I am grateful for the opportunity to attend Build this year and I am excited to highlight some of the Azure & Office 365 announcements gathered from keynotes and various sessions in Seattle.
Azure is "The World's Computer"
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning are not new concepts. AI offerings have been around for years from Microsoft, IBM and other vendors. By providing tech demonstrations of the latest in Cognitive Services, Azure Service Fabric, and concepts like the “Intelligent Edge”, Build 2018 reinforced Microsoft’s vision of powering the next phase of home and workplace productivity using Artificial Intelligence.
Intelligent, IoT Edge
The intelligent Edge is the devices and software leveraging AI but not (necessarily) relying on cloud connections to operate. Things like cars, drones, or security cameras may leverage AI models which have been trained in Azure but require very little computing power to leverage machine learning models.
The IoT Edge Runtime was announced as Open Source at Build 2018 and you can clone the repo today at https://github.com/azure/iot-edge
Azure Cognitive Services
Azure Cognitive Services was released in 2016 as a cloud API to handle specific tasks like facial recognition, translation services, and speech analysis (sentiment, speech to text, etc.). It isn’t new from Build 2018 but deserves an honorable mention since it is part of the evolving AI suite of products from Azure.
What is Azure Sphere
“A solution for creating highly-secured, connected MCU powered devices so you can reimagine your business. drive innovation” – Satya Nadella, Build 2018.
Announced in April 2018, Azure Sphere is Microsoft’s upcoming framework for Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices. IoT devices have historically presented security concerns. Microsoft’s Azure Sphere could present a solution to this problem by providing a standardized framework for developing software for IoT devices with proprietary microarchitecture and an extensible framework.
Azure Confidential Computing Expanded Preview
In September Microsoft announced Azure Confidential Computing Trusted Execution Environments (TEEs). At Build 2018, the expanded preview was announced including an SDK to develop against the TEE using tools like Visual Studio. One potential application for this technology is to combine data from untrusted parties into a single machine learning algorithm. For example, several hospitals could submit patient data to the confidential TEE for ML modeling. Each hospital could benefit from the resulting combined model, while never seeing or having access to other hospital’s data.
Azure Service Fabric “Mesh”
Azure service fabric has been around since 2016, but at build Microsoft announced that the offering would go serverless with Service Fabric Mesh. Service Fabric Mesh applications are templatized in Visual Studio as a part of the private preview and can be right-click deployed to Azure. IoT Edge nodes can be registered and clustered via the IoT Hub and can support failover even while disconnected from Azure entirely.
Learn more at the blog announcement here.
Azure IoT Devices
What fun would all the advances in IoT and AI be if there were no toys to try it out? Since last year’s keynote Microsoft has made some steps toward their vision of the intelligent edge via partnerships with device manufacturers.
- Dà-Jiāng Innovations (DJI) – In the build keynote Microsoft demonstrated a DJI drone outfitted with IoT Edge software scanning pipes for damage.
In addition to the SDK for Windows, Microsoft and DJI are collaborating to develop commercial drone solutions using Azure IoT Edge and AI technologies for customers in key vertical segments such as agriculture, construction and public safety. Learn more here.
- Qualcomm – Cameras capable of hosting some machine learning capabilities including training models locally. https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/accelerating-ai-on-the-intelligent-edge-microsoft-and-qualcomm-create-vision-ai-developer-kit/
- Other Devices
- Kinect V2 “for Windows/Azure”
- ROOBO Speech Devices SDK – Build your own Cortana, Alexa, etc. https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/cognitive-services/speech-service/speech-devices-sdk
Microsoft has partnered with Intel to bring field-programmable gate array (FPGA) technology to Azure offerings with Project Brainwave. Using FPGA, Project Brainwave can perform Machine Learning Inference much faster and at lower energy consumption than traditionally used GPUs. To demonstrate, Microsoft was able to process nearly 200 TB of map data from its AI for Earth project in less than 10 minutes. Key takeaway – much faster ML Inference at low cost in Azure.
FPGA technology is a natural fit for edge devices since they consume less power. At Build 2018, Microsoft announced they will be bringing Project Brainwave to edge devices in a limited preview.
Read more about Project Brainwave from Microsoft’s press release here.
Office 365, SharePoint & Teams
Azure Cognitive Services, Project Brainwave, IoT Edge – The Worlds Computer may seem out of reach for those of us still on-premises or just starting with Office 365. In fact, there are ways today to leverage Azure Intelligence in Office 365 or on-premises using the Graph API and the SharePoint Framework.
SharePoint Framework (SpFx) 1.5 Announced
SharePoint Framework is the latest extensibility platform for SharePoint and works with both SharePoint On-Premises (2016+) and Office 365. Build 2018 announced the upcoming release on SharePoint Framework 1.5 which includes
- Support for Yarn and pnpm package managers
- Release infrastructure improvements for the SpFx product team including ability to flag NPM packages as production versus experimental.
- Central Administration UI for deploying SpFx extensions globally, specifying a specific web template or list template the extension should be automatically applied to
- SpFx “Dynamic Data” – Share properties between web parts on a page similar to the provider/consumer capability from legacy ASP.NET server web parts
Open Source Portal Reference Solution
The SpFx team has been working on an open-source initiative to showcase the capability of Modern SharePoint as an intranet platform. The portal reference solution will include web parts, extensions, site designs and automated deployment infrastructure. This might be a great place to start for organizations wanting to try out Office 365 SharePoint modern sites. Look out for an announcement and likely preview release at the SharePoint Conference 2018.
SharePoint Framework & Microsoft Teams Integration
Possibly the most exciting announcement for SpFx has nothing to do with SharePoint! As of SpFx 1.5, web parts can now be added to either a SharePoint page, or as a tab in Microsoft Teams. Organizations can effectively build their own internal Teams “app store” by having a suite of Teams-enabled SpFx solutions.
Build 2018 brought some exciting announcements and breakthroughs in the Azure and AIspace. I look forward to helping clients realize the potential of Azure Intelligence by finding creative ways to leverage Azure Cognitive services and extensibility platforms like Bots, Adaptive Cards and the SharePoint Framework.