A pair of big companies explain why they jumped on board the Microsoft cloud

Microsoft Corporate VP of Azure Julia White

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Microsoft Corporate VP of Azure Julia White
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Microsoft

In the cloud service market, Microsoft finds itself firmly in second place.

But in trying to catch up with market leader Amazon, the tech giant argues it has a distinct advantage – its long history in the business software game and its long-established relationships with companies of all sizes. Microsoft knows how to meet companies’ needs, it argues.

That’s not just an idle boast, if my conversations with Geico and Dun & Bradstreet are any indication. Both companies recently turned to Microsoft’s Azure cloud service. And in both cases, the companies saw distinct benefits to using Azure over rival services.

“You can tell Microsoft is hungry,” said Pat McDevitt, the chief technology officer of Dun & Bradstreet, which recently started experimenting with Azure. “They are doing exactly what they need to do.”

Azure is in the spotlight this week thanks to Ignite, Microsoft’s annual developer conference. The company typically uses Ignite to promote its massive cloud computing platform. At this year’s event, Microsoft announced several tools to make it easier for large companies in particular to use Azure.

‘Essentially evacuating the data center’

Geico Director of IT Fikri Larguet

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Geico Director of IT Fikri Larguet
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Geico

One big company that’s already embraced Azure is Geico. The insurance giant began shifting over to Microsoft’s cloud service about three years ago, said Fikri Larguet, the company’s director of information technology. Geico’s rationale: Owning and operating data centers and servers is both expensive and outside its core area of expertise.

The company, which has more than 38,000 employees, is “essentially evacuating the data center,” Larguet said. Geico, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, has been moving a little bit at a time. But over 50% of the company’s core business services are already in the cloud and its goal is to be “full cloud” by 2020, he said.

Larguet said his team has a mandate to “get out of the data center business as quickly as possible.”

Geico bet on Azure because Microsoft had already built into its cloud service the ability to interact with lots of different applications. That made it a smooth process for Geico to bring over its existing software, Larguet said. Similar support for newer tools and technologies also made it easier for Geico to add on things like software containers, a trendy new Silicon Valley technology for building large-scale apps.

The biggest challenge Geico’s faced hasn’t been technical, Larguet said. As the team tries to adjust to a post-data center era, Larguet is trying to teach the team to “fail fast” and be unafraid of trying new things. For him, this is a chance for a fresh start in the software organization.

“We don’t want to carry over our bad habits,” he said.

‘We don’t need to be bleeding edge’

Dun & Bradstreet CTO Pat McDevitt

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Dun & Bradstreet CTO Pat McDevitt
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Dun & Bradstreet

Dun & Bradstreet, a firm that’s provided data and analytics to businesses since 1841, is taking its cloud migration a little more slowly.

The firm “doesn’t need to be a pioneer, doesn’t need to be bleeding edge,” McDevitt, its CTO, said. Dun & Bradstreet has been around the better part of two centuries; it can afford to experiment with the cloud rather than rushing to push everything over to it right away. And the firm has been experimenting; it moved over some key applications to Amazon Web Services a few years ago.

About three months ago, though, the firm started experimenting with Azure. What appealed to Dun & Bradstreet were Microsoft’s tools for managing data. Those tools make it easy for companies to build cloud-based applications that read and write from their existing databases. With them, the firm could more quickly build mobile apps and other new-wave tools.

McDevitt asked one of the firm’s development teams in Austin to test Azure by using it to build a new mobile app for Dun & Bradstreet’s clients. Although these developers’ past experience was primarily with Amazon’s cloud service, they found it so easy to work with Azure that they finished ahead of schedule.

And Azure offered the firm an another benefit. Because Microsoft has embraced technology like Docker software containers and the Linux operating system, Azure integrated better with Dun & Bradstreet’s existing systems than McDevitt had first thought. Originally, the firm was going to use Azure just for new apps. Now the firm is considering using it for older apps also, he said.

Microsoft worked really hard to win his business, McDevitt said.