Blog Archive

Teams is an App not a Service

Microsoft Teams Logo  I must admit to being frustrated when Teams was first introduced.  It automatically started at Windows login, sometimes before I’d even connected to wifi (and then would error out due to the lack of an Internet connection) and the disconnection between some of the Office 365 services Teams uses and the main apps for those services, e.g. Skype for Business, was hard to explain to customers.

The gap is closing however and Redmond are putting some thought into Teams now that it’s gaining momentum.  There is a healthy roadmap, some good product management and top level buy-in from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

There is still a gap between some of the native clients and functionality in Teams.  For example, you can do more in online meetings through Skype for Business currently than you can in a Teams meeting despite both apps using the Skype for Business online services.  Teams is now bringing in functionality for meetings that isn’t available in Skype for Business so we find ourselves in the familiar place where we have two apps with an overlap of features but which individually might not meet all our needs; we need to choose which tool to use and accept some sacrifices in functionality.  Check out this brief post from Satya introducing the updated features and the new, free edition of Teams.  We’ll blog about the differences over the next week or so.

The thing to bear in mind is Teams is a presentation layer; an app.  It connects to the existing backend Office 365 online services and enhances them with integration and connectivity to other services, including 3rd party services and apps.  This is the strength of Teams – it is a hub where we can perform 60-70% of our collaborative tasks before we might need to go into another app to continue or access deeper features.

We would like to see Teams become an Office 365 service in itself and have service definitions just like Exchange online, SharePoint online, Yammer and Skype for Business online.  It would need to find it’s own place for that to happen though, or displace Skype for Business completely.


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

 

 


Can you Spell Albuquerque?

I won £500 in a pub quiz recently because I answered a question incorrectly.  The question was “Which suburb of Seattle was Microsoft founded in?”

I started at Microsoft in 1991 and knew full well Microsoft was founded in Alberquerukey, New Mexico.  So that left me with Redmond or Bellevue.  Bellevue was the first Seattle office but I figured the quizmaster had checked a press article or something stating Microsoft was founded in 1975 in Redmond (their current location).  So I gave Redmond as my answer and won £500.  Do I feel guilty winning by giving a knowingly false answer?

No but the point of this blog post is where can you find official facts about Microsoft, the products, interesting numbers, quotes and stories?  Check out Microsoft Story Labs.  As well as news articles there are fun facts and figures like how much Fanta Microsoft employees drink (the company offers free beverages on campus) and details about the company in the Press Tools dropdown.  It’s a good resource to be aware of.

News site for Microsoft

 

Had the quizmaster asked me to spell Alberqwerky, I would have gone home empty-handed.

 

 


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.


Get your Virtual New York Office

If you have clients around the world it can make a very favourable impression if you provide them with a number local to them.  It can cut their costs and gives your organisation a ‘just around the corner’ feel.  Imageframe is based in Reading, UK but we do have clients in the US so we set up a New York phone number which seamlessly transfers to our switchboard.  This costs roughly £181 per year per number and it also gives us additional UK calling minutes for the organisation.

Let’s start with the basics.

Skype for Business (either as standalone or part of an Office 365 plan) allows you to make calls to other Skype for Business and Teams users.  If you want to make calls to PSTN (public switched telephone network) phone numbers and you don’t already integrate with a phone service provider, Office 365 offers the Phone System and Calling Plan licences.   The Phone System licence provides cloud-based call-management features such as hold, forward, transfer and voicemail and will cost (as of the date of this post) £6+VAT per month as an add-on for Office 365 E1 or E3 plans.  Once you have assigned the Phone System licence to a user, you can add-on either the Domestic Calling Plan for national calls or the International Calling Plan for calls to both domestic and international numbers in hundred of countries.  Each of these provide a number of included minutes for calling per-month, rather like an included minutes mobile phone contract.

Purchase the Phone System and a Calling Plan licence and assign these to one of your Office 365 users.  Now you can choose their phone number from a wide choice of countries and cities.

The World is Your Oyster (almost).

You can transfer an existing landline number or choose from a selection of phone numbers for your call-enabled users.  Sign into the Office 365 admin centre and select the Skype for Business admin centre.

Link for the Skype for Business admin center

 

In the Skype for Business Admin Centre, you’ll be able to click on Voice and then Voice Users to see staff who have the phone system and calling plan licences assigned.

Skype for business phone system admin

 

You’ll also be able to obtain new numbers from the available countries.  The nice thing is that you can keep requesting new numbers until a funky one comes up like 0118 370 1234.  The image below is a selection of numbers for San Francisco (415).  We can acquire any of these or cancel and try again later to see a new selection.

 

Skype for business acquire new phone number

Once you have acquired numbers you can assign them to voice users.  There are two limitations here:

  1. the user’s country in their licence profile needs to match the country for the phone number you want to assign.
  2. you must set up an emergency location address for each country for which you acquire phone numbers.

We have a couple of unused Office 365 licences that we apply to demo personas.  These are ideal for assigning the international numbers.  View the user properties in the Office 365 admin centre, click on licensing and select edit.  Then change the user’s location in the drop-down at the top.  This will propagate to Skype for Business after a while and you can assign the US number.

Office 365 user licence properties

 

We have also set up a redundant emergency location address for the US as the US number will only ever be used for routing incoming calls and will not actually be used by a bona-fide person.  You can set up emergency locations in the Skype for Business admin centre (under the voice option).

Finish by Setting Up Call Forwarding.

Our demo users now have exotic phone numbers but they are not real users so will never answer the phone.  We can sign into the Skype for Business client as them and configure call forwarding so if someone rings their number, it will forward the call to one of our real users, or our switchboard.  The Skype client also tells us the call has been forwarded so we realise this is an international client.

Skype for Business call forwarding

 

No unused Office 365 licences?

We have assigned our numbers to demo users.  If you don’t have spare Office 365 licences then you can acquire Service Numbers instead of User Numbers.  Service numbers are intended to be assigned to services such as Audio Conferencing in Office 365, auto attendants or call queues.  Service phone numbers have a higher concurrent call capacity than user numbers but you are allowed fewer service numbers than user numbers.

If you acquire a service number, then you can create an Auto Attendant to forward calls to your switchboard.  You do this through the Call Routing option of the Skype for Business admin centre.

Skype for Business auto attendant

 

Give it a go and create your “London, Paris, New York” office locations.  Feel free to contact us if you have any questions.


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.