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Microsoft shifts to intelligence in cloud and on the edge

Microsoft’s annual developer event in Seattle opened with a focus on AI, IoT edge computing and a new globally distributed database

The Microsoft Build annual developer conference kicked off with a shift in the company from cloud and mobile to serverless computing and edge computing.

Computing for the internet of things (IoT), large-scale database scalability and greater support for artificial intelligence (AI) were among the developments showcased during the opening keynote on the first day of the event.

The company’s CEO, Satya Nadella, called on developers to use their skills to empower society but warned that the power to provide technology to help society comes with high responsibility.

“We should empower people with technology – inclusive design can be an instrument for inclusive growth,” he added.

As the world becomes more technology-driven, Nadella warned developers that building trusted technology is crucial. “It is up to us to take responsibility for the algorithms we create,” he said.

“The opportunity to have a broad impact of all parts of society has never been greater. But there are unintended consequences of technology and we can’t just use technology to solve these problems. It is up to us to ensure some of the more dystopian problems don’t come true,” he said, using Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World as examples of a technology-driven future society should avoid.

IoT drives computing on the edge

Nadella has previously spoken of the company’s vision as cloud first, mobile first, but this is now changing with new IoT workloads. He described IoT as a cloud workload that can generate vast amounts of data, and calls for a rethink in how applications are engineered.

“The platform shift is all about data. When you have an autonomous car generating 100GB of data at the edge, the AI will need to be more distributed. People will do training in the cloud and deploy on the edge – you need a new set of abstractions to span both the edge and the cloud,” he said.

This leads to a change in Microsoft’s manta. “We are moving from mobile first, cloud first to a world made from an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge,” said Nadella.

As computing becomes more distributed, developers will not be able to write software bound to one virtual machine, according to Nadella. “Serverless computing will be the core of distributed computing, and this will change everything we do in Windows, Office 365 and Azure,” he added.

One of the companies using computing on the edge is Swedish industrial company Sandvik Coromant. It has built cloud applications to take all data from its machines to run predictive maintenance and time series analysis to identify the cause of anomalies. The company looked at how to shutdown its machines before they got damaged.

While this is being controlled by the Azure cloud, Microsoft has now developed an edge computing platform that would enable companies such as Sandvik to run machine monitoring applications on the machines rather than in the cloud.

Among the new products Microsoft unveiled at Build is Azure IoT Edge. This is a Windows and Linux cross-platform runtime environment, which Microsoft claims is able to run on devices smaller than a Raspberry Pi.

According to Microsoft, application logic can be tested in the cloud, and the same code can then be run on the edge device.

Computer vision to power workplace safety

From an artificial intelligence perspective, Nadella discussed how AI could be used in a way analogous to web searches to identify objects and people.

“Over past 20 years, the most profound change has been text search on the web. Imagine if we can create a digital twin of a hospital or a factory floor, then you can build safety for human beings, which can absolutely change lives,” he said.

One of the applications Microsoft showed during the keynote was how computer vision could be used on a building site. The applications used computer vision to identify people and objects in real time.

Microsoft said the system can make 27 million image recognitions per second and make changes in real time. The demonstration showed how the Microsoft system could identify people and equipment on a building site and apply policies to reduce the risk that someone who has not been given the appropriate level of training operates building machinery.

The system can also identify where the machinery and the trained operators are located on the building site, which could also be used to improve efficiency on the site.

Globally distributed database

Microsoft unveiled a new database, Azure Cosmos DB, which is a globally distributed, multi-model database.

The database scales elastically and independently scales throughput and storage across any number of Azure’s geographic regions.

It offers throughput, latency, availability and consistency guarantees. It also works as a distributed database to make data available where users are, with 10ms latency and 99.99 availability, all running as a single system image of database across the world.

Microsoft said Cosmos DB provides automatic indexing and allows developers to choose the data model and application programming interfaces (APIs) in the format of their choice.

Read more about Microsoft platforms

  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wants to democratise access to big data intelligence across the enterprise through the use of cloud, machine learning and new datacentre chip technologies.
  • Serverless computing offers a way to more easily deploy and manage complex enterprise apps. We comapre AWS Lamda to Azure Functions. 

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