Microsoft kicked off its 2021 Ignite customer conference on March 2 with some stunning demonstrations of Mesh, a mixed-reality working environment like Second Life on steroids, accessible to anyone with a $3,500 Hololens 2 headset and high-speed internet.\nOut of the spotlight, though, there were other innovations \u2014 in Microsoft Azure, Teams, and Power Platform \u2014 more likely to help the majority of CIOs deliver computing, collaboration, and coding tools to a workforce that is still socially isolated and increasingly socially divided as a result of the pandemic.\n\n[ Beware the 9 warning signs of bad IT architecture and see why these 10 old-school IT principles still rule. | Sign up for CIO newsletters. ]\n\nHere are 10 key Ignite takeaways for CIOs that caught our attention.\nSemantic search as a service\nDo what I want, not what I said: OK, that may be a slight exaggeration, but that\u2019s where Microsoft is going with the new semantic search capability it\u2019s offering developers a preview of. An addition to its Azure Cognitive Search APIs, semantic search promises to deliver results based on user intent rather than on the keywords they used, thanks to a natural-language model that Microsoft has built.\nModels like this will be hugely valuable \u2014 but also hugely resource-intensive, said Nick\u00a0McQuire, chief of enterprise research at analyst firm CCS Insight. \u201cMany businesses won\u2019t be able to build this for themselves,\u201d he says, so Microsoft offering developers semantic search as a service that they can integrate into their own applications is significant.\nMicrosoft is also offering enterprises a new connector to enable Azure Cognitive Search to ingest and explore their SharePoint content.\nLine item extraction\nOther Azure developer APIs are getting upgrades too. Form Recognizer 2.1 can already find data in scanned receipts to process expenses. From March 15 it will gain the ability to extract individual line items from invoices, simplifying payment processing.\nForm Recognizer has also learned to extract names, expiry dates, and document numbers from US driving licenses and passports from around the world, a boon for customer onboarding \u2014 or controlling borders.\nMission-critical computing in the cloud\nAzure is providing additional support for mission-critical cloud workloads, adding the option to make on-demand capacity reservations with service-level agreement (SLA) guarantees, making scale sets more flexible so applications will keep running under higher load, and adding new VMs that will support more memory-intensive workloads, including in single-tenant Azure Dedicated Host environments.\nMachine learning where you want it\nWhen it comes to training or running machine learning models, hyperscalers like Microsoft have traditionally offered CIOs one answer: Do it in our cloud. Now, though, with its hybrid cloud control plane, Azure Arc, Microsoft is offering enterprises a way to run ML workloads on premises, in a multicloud environment, or at the network edge.\n\u201cWhat is new about Arc and the integrations with Azure ML is, Microsoft is saying you can use your existing infrastructure,\u201d said CCS\u2019s McQuire.\nAt the other end of the machine learning scale there\u2019s also Azure Percept, a set of pre-built AI models, development tools, and reference hardware for building cloud-connected low-power AI systems with cameras and audio capabilities on the network edge. It\u2019s based on a Zero Trust security model and offers zero-touch WiFi provisioning.\nVertical clouds\nMicrosoft\u2019s industry clouds offer automation and analytics tools tailored to specific vertical markets \u2014 initially telecommunications, retail, and healthcare. At Ignite, it expanded its healthcare cloud feature set and language coverage, and introduced three new industry clouds, for financial services, manufacturing, and nonprofits. If you\u2019re in one of these sectors, you may find Microsoft has already done some of your development work for you.\nTeams gets more connections\u2026\nMicrosoft CEO Satya Nadella is clearly hoping CIOs will pay more attention to the way Teams is used in their organizations, saying the company is building it as \u201can organizing layer for all the ways we work.\u201d\nA new feature, Teams Connect, will soon enable enterprises to create and manage channels shared with customers, suppliers, and other partners in which they can co-author documents and collaborate in apps. There will also be an expanded role for Microsoft Viva: In addition to delivering corporate internet and training functions, it will bring Teams users the same well-being and productivity insights familiar to users of Outlook, and for an additional fee, Viva Topics will make documents and expertise more easily searchable across the enterprise from within Teams.\nWith hundreds of different applications tied into the Teams environment, CCS Insight\u2019s McQuire said, \u201cThe risks are that it becomes this massively unwieldy thing, and the user experience gets confusing because there are too many different things going on.\u201d\nNeverthless, he said, the new features will be attractive to companies that want to consolidate the number of conferencing tools they have.\n\u2026 better security controls\u2026\nBy midyear, enterprises will also be able to control in which datacenter Microsoft stores documents shared through Teams, group by group or even for individual users, making it more useful in some regulated industries or where there are concerns about the security of data. These controls will mirror those available for Exchange and SharePoint. There will also be an option to make end-to-end-encrypted one-to-one voice or video calls, that CIOs can enable on a per-employee basis, and to limit meeting attendance only to invited participants. A future update could see the addition of end-to-end encrypted meetings, too.\nFor companies that are centralizing their investment in such collaboration, McQuire said, \u201cSecurity is arguably the number one selection criterion.\u201d\n\u2026 and new presenter tools\nMicrosoft is adding new options to embed PowerPoint presentations right in Teams, where meeting participants can flip back and forth through a slide deck at their own pace. Presenters will have new options to position their video image in front of or beside their slides, and to place the gallery of meeting participants at the top of the screen, right under their camera, to improve eye-contact.\n\u201cThe thing that really stood out is the whole focus on presenter tools,\u201d said McQuire.\nYet another low-code development platform\nAs if there weren\u2019t already enough low-code development platforms out there, Microsoft is adding its take on the genre, and it\u2019s based on Excel formulas. Power Fx is used to build canvas apps in Microsoft Power Apps, and is destined to become the language across the Power Platform. Microsoft said Excel users will be able to draw on their existing knowledge to develop apps with the simplicity of formulas \u2014 so if your company\u2019s spreadsheets are all error free, you have nothing to fear.\nMicrosoft Mesh and Azure mixed reality\nThere\u2019s no getting away from it, Microsoft\u2019s demonstrations of Mesh, a mixed-reality collaborative environment, were eye-catching, from the undersea scene created collaboratively with the audience to the Cirque-du-Soleil finale.\nWhile there were glimpses along the way of a couple of industrial applications built using underlying components of Mesh, Azure Remote Rendering and Azure Object Anchors, CIOs were left with a lot of questions about how they would actually use Mesh in their organizations.\nAmong them, said McQuire, are, \u201cHow is Mesh going to help businesses improve their productivity?\u201d and \u201cHow will the licensing and the costings work?\u201d\nHe also called out bandwidth as a potential concern.\nTwo-way HD video over Hololens is bandwidth-hungry: Microsoft\u2019s documentation for Dynamics 365 Remote Assist Hololens, its existing \u201cholopresence\u201d solution, says \u201ceven 4-5 Mbps up\/down does not guarantee 1080p video calling at full quality.\u201d\nThat will make life difficult for many remote users connecting over DSL, and require sophisticated wireless coverage in crowded workspaces, if we ever return to those.\nWhile Microsoft\u2019s goal is one day to deliver the impression that distant coworkers are virtually present, early Mesh users will have to work alongside cartoon-like avatars of their colleagues provided by AltspaceVR as a way to limit the computing and bandwidth demands of mixed-reality collaboration.