Microsoft Ignite entrance hallway
PHOTO: Microsoft

With all the buzz around Microsoft’s Ignite Conference last week, you probably missed one of the biggest ‘non-announcements’ to come from Microsoft: the public preview availability of Microsoft Graph data connect, previously known as Managed Access to Microsoft Graph Data.

Connecting Azure and Office 365 

What is this about and why is it such a big deal? To understand the context, we need to look at Microsoft’s broader business. You might recall that earlier this year, Microsoft reorganized into the following three engineering groups:

  • Experiences + Devices, which includes the traditional Office 365 and Windows businesses.
  • Cloud + AI, which includes the Azure cloud and Microsoft’s ERP and CRM offerings.
  • AI and Research, which includes Bing and Cortana, as well as forward-looking R&D efforts.

The re-org was broadly covered by the mainstream press, because the changes demonstrated a shift in the way Microsoft runs its business. For years, Windows and Office represented the core Microsoft business. But with this announcement, Microsoft signaled they now represent only one of three focus areas, as Microsoft expands into the world of the cloud and intelligent computing.

What you may not know is that while Microsoft talks a lot about the “Microsoft cloud,” it actually has multiple cloud platforms: Office 365 and Azure. The Office 365 cloud is where the collaboration and productivity Office tools such as Exchange, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, SharePoint and many other apps reside, now offered to clients as hosted web services. 

The Azure cloud, on the other hand, is a development platform that provides web services for application developers, in much the same way as Amazon Web Services.

When you realize that Microsoft has two separate business clouds that operate in different business units, it starts to become clear why last week’s public preview availability of the Microsoft Graph data connect offering is so significant. This offering is the glue that gets the two clouds to work together as one. And getting the two clouds to work together provides a strategic competitive advantage for Microsoft in the competitive cloud platform market.

Microsoft Azure and Office 365 together: The modern business platform

Source: Microsoft Azure and Office 365 together: The modern business platform session from the 2017 Ignite Conference

Here’s why: data connect provides developers with secure and scalable tools needed to create apps that connect the two clouds by providing intelligence from Office 365 users into Azure apps.

Related Article: What Ignite 2018 Signaled for Microsoft and the Future of the Cloud Wars

What Is Microsoft Graph Data Connect?

Microsoft Graph data connect connects the Office 365 and Azure clouds by providing three key capabilities, namely:

  • Access to data at scale — With the Azure Data Factory, data connect makes it possible to access large amounts of data about many Office 365 users at once, securely in the Azure cloud, thereby obviating the need for multiple data requests, one user at a time.
  • Data governance — Detailed policies ensure that Office 365 administrators review and consent to data access policies for Azure apps.
  • Granular consent — Access to Office 365 data can be limited to specific properties in an entity, ensuring applications get access to only the information they need to operate and no more. Administrators have oversight and can rest assured that Office 365 data access policies are enforced on Azure apps.

Getting Started with Microsoft Intelligence Platform

Source: Microsoft, Getting Started with Microsoft Intelligence Platform, Ignite Conference 2018

Connecting the clouds in an effective manner enables developers, for the first time, to securely and scalably leverage Office 365 ‘big data’ to help enterprise clients move their businesses forward using near real-time, data-driven insights.

On stage at Ignite, Rishi Girish, Microsoft program manager, provided two examples of how developers are taking advantage of Office 365 big data (in conjunction with the Microsoft Graph) to provide intelligence to enterprise customers. The first is harmon.ie (disclaimer: harmon.ie is my employer) who is using Microsoft Graph data connect to calculate each worker’s top business topics and then surface relevant Office 365 emails and documents so people can focus on what’s most important. The second is Limeade, who is developing a smart scheduler to improve productivity based on cross-user behavior analysis.

Related Article: 4 Microsoft Ignite Announcements Aimed at Improving the Digital Workplace

Strengthening Microsoft's Cloud Play

With a huge number of organizations using Office 365, enabling developers to connect Office 365 data to intelligent Azure apps will be a strategic enabler for Microsoft, since it impels developers to select Azure as their cloud platform of choice.

It’s still early days, but expect Microsoft Graph data connect to be a significant tool in Microsoft’s cloud toolbox going forward.

(For more on the Microsoft vision for the Office 365 and Azure clouds, see the Microsoft Azure and Office 365 together: The modern business platform session from the 2017 Ignite Conference.)