Azure, Yammer help shape next-gen Microsoft Office

What do Yammer and Windows Azure have to do with how Microsoft is changing the way it is developing, testing, and delivering its Office products? More than many think.

Mary Jo Foley
Mary Jo Foley
Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network.
5 min read

In a break from the past, Microsoft's Office team has begun working much more closely with other groups, especially the Windows Azure, SQL Server, and Windows Intune teams -- all of which are part of another business unit, Microsoft's Server and Tools Business.

"Before, we had to land in very complementary dates," explained Jeff Teper, corporate vice president of Office Servers and Services. "But now, if Azure has a new feature, we can say we'd like to do work around it." With services, "there's no magic date when a computer has to show up in Best Buy," Teper quipped.

Scottie and the JETS
One very ambitious and known goal that involves both the Office and Azure teams involves hosting Office 365 on top of Windows Azure. Microsoft officials have been talking about this plan for the past few years. The idea is that moving the Office service core onto Azure will enable SharePoint Online, Exchange Online, and Lync Online to be updated more rapidly by building on top of the same common set of underlying services.

While Microsoft officials still haven't announced a date as to when this might happen, there are individuals already working on it.

Part 1 of the 2-part series: "How Microsoft is shifting the Office trains into high gear"

There's a team in Office called the JETS (Just-in-time Experimentation, Telemetry and Services) that is focusing on service delivery and data collection/analysis for a bunch of the Office services, including Office Web Apps, Office.com, and click-to-run client deployment, according to a job posting on the Microsoft site.

"Going forward, we are investing in innovative new scenarios and technologies in partnership with Windows Azure and teams across the entire Office division," the job posting said, including building and improving the engineering and business infrastructure for Office Online Services running on top of Windows Azure.

Before Office 365 is moved to Azure, the Office and Azure teams plan to deliver on a handful of other integration points. And many of them involve Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the Azure app-platform group, and his team. (Guthrie moved to his current position in the Business Platform Division in mid-2011. He is Teper's counterpart on the Azure side of the house.)

Office 365 already uses the Windows Azure Active Directory (WAAD) as its cloud directory service. But over the next six to 12 months, Microsoft plans to surface more of the capabilities that this integration enables, such as allowing users to federate automatically with the Azure directory and provide single sign-on across Azure and Office 365 services. Microsoft also is encouraging third-party app and service vendors to support WAAD so that Office 365 and Azure users can also use single sign-on across other line-of-business products and services.

"We've done a bunch of collaboration work (with Office) around workflow, too," said Guthrie, "so that when someone checks in a document, it sets off notifications."

And in the app development space, Microsoft is encouraging those building SharePoint applications to host them on Windows Azure. Developers also can use Azure as the back-end when developing Microsoft Access apps.

It's not just Office products benefitting from Azure. Azure also will benefit from a faster Office delivery pace, Guthrie said.

In the past, "we had to build on shipping versions of products instead of the coming versions," Guthrie said. "But with services, hard-date dependencies are removed. You can just ship a new feature in another month" instead of having to hold it for several years.

Currently, Guthrie's team is releasing new Azure app-platform features approximately every three weeks, if not more frequently.

"Under the old model, it could take two to three years or longer between the time when devs wrote code to when it showed up in shipping products. We want to get this down to days or weeks -- a situation where months is considered a long time," Guthrie said.

Testers, testers, testers
For this kind of rapid iteration to happen, developers and users -- both inside and outside Microsoft -- need to have confidence in the testing process. Tests need to be in the right shape. And the team needs to be able to react quickly if and when something goes awry.

This is where having lots of data and data-analysis capabilities is key.

On the Azure side of the house, Microsoft has been using free trials of its services to help the company learn quickly if changes the team is making to its products and services are helping or hurting. Big post-mortem reviews are giving way to key performance indicators, such as the percentage of users a team wants to reach.

"We can know in days, or even hours, whether a new feature results in more people signing up or using it," Guthrie noted. And if it doesn't, the team can more rapidly assess why not. Was the feature too hidden? Was the documentation inadequate? Tweaks can happen more quickly as a result.

"This is a very different cultural change as to how Microsoft builds products," Guthrie said.

The Yammer enterprise social-networking team that Microsoft acquired last June was already onboard with this kind of testing and data-analysis before Microsoft came into the picture, said Yammer co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Adam Pisoni.

Instead of optimizing for meantime between failures, Yammer optimizes around meantime between recovery. Because quicker releases tend to mean smaller releases, the overall surface area of change is much smaller when companies deliver multiple, smaller updates than big-bang releases every year or three, Pisoni explained.

"Our development methodology was born in the cloud," Pisoni said. Because Yammer has been so data-driven, "product development has become a set of hypotheses that we can test quickly."

"Yammer is a set of 50 services that are totally independent. Office is driving that way, too," Pisoni said.

All of these inter- and intra-team changes are how Microsoft is attempting to make its Office client, server and services businesses more agile. The biggest tests as to the success of these changes will come starting this fall, when the Office team is expected to deliver the first of what may become annual Office client releases this fall with the "Gemini" update. Gemini is expected to include Metro-Style/Windows Store versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, and possibly be available first (if not only) to users who have subscribed to one of its Office 365 plans.

Will Microsoft also speed up its alleged plan for delivering Office on other platforms, too, at least partially a result of these cultural and procedural shifts? It will be interesting to see.

This story originally appeared as "Windows Azure, Yammer help pilot Microsoft toward a next-generation Office" on ZDNet.