What's the deal with cloud preview features?

Public preview

Would you want to be a guinea pig? Didn’t think so. None of us do. And yet, with the emerging state of technology, this is the choice we have: to move faster as guinea pigs, or slow down a bit, with all the consequences.

We have to face it. Cloud vendors give us a choice to be their guinea pigs with pre-release features, or be late adopters and use only what is ready to use and proven.

Key points:

  • How to work with preview features in 2021?
  • What are the common approaches to them?
  • What are the pros and cons?

Before we begin, let’s shed some light on the phrase: “It’s in preview”, used so often in the context of cloud services.

Years ago I started my career with on-premises technology (there was no cloud back then), and the majority of my work was related to Active Directory.

Up to 95% of enterprises use it now, and if you ask me, it is one of the better pieces of technology created by Microsoft. Back then, it was the main point of the on-premises universe.

With every major change to Active Directory, we as consultants, and Microsoft as a vendor, had the same issue – adoption!

People were afraid of even touching some of the parts of Active Directory. The best way to scare the AD admins was to mention the “Schema Extension”.

For those who are not familiar with it, a schema is a definition of objects and attributes used in Active Directory. Once you commit a change to the schema, you can’t revert it.

It doesn’t mean you couldn’t do anything about it, but lack of information made people scared to death when a “Schema Extension” was planned.

To be completely honest, it allowed me to make a nice profit and work on many projects to execute schema extensions. Even if I tried to convince customers that their projects mostly were not necessary as there was nothing to be scared of.

Why did Schema Extensions pose a problem?

Every update to schema was created to enable some future updates and functions. Each new one built on top of the previous one.

Because people were scared to update their schema, they were falling further and further behind, adoption slowed down, the value of software updates and new versions was diminishing… the feedback loop was stuck in a vicious cycle.

Fun fact: because AD schema is closely coupled with Exchange server functions, it was also slowing down Exchange updates.

The Exchange team developed an LDAP driver, which faked schema extensions if they weren’t in place. If an attribute was not in the schema, Exchange saw it and reported it as “no value”. That was a long time ago but lessons were learned.

What if we didn’t use preview features at all?

Think about it – what if there was a magic switch to “Disable all preview features” in your Azure or Office 365 subscriptions?

Most of the people responsible for it would set it to “ON” (problem disappears) and forget about it.

What would be affected? You guessed it – adoption and feedback loop.

That’s why (in my opinion, I’ve no insider knowledge about it) this functionality is not available, although I know such requests exist and are often raised by customers.

The cloud vendor gives you the opportunity to move faster and benefit from things that are still being developed, for the price of possible additional problems, services not being finalized, and not having a full SLA on them.

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To Preview or not to Preview?

Among our clients, I see three major groups when it comes to approaching features made available in preview:

  1. Do not think about it and have no official policy around it.
  2. Hell yeah, use the latest and greatest, and tinker with it!
  3. No! Keep it away – we will not use anything unless it is in GA (General Availability).

I think that the key to making this decision is knowing your enemy.

What are Azure preview features and what do they mean for you?

It is good to keep this link in bookmarks and check for every service you consider using – Supplemental Terms of Use for Microsoft Azure Previews.

In short, they’re test services or functionalities which are still under development, and so:

  • features might not work as expected or can be changed
  • they might not be completely covered by support or SLA (even if you have it in place for other services)
  • they might not provide the same level of resilience, security or privacy protection as typical services
  • their delivery and pricing model might change in the future.

These are the key elements you need to be aware of when deciding that you want to go with the flow – I mean, preview – in the cloud.

Sounds scary? Maybe – yet in more than 90% of projects we are doing in the Azure cloud, our clients use pre-release features in one way or another. I’m not saying it is without risks but there are some benefits.

What are the benefits of preview features?

  • Speed of movement – some preview features or services deliver solutions that would otherwise require extensive custom development
  • Enabling new business – some of those features allow for completely new business cases, otherwise not doable or costly
  • Performance – in many cases, the move to preview is a result of a need for greater performance delivered by a new version of services.

Trying preview in practice

Here is an example of a service developed on an extreme scale while using preview – I think that even the Product Team was a bit surprised that someone decided to use it so early.

When we got a request to solve for a pretty sophisticated scenario of knowledge mining, including things like searching through handwritten notes in multiple languages among various document formats, it sounded like “mission impossible”.

It was mission impossible until one of our consultants brought up this new, just released, preview feature in Cognitive Services.

Fast-forward one month, and the solution was born and deployed. It allows users to find the right information fast, using advanced analytical functions to perform intelligent searches on large quantities of business information. Here you can read a bit more about it:

Considerations before you begin

You have to answer these questions to yourself and to your organization:

  • Are you taking it slowly and staying on the safe side, or do you take the “move fast and break things” approach?
  • Does it apply to the entire organization, or are there parts of it that could use whatever is new and fancy out there?

You need to find the answers first, taking into consideration legal requirements, business and technical risk, and your overall goal.

Pros and cons of pre-release features

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages.

Among the cons – you should definitely prepare for things not working as expected and a bit of re-work here and there. You also need to evaluate and mitigate the risks.

On the pros’ side – something less visible:

  • Your business is a much more attractive place for engineers to work, and it is easier to attract talent
  • It is a great opportunity to establish a direct relationship with the Product Team delivering this feature. They are there, ready and eager to work and listen to their customers.

What is your take on it?

Are you all-in and using every feature or service you can get your hands on?

Are you lukewarm and trying some features in less risky projects that are not going to production anytime soon?

Or are you taking a safe bet and only using what is already fully supported and proven in the field?

Let me know. I’m curious to hear about your approach.

The most often asked question about preview features

There’s a single question that is raised every time I speak with a client about using a preview feature. Maybe we will meet in the future, so let me post it here and answer it right away. Here goes:

Q: When will feature X come out of the preview and go into GA?

A: I don’t know!

Really. As consultants – we don’t know. As an MVP and Regional Director, I might have some indication of it, but I wouldn’t be able to share it with you under my NDA.

You can expect it to happen around some major events or the end of the fiscal period of a specific cloud vendor, although it is not certain. If it is really important for you, talk to your partner and cloud vendor. Maybe with an interesting use case, we can “work some magic” for you.

Key takeaways:

  1. Preview features are new functionalities that are still in development but ready to be built upon.
  2. There might be some risks, especially in terms of security, SLA, or support. Make sure you understand them.
  3. On the upside, features in preview allow you to move faster and test new ideas or products.
  4. It’s hard to predict when a preview feature will be moved to general availability. But you can work with the Product Team to influence its development – look into it and check if it could work for you.