ONE OF THE REMARKABLE THINGS about Microsoft Azure is the breadth of features it offers, from basic data storage and analytics to content delivery networks and Internet of Things integration. Yet many channel pros continue to rely on the popular cloud platform for little more than the basics: setting up and managing accounts in Azure Active Directory, creating virtual machines, and using SQL Server.
Moving beyond Azure 101 and developing deep expertise in features that can benefit customers and increase revenue is an opportunity to take your business to a higher level. “”Those that find a niche that delivers value and makes them indispensable within their ecosystem are at an advantage,”” says Eric Weast, owner of ECW Network and IT Solutions, a managed IT services firm in Deerfield Beach, Fla.
There are a number of reasons why channel pros underutilize Azure. For many, the sheer number of features and services—while impressive—quickly becomes overwhelming. According to research conducted by The Standish Group, 45% of features in enterprise applications are never used, and another 19% are used rarely. Microsoft Azure is certainly no exception. Weast estimates that the typical channel pro is knowledgeable about only 5% to 15% of the entire Azure platform. In addition, gaining expertise, including hiring and training staff, can prove challenging.
But it’s also easy to fall into a comfort zone and continue to offer the same basic services year after year. “”Too often, the first port of call for channel pros is the same tools they have always used,”” says Dan Scarfe, chief solutions officer of the Cognizant Microsoft Business Group. So, as Microsoft continues to pile on capabilities, the practical and technical adoption deficit grows for service providers and integrators.
Once you decide to go deep with Azure, start by selecting a few platform features that can become specialties, Scarfe says. Key areas like machine learning, governance, cloud management, and the IoT are good candidates, he adds, but there are many underutilized and commonly overlooked features in the platform as well. One of them is the combination of Azure Arc and Azure Lighthouse, which together “”provide the fabled ‘single pane of glass’ across on-premises resources, Azure, and other clouds. It ensures they stay operational, secure, and governed.””
Gaining greater expertise in less flashy but highly practical areas can become a selling point for channel pros too, Weast says. This includes identity management, security services, conditional access policies, and knowledge about various fabric services for database delivery in the cloud. Likewise, focusing on seemingly mundane areas like Azure Migrate and Azure Site Recovery, combined with expertise in App Dev and Kubernetes, are ways that channel pros can differentiate, according to Eric Boyd, founder and CEO of consulting and training firm responsiveX. “”The ability to manage workloads across clouds and devices is extremely important for organizations,”” he explains.
Capabilities that help expand and connect the digital enterprise are also on companies’ radar, Scarfe notes. These include Azure Purview, which focuses on security and unified data governance; Microsoft Mesh, which supports sophisticated collaboration and social meetups, including mixed reality and holoportation; and Percept, which allows organizations to embed intelligence on the edge using the cloud and plug-and-play features. The combination of GitHub and Visual Studio represents yet another opportunity, as the use of complex open source stacks grows. Finally, he points to Azure API Management (APIM), which delivers advanced tools for connecting applications and services.
Scarfe recommends looking for real-world business opportunities and working backward to support Azure digital offerings. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has created enormous demand for apps and services revolving around curbside pickup and doorstep delivery. “”The ability to build order ingestion and delivery services for restaurants and others is a very lucrative space. But you have to be conversant in microservices and how to integrate IoT edge devices so that you’re connecting the kitchen with the customer,”” he explains.
Scoring With Azure
There are some effective ways for channel pros to ratchet up Azure skills and knowledge—and translate this expertise into business acumen. Microsoft and other companies in the Azure ecosystem offer plenty of free or low-cost training resources. These include webinars, ebooks, white papers, and events provided or sponsored by Microsoft. Scarfe recommends Channel 9, which offers an array of in-depth videos and courses on topics as varied as building out microservices and using data protection methods like tokenization within Azure. Other tools include the Official Microsoft Blog and Cognizant’s Octane Solution Center, which focuses on digital transformation through Azure.
Prioritizing regular and ongoing learning to ensure that staff understand what Azure offers, and can sell and support customers, is key to success, Weast says. “”It’s best to implement a regular schedule to ensure that you’re maintaining your skillsets,”” he advises.
If you do plant a stake in the ground with Azure, stay focused on that platform, experts advise, rather than attempting to gain mastery over all cloud platforms, including AWS and Google Cloud. Keeping up with daily announcements for Azure alone can make your head spin. “”It’s really impossible to become an expert in more than one cloud platform,”” says Scarfe.
In the end, regardless of the exact approach you take with Azure, Boyd recommends incorporating a broad view of the platform into your business and building specific expertise that clients and customers can trust. “”It is an incredibly rich platform with an incredible array of services and features. Unfortunately, the breadth and depth of the platform is underappreciated by far too many in the IT industry.””