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Open for business: Microsoft on using cross-industry collaboration to drive AI use in the enterprise

Microsoft's multi-year effort to drive adoption of artificial intelligence technologies has entered a new phase, with the firm banking on openness and cross-industry collaboration to boost enterprise take-up

Microsoft is in the midst of a multi-year effort to democratise access to artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, so they become pervasive throughout enterprises and their IT estates.

During this time the company has rolled out a series of initiatives aimed at lowering the skills and technology barriers to enterprise adoption of AI technologies, aimed at both the general public and the developer community too.

This work has seen the firm gradually ramp up the AI functionality of its existing portfolio of business application products in recent years too, including its online productivity suite, Office 365, and its CRM customer relationship management package, Dynamics 365.

And it is a product development trend that shows no signs of slowing down, judging by the AI-heavy run of product announcements and service enhancements the software giant debuted at its Ignite customer and developer conference in Orlando, Florida, in late September 2018.

As such, the firm showcased previews of AI-powered unified search capabilities coming to Microsoft 365, which will pull in data from an organisation’s portfolio of Microsoft apps and services to improve the accuracy and personalisation of the results returned when searching for documents or contacts.

It is also using AI to enhance the Microsoft Teams for video call users by getting it to generate captions and transcripts from recorded meetings, and blur out distracting background images.

Expanding beyond existing offerings

Now building AI into products enterprises are already using is certainly one way of ramping up adoption, but Microsoft is also intent on helping companies build their own AI-infused products and services too.

Clearly, the aforementioned work Microsoft is doing to help boost the number of people within the general population and the developer community with skills in this obviously plays an important role here.

However, this year’s Ignite conference also saw the firm turn its attention to addressing another barrier it claims is standing in the way of enterprises realising the full potential of AI, and that is data availability and access.

Enterprises are collecting increasing amounts and different types of data about their customers from a variety of sources, but how it is stored makes it difficult for enterprises to draw on all of this to create AI-infused products of their own, according to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

“You have all this behavioural data that comes from [the] web and mobile, there is IoT [internet of things] data. Many [enterprises] are building products that are collecting data [and] the services that are collecting data,” he told the 30,000-strong crowd during the opening keynote at Ignite 2018.

“There is also all the transactional information in ERP and CRM systems. Clearly, there's a big data opportunity. Except, there is this a ‘small data’ challenge, [in that] this data is now trapped in silos, many of them internal. There [is] also external silos because you have these advertising, social, and other marketplaces where that data is opaque.”

A group effort

Breaking down these silos will be a group effort, continued Nadella, requiring input and assistance from a number of other players in the technology industry, as an acknowledgement to the fact so much enterprise data is locked away in the storage repositories of third-party software providers.

And how it plans to get the ball rolling on this effort is through the launch of the Open Data Initiative (ODI), which is a joint project being embarked upon by Microsoft, SAP and Adobe to assist the firms’ mutual customers’ with breaking down their own data silos.

To this end, the three companies have collectively vowed to improve the interoperability and data exchange capabilities of their individual software platforms by making use of a unified, Microsoft Azure cloud-based data lake service.

“The architecture here is actually pretty straightforward. Which is, you have these very sophisticated, rich application suites from SAP, from Adobe, from Microsoft, and the commitment you're from the three of us is that we are going to unlock the data across all of these, so they can be enriched using this very rich cloud data and AI layer in Azure,” said Nadella. 

Take back control

In a post-keynote interview with Computer Weekly, Rohan Kumar, corporate vice-president for Azure Data at Microsoft, said the core aim of the ODI is to put enterprises back in control of their data and give them a greater degree of freedom over how best to use it.

“When we think about digital transformation, the end state enterprises want to get to is one where they have much better engagement with customers, ways of interacting with them, and are empowering employees with tools so they can be the best at their jobs. They also want information to build better products,” he said.

“But if you look at where most enterprises are today, the single biggest challenge they face in getting to that point is they need a modern data estate, and key to that is breaking down all the silos that exist.”

This modernisation process is not just essential for enterprises to realise the potential of AI and big data analytics, but also from a performance and business growth perspective, continued Kumar, and it is not easy to achieve either.

“You want to get [enterprises] moving from legacy data silos to a modern data estate, where you have your data in a unified lake, and can run these modern compute engines in the cloud seamlessly. In that you don’t have to stitch a lot of things together or you don’t have to invest in a lot of third parties to do these things for you,” said Kumar.

“That’s a huge push for my team, and is something that is a very clear pain point for customers that comes across, and it is a tall order to solve, but I think whoever does will disrupt the industry in a very big way.”

It is, of course, far too early to say whether the collective might of Adobe, SAP and Microsoft will be enough to bring about such disruption on their own, and how receptive the technology community at large will be towards Nadella’s open invitation for them to join the ODI as well.

A open and collaborative Microsoft

Since Nadella took over the reins of Microsoft in 2014, though, the company has adopted a seemingly more collaborative and conciliatory stance to working with organisations that may have previously be considered competitors.

One only has to look at the effort Microsoft, the one-time poster child for proprietary software systems, has put into courting (and contributing to) the open source community of late.

Just over a year ago, for example, the Open Source Initiative (OSI) confirmed Microsoft had joined its ranks as a platinum sponsor, having gradually stepped up its involvement in the community by releasing a number of its offerings available under an open source license for the time.

Hot on the heels of that announcement came the general release of SQL Server 2017 in October 2017, which was notable because not only did this version of the relational database management system run on Windows, but also – for the time – on Linux too.

Speaking as a “boomerang employee” of Microsoft, who left the firm in 2014 after a decade before re-joining 18 months ago, John "JG" Chirapurath, general manager of Azure Data, blockchain and AI at Microsoft, said such a move would have been unheard of during his term at the company.  

“We are living through the renaissance in terms of technology and in terms of how Microsoft is investing,” he told Computer Weekly.

“If you had told me on my go around that SQL Server would ship on Linux, I would have said no – I don’t see that happening. But, yes, we shipped it on Linux and it became the most successful SQL server release we ever shipped.”

Linux compatibility

Indeed, at the time of writing, Microsoft estimates that SQL Server 2017 has been downloaded close to 6 million times, which Kumar largely puts down to its Linux compatibility.

“It is this notion that you meet the customers and developers where they are, and be open about it… and essentially is we want to attract all the developers. We don’t want to force or try to change their minds [about how they work], as that’s just the wrong thing to do now,” said Kumar.

And the company is also seeing a healthy appetite from enterprises for open source database technologies running on Azure, he added.

And the reason for that is because so many “classic” Microsoft customers operate heterogeneous IT environments, featuring both closed and open source software, and it up to the company now to accommodate that as much as possible.

“Obviously it is a very pleasant surprise that the strategy is landing better than we thought. These are classic Microsoft customers who just happen to use PostGres, and who just happen to use MySQL,” he said.

“They already have a strong past relationship with Microsoft, but we’ve never had these conversations with them before [about open source] and our customers love it because they already have a great relationship with us, in terms of support.”  

Read more about Microsoft Ignite

While support for open source has seemingly landed well with enterprises, the company has gone to great lengths at Ignite to reassure the open source developer community that Github, the software development platform Microsoft acquired in June 2018, is in safe hands under its control.

And as Microsoft president and chief legal officer, Brad Smith, pointed out during Ignite’s closing keynote, as well as being the home of millions of open source projects, Github is also where a number of the company’s competitors house their own software projects.

“We did [the acquisition] with a clear that in effect we were crossing through a Rubicon because we were taking on a responsibility: we are now the stewards for many of the developers of the world,” said Smith.

“Github is the home of the code of developers that work for you, that work in the open source community and even developers that work for our competitors.

“So our journey continues and in a sense it underscores even more than ever the needs for us as a company to keep taking steps to ensure we are earning the world’s trust,” he added.

And how successful it is in doing that may well determine just how willing its Github-using competitors are in joining Microsoft (as well as SAP and Adobe) in their joint fight to break down the enterprise data barriers to AI adoption in the months and years to come.

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