Azure Machine Learning for Dynamics 365 Products recommendations

One of the new exciting features in Dynamics 365 is the intelligent product recommendation features in Microsoft Dynamics 365 CRM.

Currently, Dynamics 365 product catalog includes some basic modeling ability to link various products for cross-sell / upsell and also accessory recommendations. This is a great feature which several businesses have found extremely useful. However, the limitation here is that these links are hare coded and require someone in your organisation to constantly maintain them and update links between various products on regular basis. At some point, these hard links will expire and will need to be removed and updated, etc. The other challenge is that it is base don assumption that customers who bought product x are also interested in product y. These will be business assumptions and not intelligently calculated linkage between various products.  Maintaining these hard links require the constant overhead and complexity of analysing recommendations ranking and imagining all possible combinations of products that can be sold together.

Now Microsoft is offering a much more advanced and intelligent solution that is quite unique amongst CRM system. Microsoft Dynamics 365 can now build the product links based on recommendations which use real-world transactions as a basis for their calculations and links that can evolve over time based on current customers buying trends and without requiring any maintenance overhead.

By connecting your Dynamics 365 Solution to Microsoft Cognitive Services (called Cognitive Services recommendations services – which is based on Microsoft Azure Machine Learning), you will have recommendation modeling techniques making recommendations without any manual intervention. Using real-world transactions or interactions to find products that are sold or viewed together, Microsoft Cognitive services will push through product recommendations into your Dynamics 365 solution.

Once you add the product recommendation feature in Dynamics 365 a capability is added to the product catalog to generate automatic recommendations. You can set up the product catalog and synchronisation to build a “machine learning based recommendation model” that makes recommendations in a ranked list at various places in Dynamics 365, such as at the account, opportunity or order level.

Please note that, Microsoft Dynamics 365 product recommendations feature supports existing line item entities (OpportunityProduct, QuoteDetail, SalesOrderDetail, and InvoiceDetail) and custom line item entities, as well as standard and custom product relationships.

Source for this information and more details can be found here:

https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/mt703320.aspx

and here is a step by step guide on how to enable Cognitive Services for Dynamics 365 product recommendation:

https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/mt703320.aspx#BKMK_ConnectLearnRec

Hope this helps!

The world after WannaCry ransomware attack: Is the Cloud secure enough for your data?

With the most recent WannaCry ransomware attack on more than 99 countries with thousands of locked down machines globally, many organisations are asking if their data is more or less secure in the Cloud?

It’s a valid question and I personally never try to supress or trivialise clients concerns even if the concern seemed unwarranted or doesn’t have factual basis. On the contrary, I felt that my clients concern about how secure their data in the cloud is very relevant and requires addressing.

If we look at the WannaCry ransomware attack on the UK National Health Services (NHS), you will find that most computers affected where machines running old versions of Microsoft Windows, namely Windows XP and some Windows 7 ones. First question that comes to mind is why these machines were not upgraded especially that Microsoft offers significant discounts to the UK public sector organisations. But then to answer this question, we have to go into the politics of the UK government and its spending approach, which is something we won’t cover as I never talk politics on my blog.

However, the effect of the WannaCry ransomware attack, has meant that data stored on computers were lost. These could be some simple working files of no significant values but I am sure there were some computers that had information and files of considerable value and only stored on these computers. Now imagine if every one of these machines had a Microsoft OneDrive for Business account (or equivalent cloud storage) where all files stored on the computer were copied instantly to the cloud. In this case, the loss would have been probably nil. The cost of a OneDrive for Business account for a Public or Government organisation is next to nothing (~£1/month). With a copy of all your files are in the cloud, so whether it is a hack, ransomware attach or simply a hardware malfunction, you will always have your files in the cloud.

This is a simple example but explains to the regular non-Techie reader how the cloud could have helped in this case.

Another example to show the power of the cloud. For any organisation to setup an adequate backup services, disaster recovery and a complete data centre with appropriate data security and unauthorised access protections, it will cost them a lot. It will vary depending on the size of the organisation but for a medium to large organisation, the cost can easily reach the millions of pounds. Now compare that to the assurance and reliability as well as the cost reduction and savings a public cloud offering can deliver to this organisation because of the economies of scale. You will find that organisations are not only saving money, but they are “outsourcing” their data centre to a Cloud Provider, such as Microsoft’s Azure Cloud. In this case, organisations do not have to worry about penetration testing, unauthorised data access precautions or complex data centre security measures, over and above the standard security measures applied by all organisations.

So to summarise, my view is that having your organisation in the cloud will save you money and save you a headache of security your data centre from various data security threats by “outsourcing” these responsibilities to your reliable provider who is investing millions to secure their massive Cloud and applying security measures that many organisations cannot afford or would not be able to undertake.

Create an image from a .vhd disk on Microsoft Windows Azure – error VHD is already registered with image repository

This post discusses how to create an image from a VHD file of a VM you have on Windows Azure to re-use it with other VMs and also shows a resolution to the issue/error: “xxx.vhd is already registered with image repository as the resource with ID xxx” on Windows Azure management portal.

I have a nice windows azure virtual machine with its .vhd drive that I managed to get to an excellent state with all my software installed, configured and working smoothly. I wanted to make this VHD as an Image in my Windows Azure cloud account so that I can create multiple virtual machines (VM) based on the same VHD disk. Here is what I did:

First, I did a sysprep on this nice VM as follows: On the Virtual Machine, Open command prompt as an administrator and navigate to your C:\Windows\System32\Sysprep folder. Then run the Sysprep.exe file. Make sure the generalise option is ticked and select “quit” instead of “shut down” in the actions after sysprep (There is a known issue that happens sometimes when you select shutdown).

Once this is done, I have shut down my VM, went to my Windows Azure management / Control Panel (http://manage.windowsazure.com) and selected the VM and then deleted it. Make sure you select the option to delete VM and retain / keep the VHD hard disk files attached to this VM. This will only delete the Virtual Machine but will keep the VHD virtual disks for you.

Following that, if you go and try to create an image for ths VHD file, you will probably get the error: “xxx.vhd is already registered with image repository as the resource with ID xxx” from Windows Azure. This issue will mostly because the VHD file is still allocated to the disk that was created for the VM (which is now deleted). You will now need to go to Virtual Machines under your Windows Azure Control Panel, click on “disks” tab (you should have Virtual Machines, Images and Disks tabs there). Click on the disk that is allocated to the VHD file and delete it. Make sure you choose to keep and retain the VHD file. This VHD file is still kept in your storage section on Windows Azure.

Now that the disk and the VM are both deleted, you can go to Images tab under Virtual machines and select create image, point to the VHD file and create your image. Make sure you select the tick box: yes I have sysprep my VHD.

You now have an image that you can use to create as many Virtual machines as you want based on it. You just need to go to the Virtual Machines tab and click on create virtual machine and select your VHD from the Gallery.

There are other issues where the disk and the VM are deleted and you are still unable to use the VHD file. In this case, a Windows Azure explorer software may be needed to connect to your Windows Azure cloud account and release the VHD as it is probably still in lease (a lease on the blob) and there is no lease ID specified (because the VM and the disk are deleted). Here is an article explaining the resolution to this issue:

http://social.msdn.microsoft.com/Forums/windowsazure/en-US/7381ea0e-0443-4b33-aa12-ba39df003409/error-deleting-vhd-there-is-currently-a-lease-on-the-blob-and-no-lease-id-was-specified-in-the?forum=WAVirtualMachinesforWindows

Update:

In addition to having the image out of the VHD on windows azure, you can also have a disk instead if you don’t have a sysprep VHD. In this case, you create a disk out of the VHD and then create a VM out of the Disk instead of out of the image. The main difference is that when you create a VM from an image, windows azure creates a copy of the VHD and associates the VM to it while if you creatte a VM from a Disk, it just uses the same VHD – which means you can only use this disk/VHD once with one VM. This is usually a good work around if you are getting the error: Virtual Machine running but provision timed out on your Virtual Machine: Running (Provision timeout).

Hope this helps!