Microsoft Ignite: New A.I, IoT, Azure, open data offerings announced
Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, onstage

Microsoft Ignite: New A.I, IoT, Azure, open data offerings announced

Internet of Business says

Microsoft has made a number of artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and big data analytics announcements at its Ignite developer conference in Orlando, Florida this week.

First, the enterprise technology giant launched dedicated AI hardware linked to its Azure cloud platform. The Azure Data Box Edge is a self-contained rack unit containing a Field Programmable Gate Array (FGPA) designed to run deep learning and inference computations at the edge, on site in factories and other locations.

It joins Microsoft’s other Data Box products, which compete with Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) Snowball offerings. With the 100-terabyte Azure Data Box and the one-petabyte Azure Data Box Heavy, the concept is that the customer loads the hardware with data, and the device is then physically shipped to Microsoft so the data can be uploaded to the cloud.

With Azure Data Box Edge, however, organisations collect and analyse data at the edge, then upload it to Azure themselves via the network. This cuts back on bandwidth costs and – as with all edge services – avoids the need to process a mass of data directly in the cloud.

New digital twins born

Inevitably, Azure was the focus of some other big announcements. First, Microsoft unveiled Azure Digital Twins. The new offering enables users to build data models of their real-world assets in the cloud – together with the relationships, things, and processes that connect them via other Azure services, such as AI, analytics, maps, and Office 365.

Azure IoT Hub keeps the model up to date with data from IoT devices and sensors.

The new digital twins service is part of Microsoft’s Azure IoT platform, and will be available for public preview in mid October.

On the subject of which, Azure IoT Central – announced in December – is now generally available, said Microsoft. The new software as a service (SaaS) offering provides managed cloud-based infrastructure and analytics for IoT devices and their associated applications.

Securing the IoT

With California recently launching new security regulations aimed at IoT devices, Microsoft announced that the Azure Security Service will now support IoT applications. The new offering will help operators monitor connected devices and make sure they are secure, patched, and up to date.

On the AI side of the business, Microsoft unveiled a new smart Search feature, which provides a standard search bar across all Office 365 applications. It delivers context- and history-related results, based on the user’s own workflow and internal business relationships.

Microsoft is also revamping Cortana. With the digital assistant space becoming increasingly crowded with Google’s natural language offerings, Amazon’s Alexa-powered consumer hardware, and more, Microsoft has decided to focus Cortana more tightly as an enterprise aide. This makes sense in the context of the company’s deepening enterprise – rather than consumer – focus.

Accordingly, the company is releasing a new enterprise Cortana skills kit to developers – initially by invitation only – with the aim of helping them build new skills for the digital assistant to improve workforce productivity.

AI and data for all

Alongside AI enhancements across the full spectrum of Microsoft’s offerings – such as the new speech-to-text transcription and facial recognition add-ons to Microsoft Teams – the company also unveiled a new $40 million programme called AI for Humanitarian Action.

As recent reports warn of AI creating a more divided society worldwide – with AI-enabled haves and AI-lacking have-nots at national, corporate, and citizen levels – the aim of this new initiative is to bring AI to bear in humanitarian and natural disaster zones, helping to aid recovery and protect displaced and vulnerable people. It’s part of the wider AI for Good initiative, which Microsoft launched in July 2017.

Open Data Initiative

Other new initiatives were announced alongside the hardware and software unveilings. For example, the leaders of Adobe and SAP joined Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella onstage to launch the Open Data Initiative.

With so much corporate data trapped in those ‘silos’ that transformation experts have long warned against, the Open Data Initiative is designed to create an open, extensible data model across organisations and their partner networks.

“Together with Adobe and SAP we are taking a first, critical step to helping companies achieve a level of customer and business understanding that has never before been possible,” said Nadella. “Organisations everywhere have a massive opportunity to build AI-powered digital feedback loops for predictive power, automated workflows and, ultimately, improved business outcomes.”

But what exactly does the Open Data Initiative do?

The answer is that it links the Adobe Experience Cloud, Adobe Experience Platform, SAP C/4HANA, S/4HANA, and Microsoft Dynamics 365, to make it easier to exchange data between these platforms. Again, the Azure cloud sits at the centre of the data lake.

“Customers have always had concerns over their data and the depth of the silos that data now resides in across multiple cloud systems,” said Nicholas McQuire, VP of Enterprise Research at market intelligence provider, CCS Insight. “This market reality has impeded the cloud sector, especially for advanced services like AI and the Internet of Things.

“Although details are light at this stage, the move is an important statement of intent that should help customers with these challenges. It should also encourage more cloud software vendors, including Google and Salesforce, to join forces to address this data challenge.”

His comments came as Salesforce kicked off its annual Dreamforce jamboree in San Francisco.

Finally, data was core to yet another Microsoft announcement onstage in Orlando this week: SQL Server is becoming a true big data platform, said the company, via integration with the Hadoop Distributed Filing System (HDFS) and Apache Spark. SQL Server will now be able to use HDFS for storage, and deploy Spark for other tasks, such as machine learning.

All of this is enabled by the virtual containerisation technology, Kubernetes, said Microsoft.

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