Archive for Technology

Using Real Time Data Analytics and Visualization Tools to Drive Your Business Forward

Business leaders need timely information about the operations and profitability of the businesses they manage to help make informed decisions. But when information delivery is delayed, decision makers lose precious time to adjust and respond to changing market conditions, customer preferences, supplier issues or all three. When thinking about any business analytics solution, a critical question to ask is: how frequently can we (or should we) update the underlying data? Often, the first answer from the business stakeholders is “as frequently as possible.” The concept of “real time analytics,” with data being provided up-to-the minute, is usually quite attractive. But there may be some confusion about what this really means.

While the term real time analytics does refer to data which is frequently changing, it is not the same as simply refreshing data frequently. Traditional analytics packages which take advantage of data marts, data warehouses and data cubes are often collectively referred to as a Decision Support System (DSS). A DSS helps business analysts, management and ownership understand historical trends in their business, perform root cause analysis and enable strategic decisions. Whereas a DSS system aggregates and analyzes sales, costs and other transactions, a real time analytics system ingests and processes events. One can imagine a $25 million business recording 10,000 transactions a day. One can imagine that same business recording events on their website: login, searches, shopping cart adds, shopping card deletes, product image zoom events. If the business is 100% online, how many events would that be? The answer may astonish you.

Why Real Time Analytics?

DSS solutions answer questions such as “What was our net income last month?”, “What was our net income compared to the same month last year?” or “Which customers were most profitable last month?” Real time analytics answers questions such as “Is the customer experience positive right now?” or “How can we optimize this transaction right now?” In the retail industry, listening to social media channels to hear what customers are saying about their experience in your stores, can drive service level adjustments or pricing promotions. When that analysis is real-time, store managers can adjust that day for optimized profitability. Some examples:

  1. Social media sentiment analysis – addressing customer satisfaction concerns
  2. Eliminating business disruption costs with equipment maintenance analytics
  3. Promotion and marketing optimization with web and mobile analytics
  4. Product recommendations throughout the shopping experience, online or “brick and mortar”
  5. Improved health care services with real time patient health metrics from wearable technology

In today’s world, customers expect world class service. Implicit in that expectation is the assumption that companies with whom they do business “know them”, anticipate their needs and respond to them. That’s easy to say, but harder to execute. Companies who must meet that expectation need technology leaders to be aware of three concepts critical to making real time analytics a real thing.

The first is Internet of Things or IoT. The velocity and volume of data generated by mobile devices, social media, factory floor sensors, etc. is the basis for real time analytics. “Internet of Things” refers to devices or sensors which are connected to the internet, providing data about usage or simply their physical environment (where the device is powered on). Like social media and mobile devices, IoT sensors can generate enormous volumes of data very, very quickly – this is the “big data” phenomenon.

The second is Cloud Computing. The massive scale of IoT and big data can only be achieved with cloud scale data storage and cloud scale data processing. Unless your company’s name is Google, Amazon or Microsoft, you probably cannot keep up. So, to achieve real-time analytics, you must embrace cloud computing.

The third is Intelligent Systems. IBM’s “Watson” computer achieved a significant milestone by out-performing humans on Jeopardy. Since then, companies have been integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into large scale systems. AI in this sense is simply a mathematical model which calculates the probability that data represents something a human would recognize: a supplier disruption, a dissatisfied customer about to cancel their order, an equipment breakdown. Using real time data, machine learning models can recognize events which are about to occur. From there, they can automate a response, or raise an alert to the humans involved in the process. Intelligent systems help humans make nimble adjustments to improve the bottom line.

What technologies will my company need to make this happen?

From a technology perspective, a clear understanding of cloud computing is essential. When evaluating a cloud platform, CIO’s should look for breadth of capability and support for multiple frameworks. As a Microsoft Partner, BlumShapiro Consulting works with Microsoft Azure and its Cortana Intelligence platform. This gives our clients cloud scale, low cost and a wide variety of real time and big data processing options.

CIO Article 1

This diagram describes the Azure resources which comprise Cortana Intelligence. The most relevant resources for real time analytics are:

  1. Event Hubs ingest high velocity streaming data being sent by Event Providers (i.e. Sensors and Devices)
  2. Data Lake Store provide low cost cloud storage which no practical limits
  3. Stream Analytics perform in-flight processing of streaming data
  4. Machine Learning, or AzureML, supports the design, evaluation and integration of predictive models into the real-time pipeline
  5. Cognitive Services are out-of-the-box Artificial Intelligence services, addressing a broad range of common machine intelligence scenarios
  6. Power BI supports streaming datasets made visible in a dashboard context

Four Steps to Get Started with Real Time Analytics

Start with the Eye Candy – If you do not have a dashboard tool which supports real-time data streaming, consider solutions such as Power BI (link to our web page). Even if you are not ready to implement an IoT solution, Power BI makes any social media or customer marketing campaigns much more feasible. Power BI can be used to connect databases, data marts, data warehouses and data cubes, and is valuable as a dashboard and visualization tool for existing DSS systems. Without visualization, it will be very difficult to provide human insights and actions for any kind of data, slow or fast.

Get to the Cloud – Cloud storage costs and cloud processing scale are the only mechanisms by which real time analytics is economically feasible (for most companies). Learn how investing in technologies like Cloud Computing can really help move your business forward.

Embrace Machine Intelligence – To make intelligent systems a reality, you will need to understand machine learning technologies, if only at a high level. Historically, this has meant developing a team of data scientists, many of whom have PhD’s in Mathematics or Statistics, and open source tools like R or Python. Today, machine learning is much more accessible then it has ever been. AzureML helps to fast track both the evaluation and operationalization of predictive models.

Find the Real-Time Opportunity – As the technology leader in the organization, CIO’s will need to work closely with other business leaders to understand where real-time information can increase revenue, decrease costs or both. This may require imagination. Start with the question – what would we like to know faster? If we knew our customer was going to do this sooner, how would we respond? If we knew our equipment was going to fail sooner, how would we respond? If we knew there was an opportunity to sell more, how would we respond?

Berry_Brian-240About Brian: Brian Berry leads the Microsoft Business Intelligence and Data Analytics practice at BlumShapiro. He has over 15 years of experience with information technology (IT), software design and consulting. Brian specializes in identifying business intelligence (BI) and data management solutions for upper mid-market manufacturing, distribution and retail firms in New England. He focuses on technologies which drive value in analytics: data integration, self-service BI, cloud computing and predictive analytics

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4 Cost Saving DevOps Tools on Azure

Technology leaders need to pay attention to DevOps. Yes, it’s a funny little name. Wikipedia states that DevOps is a compound of “development” and “operations” before explaining it as “a culture, movement or practice that emphasizes the collaboration and communication of both software developers and other information-technology (IT) professionals while automating the process of software delivery and infrastructure changes.”

Technology professionals know that identifying, tracking and resolving bugs costs money. If you are the one writing the software (and sooner or later, everyone will), the bugs are on your dime. Good testing practices can help minimize bugs and costs. However, sometimes bugs result from deployment practices. Indeed, the best technology operations focus on standardized, automated testing and release management practices. By DevOps best practices, software teams treat software deliverables the way a manufacturing company treats finished goods – ruthlessly eliminating deviations with automation.

If you have tried and failed to create innovative solutions within your company by writing software, there could be several reasons why that happened. If you think you got the requirements right, and think the architecture was right, and your software developers understand the technology, then examine the process of delivering the software to the users.

Delivering Software Cost Effectively

The concept behind DevOps has been known as Continuous Integration (CI), Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) and by other names. Often, IT departments found ALM complex, or did not have the knowledge required to design a pipeline for software development. But, the tools have continued to evolve, and the processes have simplified. Today, Cloud vendors deliver DevOps services to technology professionals which are very hard to dismiss. Among the very best is Microsoft’s Azure platform. Microsoft Azure provides many tools for standardizing, testing and delivering high quality software.

Here are my four favorites:

Azure Resource Management (ARM) templates

Azure Resource Management templates are JSON documents which can be used to describe a complete set of Azure services. These documents can be saved and managed by IT operations personnel. This highlights a key cloud computing value proposition: the cloud offers technology as a “standard service” and each service can be encapsulated to be brought up and down as needed.

ARM templates can describe Infrastructure-as-a-Service offerings (i.e. Virtual Machines, Networks and Storage). This enables Dev / Test Labs to be designed, templated, deployed and undeployed as needed. Technology teams which must plan for an upgrade by providing a test environment no longer need to buy infrastructure to support a virtual environment. Instead, they can define the environment as an ARM. Azure allows you to build the environment once, extract the ARM template for later use, and then destroy the resources.

ARM templates can describe Platform-as-a-Service offerings (i.e. Websites, Services, Databases). This enables the exact same concept, with even better results. In the end, you don’t even have any servers to manage or patch: the underlying infrastructure is standardized. This brings me to Deployment Slots.

Deployment Slots

A common best practice in delivering software is to have at least one Quality Assurance (QA) environment. This shadow environment should replicate production as closely as possible. However. in the PaaS world, we don’t have control of the underlying infrastructure – that’s great, it’s standardized and we want to keep it that way. But we don’t want to abandon the practice of performing final testing before deploying to production.

With deployment slots, we get the ability to create a number of “environments” for our applications and services, then switch them back and forth as needed. Let’s say you have a new software release which you want to ensure passes some tests before releasing to the user community. Simply create a slot called “Staging” for deployment, perform your tests, then switch to production.

azure deployment

Uh oh – we missed something. We’re human after all. Users are reporting bugs and they liked it better the way we had it. Switch it back – no harm no foul.

Deployment Azure 2

There are some important things to consider before adding Deployment Slots to your DevOps pipeline. For example, if your application relies upon a database of some kind, you may need to provision staging copy for your tests. You also need to be aware that Connection Strings are one of the configuration values which can switch with the slot, unless configured to do otherwise.

Deploy to Azure

I was recently treated to some excellent material on the Cortana Analytics Suite of products. Paying close attention (as I sometimes do), I noticed that the lab environment was prepared for me as an ARM template. I was directed to GitHub (an online public software repository) and told to push the button marked “Deploy to Azure”. When I did, I was brought to http://deploy.azure.com – and the URL included a reference to the GitHub location, or repository, which I had just visited. The author of the software had placed an ARM template describing the entire lab environment, and included a few parameters so that I could fill in the information from my Azure subscription. 20 minutes later, I had Machine Learning, Hadoop/Spark, Data Factory and Power BI resources at my fingertips. Later in the day, we did deployed again, this time deploying a simple Web app which consumed Advanced Analytics services. When I was finished, I simply deleted the resources – the entire day cost me less than $20 of Azure consumption costs. Deploying an app has never been easier.

Azure Container Services

No discussion of DevOps would be complete without mentioning Docker. Docker is a platform gaining popularity among developers and IT operations for its consistency with Virtual Machines and lower overhead. Essentially, Docker runs as a subsystem which hosts containers. A container is similar in functionality to ARM.

Azure Container Services 1

Azure Container Services 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DevOps Tools on Azure

Linux or Windows, Open Source or Closed, Infrastructure or Platform, TFS or GitHub. None of that matters anymore. No more excuses – Microsoft Azure provides outstanding DevOps tooling for Modern Application Development. If you have not deployed your first application to Azure, let’s talk. We can get you optimized quickly

Berry_Brian-240About Brian: Brian Berry leads the Microsoft Business Intelligence and Data Analytics practice at BlumShapiro. He has over 15 years of experience with information technology (IT), software design and consulting. Brian specializes in identifying business intelligence (BI) and data management solutions for upper mid-market manufacturing, distribution and retail firms in New England. He focuses on technologies which drive value in analytics: data integration, self-service BI, cloud computing and predictive analytics

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SharePoint Mobile App Review, Tips and Tricks

Today I’d like to discuss the new SharePoint Mobile App, aka the Intranet in your pocket. In 2016, Microsoft released SharePoint 2016, along with a mobile application for the product. If you have not already downloaded the app, I highly suggest you download it, and follow along with the tips provided below. This post will serve as an introduction to the SharePoint Mobile app, highlight some of its capabilities and provide tips to make sure you take advantage of the features offered. So, let’s get started.

SharePoint Sites Feature

Sites 1It is important to understand that SharePoint is hierarchical and the sites screen illustrates this concept. This concept was not illustrated well in the current mobile web view of SharePoint, so the progress made with the app has not gone unnoticed. The mobile app provides a clean and simple sites screen, and by default settings, sites are ordered by your most recent activity. The sites screen menu provides access to view lists, libraries and sub-sites. Along with seeing the sites that you use, you also have the ability to share sites with others, or mark one as a favorite. This screen brings the best of SharePoint right to your fingertips and is a perfect start.

Embedded Browser View

A view of a site in an embedded browser view.

While navigating between sites the app will display each site differently. Some sites will load via an embedded browser in the app whereas others will have a native app screen. The embedded browser view is SharePoint’s mobile web view, and while it is not as clean or user-friendly as a native screen, it still provides the ability to see the site’s content. In the past, the mobile web view would open every site on a separate browser page causing confusion and a poor user experience, so having the embedded browser view for sites as part of the mobile app navigation is a major improvement.

Quick Tip

If you regularly use a site, I highly recommend pressing the “star” button on the site screen. This will add the site to the “Following” tab for quicker access. Remember to remove sites which you no longer have an interest in, by un-clicking on the “star” button.

SharePoint Links Feature

LinksMicrosoft knows that SharePoint is a great tool for collaboration, sharing and empowering users. The links screen provides you with easy access to both internal and external resources.  If your company has a “Quick Links” section on their intranet, then those links should also display on the SharePoint App.  If you don’t see any links displayed, contact your administrator and request that they update the “Featured Links” section in Office 365.

 

SharePoint People Feature

PeopleThe people screen provides you with direct access to your contact list and their profile pages. Creating and managing your contacts is key to getting the most out of SharePoint. If you have never used the Microsoft contacts capabilities, now is a great time to give it a try. To add new contacts you just need to navigate to Office 365, select the people link from the quick launch and start adding contacts.

I highly suggest you start by creating contacts for leaders within your organization. If you need help finding these individuals, the search feature will serve as a big help. To view an individual’s page, click on their name in the people screen. This will open a page that clearly displays their contact information, title, a photo, who they work with and recent activity.

Quick Tip

One of the most important features of people is the ability for you to add notes about your contact. For example, you can create a note that contains information about when you met a certain individual. This information can only be seen from your end and is one of the “hidden” features available in Microsoft People.

SharePoint Search Feature

In my opinion, the greatest feature in the new SharePoint mobile app is search. Using the search feature in the app is the easiest way to find the information you are looking for. The app allows you to drill down and search based on specific dimensions including sites, files, people or recommended It is clear to me that Microsoft’s investment in SharePoint search is paying off. Give it a try—go ahead and search for a file either by name or the content of the file.

See what else SharePoint can do, when it comes to workflows and automation of business processes.

Conclusion

Microsoft’s release of this SharePoint app shows their commitment to both the mobile space and SharePoint. Here at BlumShapiro Consulting, we are Gold Certified in Collaboration and Content. We are Partners in Office and Collaboration and are ready to help your business leverage these Microsoft tools. Learn more about SharePoint by looking at our library of posts on the topic here. Contact us to learn more about how SharePoint can help your organization.

Learn more about SharePoint from our library of blog content >>

 

About Hector: 

hectorHector Luciano, Jr., is a Consulting Manager at BlumShapiro, a Microsoft Gold Partner focusing on SharePoint, Office 365, mobile technologies and custom development solutions. Hector is focused on delivering high value solutions to his customers in Mobile and SharePoint.

Develop Workflows and Business Processes Without Developers

Companies are beginning to embrace technology at a higher level. However, there are still a number of businesses that have processes, a.k.a. workflows (an automated process) that rely on a user to manually enter information into an Excel spreadsheet. This spreadsheet can range from a simple list to one which has “complex” calculations that accounts for crazy exceptions (like adding 2% to the total if the month ends on a Tuesday while raining). These lists usually have one or two gatekeepers who know their calculations by heart, so if they leave the organization, the process becomes a headache for someone else or worse—grinds the business to a halt. Bottom line, it could be bad for a company.

Imagine taking your complex process and developing an application to take it over. This may seem like a steep challenge, but in today’s technological marketplace, there are services and apps that can help users create workflows and apps. Taking advantage of the technology to create these apps and workflows provides a huge benefit by getting the process knowledge and logic out of one person’s hands and into an automated process—making it accessible by anyone. This will also help to document the process and uncover any inefficiencies and deficiencies.

Microsoft, among other companies, are gearing application and workflow development toward power users and away from developers. These products are built with users in mind first, using a drag and drop interface. Most of the software tools are intuitive so little direction is needed to develop these workflows. These users already know the process intimately and don’t need to learn C# or Java or whatever language they have never heard of. However, having a technology specialist can still provide insight into workflows that might not have been thought of in the first place.

Workflow Automation Products

Below are a few Software as a Service (SaaS) workflow products that are geared towards power users.

Microsoft Flow

Flow is a drag and drop service solution used to create automated workflows in Office 365. These workflows can connect different applications and services; both enterprise (Office 365, SharePoint Online, Salesforce, CRM) and social (Twitter, DropBox, MailChimp). For example, you can easily create a Dynamics CRM entry from SharePoint list items. This happens to be a preconfigured template; requiring little effort to implement. Flow also has the ability for you to create your own custom workflows using their drag and drop interface.

PowerApps

PowerApps is a service that allows users to build Android, iOS and Windows apps without writing any code. This SaaS allows you to connect custom APIs, SharePoint, Excel, etc., and turn this data into an app. You can easily create an app to list and fill out information. Users outside of the office can use these apps on their phones and all of the data would be up-to-date in a SharePoint Online list, Excel, etc. Like Microsoft Flow, it is also hosted in Office 365 and has pre-built templates.

Power BI

Power BI is a service which can be used to build dashboards and data analytics reports using data from different sources within your organization. There are out of the box connectors to programs like Excel, Project Online, Adobe Analytics, Salesforce, CRM and others. Power BI can improve processes, even when data is in different locations that requires someone to pull together data from different places into one location. For example, say all project financials are located in an Excel spreadsheet over in Finance, yet the actual project costs are tracked by each individual team. To get all of this data into one report, someone would need to get the data from at least two different sources and merge them into one report. Power BI can automate that. Power BI is used to aggregate data from different sources into one location. In our example, instead of an executive calling on someone to get the numbers, compile them and produce a report; those numbers are displayed in Power BI, which is always up-to-date, and can even be drilled into or associated with key performance indicators (KPIs).

SharePoint Workflows

SharePoint workflows are also designed for a power user to create business processes (workflows). These can run on either SharePoint on premise or online. These workflows work well for approvals and processes that reside in SharePoint. External site integration is possible out of the box, but it does take some technical knowledge to do this. Some products fill that gap and have created a usable drag and drop interface with pre-built connectors. Two top vendors are Nintex and K2. Just like Microsoft Flow, users can build workflows by dragging actions onto a canvas.

Which Workflow Tool is the Best?

We recommend that organizations evaluate all software and services that are available to determine which product would best suit their unique business needs. They should look at features such as which product might integrate best with their existing software and what is the future software/technology strategy of the organization?

How can we help?

All organizations can benefit from streamlining processes or eliminating manual tasks. Workflows are easier to create than ever before, however, having the technical expertise of a consultant can be extremely beneficial. By being able to leverage our past experience and intimate knowledge of the products you need, we can determine the best technology for your project and implement the process along with guiding and training your users to do this themselves.

About Brent:

Brent

Brent Harvey has over 10 years of software development experience with a specific focus on SharePoint, Project Server, and C #and web development. Brent is an Architect at BlumShapiro Consulting. Brent is a Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert in SharePoint 2013, Solutions Associate in Windows Server 2012, Specialist in Developing Azure Solutions and Professional Developer in SharePoint 2010.

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