Microsoft’s ‘Intelligent Edge’ Strategy Tackles Workloads that Won’t Move to the Cloud


Microsoft’s Build developer conference kicked off Monday, and the tech titan spent its time addressing one of the key problems with cloud transformation: how do you deal with the 30 percent of enterprise workloads that can’t move into a public cloud datacenter?

For CEO Satya Nadella, it’s all about the “Intelligent Edge” – bringing applications at the core of an enterprise’s digital transformation from the cloud to local devices where they can drive business results in real time. Microsoft’s idea of the edge encompasses a wide variety of hardware, including private enterprise datacenters, PCs, mobile devices and less powerful hardware that comprises the internet of things (IoT).

In time, we expect 70 percent of all enterprise workloads will move to a cloud delivery model. The remaining ones must stay in on-premises environments for reasons like security, compliance, latency or network connectivity. Artificial intelligence (AI) workloads, for example, have the potential to transform the way we work across all manner of industries, but to get truly real-time insights, some of those workloads will need to run at the edge.

Microsoft’s new "Intelligent Edge" offerings don’t let organizations off the hook for cloud transformation. But they’re a stark reminder of how CIOs and CTOs must be thoughtful about the way they go about it.

Choosing the home for enterprise applications – whether at an enterprise’s edge or in the cloud – requires a shift in mindset and tooling to take advantage of the technologies available in the market today. Those companies that intelligently harness the edge will likely be on better footing than those who stick to their ways.

Bringing AI to the edge

AI is at the core of this strategy. Machine learning is critical to the future of organizations everywhere, but driving business value from intelligent predictions requires connecting AI systems to business processes, wherever they are. For example, a manufacturer using machine learning-based defect detection requires low-latency results – without sending data out of the plant.

Microsoft announced an update to its Azure Custom Vision service that could apply to scenarios like this. The service allows companies to build image classifiers based on a set of proprietary images. Developers don’t need to understand the underlying machine learning systems to deploy them, and they now can export the resulting algorithms for execution on the edge in TensorFlow, Core ML and ONNX formats.

Developers who want to run machine learning algorithms at high speed in the cloud can turn to a new preview of Project Brainwave, Microsoft’s system for using field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to provide high-speed compute for AI. Right now, the system only works for ResNet-50-based computer vision algorithms, but it’s designed to be useful in a general-purpose context. The preview is currently available only through Azure, but Microsoft is working to make it available on the edge for customers deploying FPGAs in their datacenters.

Microsoft also announced a Speech Devices SDK that can help developers create intelligent speakers for things like drive-thru windows, stadium kiosks and other applications, without having to reinvent the wheel.

Connecting modern applications with IoT hardware through developer transformation

Building and deploying applications for these edge environments benefits from modern developer tools, like containers and Kubernetes. Microsoft announced the imminent general availability of Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS), which provides a host of automated management capabilities for Kubernetes, the popular open source software that helps unify cloud and edge use cases by abstracting out the underlying hardware that hosts applications. In the future, Microsoft will integrate AKS with Azure IoT Edge, its service for building and deploying software to less powerful computing hardware like Raspberry Pis.

Augmenting human intelligence with AR and VR

Microsoft’s intelligent edge doesn’t stop with computing hardware – its investments in augmented and virtual reality also come into play. On Monday, it launched an enterprise videoconferencing service called Remote Assist that uses Microsoft Teams’s videoconferencing infrastructure to assist workers in augmented reality.

A HoloLens wearer can open the app and call someone inside their organization. The person who answers the call can view a video feed from the HoloLens then annotate the wearer’s physical space to help complete complex tasks like repairing industrial equipment. That way, a worker would be able to connect directly with an expert to get help, rather than searching for a manual or trying to troubleshoot through email.

The app is a Microsoft service that uses Office 365 infrastructure, so companies don’t have to develop a custom solution. It’s a way to show how augmented reality fits into enterprise real use cases - to supplement the futuristic demos that have marked Microsoft’s pitch for the HoloLens at past events.

Innovation remains in the cloud

Even with its focus on the edge, Microsoft is still pumping out plenty of cloud innovation as part of its latest round of announcements. Its new Azure Blockchain Workbench service, for example, is designed to simplify the process of building applications on top of blockchain technology. At this point, that sort of managed service exists only in the cloud, but Microsoft has a path for bringing it to the edge using its Azure Stack system, which fuses hardware and software for companies to run a node that works like Azure within their private environments.

Look for a post later this week summing up how the Build conference is just part of the avalanche of technology news coming from other events including Google I/O, ServiceNow Knowledge18 and Red Hat Summit.