Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella backs decentralised clouds to power hybrid working

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sets out his vision for how the world of work, and the IT underpinning it, will need to change to become more flexible and decentralised once the Covid-19 pandemic is over

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Compute power will need to become increasingly cloud-based, decentralised and ubiquitous to support hybrid working models and fuel the next wave of economic growth, according to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

During the opening keynote of this year’s virtual Microsoft Ignite user and partner conference, Nadella briefly reflected on the “second wave” of digital transformation the onset of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has ushered in across the globe, as “organisations in every industry” have sought to accelerate their “digital initiatives to build resilience and transform”.

However, as economies across the globe turn their attention to bouncing back from the pandemic, technology as a whole will play a hugely important role in this recovery, but cloud – in particular – will be essential to ensure “nobody is left behind”, he added.

“Over a decade ago, we [Microsoft] declared we were all-in on cloud, because we understood its transformational promise and the opportunity [it] creates for every organisation. And today, it’s time for us to reflect on how cloud will change over the next decade, and the innovation our changing world will require from the cloud,” he said. “We will need to foundationally transform how cloud can drive the next level of broad economic growth that everyone can participate in.”

That process will include a shift away from centralised computing models, whereby cloud services are predominantly served up and hosted within large standalone datacentres, to one where compute capacity is more distributed and “embedded everywhere in our world”, said Nadella.

“Every organisation small or large, in every industry, in every country will require more ubiquitous and more decentralised compute power. We are going through a radical change in computing architecture from the materials to semiconductors to the systems from the cloud to its edge,” he continued.

“The result of all this will be continued exponential growth in compute capacity. However, we are at peak centralisation right now. As computing becomes embedded everywhere in our world, transforming how we interact with people, places and things, and as physical and digital worlds converge, we will require more sovereignty and decentralised control. Cloud and edge computing will evolve to meet all of these real-world needs.”

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Especially as where we work and how we do it is set to change, as organisations move to solidify the flexible working arrangements that have taken hold during the pandemic.

On this point, Nadella spoke about how the pandemic has changed employee expectations about flexible working, which feeds into another recurring theme of discussion at this year’s Ignite conference about how “hybrid working” looks set to become the norm in the post-pandemic world.

This phrase is used to describe workplaces where staff have the option to either work from the office or home as and when they want to, and is a setup various analysts claim will become the norm once the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic ends.

“Every organisation will need a new operating model for hybrid work,” said Jared Spataro, corporate vice-president for the software giant’s cloud-based productivity suite Microsoft 365, in a blog post.

“To compete in this new world, leaders need to embrace extreme flexibility in when, where and how people work. [And] every customer I speak to wants to empower people for a world of work that is dynamic, fluid and cloud-powered.

“They want to find ways for people to work not just from anywhere but at any time, with solutions that allow both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration,” he added.

Enabling engagement

One of the biggest challenges that arises from this way of working is how best to ensure the people working remotely can feel engaged and continue to collaborate effectively with those in the office consistently, and in a way that meets employees’ changing expectations.

“As the world recovers, there is no going back,” said Nadella, during his keynote. “Employee expectations are changing and flexibility will be key.”

And to acknowledge that, Microsoft is in the throes of trying to reposition its cloud-based collaboration platform Teams so that it becomes an “organising layer” to support companies as they adopt the hybrid working model, he said.

“We are building Microsoft Teams as an organising layer for all of the ways we work. The modes of communication, collaboration, and the ability to extend it with other apps and services,” said Nadella. “With Teams, we are ensuring that people can collaborate inside and outside the organisation, that they can learn in the context of their work, and that they can retain and build new social capital.”

Enterprise use of Microsoft Teams has soared during the pandemic, with the company claiming in its second-quarter results that it is “rapidly becoming the unified communications platform of choice for every organisation”.

The company also reported in its results that 60 million people access Teams each day through mobile devices, and that it now has 117 companies with more than 100,000 employees relying on it to keep their staff connected and collaborating.  

Even so, the company is keen to do more to break down the communication barriers that exist in hybrid working environments when you have a mixed team of people, whereby some are working from home and others are in the office and all are contributing to the same project.

Mixed-reality platform

In support of that, the company debuted its mixed-reality platform, Microsoft Mesh, during the Ignite keynote. This is designed to enable users to engage with colleagues and 3D content through mobile devices, virtual reality headsets or PCs so they feel “physically present” with one another when they are apart.   

“Mesh enables you to interact holographically with others with true presence in a natural way. For example, I can meet my colleagues on the other side of the world, collaborating as though we were in the same room again with no screen mediating our interactions. It’s pretty mind boggling to imagine, but this is the future we are building”
Satya Nadella, Microsoft

Currently in preview, Microsoft said users would be able to connect with one another as avatars or as holographic versions of themselves using Mesh, which is powered by the company’s public cloud platform, Azure.

Nadella said the technology has the potential to have as transformative an impact, with regard to how people interact with each other when apart, as the creation of the Microsoft Xbox Live platform did on gaming.

“We went from single player to multiplayer, creating a community that helps people connect and achieve together. Now just imagine if the same thing happened with mixed reality,” said Nadella.

“Mesh enables you to interact holographically with others with true presence in a natural way. For example, I can join a birthday celebration with my extended family in India, interacting as if we were physically together without any screens between us.

“Or I can meet my colleagues on the other side of the world, collaborating as though we were in the same room again with no screen mediating our interactions. It’s pretty mind boggling to imagine, but this is the future we are building,” he added.

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