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The Intelligent Cloud: AI-Powered Connectivity

Understanding the next wave of cloud computing

How much do you know about the intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella discussed the company’s vision for the era of the intelligent cloud and the intelligent edge at the 2017 and 2018 Microsoft Build conferences in Seattle.

In both keynote speeches, he highlighted the fact that we’re living in a world powered by digital technology. And not just living in it, but participating in it, with the help of web-enabled devices that connect us in ways we often take for granted.

Nadella said the world is now, essentially, one huge computer. And he wasn’t wrong: Gartner’s research predicts that there’ll be 20 billion connected devices across the globe by 2020. Earth’s current population is around 7.4 billion. We’re definitely looking at a future with more machines than people. But what does that mean for human beings?

Opportunity, according to the Microsoft chief. The chance to take advantage of a diverse, digitally connected ecosystem. The chance to bring together industry players. The chance to create and deliver solutions that weren’t possible before. A window for change, and growth, and innovation. A time to leverage Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, and Big Data to address the problems we face today, as well as the challenges we expect in the future.

Nadella calls himself an unrepentant tech optimist, and at both Build conferences he was confident about the continued evolution of cloud computing – especially as a vehicle for delivering products and services to customers. Microsoft aims to harness advancements in machine learning to give people the tools they need to accomplish more in less time. How? By capitalising on the processing power of the intelligent cloud, and the data-gathering power of devices at the intelligent edge.

What is the intelligent cloud?

Microsoft defines the intelligent cloud as “ubiquitous computing, enabled by the public cloud and artificial intelligence technology, for every type of intelligent application and system you can envision”.

If you take a closer look at the definition, you’ll see that Microsoft is talking about the everyday, everywhere kind of computing that we tend to dismiss. But don’t forget that computers themselves are no longer the big, clunky machines of yesteryear. Today, computers can fit inside the smartwatch on your wrist and the mobile phone in your pocket. Technological development, combined with industrial-scale production, has seen an explosion of small, powerful, and cost-effective computational devices that are web-enabled or directly connected to the cloud.

Nadella has also said that, simply put, the intelligent cloud refers to Microsoft’s ongoing drive to build AI into all of its applications and services, to ensure that customers’ data is always with them (and constantly available) no matter which device they use.

“Our homes, our cars, our workplaces, our factories and cities – every sector of our economy, whether it’s precision agriculture, precision medicine, autonomous cars or autonomous drones, personalised medicine or personalised banking – are all being transformed by digital technology,” Nadella wrote on LinkedIn after the 2018 Build event. “As computing becomes woven in to the fabric of our lives, the opportunities are endless.”

What is the intelligent edge?

“The intelligent edge is a continually expanding set of connected systems and devices that gather and analyse data – close to users, the data, or both. Users get real-time insights and experiences, delivered by highly responsive and contextually aware apps,” according to Microsoft.

Plainly speaking, the “edge” in intelligent edge is a reference to the devices that are close to where they need to be (in order to function purposefully), but are still connected to the cloud. Consider, for example, an agricultural research drone… It’s a physical device designed to operate in a specific location, but its accumulated data can be transferred via the cloud to farmers on the ground, to facilitate immediate decision-making. The drone’s on-board sensors can gauge environmental factors like wind speed, so the device has “intelligence” to enable it to “understand” and adapt to its surroundings.

“When we take the power of the cloud down to the device – the edge – we provide the ability to respond, reason, and act in real time,” explained Kevin Scott (Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft) in a recent blog post. “With the power of AI enabling these devices to intelligently respond to the world they are sensing, we will see new breakthroughs in critical areas that benefit humanity, like healthcare, conservation, sustainability, accessibility, and disaster recovery.”

Microsoft believes the intelligent cloud will inspire intuitive new apps and services that give organisations and businesses the insights they need to achieve greater productivity and efficiency. As cloud specialists ourselves, we’re keen to see what the next wave brings.

BUI is an official Microsoft Partner in South Africa, and an award-winning leader in identity and security solutions.

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