Microsoft automates cloud access management for engineers

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Office 365 support 'democratised'.

Microsoft has deployed a new rights management system to improve the way the company handles cloud outages.

Lockbox began development in 2010 to automate rights management for engineering, allowing them temporary access to higher-tier privileges to fix outages more quickly.

It was the brainchild of Raj Rajagopalan, a then greenhorn Office 365 engineer who, like many others starting out, was lobbed with the on-call graveyard shift for the cloud software as a service during his first week in early 2010.

The idea was born sometime after his alarm blared around 3am. A customers’ Office 365 installation had crashed and Rajagopalan needed to reboot the systems.

But he lacked the authorisation for the disruptive fix, so he phoned on-call operations asking for a reboot.

They too lacked the privileges to do so, and called the incident manager.

Operations were eventually granted the right to reboot the systems, and services were quickly restored.

But the sluggish management process meant the performance benchmark by which engineers are measured — mean time to recovery (MTTR) — had blown out.

Project Lockbox, built during Rajagopalan’s weekends in Microsoft’s Garage prototype lab, slashed the measurement within Microsoft’s Office team.

It was showcased in September last year as a prototype at one of the lab’s eight annual science fairs, winning approval for development and staff resources.

Lockbox went live internally across Microsoft’s Office engineering team in January this year.

“MTTR of issues is much faster now because we cut out a lot of processes like triage,” Rajagopalan said.

Department staff were stripped of access rights and given base-level access, with temporary elevated privileges afforded on-demand through Lockbox.

Requests for elevated access deemed to be abnormal by the automated systems are flagged by Lockbox and sent to a manager for manual approval.

“It could be said we democratised the model,” Rajagopalan said.

Minimum privileges mean engineers can only see customer data when they request access, which is logged.

A mobile phone app was also built for Lockbox on Windows Phone.

Prototyping the future

Many more projects have born and died in Microsoft’s Garage, but its manager Quinn Hawkins doesn’t shed any tears.

“Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s the execution that’s hard,” he said.

Engineers use the Garage in and out of work hours and pitch their projects to department heads on science fair days.

Good projects, Hawkins said, came from prototypes and not brain-storming maps or voting polls.

“You get whims, not innovation; for instance you could have a great idea for the Windows kernel, but only a few people get what that is, so it doesn’t get the votes. Idea sites are where ideas go to die.”

About 50 tools are produced in the Garage every month, with successful ideas developed for use by approximately 40,000 Microsoft employees.

Copyright © SC Magazine, Australia


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