Microsoft Build Focuses on the “Intelligent Cloud” and “Intelligent Edge”

At its annual Build developer conference today, Microsoft made a push for moving toward a world with both an “Intelligent Cloud” and an “Intelligent Edge,” to take advantage of the abundance of data and computing power, as well as new AI algorithms. Not surprisingly, the company wants developers to use its tools, and seems to be particularly working to expand the possibilities of these tools for enterprise developers, while it goes after new markets in areas such as machine learning and massive cloud databases.

The biggest product news was the introduction of Cosmos, a globally distributed service database, which allows developers to have a single system image of a database running all across the world. This works with multiple database models and will enable features I hadn’t seen before, which look to be quite interesting for developers.

In addition, the company announced a number of new development tools, including Visual Studio for the Mac, new MySQL and Postgres-based database solutions, and a bigger focus on serverless and container-based development tools. In addition, there was a long session on AI tools, which included building custom machine learning services and the introduction of a real-time translator plug-in for PowerPoint.

Nadella On the Vision for Intelligent Cloud and Intelligent Edge

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella started the main keynote by citing some statistics about how well Microsoft is doing in a “mobile first, cloud first” world.

Nadella said there are 500 million monthly active devices now running Windows 10, 100 million monthly active users of Office 365, 140 million monthly active users of Cortana, 12 million organizations using Azure Active Directory, and, of the Fortune 500 companies, over 90 percent are using the Microsoft Cloud. These are impressive numbers, and they show continual adoption of Windows 10 in both the consumer and enterprise space (but are dwarfed by the number of Android or iOS mobile devices), as well as the big adoption the company has seen for Office 365.

On Office 365, Nadella said it provides its own platform for extensions and add-ons, as well as for developers to use features such as single sign-on. Notably missing were any statistics about the success of the Azure platform for general infrastructure-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service, an area where Microsoft faces big competition from Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud Platform, among others.

To that end, much of the keynote was aimed at demonstrating that Microsoft remains current in its developer offerings compared to the other choices, with lots of focus on AI services, Azure functions, and serverless computing—the new directions that most enterprise developers aren’t using yet but which are beginning to become part of development roadmaps.

Nadella talked about how things like agents, bots, natural user interfaces, mixed reality, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, microservices, and advanced analytics and workflows are helping push Microsoft’s worldview beyond “mobile-first, cloud first” and toward “Intelligent Edge” and “Intelligent Cloud.”

In this new world, Nadella said there would be three defining characteristics. He said the user interface will span multiple devices, and include things such as a personal assistant that works across devices. Artificial intelligence will by definition be more distributed, with things like doing the training in the cloud and inference on the edge, with this eventually leading to new ways of doing both training and inference in both places. To make this work, Nadella said there needs to be a be a big change in the “outer loop” of development with microservices, containers, and serverless computation. This is needed to react to change in things like AI models, he said. These trends will profoundly change what happens in Windows, Office 365, and Azure, he added.

Nadella also talked about developers’ responsibility and said that while he is an optimist, there are unintended consequences of technology, and he told the audience that it is up to us to ensure that some of the more dystopian scenarios don’t come true, citing the works of both George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Practical design choices that enshrine our timeless values, including design that empowers people, is inclusive, and builds trust in technology are essential.

The first demo, presented by Sam George of Microsoft’s Azure IoT team, featured Sandvik Coromant using cloud-connected AI to do preventive maintenance on million-dollar machines, on the Azure cloud and Azure IoT hub. George announced Azure IoT Edge, a cross platform solution that allows cloud functions and code to be added to small IoT devices. In the Sandvik demo, he showed that moving to containers with the functions directly on the machine could reduce latency from about 2 seconds to about 100 milliseconds.

Nadella then talked about using AI and “digital twins” to help improve workplace safety. A video talked about the use of this technology in places like hospitals and construction sites, and Microsoft’s Andrea Carl then showed a demo of using Azure Functions, visual cognitive services, Azure Stack, and commodity cameras to easily create policies and workflows.

Nadella then talked about how the Microsoft Graph allows developers to access people, activities, and devices (through Azure Active Directory), and in particular how this would improve “intelligent meetings.” Microsoft’s Laura Jones did a demo featuring the recently announced Invoke speaker using Cortana with cross-platform skills connecting directly to a time-off system; using Cortana in her car to prepare for a meeting; using Microsoft Teams within Office 365, the Project Rome SDK, and a meetings bot within the meeting itself; and ultimately receiving a summary of the meeting and action items within Outlook afterward.

Nadella concluded by talking about how the future of computing won’t be decided by technology alone, but by the opportunities and responsibilities it offers developers, and showed a video of technology assisting a woman who had tremors caused by Parkinson’s to write and draw.

New Databases and Developer Tools from Azure Stack to Serverless Computing

Executive Vice President Scott Guthrie ran the second part of the keynote, and he gave more details on the “intelligent cloud platform” and the new developer tools Microsoft unveiled at the show.

Scott Hanselman demoed some new management tools such as running the cloud shell inside of the Azure Portal and the Azure mobile portal app for iPhone and Android. He then showed Visual Studio working with production Azure code and adding things like snapshots for debugging. Hanselman also showed Visual Studio for Mac—now in general availability—and how that connects to and enables you to publish applications directly in Azure. He then showed some new functions within Azure’s Security Center.

Guthrie then walked through a number of new announcements for Azure, beginning with a focus on databases. Last month, the company announced SQL Server 2017 for Windows Server, Linux, and Docker with in-database advanced machine learning with R and Python. He said this is available both on-premises or as Azure SQL Database in the cloud. This week, the firm announced a new Azure Database Migration Service, designed to make it easy to migrate SQL Server or Oracle databases to the cloud with “near-zero” downtime. Guthrie said that DocuSign is moving all of its databases from an internal data center to Azure SQL database. He also announced MySQL as a Service and PostgreSQL as a Service, with high-availability and security, and the ability to scale up or down with no application downtime. This should be attractive, and pretty much seems competitive with similar AWS offerings.

The big news was Azure Cosmos DB, which Guthrie described as the first globally distributed, multi-model database service. This automatically replicates data to any region across the world, lets you pick the data model and NoSQL API of your choice (including Document DB SQL, Mongo DB, Gremlin, and graph choices), and also lets you pick the storage and throughput (in transactions per section) that you want. Service level agreements (SLAs) across four dimensions are a unique feature, and improve availability, performance latency: high availability, performance latency (at 10 ms at the 99th percentile), performance throughput, and data consistency. He showed a video describing how Jet has been running this solution and is now running it across 3 U.S. regions, scaling it to support up to 100 trillion transactions per day with single digit latency at the 99th percentile.

Marvel Chat Demo

Microsoft’s Rimma Nehme showed a globally-distributed web app allowing users to ask chat questions of characters in the Marvel Comics universe, and walked through the basic steps of creating such an app running in 9 regions. Nehme said it could accommodate throughput and latency worldwide, but with a single system image so developers can focus on the application rather than the database. And she talked about how instead of having to choose between “strong consistency” and “eventual consistency”, you now have 5 different levels from which to choose performance and consistency.

Guthrie said this service is now generally available in all regions, and because it’s an evolution of the older Document DB service, all of those applications have been automatically moved to the new database.

Containers and microservices were another big topic, and Guthrie showed a video featuring Alaska Airways’ use of these services. Visual Studio 2017 now has improved container support, including integrated Docker tooling and support for development, debugging, testing and deployment. Guthrie said this would work both for “greenfield” applications and for transitioning older .NET applications designed for traditional platforms such as ASP.NET and WCF. Maria Naggaga demoed adding Docker support to an existing application within Visual Studio, with features such as cross-container debugging, and improved telemetry (Application Insights) showing how an application is performing as a whole, or at the container level.

Guthrie talked about Service Fabric for Windows and Linux containers, and other new features that make it easier to deploy and manage containers using Kubernetes, Mesos, or Docker Swarm. He also talked about new features for Azure Functions, including making it easier for developers to create, debug, and deploy their own functions, as well as Azure Logic Apps with over 100 data and app connectors built in. Guthrie said Visual Studio 2017 will support both Azure Functions and Logic Apps, and talked about Azure Application Insights for Azure Functions. The example given for containers and functions was Domino’s Pizza.

Guthrie then moved to Azure Stack, which he said makes sense in situations where companies don’t want or can’t use the public cloud, such as Carnival Cruises running Azure Stack on the cruise ship, since it can’t guarantee good connectivity when at sea. He said Azure Stack meets regulatory requirements and has more certifications and regions than any other public cloud solution, and talked about how EY is running globally in Azure, but using Azure Stack in countries where it needs to meet local data regulations. Microsoft’s Julia White showed how you might build an application with Azure in the cloud and Azure Stack on ships locally, and use serverless functions, some of which go to the cloud, and some of which go to the local server. Guthrie also demonstrated how this fits into a hybrid cloud solution.

Guthrie focused on the many SaaS providers that now use Azure, and Adobe CTO Abhay Parasnis talked about how it is running its “enterprise SaaS” solutions on the platform, which includes more than 90 trillion transactions. Parasnis talked about the scalability of the platform, Microsoft’s focus on security, and new features such as the ability to integrate Adobe Analytics with Microsoft’s Power BI.

Guthrie said Azure provides the easiest way to integrate with Office 365 and services such as Azure Active Directory. He pushed features such as AppSource, which enables third-party developers to more easily sell enterprise SaaS solutions to Office 365 and Dynamics 365 customers.

AI Tools Offer Customization, Translation

Cognitive services were the focus of the final part of the keynote, and Executive Vice President of Artificial Intelligence & Research Harry Shum talked about the company’s tools. “AI is about amplifying human ingenuity,” he said.

Shum said the move to AI has been driven by big computers, powerful new algorithms, and massive data, and said Microsoft has three big advantages in the AI world: the Microsoft cloud, new algorithms developed by Microsoft research, and all of the data in the Microsoft graph. Shum, who has been a vision researcher, talked about Microsoft’s success in both the ImageNet image recognition competition and in speech recognition tests. But he said he is more excited by what developers can do.

Microsoft now offers 29 cognitive services, he said, including a new video indexer and cognitive service labs, but he particularly emphasized new custom services within the different areas, including vision services and language understanding, known as LUIS (language understanding intelligent service). One demo of a new game, Starship Commander, featured the custom speech services, as it requires words and phrases that are unique to the game.

Shum said the most exciting area today is “conversational AI’—based on the “conversation as a platform” paradigm Nadella described at last year’s show. This uses cognitive services and the bot framework to create custom chat and vision experiences. Microsoft’s Cornelia Carapcea demonstrated how this might work using its custom vision service with your own training data, in a feature called “active learning” which automatically can select the images that can add the most value to your model.

Carapcea talked about how new channels have been added to the Bot framework, including Cortana, Skype, and Bing, bringing the total to 12 channels. And finally, also introduced today was something called Adaptive Cards, which lets you build one model that works across multiple channels.


Michael J. Miller is chief information officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Miller, who was editor-in-chief of PC Magazine from 1991 to 2005, authors this blog for PCMag.com to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.

http://www.pcmag.com/article/353607/microsoft-build-focuses-on-the-intelligent-cloud-and-inte

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