Wandering Through Microsoft Ignite 2016 and Exploring the Future of AI

msigniteblog300For the last four years I have attended Microsoft’s big conference for IT professionals. It used to be called TechEd and for the last two years it has been combined with a few other conferences and goes by Ignite. This is the biggest conference that Microsoft sponsors for IT professionals (and according to Microsoft it is the biggest tech conference in the world) so it always offers insights into where Microsoft is going.

For me, the conference kicked off with one clear message throughout the first day, including both keynote addresses and the major breakout sessions: Microsoft is a company oriented towards the cloud and Azure. The official release of Windows Server 2016 was announced in the keynote, but it felt less important than the Azure-related discussion. A partner deal with Adobe to use Azure for some of their cloud capabilities got more attention.

At the morning keynote, Microsoft Executive Vice President for Cloud and Enterprise Scott Guthrie presented a series of topics that pretty much came down to “Azure is awesome!” Don’t get me wrong, Azure is in fact awesome and currently my favorite playground. It is just such a different vibe from just a few years ago when Azure was part of the strategy but there was still a lot of emphasis on the on-premises software and servers bearing the Microsoft name. On-premises products still get some love, but almost always as part of a hybrid solution. Windows 10, which dominated last year’s event, was barely mentioned in keynote addresses, although there were still many technical sessions focused on Windows 10.

At the afternoon keynote address Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spent an hour talking about Microsoft’s artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, which are largely hosted in and provided through Azure. I found it interesting that he took pains to make clear that Microsoft AI is not intended to take away jobs (or become the evil overlord that everyone who has seen the Terminator™ movies expects).

Instead, Microsoft AI is currently busy translating all of Wikipedia in under one-tenth of a second, recognizing the mood people are in based on their photo, and most importantly creating bots to help lazy people like me make good fantasy football roster decisions. Microsoft is really working with the NFL on a fantasy football bot. The bot recommended that keynote guest Deion Sanders, a NFL sportscaster and former player, should start Drew Brees at quarterback over Matt Ryan in the evening’s Monday Night Football game. I looked it up later in the week and it turned out the bot was right. Congratulations Microsoft AI you are already better at fantasy football than I am.

Several times during the keynote Nadella emphasized that Microsoft wants to democratize AI. If they can do this, it will be an epic win for Microsoft. There is amazing AI work going on throughout the IT industry right now, but it’s generally being done by people who are really smart – certainly much smarter than me. If Microsoft can bring functional AI to the point where normal (by that I mean non-genius) professionals can use it directly that will be game changing. It will be like Visual Basic was for Windows application development and Excel has been for data analysis.

I will say that in many ways this conference feels a bit like Ignite 2015 part two. Much of what I have seen is either an expansion of technologies discussed last year or an evolution of new functionality based on existing technologies. For example, I sat in on a great session on Azure Function apps. These are new and very cool, but they are an extension of Web Apps and WebJobs. This is actually a very good thing. We are seeing a maturing and stable platform in Azure, but powerful new capabilities are still being added.

I have been pretty fortunate that the focus of the conference aligns with things that interest me. I am also fortunate in that I am an instructor and my life is pretty much learning about things that interest me. I sat in a session on the new cognitive services that Microsoft is making available. This was really powerful for me because it was a practical, simple framework for implementing artificial intelligence. I can integrate seriously powerful AI into applications without engaging a data scientist. Essentially Microsoft is productizing the data scientist for me.

Another theme that has been developing over the last few years is Microsoft’s commitment to open source. If you have followed Microsoft for some time you know that they, as a company, were at one point fairly antagonistic towards open source. They have really completely turned around on this. he majority of the sessions that I attended featured something in GitHub. In fact the word git was used tens of thousands of times at the conference. Well, probably not but, it has been used a lot. Even products central to Microsoft such as Visual Studio and .Net have open source components readily available on GitHub.

One open source-related product that is new to Microsoft this year, at least as a demonstrable product, is container technology. This isn’t getting the same amount of coverage as some of the Azure topics but this is something that is clearly huge going forward. Docker, a leader in the application container space, is now integrated in both Azure and Windows Server 2016.

If you are not familiar with Docker or containers, the technology provides a portable, isolated configuration environment for applications. I can define a container for an application and then deploy that container to any server that is running Docker and it will run. There are some weaknesses — such as the inability to co-mingle Windows and Linux workloads on the same server and lack of support for applications with graphical user interfaces — but for a lot of cases this is a really powerful capability for application deployment and management. As an application developer I cannot wait to get back home and start playing with containers (I mean preparing to teach container technology).

If the focus of Ignite is any indication, Microsoft under the leadership of Nadella is truly a new company. I will admit that even a couple of years ago I did not fully get Microsoft’s strategy related to Azure or open source. Now it is clear and undeniable. While Azure feels more stable as a platform than it was a few years ago there are still plenty of new and evolving capabilities that are really interesting. Microsoft is now heavily involved and invested in open source. I would suggest keeping your eyes on Azure, Docker and Azure cognitive APIs. Oh, also if you play fantasy football next year be aware — I’ll have an expert in my ear with every decision that I make courtesy of the fine engineers and scientists at Microsoft.

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Tracy Wallace has worked in IT for almost 30 years. He began his career repairing mainframe terminals and programming in Fortran. He regrets how old this makes him look. Tracy has been a Microsoft Certified Trainer since 1995 and currently focuses on Azure, Microsoft.Net programming, SQL Server and SharePoint. Somewhere between Fortran and programming instruction he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. When not working Tracy basks in the glory of his wonderful wife and two amazing kids. He is also attempting to build a fleet of autonomous robots to take over the world but is struggling with the electronics design so everyone is safe for now.

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