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PHOTO: Lora Ohanessian

Since the start of the pandemic, much of the focus on cloud development has been on the private sector and enabling enterprise workers to work from home. But there has also been considerable development in cloud offerings for the public sector, including intelligence and military.

Look no further than the dispute between Microsoft and Amazon over the allocation of roughly $10 billion in defense department cloud contracts. While the Pentagon finally cancelled the contract with Microsoft, it opened up a competition for a new multivendor cloud computing contract with both Microsoft and Amazon, among others expected to make new proposals.

Microsoft's announcement this week that its secret, air-gapped Azure cloud regions have received authorization to operate and are "generally available" for national security workloads is therefore timely.

Tom Keane, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Azure Global, explained in a recent blog post that Azure Government Top Secret represents “a significant milestone in [Microsoft’s]commitment to bringing unmatched commercial innovation to government customers across all data classifications.”

While this represents a major play for public sector contracts by Microsoft, from a technology point of view what's interesting is what the new offering consists of. According to the blog, Azure Government Top Secret includes advanced analytics functions designed to "help human analysts more rapidly extract intelligence, identify trends and anomalies, broaden perspectives, and find new insights," while also supporting interoperability with other cloud services.

It also comes with Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS), Azure Functions, and Azure App Service enable mission owners working with highly sensitive data to offer containerized applications, serverless workloads with automated and flexible scaling, and web apps supported by built-in infrastructure maintenance and security patching.

It also offers customers multiple options for data residency, continuity of operations, and resilience in support of national security workloads.

Keep in mind that Microsoft also has customers in law enforcement and elsewhere in the intelligence community, many of whom are not just using Azure but also Office 365. While this may well be designed for government agencies there is a lot here for the private sector to adapt and use, particularly those industries that work off large amount of personal data. 

Microsoft Roadmap: Improvements to Teams Gallery View on the Horizon

One more small announcement came out of Redmond, Wash. this week that aims to make communications across the enterprise easier. You may recall at the beginning of this year Microsoft enabled Teams users to have video conference calls with up to 49 people at the same time via a mode called large gallery view in response to innovations in Google Workspace and Zoom.

While this was useful, the only objective was to communicate using the tiny tiles allocated to each participant in the call. However, for more collaborative efforts that involved documents or designs, it did not create a great experience.

To remedy this, Microsoft's product roadmap indicates it is working on a new gallery mode that will provide pagination, allowing users to scroll through pages of participants. According to a new entry to the product roadmap, “when you are in gallery view and there are more than nine videos, navigation controls will appear below the gallery. You can use these controls to view more video participants.”

Large meetings taking place in Teams will clearly be the beneficiary here and the majority of meetings will likely not need the pagination feature. However, it is another step to improve the user experience of Teams. Microsoft is also working to upgrade its Presenter support for Breakout Rooms in Teams, which will extend the management of breakout rooms to specific presenters. This is currently in development and is slated for a September release. 

Google Introduces Trusted Domains for Chat to Boost Security

Google has also been busy with communications in Workspace. The most recent upgrades offer a new layer of security into Google Chat. This follows an update last year where Google opened up Chat to allow users to communicate with users outside the company.

While a useful addition, it also created the possibility of security breaches. At the time, Workspaces Admins had the ability to either enable or disable these kinds of chats.

However, this approach was a bit heavy-handed and could, in some cases, block people that users need to talk to. To fix this, Google has introduced pre-specified “trusted domains,” which opens up communications with an entire organization, or just specific teams.

According to Google's announcement, trusted domains for Chat gives admins more fine-grained control over external chat in their organization. This can help the right users communicate with the stakeholders they need to work with, while helping to prevent inappropriate or undesired external chats. More to the point, trusted domains only allows communication with domain-managed accounts in those domains. Email verified consumer accounts will not be trusted. In addition to Google Chat, trusted domain controls can also control Drive sharing, Sites and Classroom.

Like the improvements to Teams mentioned above, these small improvements focus on making the user experience better and, in this case, more secure. It also goes to the heart of the ongoing competition between the productivity suites for market share which will ultimately be decided on the basis of usability or ease of use.

Mural Launches Free Plan

Elsewhere, San Francisco-based Mural, which offers digital workspaces for guided visual collaboration in the enterprise, has launched a new MURAL Free plan. This means that teams everywhere will be able to collaborate visually without any time limits.

Unlike the previous 30-day free trial, the new plan offers a free digital workspace for an unlimited time. The workspace includes five murals, unlimited members and all of Mural’s Facilitation Superpowers features. This includes timers to keep meetings on schedule, voting sessions to speed up decision-making, summoning participants to direct attention, private mode to enable more inclusive ideation, celebrations and more. Visitors can collaborate in any mural simply by sharing a link.

It also includes access to over 250 templates for team activities like brainstorming, product roadmaps, OKR planning, agile ceremonies, user journey maps, team building and icebreakers among other items.

There is clearly a need, or certainly a place, for Mural in the digital workplace market. Last month, the company closed on a $50 million series C funding round led by Insight Partners and Tiger Global. The investment comes a year after the company raised $118 million in a series B round and brings the company’s total funding to $200 million and values the company at $2 billion.

Founded in 2011, Mural today provides digital solutions to more than 100 customers contributing more than $100,000 in revenue per year.

Trouble Ahead for Zoom in Europe?

Finally this week, a potential warning for companies involved in the video conferencing space. The Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (HmbBfDI) in Germany has officially warned the state government against using Zoom.

According to a statement, use of Zoom violates the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), since user data is transferred to the U.S. for processing. There is insufficient protection for such data in the U.S. according to the Schrems II decision made by the European Court of Justice more than a year ago.

The statement reads a data transfer is only possible under very narrow conditions, which do not exist with the use of Zoom by the state government. The statement adds that use of Zoom would expose the data of public authority employees and external call participants to the danger of mass surveillance in the U.S., against which there are no sufficient legal protection options.

Ulrich Kühn, the acting Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information said the regional body was continuing to flout EU law in order to use Zoom. It also pointed out that a local alternative, provided by the German company Dataport (which supplies software to a number of states, regional and local government bodies) is readily available.