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Microsoft Wants to Show It’s Never Met a Connected Device it Can’t Handle

March 31, 2016, 6:00 PM UTC
Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott talks artificial intelligence and mixed reality.
Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott talks artificial intelligence and mixed reality.
Photograph by Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Internet of things, aka the billions of connected devices coming online around the world (and possibly beyond) is a huge opportunity for tech vendorsone that Microsoft intends to milk for all it’s worth.

A series of announcements coming out of the company’s Build 2016 developers conference include a set of Azure IoT Starter Kits that promise to help Windows or Linux developers build device prototypes. Note the inclusion of the word “Linux” in that last sentence. Microsoft has realized that if it wants to attract the best and brightest developers, it needs to embrace the open-source development world as well as the Windows and .NET faithful it’s catered to for years.

And that’s been a major push for Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella and executive vice president Scott Guthrie, both of whom are giving keynotes at this week’s San Francisco event. It’s worth noting that while Microsoft claims great strides here in attracting open-source faithful to Azure, some developers in the Linux arena still view Azure warily because of Microsoft’s past anti-open-source actions.

Said David Mytton, CEO of Server Density, a London-based server monitoring company: “There’s really good tech at Microsoft and Azure in particular but there’s still a misconception that Azure doesn’t do Linux very well and has evil intentions when it comes to open source.”

He added that the new era under Nadella shows great promise.

But back to the Internet of Things. Gartner (IT) recently predicted that the number of linked devices will grow from 6.4 billion this year to 20.8 billion in 2020. That means there will be demand not only for a ton of gizmos, but for ways to link them to data aggregation spots (e.g. clouds) where that data can be collected and parsed. That’s where Azure (or Amazon Web Services, or Google Cloud Platform) comes in.

“IoT is a big focus area. We’ve made huge investments in our IoT Suite from analytics to feedback loops with anomaly detection for predictive maintenance,” Microsoft Azure chief technology officer Mark Russinovich told Fortune. And now, the company is providing new tools to let developers prototype and build actuators, sensors, or other gear that people will deploy in the field to gather data.

Indeed, IoT will enable companies to monitor machinery running in far-flung, inhospitable locations, and hopefully spot performance issues as they happen so the problem can be addressed before it becomes catastrophic.

Basically, Microsoft (MSFT) is trying to tie Azure to several prominent hobbyist kits that makers and engineers at big companies use to prototype their hardware ideas. In so doing, the data produced or collected by the devices can flow to Azure without the developer having to expend much effort. IBM (IBM) has a similar program from some hobbyist boards and its IoT Foundation cloud.

The new Azure IoT Starter kits are for Adafruit Raspberry Pi, Feather MO, Huzzah Feather, SparkFun Thing, and Seeed Intel Edison device building kits. (Those names may not ring a bell with you but if you’re a do-it-yourself geek, these are big brands.)

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Starter kit pricing ranges from $50 to $160.

And for developers who want to tie already-deployed connected devices into Azure, there is now a software development kit (SDK) available to help them do so without having to tweak the devices themselves. Microsoft said that the many already deployed (and often incompatible) connected devices can now connect to the Microsoft cloud via the Azure IoT Gateway.

Microsoft also said its promised Azure Service Fabric is now available, which developers can use to design bite-sized software “microservices” without having to worry about managing their life cycles and maintenance.

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“Broadly, this allows companies to build applications that are always on and available. We take a lot of the heavy lifting out of the process,” Russinovich said.

And it’s providing a sneak peek of Azure Functions, which is Microsoft’s version of “serverless” computing, a la Amazon (AMZN) Web Services “Lambda” and Google (GOOG) Cloud Functions.

Serverless computing is the process whereby software code can trigger actions in a process without needing to generate back-and-forth calls to a central server. Say, if a piece of factory gear hits a certain temperature level, the code can perhaps slow work down, or kick on the air conditioning, or sound an alarm.

The Internet of things is truly the latest tech gold rush with all the major players trying to claim a big stake.

What’s new in IoT from a traditional information technology perspective, is that a ton of stuff happens at the edge where all the sensors and devices reside. That means new software is needed to connect those devices to some hub, and to enable an intelligent process at the hub to interpret and respond to that data quickly.

That’s what Microsoft is trying to doing here, but it’s certainly not alone in that quest.

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General Electric (GE) is investing in intelligence on or near the devices; Cisco (CSCO) sees it in the networks near and around the devices, while Microsoft sees it in the cloud hub, said Gartner analyst Yefim Natis. “Everyone sees the whole picture but everyone has a different center of gravity,” he said.