Blog Archive

Automatic alt-text in Pictures

Office 365 utilises Azure Intelligent Services for a number of features including dictation, designer and smart lookup.  One of the features we love is the automatic alt-text generation when you insert a picture into an Office document.

We are strong advocates that accessibility is not just important to users who need these features; everyone who creates content should be making it accessible.

A picture tells a thousand words but when a screen reader is parsing a document it will read out the alt-text for an image.  If there’s no alt-text then you’ll just hear something along the lines of ‘picture’.  Not very helpful.  It’s been possible to manually enter the alt-text of course and this is very helpful in online content for search engine optimisation.

Intelligent services can automatically generate the alt-text for you based on the image contents.  If you are dealing with sensitive images, this feature can be turned off in options as it does require information being sent to Microsoft.

Let’s insert an online image into a document to see how it performs.

Button to insert pictures in Office

 

For blatant blog-promotion SEO purposes I’m going to search for an online image of the royal wedding.  Megan Markle Prince Harry Royal Wedding Windsor Castle.  That should raise us at least one place in search results.

Search results for online pictures

 

When I insert the fourth image, intelligent services analyses it and generates an alt-text tag for me.  In this case, it’s accurate but not quite hitting the spot of wedding dress and it certainly doesn’t even try to achieve facial recognition; we know that’s a minefield.  This result is far better than leaving alt-text empty though.

alt text for an image

 

So you’ll get mixed results.  Insert the third image and you’ll get an amusing result of “A picture containing dancer, indoor, sport, red” when clearly the image is all about the military and boys in culottes.

Alt text in a picture

 

Now, we’ll try a business image and search for Donald Trump.  I can feel our SEO going up.

alt text in a picture

 

The alt-text is accurate but again, no face recognition.  Last example to see if there’s some Microsoft bias.  I inserted the Microsoft logo.

Microsoft logo

 

No alt-text was generated but there’s a button in the image option alt-text panel which you can click to generate some.  If you need to use this button, the image was typically not obvious enough for intelligent services to work out straight away so the confidence level will be lower.

Office generating alt-text for a picture

 

Our result?  A drawing of a face.  Perhaps Bill Gates’ face is in the logo subliminally.

 

Alt-text result for the Microsoft logo

 

 


Change a Recurring Meeting to Skype

It’s common to have recurring meetings in our Outlook calendars.  If the unexpected happens, such as snow or disruption on the trains (not so unexpected), it can be useful to change one of the meeting occurrences to a virtual meeting or a hybrid meeting where some staff are present in the same room and others can dial-in.

Outlook doesn’t provide the option of changing a single occurrence to a Skype for Business meeting however so here’s how to solve it.

If you double-click a meeting entry in calendar and select ‘Just this one’ to edit only this occurrence (below)

Editing an Outlook meeting entry

 

You will not be offered the Skype Meeting command on the ribbon (below).  Note we have the Teams Meeting option because we have the Teams app installed alongside Skype for Business; you may not see Teams.  We’ll be blogging about Teams and it’s relationship to Skype for Business at a later date.  Note the ribbon tab showing we are editing the Appointment Occurrence.

Outlook meeting toolbar without Skype for Business

 

If we had chosen to edit the entire series, we will see the Skype Meeting option in the ribbon.  Note the ribbon tab showing we are editing the Appointment Series.

Outlook meeting toolbar with Skype Meeting option

 

Outlook is being helpful here because if you edit a single meeting in a series, it will break the recurrence.  In this instance, that’s exactly what we want to do though.

To overcome this, we can add the Skype Meeting command to the meeting Quick Access Toolbar (QAT) by right-clicking the command and selecting Add to Quick Access Toolbar.

Add to quick access toolbar option

 

The next time we edit a single instance of a meeting, we can click the Skype Meeting icon on the QAT to add-in the virtual meeting options.

Outlook quick access toolbar

 

When we save the updated meeting, our calendar shows we have broken the recurrence with the icon in the bottom right of the meeting block.  But at least our colleagues stuck in some rain-soaked train station can still dial-in and take part in the meeting.

Outlook icon to indicate broken recurrence

 


We Try Out Dictation in Outlook

Dictation is being made available to Office 365 applications including Outlook, PowerPoint and Word.  Currently it’s a first release feature but will gradually make its way into the mainstream release.  This is different from the Windows speech recognition feature where you can control your PC using speech and it’s also distinct from the Windows 10 dictation added to Windows last autumn (and only available for US English).

We loved the Learning Tools add-on for OneNote which included dication and a host of accessibility features and were keen to give dictation a whirl in Outlook.

Enabling Dictation in Office 365

Luckily, there’s very little to set-up as this is a feature that’s enabled by default in an office upgrade.  It uses Microsoft’s intelligent services (just like the automatic Alt-Text feature for inserted images) so you’ll need an internet connection – dictation can’t be used offline.  If you can’t get dictate to work, check Intelligent Services is enabled in the File, Options, General tab.  Your Office account must also be up to date.

Office 365 intelligent services in options

 

Using Office 365 Dictate in Outlook

In a new email, click the Dictate button on the right hand of the Ribbon Home tab.  The dropdown menu shows the languages this is available in.  This should default to your Windows locale and having UK English gives me a good excuse to test for UK spelling.

Office 365 dictation languages

 

It’s unlikely many built-in pc microphones will provide good results in a noisy office so I grabbed a Sennheiser headset and recorded the following:

My favourite colour is purple to wear and green to see.  I also like black but it’s not really a colour.
I still can’t get dictation to type pounds.
My favourite neighbour is the one down the road with the aluminium blinds.
I drank too much at a party and made a bit of an arse of myself.
It’s my mum’s birthday soon.

You need to specifically add punctuation by saying ‘full stop’ or ‘period’, etc. and also formatting such as ‘new line’ to add a carriage return.  I was speaking in a normal cadence but did add a bit of a Windsor accent.  This is the result:

Dictation in Outlook

 

Quite an impressive outcome.  I like the way offensive words are automatically censored.  Spelling is UK English.  Why it shortened road I don’t know and the final ‘I’ would have been capitalised had I said ‘new line’ to move to a different paragraph.  And I still can’t figure out how to get it to type a £ symbol.

You can say the following to add punctuation:

Period
Comma
Question mark
Exclamation point
Exclamation mark
New line
New paragraph
Semicolon
Colon
Open quote
Close quote
Open quotes
Close quotes

This should be a real boon for users and because it uses Microsoft’s online intelligent services with machine learning, recognition and accuracy should improve over time.


How to Make OneNote use £

We often run accessibility training for staff.  Not just staff with accessibility needs; all staff should have an understanding of how to create inclusive content and work collaboratively.

A very useful add-on for OneNote is Learning Tools.  This is developed by Microsoft and there’s no charge so we hope it will make it’s way into the native product at some point rather than needing a separate download.

Learning tools includes a dictation feature to transform speech to text and it’s very effective, especially with a good quality microphone or headset.

However, try as we might we cannot get it to recognise £.  Here’s an example:

OneNote Learning Tools dictation feature

 

As you can see, I’m dictating “Host a fantastic Office 365 excitement day from £500” (which is a blatant sales plug for our Buzz Days of course).  OneNote recognises when I say dollars, euros and yen and probably many others that I could recall from my travels outside of Reading (does Swindon use Roubles?) but try as I might, I cannot get it to place a £ sign.

The dictation you see where OneNote has wisely replaced the letters with asterisks was me saying 500 nicker.  Nicker is a slang term for pounds which OneNote is clearly not familiar with and thus thought I was being offensive.

No, OneNote, I’m not rapping, I’m simply trying to get our pricing correct.


Create an Azure Virtual Machine

An Azure Virtual Machine is a simulated computer (also known as a guest) hosted within a physical computer (also known as the host).  Virtual machines have been around for decades but the technical capabilities have advanced greatly over recent years and they are now a significant commodity in hosted infrastructures.  A virtual machine behaves like an actual physical computer but it shares the physical pool of resources, the memory, buses, processing power and storage, with other virtualised infrastructure.  The end user can connect to their virtual machine and it will have the same look and feel as if it was a physical computer.  The host computer runs a very specialised, reduced operating system (called the hypervisor) which takes care of the security, sharing and scheduling of all the guest operating systems on top of it.

The Azure Virtual Machine allows IT architects to create a network that will build success for the business. It means that the organization can easily set up temporary and therefore cost-effective environments for development and testing or they can transfer business-critical applications from on-premises servers to more advanced, reliable and economic hardware.  It allows organizations to try new ventures in a safe way; trying out new operating systems such as Linux or open-source application software.  It allows businesses to stretch and flex in a ‘fail fast’ way; if the business project or need is no longer relevant, then it can be switched off or even deleted without leaving redundant hardware.

Azure Virtual Machines are created through the Azure portal, which can be found at https://portal.azure.com or through programming interfaces such as PowerShell.  The simplest way to create an Azure Virtual Machine is using the portal; a browser-based user interface for interacting with Azure. It’s a straightforward process to create and configure Azure Virtual Machines and there’s even a Quick Start so that your Virtual Machine is up and running within minutes.

The difference between an Azure Virtual Machine and an on-premises Virtual Machine is that, in Azure, the IT architect does not control the host machine or its operating system.  All of the configuration is done through the cloud operating system, whether through the browser or the portal. In this example, we will create a new SQL Server Virtual Machine in Azure, using an image from the Azure gallery.

  1. Log in to the Azure portal at https://portal.azure.com using your Azure subscription account.
  2. On the Azure portal, click New.
  3. The portal opens the New window.  Select the Compute option and then select the option See all.
  4. In the search field, type SQL Server 2017, and press ENTER.
  5. To see the relevant options, click the Filter icon, and select the image for Windows SQL Server, which will be published by Microsoft.
  6. Select the image named SQL Server 2017 Developer on Windows Server 2016.
  7. Under Select a deployment model, ensure that Resource Manager is selected.
  8. Click Create.
  9. There will be a number of options for configuring the Virtual Machine, such as its size, location, and security information. Once you have selected the relevant options, select Deploy. The Virtual Machine will take a few moments to deploy.

Once the deployment has completed, you can connect to the VM remotely using Remote Desktop Connection on your PC or in the case of our SQL Server installation, through the SQL enterprise tools.


Azure Virtual Machine Types

When creating an Azure Virtual Machine, you will be presented with a wide choice of codes from A0 to M128s.  These represent the intended use and configuration of your virtual machine; basically, how many cores, RAM and storage it includes but there are other intricacies to this as well. Your choice depends on the workloads you want to run on the virtual machine. The most important thing is that you understand what the virtual machine will be used for. Once this decision is made, the IT architect can select the series and the size of virtual machine.

How does the process of Virtual Machine selection differ from sizing on premise Virtual Machines?  The machine will need as much RAM, CPU and disk as your operating system and applications will consume and in this respect, the selection of Azure Virtual Machine is identical to the process of selecting the sizes and configuration of on-premises physical or virtual machines currently.

One key aspect of Virtual Machine selection that is different, however, is that the Azure cloud environment allows the IT architect to scale. With some restrictions, you can scale your virtual machine up to a more powerful instance or down to a less powerful and cheaper virtual machine.  Azure Virtual Machines also offer high availability (HA) via scale-out.  For the on-premises architecture, this would require densely packed hardware and the IT team would have to take care of the Virtual Machine hosts, networks and storage whilst also thinking about redundancy and ensuring that the virtual machines were running at all times. Azure is different because the cloud takes care of that work for the IT team and offers high availability as part of that process.

Azure allows organizations to be cost-effective by setting up a group of smaller machines which share workloads and can be turned on or off according to demand or on a timed schedule.  Effectively, Azure charges for the compute power you are using when the virtual machines are turned on and doesn’t charge for virtual machines that are turned off.  The organization is only paying for any persistent storage or networking of the virtual machines when they are powered off, but not for unused compute power.

 

Selecting a Virtual Machine Size

To select the correct Virtual Machine series, the IT architect will need to know the intended workload. Each virtual machine type is optimised to run a different workload, so it’s essential that this planning is done first. For example, if you are looking for a virtual machine that can work with Big Data solutions, then the organization should select a virtual machine from the High Performance Compute VM series. At the time of writing, Microsoft offers six virtual machine types:

General Purpose – Balanced CPU-to-memory ratio
Compute Optimised – High CPU-to-memory ratio
Memory Optimised – High memory-to-CPU ratio
Storage Optimised – High disk throughput and IO
GPU – Specialised virtual machines for heavy graphics rendering and video editing
High Performance Compute – Fastest, most powerful CPU with optional high-throughput network interfaces (RDMA)
Once the series has been selected, the IT architect can choose the virtual machine size.

 

Selecting a Virtual Machine Size

One key piece of advice to note is that if the organization believes that they may need to move up to another larger virtual machine in the future, then it is best to check that the larger machine is available in the same hosting region (e.g. UK South, West US) as the original virtual machine. Otherwise, the organization will have to move the virtual machine to the new region.  Although it’s not an onerous task to move a virtual machine from one region to another, it is best to avoid if possible.

The following table will help the IT architect to identify the correct size of virtual machine for the requirements.

 

Table of Azure virtual machine types

 

To summarise, choosing an Azure Virtual Machine is a crucial part of the transition to cloud.  There is a good choice available and you have the ability, with some restrictions, to switch in the future as your needs change.


The Azure Pricing Calculator

The Azure Pricing Calculator, located at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-gb/pricing/calculator helps you to predict the estimated monthly Azure bill for any Azure workload.  Once you have Azure services running, the Azure Portal helps you to monitor actual costs that you have incurred.

 

Screenshot of the Microsoft Azure Pricing Calculator
Figure 1 Azure Pricing Calculator website

 

The Azure Pricing Calculator helps you understand the costs of moving your technical estate to Azure, and to estimate pricing once your data and applications are in Azure.  The calculator allows you to view the price for different sizes and configurations of your Azure Virtual Machines in terms of the machine’s CPU, memory, storage, location and hours in use.  You can add any combination of Azure services to the calculator and view the pricing for complete solution.  This allows you to make better decisions on your move to the cloud by expediting the cost component of the decision.

The calculator is also useful in determining if you have all of the crucial resources in place for a successful migration to the cloud as relevant Azure services will be suggested when you add a component.  For example, if you add a virtual machine, you will typically require storage so the calculator helpfully adds that component into the pricing.

Since the Azure Pricing Calculator allows you the mix your configurations before you make your purchase, the cloud migration process becomes clearer.  This facility is particularly critical when the technical estate of the cloud infrastructure is in a constant state of change.  Microsoft Azure has monthly releases of new updates and new features.  This flexibility means there are a lot of different choices that can be made and the calculator not only helps you plan for your costs but can even reduce them altogether by helping to overcome the challenge of comparing your existing costs with the impact on cost of moving to Azure.

Azure has a great deal of choice but, in some ways, too much choice can be a difficult problem to have!  The Azure Pricing Calculator helps navigate the complexities of the Azure migration and choose the optimal configuration and pricing for your environment.  By proactively playing with the Azure Pricing Calculator, you can simulate various scenarios amongst the various Azure instances, types and features that are available.

Often, it can be perceived that organisations need to move all of their estate to the cloud but in reality, this is not always the case.  When onboarding your technical and data infrastructure to the cloud, it can be a good idea to start small in order to set yourself up for success.  The Azure Pricing calculator can help you to price up different scenarios to help you to navigate hybrid architectures as well as full cloud architectures.


Introduction to the Azure Portal

Microsoft Azure is a cloud computing platform and infrastructure created by Microsoft and the Azure Portal is one way for administrators to work with the cloud-based services and resources that are held in Azure.  It’s extremely straightforward and as it’s browser based, doesn’t require any new client software to be installed.

The portal can be found at portal.azure.com and it is sometimes known as the Azure Resource Manager or ARM for short.  The Azure Portal allows users to conduct a range of activities in Azure including creating and browsing resources, configuring settings for services such as Virtual Machines and monitoring the resources while they are in operation.

Due to the range of activities available on the portal, a detailed description is beyond the scope of a brief article but the main activities of the portal are very easy to use.  To log in to the Microsoft Azure portal, open a browser and navigate to https://portal.azure.com.  Log in with your Azure subscription account or if you don’t have one yet, you can set one up using the link on the portal page.

Once you are logged in, you can see the Azure dashboard.  There is a good search facility, which means that developers and IT architects can find what they need quickly.  You can also see your account information at the top right-hand corner.  The portal itself is free to access and does not incur any cost to use.

It’s possible to bring your existing knowledge to bear on Azure.  For example, the portal has its own Bash functionality and you can deploy JSON templates and your existing web apps via the portal. Azure offers a wide range of varied services on the portal but everything is located in one place.  This unified approach means that people can find what they want quickly, rather than having to use different interfaces or applications for different things.

Like most administrative tasks, once your Azure deployments are established, well-known and documented, it’s more likely the Azure API or PowerShell interface will be used to provide ongoing automated operations and functions.  For example, a PowerShell script to spin up a new instance of a pre-configured virtual machine with SQL Server for the marketing team who want to store some results of a campaign.  This is straightforward to include as part of your operations workflow rather than expect an IT administrator to log into the portal and create the virtual machine.

From the Finance perspective, you can access billing information through the portal so that it’s possible to keep an eye on costs for each service.  User rights can be set to allow IT administrators access to the Azure services but not the subscription or billing information and vice versa for finance users.  The Azure portal uses Power BI to provide context and clarity to the billing information as well as other types of data such as service and maintenance information.  From the users’ point of view, this means it is easy to port experience from the Azure portal onto Power BI, which is another interesting and useful data visualisation and reporting technology from Microsoft.

To summarize, the Azure portal is a unified window into Microsoft Azure.  It’s an easy, one-stop-shop to everything Azure.


Using Tags in OneNote

onenote main

 

Using Tags in OneNote can be an effective way to fight against information overload. One of OneNote’s most powerful, yet underutilised features is tagging. Tags help you extract and organise data across notebooks. Every note or item marked with a particular tag will show up in the search results when you search for that tag. A summary can also be created to pull out and group all tagged items. This can be extremely useful when making a to-do list or focus on particular information.

To use tags:

  1. Click on the Home ribbon
  2. In the Tags group, click the drop-down arrow to see a list of the built-in tags

NOTE: Custom tags can also be created in this section

Using tags in OneNote

Use tags to organise your data. For example, you could mark important items with the ‘Important’ tag, To-do items with the ‘To Do’ tag or questions with the ‘Question’ tag and so on. Keyboard short-cuts can be used to tag items faster. You can apply more than one tag to an item.

Using Tags in OneNote
  1. Click the Find Tag button

By default, all tagged items will show grouped by tag name. You can also change the search options to include the current section, the current notebook or even all of your existing notebooks.

Using Tags in OneNote
  1. Click Create Summary Page
Using Tags in OneNote

A new page will be created in your notebook that contains all of the tagged items organised in to groups. This is a great way of creating to-do lists and organising your data more efficiently.


A different way to attach documents

Sending and receiving documents and files in the form of an attachment is something that we are all very familiar with. The recipient is required to double-click on the attachment to open it and then it can be saved off as required.

However, did you know that there is a different way to attach documents? That you can also send the contents of a document in the body of the email as opposed to an attached file? This can sometimes be really useful and can be done by simply adding a button to the Quick Access Toolbar in Word.

Open the Word document you would like to send

  • Click the drop-down arrow on the Quick Access toolbar
  • Select More Commands
emailattach6
  • Select Commands Not in the Ribbon from the Choose commands from drop-down menu
emailatach5
  • Scroll down and select Send to Mail Recipient
emailattach3
  • Click Add

The Send to Mail recipient icon will now be on the Quick Access Toolbar.

  • Click Send to Mail Recipient

Email fields will show. Complete these as normal. The Word document will appear in the body as opposed to as an attachment.

emailattach1