PaaS & Cloud-Native Technologies

If you have worked with Azure for a while, you’re aware of the benefits of PaaS, such as the ability to have the cloud provider manage the underlying storage and compute infrastructure so you don’t have to worry about things like patching, hardware failures, and capacity management. Another important benefit of PaaS is the rich ecosystem of value-add services like database, identity, and monitoring as a service that can help reduce time to market.

So if PaaS is so cool, why are cloud-native technologies like Kubernetes and Prometheus all the rage these days? In fact, not just Kubernetes and Prometheus, there is a groundswell of related cloud-native projects. Just visit the cloud-native landscape to see for yourself.

Key Benefits of Cloud-Native Architecture

Here are ten reasons why cloud-native architecture is getting so much attention:

  1. Application as a first-class construct — Rather than speak in terms of VMs, storage, firewall rules, etc. cloud-native is about application-specific constructs. Whether it is a Helm chart that defines the blueprint of your application or a service mesh configuration that defines the network in application-specific terms.
  1. Portability — Applications can run on any CNCF certified clouds and on-premises and edge devices. The API surface is exactly the same.
  1. Cost efficiency — By densely packing the application components (or containers) on the underlying cluster, the cost of running an application is significantly more efficient.
  1. Extensibility model — Standards-based extensibility model allows you to tap into innovations offered by the cloud provider of your choice. For instance, using the service catalog and open service broker for Azure, you can package a Kubernetes application with a service like Cosmos DB.
  1. Language agnostic — Cloud-native architecture can support a wide variety of languages and frameworks including .NET, Java, Node etc.
  1. Scale your ops teams — Because the underlying infrastructure is decoupled from the applications, there is greater consistency for lower levels of your infrastructure. This allows your ops team to scale much more efficiently.
  1. Consistent and “decoupled” — In addition to greater consistency at the lower levels of infrastructure, applications developers are exposed to a consistent set of constructs for deploying their applications. For example, Pod, Service Deployment and Job. These constructs remain the same across cloud, on-premises and edge environments. Furthermore, these constructs also help decouple the developers from the underlying layers (Cluster, Kernel and Hardware layers ) shown in the diagram below.decoupling
  1. Declarative Model – Kubernetes, Istio, and other projects are based on a declarative, configuration-based model that support self-healing. This means that any deviation from the “desired state” is automatically “healed” by the underlying system. Declarative models reduce the need for imperative automation scripts that can be expensive to develop and maintain.
  1. Community momentum – As stated earlier, the community momentum behind CNCF is unprecedented. Kubernetes is #1 open source project in terms of contributions. In addition to Kubernetes and Prometheus, there are close to 500 projects that have collectively attracted over $5 B of venture funding! In the latest survey, (August 2018), the use of cloud-native technologies in production has gone up by 200% since Dec 2017.
  1. Ticket to DevOps 2.0 – Cloud-native combines the well-recognized benefits of what is being termed as “DevOps 2.0” that combines hermetically sealed and immutable container images, microservices and continuous deployment. Please refer to the excellent book by Victor Farcic.

Now that we understand the key benefits of cloud-native technologies, let us compare it to a traditional PaaS offering:

Attribute Tradition PaaS Cloud-Native as a Service
Portability Limited Advanced
Application as a first-class construct Limited (application construct limited to the specific PaaS service) Advanced construct including Helm, network and security policies
Managed offering Mature (fully managed) Maturing (some aspects of the cluster management currently require attention)
Stateful applications Advanced capabilities offered by the database as service offerings Some cloud-native support for stateful applications (However, cloud-native applications can be integrated with PaaS database offerings through the service catalog)
Extensibility Limited Advanced (extensibility includes Container Network Interface, Container Runtime Interface)

Azure & CNCF

Fortunately, Microsoft has been a strong supporter of CNCF, as they joined CNCF back in 2017 as a platinum member. Since then, they have made significant investments in a CNCF-compliant offering in the form of Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS). AKS combines the aforementioned benefits of a cloud-native computing with a fully managed offering – think of AKS as a PaaS solution that is also CNCF compliant.

Additionally, AKS addresses enterprise requirements such as compliance standards, integration with capabilities like Azure AD, Key Vault, Azure Files etc. Finally, offerings like Azure Dev Spaces and Azure DevOps greatly enhance the CI/ CD experience in working with cloud-native applications. I will be remiss not to talk about VS Code extension for Kubernetes that also brings a useful tooling to the mix.

Cloud-Native Use Cases

Here are few key use cases for cloud-native applications. Microservices are something you would expect, of course.  Customers are also being used to run Apache Spark on AKS.  There is also thinking around managing IoT Edge deployments right from within the Kubernetes environment. Finally, “Lift and shift to containers” – this use case is getting a lot of attention from customers as the preferred route for moving on-premises applications to the cloud. Please refer to our recent blog post on this very topic “A “Modernize-by-Shifting” App Modernization Approach” for more details!

Cloud-Native Scenarios

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Microsoft Power Platform: Application Development Platform for General Purpose Business Apps

In recent years, with the transition to the cloud, SharePoint teams’ recommendation has been to move custom functionality “down” to the client computer or “over” to a host outside of SharePoint. This change has had a direct impact on enterprises that have long viewed SharePoint as an application development platform.

Today’s best practices show that a grouping of applications, such as case management apps, inventory or issue tracking, and fleet management (depicted in the dotted area of the diagram below) is no longer best suited to be built on top of SharePoint. This is where Microsoft Power Platform comes in for cross-platform app development.

Microsoft Power Platform as an app development platform

What is the Microsoft Power Platform (MPP)?

Microsoft Power Platform (or MPP) is being seen as the aPaaS layer that nicely complements mature Azure IaaS and PaaS offerings. Here are a few reasons we’re excited about MPP:

  • It offers a low-code/no code solution for rapid application development
  • The PowerApps component supports cross-platform app development for mobile and responsive web application solutions
  • Flow within MPP also offers a workflow and rules capability for implementing business processes
  • CDS offers a service for storing business objects

SharePoint as an App Development Platform

On January 30, 2007, we released a paper called “SharePoint as an Application Development Platform” to coincide with the release of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 or MOSS. We didn’t have the slightest expectation that this paper would be downloaded over half a million times from our website.

Based on the broad themes outlined in this paper, we went on to develop several enterprise-grade applications on the SharePoint platform for commercial as well as public sector enterprises. Of course, anyone who participated in SharePoint development in 2007 and onwards can vouch for the excitement around the amazing adoption of SharePoint.

Features, Add-Ins or “Apps,” and More

A few years later, SharePoint 2010 was announced with even more features that aligned with the application development platform theme. In 2013, the SharePoint team went on to add the notion of apps (now called add-ins) – we even wrote a book on SharePoint Apps. The most recent version of SharePoint is 2019 and it continues the tradition of adding new development capabilities.

All the Ingredients for Unprecedented Success

If you look back, it is easy to see why SharePoint was so successful. SharePoint was probably the first platform that balanced self-service capabilities with IT governance. Even though the underlying SharePoint infrastructure was governed by IT, business users could provision websites, document libraries, lists, and more in a self-service manner.

Compare this to the alternative at that time, which was to develop an ASP.NET application from scratch and then having to worry about operationalizing it including backup, recovery, high availability, etc. Not to mention the content and data silo that may result from yet another application being added to the portfolio.

Furthermore, the “Out of the Box” (OOTB) SharePoint applications constructs including lists, libraries, sites, web parts, structured and unstructured content, granular permissions, and workflows allowed developers to build applications in a productive manner.

With all these ingredients for success, SharePoint went on to become an enterprise platform of choice with close to 200 million licenses sold and, in the process, creating a ten-billion-dollar economy.

By 2013, Signs of Strain Emerged for SharePoint as an App Development Platform

With the transition to the cloud and lessons learned from early design choices, weaknesses in SharePoint as an app development platform started to show. Here are some examples:

  • Limitations around structured data – Storing large lists has always been challenging, despite the improvements over the years to increased scalability targets for lists. Combine scalability challenges with the query limitations and it makes for a less than ideal construct for general-purpose business application development.
  • Isolation limitations – SharePoint was not designed with isolation models for custom code. As a result, SharePoint farm solutions that run as full-trust solutions on the server side have fallen out of favor. The introduction of sandbox mode didn’t help since isolation/multi-tenancy was not baked in the original SharePoint design. The current recommendation is to build customizations as add-ins that run on the client side or on an external system.
  • External data integration challenges – BDC (Business Data Services) was designed to bring data from external systems into SharePoint. Business Connectivity Services (BCS) extensibility model was designed to allow an ecosystem of third-party and custom connectors to be built. But BCS never gained significant adoption with limited third-party support. Furthermore, BCS is restricted in the online model.
  • Workflow limitations – Workflows inside SharePoint are based on Windows Workflow Foundation (WF). WF was designed before the REST and HTTP became the lingua franca of integration over the web. As a result, even though SharePoint-based workflows work well for a document-centric workflow like approval, they are limited when it comes to integrating with external systems. Additionally, the combination of WF and SharePoint has not been the easiest thing to debug.
  • Lack of native mobile support – SharePoint was not designed for mobile experiences from the ground up. Over the years, SharePoint has improved the mobile experience through the support for device channels. Device channels allow for selection of different master pages and style sheets based on the target device. But device support is limited to publishing pages and even those require non-trivial work to get right. In a mobile-first world, a platform built with mobile in mind is going to be the ideal cross-platform app development tool for enterprises.
  • Access Services (and other similar services) never took off – Access databases are quintessential examples of DIY Line of Business (LOB) Apps. So when SharePoint 2010 introduced a capability to publish Access databases to SharePoint, it sought to offer the best of both worlds, self-service combined with governance (the latter being the bane of access databases). However, that goal proved too good to be true and Access Services never caught on and are now being deprecated.
  • Development “cliffs” – SharePoint was supposed to enable business users to build their own customizations through tools like Visio and SharePoint designer. The idea was that business users would be able to build customizations themselves using SharePoint designer and if they ran into a limitation (or the “cliff”), they could export their artifacts into a professional development tool like Visual Studio. In reality, this dichotomy of tools never worked and you almost always had to start over.
  • State of art in-low / no-code development – If you look at leading high-productivity application development platforms, the state of art seems to be around a declarative model-driven application approach. In other words, using a drag and drop UI, a user can generate a metadata-based configuration that describes the application, flow of application pages, etc. At runtime, the underlying platform interprets this configuration and binds the actions to the built-in database. SharePoint obviously has a rich history of offering no-code solutions, but it is not based on a consistent and common data model and scripting language.
  • Monolith versus micro-services – In many ways, SharePoint has become a “monolith” with tons of features packed into one product — content management, records management, business process, media streaming, app pages — you name it. Like all monoliths, it may make sense to break the functionality into “micro” services.

Note: With all the challenges listed above, SharePoint as a collaboration software continues to grow. In fact, it’s stronger than ever, especially when it comes to building collaboration-centric apps and solutions using the SharePoint framework and add-ins.

Just visit the thriving open source-based development centered around SharePoint Development to see for yourself.

Enter the Microsoft Power Platform (MPP)

The below diagram depicts a high-level view of the Microsoft Power Platform (MPP).

Microsoft Power Platform Infrastructure Overview

The “UI” Layer: Power Apps, Power BI, and Flow

At the highest level, you have the Power Apps, Power BI, and Flow tools.

Power Apps is a low-code platform as a service (PaaS) solution that allows for business app development with very little code. These apps can be built with drag and drop UI elements that work across mobile, tablet, and web form factors. In addition to the visual elements, there’s an Excel-like language called PowerApps Expression Language that’s designed to implement lightweight business logic and binding visual controls to data. Since PowerApps comes with a player for Android and iPhone devices, it doesn’t need to be published or downloaded from app stores.

Additionally, admin functions like publication, versioning, and deployment environments are baked into the PowerApps service. The PaaS solution can be used to build two types of apps:

  1. Canvas apps – as the name suggests, these allow you to start with a canvas and build a highly-tailored app.
  2. Model-driven apps – also as the name suggests, these allow you to auto-generate an app based on a “model” – business and core processes.

You’re likely already familiar with Power BI. It’s a business analytics as a service offering that allows you to create rich and interactive visualizations of sources of data.

Flow is a Platform as a Service (PaaS) capability that allows you to quickly implement business workflows that connect various apps and services.

Working together, PowerApps, Flow and Power BI allow for business users to easily and seamlessly build the UI, business process, and BI visualizations of a cross-platform, responsive business application. These services are integrated together to make the experience even better. As an example, you can embed a Canvas PowerApp inside of Power BI or vice versa.

The “Datastore and Business Rules” Layer

Common Database Service (CDS) allows you to securely store and manage data used by business applications. In contrast to a Database as a service offering like Azure SQL Database, think of CDS as a “business objects as a service”. Azure SQL Database removes the need for physical aspects of the database but as a consumer of Azure SQL, you’re still required to own the logical aspects of the data, such as schema, indexing and query optimization, and permissions.

In CDS all you do is define your business entities and their relationships. All logical and physical aspects of the database are managed for you. In addition, you get auditing, field level security, OData API, and rich metadata for free.

Finally, CDS offers a place to host “server-side” business rules in the form of actions and workflows. It’s important to note that CDS is powered by Dynamics CRM under the covers (see [1] for more information on this). This means that any skills and assets that your team has around Dynamics will seamlessly transition to CDS.

“External Systems Connector” Layer

PowerApps comes with a large collection of connectors that allow you to connect with a wide array of third-party applications and services (like SalesForce and Work Day) and bind the data to PowerApps visual controls. In addition, you can also connect to a custom app of service via Azure API Management and Functions.

How Can MPP Alleviate SharePoint Development Challenges?

MPP is a platform designed from the ground up for building business apps. Here’s how it can help alleviate the challenges users may experience with SharePoint as an app development platform.

Challenge SharePoint as a dev platform Power Platform
Structured Data Limits of items, throttling, and queries Backed by a fully relational model
Isolation No server-side isolation model. Server-based farm solutions are discouraged. Each tenant is isolated and allows for running custom code
External Data Integration BCS – limited third-party support 230+ connectors
Workflow Limitations Document-centric workflow HTTP REST based scalable workflow construct that can leverage OOTB connectors
Mobile Support Limited support in the form of device channels Designed from the ground up for mobile support
Development “Cliffs” Hard to transition from citizen dev to prod dev tools There a single tool for citizen developers and pro dev users. Pro dev users have the ability to use the extensibility to call Azure Functions, Logics Apps etc. for richer and complex functionality.
Low Code Development No common domain model or scripting language Designed from the ground-up as a low code development environment.
Monolith vs micro-services-based approach Monolith Comprised of a collection of “micro” services PowerApps, Flow, Power BI, CDS

Comparing Reference Architectures

The following diagram compares the SharePoint and MPP reference architectures.

SharePoint and MPP Reference Architectures Compared

Power Platform Components Inside SharePoint?

It’s noteworthy that advancements in MPP are available in SharePoint. For example, “standalone” Canvas PowerApps and Flow integrate directly into SharePoint are shown in the table below.

In many ways, this development represents a realignment of SharePoint’s place in the application development space. We believe that MPP is the new “hub”, while SharePoint (and other Office 365 components) represent “spokes” in this model.

PowerApps as a “custom form” for a SharePoint list item.

PowerApps as a custom form for a SharePoint list item example

Flow powering a document-centric workflow

Flow powering a document-centric workflow example

Consider MPP for Your Next Business App Development Project

The Microsoft Power Platform is an aPaaS offering that’s designed from the ground up as a general-purpose business application development platform, which includes native mobile support, first-class low-code environment, business data as a service, a lightweight workflow engine, and rich business analytics all in one. We believe that a category of applications, that were previously built on SharePoint will benefit in moving to the Microsoft Power Platform.

[1] xRM with Dynamics CRM

xRM style applications have been built on Dynamics CRM for years. Unfortunately, the licensing story to support this model was not ideal. For example, customers could not license a “base” version without paying for sales, marketing functionality built OOB.

That’s all changing with CDS. PowerApps licenses, such as P1 and P2, give customers access to what’s referred to as “Application Common” or Base instance of CDS.

CDS Apps Instance vs Dynamics Instance

Learn More About MPP & Your App Development Platform Options

The road to general-purpose business application development can be challenging to navigate with all of the tools and platforms available, as well as the unique pros and cons of each option. Not sure where to start? Start with a conversation!

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See if MPP is a good fit for your orgs app development needs. Contact your partner at AIS today!

AIS Gets Connection of DoD DISA Cloud Access Point at Impact Level 5

Getting the DoD to the Cloud

Our team was able to complete the near-impossible. We connected to the DoD DISA Cloud Access Point at Impact Level 5, meaning our customer can now connect and store any unclassified data they want on their Azure subscription.

About the Project

The project started in July 2017 to connect an Azure SharePoint deployment to the DoD NIPRnet at Impact Level 5. Throughout the process, the governance and rules of engagement were a moving target, presenting challenges at every turn.

Thanks to the tenacity and diligence of the team, we were able to successfully achieve connection to the Cloud Access Point (CAP) on September 6th, 2018. This was a multi-region, with 2 connections, SharePoint IaaS always-on deployment, which involved completing all required documentation for the DISA Connection (SNAP) process.

We are now moving towards the first Azure SharePoint Impact Level 5 production workload in the DoD, so be sure to stay tuned for more updates.

A Repeatable Process for Government Cloud Adoption

Azure Government was the first hyperscale commercial cloud service to be awarded an Information Impact Level 5 DoD Provisional Authorization by the Defense Information Systems Agency, and this was the first public cloud connection on Azure in the DoD 4th Estate.

With fully scripted, repeatable cloud deployment, including Cloud Access Point connection requirements, we can now get Government Agencies to the cloud faster, and more securely than ever before.

We work with fully integrated SecDevOps processes and can leverage Microsoft’s Azure Security Team for assistance in identifying applicable security controls, inherited, shared and customer required controls.

See how you can make the cloud work for you. Contact AIS today to start the conversation, or learn more about our enterprise cloud solutions.

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In this blog post, I discuss an app modernization approach that we call “modernize-by-shifting.” In essence, we take an existing application and move it to “managed” container hosting environments like Azure Kubernetes Service or Azure Service Fabric Mesh. The primary goal of this app modernization strategy is to undertake minimal possible change to the existing application codebase. This approach to modernization is markedly different from a “lift-and-shift” approach where workloads are migrated to the cloud IaaS unchanged with little to no use of cloud native capabilities.

Step One of App Modernization by Shifting

As the first step of this approach, an existing application is broken into a set of container images that include everything needed to run a portion of the application: code, runtime, system tools, system libraries, and settings. Approaches to breaking up the application in smaller parts can vary based on original architecture. For example, if we begin with multi-tier application, each tier (e.g. presentation, application, business, data access) could map to a container image. While this approach will admittedly lead to coarser-grained images, compared to a puritanical microservices-based approach of light-weight images, it should be seen as the first step in modernizing the application.

Read More…

I put together a two-part video presentation on how (and why!) to take on-premises applications and move them to the cloud (specifically the Azure PaaS platform), and how to do it quickly.

The second video continues the process and covers app modernization with Service Fabric.

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One of the biggest roadblocks to government digital transformation is the lack of effective IT governance. Unresolved concerns including privacy, security and organizational silos that limit data sharing and analysis continue to pose hurdles for agencies.

Last night’s Azure Government Meetup in Washington, D.C. featured a stellar lineup of industry-leading experts who shared insights and strategies on achieving effective IT governance in areas including identity, portfolio and records management.

If you missed it, you can catch the replay hereRead More…

Azure Data Lake logoFirst Things First…What’s a Data Lake?

If you’re not already familiar with the term, a “data lake” is generally defined as an expansive collection of data that’s held in its original format until needed. Data lakes are repositories of raw data, collected over time, and intended to grow continually. Any data that’s potentially useful for analysis is collected from both inside and outside your organization, and is usually collected as soon as it’s generated. This helps ensure that the data is available and ready for transformation and analysis when needed. Data lakes are central repositories of data that can answer business questions…including questions you haven’t thought of yet.

Azure Data Lake

Azure Data Lake is actually a pair of services: The first is a repository that provides high-performance access to unlimited amounts of data with an optional hierarchical namespace, thus making that data available for analysis. The second is a service that enables batch analysis of that data. Azure Data Lake Storage provides the high performance and unlimited storage infrastructure to support data collection and analysis, while Azure Data Lake Analytics provides an easy-to-use option for an on-demand, job-based, consumption-priced data analysis engine.

We’ll now take a closer look at these two services and where they fit into your cloud ecosystem. Read More…

ICON & GOLD Teaming Up To Explore Earth’s Interface to SpaceFor years, Federal agencies have struggled to drive efficiencies while addressing the growing volume and increasing size of geospatial data. Legacy stove-pipe connectivity and desktop thick-clients have prevented traditional production environments from achieving the potential of a modern cloud-based architecture. Coupled with responsive web-based components, the cloud offers a seamless framework to automate tasks such as data ingestion, pre-processing and product generation. AIS is proud to be helping our users migrate into these next-generation production environments.

Our Federal team is currently involved with multiple projects that foster the adoption of cloud-based tasking, ingestion, processing and visualization using open-source web technologies. We foster an approach to migrating data processing algorithms from research groups across the Intelligence Community into production environments such as AWS Commercial Cloud Services (C2S).

For instance, the open-sourced NGA Scale framework allows users to customize heavy data processing schedules and tasks, while leveraging and managing a large number of cluster nodes used to process each job.

Right…. So what does that mean, exactly? Read More…

The Microsoft Government Tech Summit – a free, technical learning event for IT professionals and developers – is coming to Washington D.C., March 5-6, 2018! This two-day event will be packed with technical content, and this year Microsoft is showcasing Azure Government and Microsoft 365 for US Government.

Our Cloud Application Development Director, Brent Wodicka, is presenting this year on “A PaaS-First Approach to DoD Mission Apps” on March 5th at 1 p.m.  He will be co-presenting with Microsoft’s Derek Strausbaugh, and showcasing how Azure simplifies and re-imagines legacy mission applications. Registration is now open, and we’re hoping you can join us!

As the expectations of citizens increase, the need for technology innovation in government intensifies. Learn how cloud innovation can help meet the needs of the nation. Whether you’re interested in learning about security approaches or attracting and retaining talent with a more flexible and modern workstyle, Microsoft Government Tech Summit can help you evolve your skills and deepen your expertise to lead your agency through digital transformation.

What to expect:

  • Connect with experts from Microsoft and the community, and learn how to get the most from the cloud. Ask your toughest questions, learn best practices, and share strategies.
  • Choose from a variety of learning opportunities to deepen your cloud expertise, from keynotes and breakout sessions, to hands-on labs and a hackathon.
  • Customize your learning – whether you’re already cloud-savvy or just getting started – Microsoft Government Tech Summit has something for everyone.
  • Discover the latest trends, tools, and product roadmaps at more than 60 sessions covering a range of topics, including over 40 sessions focused on the needs of government agencies.

The cloud is changing expectations – and transforming the way we live and work. Join us at the Microsoft Government Tech Summit and learn how Microsoft’s cloud platform can help you lead your agency through digital transformation – and make the cloud part of your mission success.

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About this time last month, Microsoft announced that its Azure Government cloud platform received Authority to Operate (ATO) designations from both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Air Force gave Azure Government the Defense Department‘s Impact Level 4 ATO, while ICE issued a FedRAMP High ATO.

In other words, that DoD Impact Level 4 ATO confirms that Azure Government complies with security standards required to host “controlled unclassified data for development, test and production environments within CCE.” The Air Force has already started to build a cloud infrastructure through the ATO and a shared application platform and hosting environment.

The FedRAMP High ATO authorizes Azure Government to handle ICE’s most sensitive unclassified data, including data that supports the agency’s core functions and protects against loss of life. The agency is currently implementing transformative technologies for homeland security and public safety, and the High ATO designation for Azure will allow them to innovate even faster.

This is great news for both the agencies and for Azure Government. We’ve helped large federal agencies make the move to the cloud using Azure tools, and while these migrations are always quite complex, we’ve actually streamlined the process down to five crucial steps: Compliance, envisioning, onboarding, deployment, and sustainment. 

AIS’ five-step DoD Cloud Adoption Framework is built on lessons we’ve learned from countless successful commercial and DoD secure cloud migrations and results in an expedited yet fully compliant process. We’re looking forward to helping many more agencies head to the cloud as a trusted Microsoft (and government) partner.

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