Microsoft adds more AI, mixed-reality, IoT services to its Azure line-up

A couple days ahead of Build 2019, Microsoft is showcasing some new AI, MR, IoT and blockchain capabilities powered by Azure which it will be showing off at its developer confab.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft is sharing a number of Azure-specific announcements a few days ahead of the kick off of its Build 2019 developer conference. Today's announcements are meant to highlight Microsoft's positioning of Azure as the best cloud for artificial intelligence, mixed-reality, edge-computing and blockchain, officials said. 

Microsoft is making generally available the previously announced hardware-accelerated models running on its field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that are available in Azure.  Microsoft's Project BrainWave -- its project to use FPGAs to provide fast AI processing in Azure -- entered preview.  

Last year at Build, Microsoft announced a preview of Azure Machine Learning Hardware Accelerated Models powered by Project Brainwave in the cloud. This was the first step in making available to external customers Microsoft's FPGA processing for AI workloads. Microsoft also unveiled a limited preview of Project Brainwave "on the edge,. The edge devices, in this case, were on-premises servers that can act as Azure IoT Edge devices. Dell and Hewlett Packard Enterprise are the first partners participating in this limited preview. 

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As part of its Build announcements this year, Microsoft also is adding ONNX Runtime support for NVIDIA TensorRT and Intel nGraph for high-speed inferencing on NVIDIA and Intel processors.

Microsoft is adding a new category of Cognitive Services it's calling "Decision" to its stable of AI application programming interfaces which developers can add to their applications. The Decision category includes the previously announced Anomaly Detector API; "Personalizer" (which looks to be a rebranded version of the current Project Custom Decision cognitive service API); and Content Moderator. These Cognitive Services APIs are all focused around making better decisions, officials said.

Microsoft also is making generally available its cognitive search capability, which will allow developers to apply Cognitive Services algorithms to gain new insights from their structured and unstructured content. Microsoft is previewing a new feature that will allow developers to store cognitive search insights so they can create "knowledge'rich" experiences using Power BI visualizations or machine-learning models. New public preview of an Ink Recognizer cognitive service for embedding digital ink recognition; Form Recognizer for automating data entry; and a conversation transcription capability in Speech Service for transcribing conversations in real-time also are on the agenda.

Speaking of Machine Learning, Microsoft is adding new features to its Azure Machine Learning Service to help developers more easily make high-quality models and to take a no-code approach to model creation and deployment using a new visual machine-learning interface.

In the mixed-reality space, Microsoft is going to make available a development edition of the HoloLens 2 starting at $3,500 -- or $99 per month as a subscription. (Microsoft didn't disclose an availability date for the development edition of HoloLens.) As part of the package, developers get a HoloLens 2 device, $500 in Azure credits and Azure-connected mixed-reality services. And on the heels of Epic chief Tim Sweeney's commitment to supporting HoloLens 2, Epic's Unreal Engine 4 will support streaming and native platform integration for HoloLens 2 by the end of May.

In the IoT/intelligent edge realm, Microsoft is introducing a new variant of its Azure SQL Database called Azure SQL Database Edge that will run on compute-constrained devices at the edge. This new database shares the same core programming environment with Azure SQL Database and SQL Server, Microsoft said. Azure SQL Database Edge includes support for ARM and x64-based devices and edge gateways, and will support both cloud-connected and fully disconnected edge devices, Microsoft officials said. Developers can request access to the Early Adopter Program to get access to the preview. 

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    Microsoft also is going public with IoT Plug and Play, which officials are calling a new open modeling language for more seamlessly connecting IoT devices to the cloud. (The program seems to be modeled after Microsoft's PC-peripheral Plug and Play program.) (Ultimately, via IoT Plug and Play, Microsoft will offer users a choice of partner-certified devices. 

  • Microsoft has been working on its blockchain-as-a-service offerings since 2015. Last year, Microsoft announced Azure Blockchain Workbench, which provided developers a way to model blockchain apps on a preconfigured Azure-supported network. Now Microsoft is making available what it's calling its Azure Blockchain Service in the form of a publicly available preview. The service provides for the creation, management and governance of consortium blockchain networks.

    In conjunction with J.P. Morgan, Microsoft is making available Quorum as the first ledger in its blockchain service. Quorum is built on the Ethereum protocol. Microsoft also is offering an extension for its VS Code lightweight development environment for creating and compiling Ethereum smart contacts.

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