some vendors ran special offers to help customers and partners in the affected area to mitigate the situation. While disaster recovery plans are best laid before a major weather event occurs, a slow-motion situation like rivers swelling to flood stage gave some customers and partners time to respond.

Infrascale created a program called "30 days free of Infrascale Cloud Backup to Mitigate the Damage of Harvey." A spokesman described the offer in an e-mail as "a complimentary, no-commitment offer that is valid for up to 30 days or until the impacted business (in SE Texas) is stabilized, whichever is longer. With Infrascale Cloud Backup they can backup their critical data to the cloud for safe keeping."

Relief Efforts
Other IT companies focused on the relief efforts in the immediate wake of the storm.

SolarWinds on Tuesday committed $75,000 for disaster relief efforts, with the money going to the American Red Cross of Central & South Texas Region, All Hands Volunteers and Feeding Texas. SolarWinds also offered a $2-to-$1 match for anything its U.S. employees donate to those organizations over the next 30 days, and the company is coordinating a volunteer effort by SolarWinds employees of 1,000 hours over the next six months.

"The impact on our neighbors here in Texas has been and continues to be devastating," said CEO Kevin B. Thompson of Austin-based SolarWinds in a statement. "This is a time when we as company -- and all of us as individuals -- need to step up and help as much as we can."

Microsoft on Monday donated money to the Red Cross. "Microsoft provided the American Red Cross with $100,000 as an initial step to help support those in Texas and across the Gulf coast affected by Hurricane Harvey. More help is needed, and the company and its employees pledged to do more," the company said in a statement.

If you'd like to help support those in the path of #HurricaneHarvey, we encourage you to donate to the @RedCross:

— MSFT Philanthropies (@msphilanthropic) August 26, 2017

Technology distributor Ingram Micro was also looking for opportunities to help, directly and in conjunction with its partner community, according to a spokesperson. "Ingram Micro and its Southern Star Chapter (part of the Trust X Alliance Community ) are keeping in close and consistent contact with its local members and neighboring members -- many of which relied on each other 12 years ago when the last disaster came in," the spokesperson said. "All have offered support, shelter and scale where needed, including Ingram Micro directly. Trust X Cares and the Southern Star Chapter have literally just set up a GoFundMe page to assist those in need.The goal is $10,000."

Backup service provider Carbonite was directing its philanthropic efforts to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh's "Help for Houston" drive, a spokesperson said.

Update 9/1: ConnectWise on Thursday launched an effort specifically to help partners in the affected area regain their footing. "At a time of tragedy, we're here to help our partners survive as entrepreneurs and reestablish their successful businesses, so we're raising $750,000 to meet their needs," CEO Arnie Bellini wrote in a blog post. "You can make a difference for every one of these partners in a time of desperate need. ConnectWise will match all donations to We'll match your donation 2-1 up to $250,000."

Bellini urged partners in need of help to reach out to ConnectWise with their information. "Whether it's now or in the days, weeks, and months to come, our long-term goal is to continue supporting our partners through recovery and rebuilding efforts," he wrote.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 30, 20170 comments

Rackspace Rolls Out First Partner Incentives

Rackspace made a big commitment to its partner program this week with the introduction of the company's first-ever partner incentive.

The initial incentive covers Rackspace's strategic tier of partners who sell between $10,000 and $150,000 in monthly recurring revenue for deals covering dedicated hosting services, such as Rackspace Managed Security or Rackspace Private Cloud Powered by Microsoft, VMware or OpenStack.

"Through the end of this year, we'll match the deals they generate with customers dollar-for-dollar," said Lisa McLin, a 15-year veteran of Rackspace who is the new channel sales and alliances vice president for North America as of late June.

As an example, McLin said a partner working on a digital transformation deal for a customer that wants to put Sitecore on a private cloud platform with VMware, storage, firewall and load balancer and Rackspace Managed Security might be a $20,000 a month contract.

"The partner is going to get their $20,000 incentive, plus their monthly residual" on an ongoing basis, she said.

Rackspace has offered spiffs to partners before but this is the company's first full-fledged, ongoing incentive, McLin said. If it goes as well as she expects, she said the company will be looking to offer more incentives.

"We're going to watch this one and see how it goes. Q4 will be really level-setting, where we ask, 'Are we getting good traction on this?'" McLin said. Expansions could involve other products, as well as broader sections of the Rackspace partner community.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 29, 20170 comments

With AD Integration, Could Chrome Enterprise Interest More Microsoft Partners?

  • Related: Google Courts Orgs with Chrome Enterprise, VMware Pact

A new version of Chrome OS called Chrome Enterprise aims to make the Google operating system more attractive to business customers in a way that could also make Chrome more of a fit for Microsoft-centric channel partners.

Among many new business management features of Chrome Enterprise, one of the marquee changes is integration with on-premises Active Directory, a first for the 8-year-old Chrome OS, which was primarily designed for cloud-only management solutions.

"Businesses not yet ready for a cloud-only solution have wanted to manage Chrome OS with the on-premise identity and management systems they're already using. To help, Chrome Enterprise is now fully compatible with on-premise infrastructure through Microsoft Active Directory," wrote David Karam, product manager for Chrome Enterprise, in a blog post Tuesday.

Google rolled out Chrome Enterprise via the blog Tuesday and a webcast Wednesday.

"This integration allows employees to use their native credentials to authenticate across devices and Google Cloud Services like Google Play while centralizing management of user and device policies for IT admins," Karam said.

Another enterprise feature of the $50 per device per year Chrome Enterprise license is a partnership with VMware for unified endpoint management. VMware Workspace ONE will be the first third-party solution for managing Chrome devices, Karam said.

Other features exclusive to Chrome Enterprise, as opposed to Chrome OS, include managed Chrome extensions and browser management, printer management, single sign-on support, managed networks and proxies, managed operating system updates and enterprise support.

The comparatively inexpensive Chromebooks have been making market share gains in a generally declining PC market. Gartner estimated that Chromebook shipments increased by 38 percent year over year in 2016 as the overall PC market fell 6 percent. The base is small, however, with Chromebook shipments numbering around 9 million in 2016 against an overall PC market of 270 million units.

One of Google's main markets for Chromebooks has been education, and some Microsoft partners offer Chromebook solutions in that sector. For its part, Microsoft earlier this year launched Microsoft Intune for Education and OEMs rolled out low-cost Windows 10 PCs to better compete against Chromebooks in schools.

In that January announcement, Microsoft made its concerns pretty clear: "New Windows 10 Devices Offer Great Alternatives to Chromebooks."

With Active Directory support in Chrome Enterprise, Microsoft partners will have new reasons to take a harder look at Chromebooks for certain business deployments.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 23, 20170 comments

Intel Launches 8th Gen Core Processors

Intel on Monday launched the first of its 8th Gen Intel Core processors, with the initial group of chips intended to power ultrathin notebooks and two-in-ones for small businesses and consumers.

The roadmap calls for 8th Gen processors to arrive for desktop computers in the fall, with enterprise, workstation and enthusiast notebook and desktop systems coming later.

Intel claims healthy performance enhancements over both its 7th Gen chips and against systems that are at least 5 years old, a category consisting of about 450 million computers that Intel and its OEM partners hope to lure to new machines with the new generation of processors.

"This new mobile family sets the bar for outstanding performance, including a boost of up to 40 percent gen over gen, and that jumps to 2xif you compare it with a 5-year-old machine. This is all thanks to the new quad-core configuration, power-efficient microarchitecture, advanced process technology and a huge range of silicon optimizations," said Gregory Bryant, senior vice president and general manager of the Client Computing Group at Intel, in a blog post.

Intel's first wave of 8th Gen processors includes two i5 and two i7 models. Bryant said OEMs will begin releasing notebooks and two-in-ones based on those chips in the beginning of September, and that Intel is expecting more than 145 designs from manufacturers.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 21, 20170 comments

Microsoft Cloud a 'Tempting Target' for Attacks

A new Microsoft security report released this week quantifies a longstanding concern about big cloud services, namely that hyperscale clouds appeal to attackers like banks attract robbers.

After all, the Microsofts, Amazon Web Services and Googles of the world are increasingly where the users and data are. The bet by customers and the industry on big clouds is that in the arms race between attackers and defenders, the risks of putting all the data under only a few vendors' control can be outweighed by the high-quality people and processes the hyperscale vendors will be able to afford.

The latest data points on the question come from the Microsoft Security Intelligence Report (SIR) released on Thursday. Version 22 of the somewhat sporadic report has an increased focus on cloud, and Microsoft comes right out and admits the obvious point that its cloud makes an appealing target.

"Consumer and Enterprise Microsoft accounts are a tempting target for attackers, and the frequency and sophistication of attacks on cloud-based accounts are accelerating," Microsoft's report states.

Just how attractive is made clear in the report, which relies on telemetry data from various Microsoft products and services, such as its monthly scanning of 400 billion e-mails for phishing and malware, processing of 450 billion authentications, and executing of more than 18 billion Web page checks.

"The Identity Security and Protection team has seen a 300 percent increase in user accounts attacked over the past year," the report notes in language indicating that it is referring to successful attacks.

No matter how effective Microsoft's defenses are, the report contends that enterprise and end user security practices need to improve. "A large majority of these compromises are the result of weak, guessable passwords and poor password management, followed by targeted phishing attacks and breaches of third-party services," the report states.

Attacks are flooding in from bad sectors of the Internet. "The number of Microsoft account sign-ins attempted from malicious IP addresses has increased by 44 percent from 1Q16 to 1Q17," according to the report.

The report does not break out specific numbers, only percentages. It also doesn't quantify how many successful attacks and unsuccessful attempts were aimed at business versus consumer accounts in the Microsoft cloud.

In addition to targeting the digital assets or identities of targeted accounts, a portion of the attacks involve something Microsoft has referred to in previous editions of its SIR as "cloud service weaponization." That involves attackers compromising accounts in order to take over Azure-based virtual machines, which can then be redirected to other nefarious purposes, similar in concept to botnets.

According to Microsoft Azure Security Center data cited in the report, the three most common types of outbound attack traffic that compromised Azure-based virtual machines attempt to send are communications with malicious IPs, RDP brute force and spam.

On the other side of the ledger, Microsoft's report details various Microsoft products and services that can help customers and end users combat attackers, such as Windows Hello for Business, Credential Guard, Microsoft Azure Active Directory Identity Protection and Azure Multi-Factor Authentication.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 18, 20170 comments

Kaseya Traverse 9.5 Set for September Release

The next version of Kaseya's Traverse tool will feature an enhanced visualization interface, more powerful automation profiles, and new remote control integration for the network monitoring and management platform for managed service providers (MSPs) and mid-market IT departments.

Kaseya unveiled Traverse version 9.5 on Tuesday. Currently in the final release candidate stage, the new version is expected to reach general availability at the beginning of September. It will follow the previous release, 9.4, by about 10 months.

Network visualization is not new to Traverse 9.5, but it's greatly enhanced, says Kaseya Chief Product Officer Mike Puglia. "We've really taken it to the next level. I call it network topology on steroids," Puglia says of the feature, called Panorama 2.0. "Not only do you have a visualization of what your infrastructure looks like, you can see it, you can hover over and see where something is broken."

The interface of Panorama 2.0 may not be a huge deal for an experienced network technician who knows what to do with a simple list of alarms, Puglia says. The interface improvements are really aimed at newer network admins. "For the less-experienced infrastructure folks, a picture is worth 10,000 words. Seeing is a lot faster. Network topology is interesting, but being able to manipulate it and click around it empowers IT administrators," he says.

Written in HTML 5, Panorama 2.0 is fully functional for admins on their iOS and Android devices.

Another feature set that is ratcheted up in version 9.5 is the use of best practices through Automation Profiles. Traverse previously had best practices-related features, but new capabilities are designed to dramatically reduce the time it takes MSPs to onboard new customers. Through the use of faceted search options (think online shopping checkboxes on the left-hand side of the screen that allow you to sort products by price, brand, et cetera) and other capabilities, Automation Profiles are designed to automatically apply monitoring policies to devices during the discovery process.

MSP feedback led Kaseya to add "If Then Else" capabilities to the Automation Profiles in Traverse 9.5, Puglia says.

"A lot of people want to tweak the best practices based on their experience, especially in the MSP world because they all try to differentiate themselves by the expertise that they have," Puglia says. As an example, Puglia offered: "If a service crashes on a Windows Server, automatically I'm going to monitor these services because that's what I like to do in my environment. No. 2 if it does crash, I want a snapshot -- what was happening at the time, not an hour later. Restart the service, but I'm going to automatically start monitoring these five other services because they're suddenly important to me."

The other headline feature of Traverse 9.5 is the integration of Kaseya Live Connect, which is Kaseya's tool allowing admins to remotely view and control a system for troubleshooting.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 08, 20170 comments

Trouble in Detachable Tablet Land?

Now that Apple is out with its earnings, IDC has the critical iPad data necessary to refresh its assessment of the worldwide quarterly tablet market.

The short version is a decline in quarter-over-quarter tablet shipments of 3.4 percent. Total units shipped for the second calendar quarter of 2017 were 37.9 million.

One interesting aside in the report is some bad news for the detachable tablets subsegment, which IDC says was "once touted as the savior of the [tablet] market." Detachables would be the category pioneered by the Microsoft Surface, and later joined by the iPad Pro.

Without offering specific numbers in its Thursday news release discussing the results, IDC said detachable tablet shipments declined.

"There's been a resetting of expectations for detachables as competing convertible notebooks offered a convincing and familiar computing experience for many," said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst with IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers, in a statement. "To date, the 2-in-1 market was bifurcated as Apple and Microsoft led with detachables while the PC vendors led with convertibles. Though that is slowly changing as smartphone vendors and traditional PC vendors begin to offer compelling alternatives, the pace has been rather slow as Surface and iPad Pro still dominate shelf space and mindshare."

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 03, 20170 comments

Microsoft 365 Business Hits Public Preview

Microsoft's net new licensing package for small businesses, called Microsoft 365 Business, is now in public preview.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella unveiled Microsoft 365 last month at the Microsoft Inspire partner conference in Washington, D.C., as a combination of key parts of Office 365, Windows 10 and Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS).

"Microsoft 365 Business is the coming together of all of these products in a very compelling offer and package for every small business, every medium-sized business to have the same tools, the same sophistication that any large business has," Nadella said during his Inspire keynote.

An enterprise version, Microsoft 365 Enterprise, is an evolution of Secure Productive Enterprise, which was already available in E3 and E5 SKUs, and is supposed to be generally available (GA) this quarter.

As a completely new bundle, Microsoft 365 Business is only entering the public preview stage on Wednesday. Microsoft currently says a fully supported version will be available by the end of the year.

For now, the preview is free, although Microsoft recommends that customers hire a partner to deploy the solution. At GA, Microsoft 365 Business will cost $20 per user, compared to the $12.50 per user charge for Office 365 Business Premium. Like Office 365 Business Premium, Microsoft 365 Business includes Microsoft Office, 1TB of file storage, a 50GB mailbox, online meetings, Microsoft Teams, and business applications including Outlook Customer Manager, Bookings and MileIQ.

The $7.50/user/month premium for the release version of Microsoft 365 Business will get organizations Windows 10 Pro upgrade rights for users with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, as well as Windows Defender and other security features and device management features, such as a single console to manage user and device settings, self-service PC deployment, and automatic deployment of Office apps to Windows 10 PCs.

Organizations that are currently paying for Office 365 will need to continue to pay the subscription while using the public preview, Microsoft said in a FAQ.

Microsoft 365 Business is meant for organizations with no full-time IT staff, no Active Directory domain controllers and fewer than 300 users. The FAQ states that customers using on-premises Active Directory "must switch to cloud identity and management as part of their deployment."

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 02, 20170 comments

Bounties Boosted for Busting Windows

Microsoft, an industry foot-dragger to bug bounties, seems satisfied with the results of the programs over the last few years.

The company has been offering financial rewards for the white hats who find security flaws in its products since 2012, with sporadic increases in bounty amounts and products covered, as well as occasional pop-up opportunities to find problems in select software, such as technical previews, before a specific deadline.

This week, Microsoft again expanded the scope of the products involved, and also bumped potential awards for bounties related to Hyper-V.

"In the spirit of maintaining a high security bar in Windows, we're launching the Windows Bounty Program on July 26, 2017," the company stated Tuesday in a blog post from the Microsoft Security Response Center team. "This will include all features of the Windows Insider Preview in addition to focus areas in Hyper-V, Mitigation bypass, Windows Defender Application Guard, and Microsoft Edge. We're also bumping up the pay-out range for the Hyper-V Bounty Program."

That payout range for bugs discovered in Hyper-V is now fairly large. Microsoft will pay $5,000 to $250,000 for Hyper-V bugs that meet certain criteria on the Windows 10, Windows Server 2012, Windows Server 2012 R2 and Windows Server Insider Preview platforms.

Outside of Hyper-V, a new base program for bugs found in the Windows Insider Preview can pay between $500 and $15,000. Focus area programs offer the same pay range for the Microsoft Edge browser, $500 to $30,000 for Windows Defender Application Guard, and $500 to $200,000 for "Mitigation Bypass Bounty and Bounty for Defense" in Windows 10.

That last category consists of two separate bounties, maxxing out at $100,000 each, for the same issue. Essentially, Microsoft is asking individuals to submit a novel mitigation bypass against the up-to-date Windows platform, as well as a separate defense idea that would block the exploitation technique.

Beyond the bounty programs launched or updated this week, Microsoft also offers ongoing bounties for bugs reported in Microsoft .NET Core, ASP.NET Core and in Microsoft cloud services. Those programs currently top out at $15,000.

The payouts are adding up. According to a bounty hunters honor roll that Microsoft maintains, the company has paid out over $1.5 million in bounties to date. The list includes three payouts of $100,000 bounties under the mitigation bypass category, and a $125,000 bounty for a mitigation bypass that was shared among three researchers.

Details about Microsoft Bounty Programs are available here.

Posted by Scott Bekker on July 27, 20170 comments

Gartner to Office 365 Partners: Go Vertical and Enhance Teams, Graph, Cortana and Power BI

Microsoft recently posted the full text of a lengthy report on Office 365 by independent analysts at Gartner. In it, Gartner's Craig Roth,Joe Mariano,Michael Woodbridge andSteve Crawford analyze Office 365 for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT).

The whole report is worth reading for a lot of insights on the technology, market forces and usage trends. Of special note to the Microsoft channel are the lengthy sections on the Office 365 partner and ISV ecosystems. After leveling criticism at Microsoft's previous approaches, including direct sales under the Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) and the syndication program, Gartner repeatedly lauds Microsoft's Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) approach as a solid strategy and notes that 20,000 partners have signed up as CSPs.

For now, Gartner notes that the migration market is booming. Yet the analysts warn that growth, while still in double digits, has settled down considerably. Those partners looking for the next wave of opportunity and attention need to go vertical or align with strategic technologies being surfaced in Office 365, the analysts say.

Key quote:

To succeed, channel partners will need to create differentiation by industry focus or some other specialty, and bundle this differentiation in the form of value-added services for Office 365 and other Microsoft cloud services. There will be ample migration, training, change management, integration and other opportunities as large enterprises move from on-premises Exchange to the cloud. And new ways of working will present plenty of lucrative opportunities for nontechnical change management: helping organizations shift how they create content, communicate and collaborate.

The analysts also suggest that ISVs and other Microsoft partners are likely to get noticed in a crowded field by developing applications and solutions that highlight strategically important technologies within Office 365: "Attaching to emergent portions of the suite (such as Teams, Microsoft Graph, Cortana and Power BI) becomes doubly compelling."

Posted by Scott Bekker on July 25, 20170 comments

Microsoft Launches Partner Program To Protect Utilities

As evidence mounts that attackers are probing critical infrastructure worldwide, Microsoft is spinning up a new partner program for securing utility customers' operations through modernization.

Larry Cochrane, Azure Principal Program Manager, Energy, unveiled the Azure Certified Elite Partner Program for Cyber Analytics in Power and Utilities this month in a Microsoft blog. That post cited a flurry of recent attacks affecting the utilities industry, including devastating take-downs of the power grid in Ukraine, the WannaCry ransomware and a recent targeting of U.S. power firms, including the Wolf Creek nuclear facility in Kansas.

"Microsoft is deeply aware of the importance of cybersecurity for companies supporting the electric grid and is committed to helping partners and customers secure their nations' most critical of critical infrastructure," Cochrane wrote.

The program hinges on the Operations Management Suite (OMS), which is Microsoft's Software as a Service IT management platform for cloud and on-premises systems, and this new group of elite systems integrator partners with OMS deployment expertise. Starting in the United States with plans to expand worldwide, Microsoft aims to seed utility participation by covering the initial costs for deploying and running the Azure-based OMS, and will also include a limited Azure subscription to help with training, development and expediting projects.

The platform will be able to collect data from Windows agents, Linux agents, System Center Operations Manager, various Azure resources, Office 365 and custom logs. In response to an e-mailed question, Cochrane confirmed that the data sources go "way beyond just Microsoft systems," and noted that the platform offers several ways to capture data about the SCADA systems that are often targets in industrial attacks.

In addition to the management capabilities, another important component is anti-malware software built into OMS and extended for the utility solution.

"Initially this Azure Certified Elite Partner Program is all about securing our nation's power system," Cochrane said in the e-mail interview. "Utilities may potentially get immediate value about threat actors and malware that might be present in their networks."

Longer-term, Cochrane said he hopes the program will cause utility customers to see the value of OMS and sign up. "The power and utilities industry is undergoing the most fundamental change since its inception, driven in part by renewables and digital transformation," he said.

Posted by Scott Bekker on July 24, 20170 comments

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