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Microsoft Says It Can Make Devices Smarter

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted this week that even in the age of cloud computing, not everything is about massive centralized clouds like Microsoft Azure. There are huge amounts of data generated by billions of devices from fitness trackers to mining equipment that comprise what he called the “intelligent edge.”

Not all of that data will be sent up to a central cloud for processing. Some data is better off being handled locally, which means there’s a need for smart devices that can crunch data themselves.

“The intelligent edge is the interface between the computer and the real world,” Nadella said at the Microsoft Build conference in Seattle on Wednesday.

The Internet of things, the idea of tens of billions of Internet-connected devices like kitchen appliances and manufacturing gear that are generating and transmitting data, has breathed new life (and considerable hype) into the old idea of distributed computing, which is the post mainframe model of computing that relies on lots of devices that divvy up tasks. This is also what Cisco (CSCO) has called fog computing, so the intelligent edge is not exactly a new concept.

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To facilitate a new generation of smart devices, Microsoft (MSFT) announced a preview version of Azure IoT Edge software that it says will extend some of Azure’s own cloud computing capabilities to those aforementioned devices in the field.

This software can run on Windows or Linux devices and even the Raspberry Pi, a popular and inexpensive stripped-down computer that do-it-yourselfers can turn into specialized IoT devices. A hobbyist for example can use a Pi to make an old TV programmable so it can be used to search the web or other tasks. With this new Microsoft software those devices can run Azure services locally.

Related: Amazon gets a bit more hybrid

“Azure IoT Edge enables IoT devices to run cloud services, process data in near real-time, and communicate with sensors and other devices connected to them, even with intermittent cloud connectivity,” according to a blog post by Microsoft’s Sam George, partner director of Azure IOT.

Related: At Build Microsoft doubles down on cloud databases

And there were goodies for heavy Windows users like a preview version of Azure Functions for use with Microsoft’s Visual Studio 2017 software development toolkit. Azure Functions is tool for creating so-called “serverless applications,” which are automated jobs that kick off off automatically without human involvement. For example, it can turn on the cooling system in a piece of factory gear once the temperature exceeds a certain level. The integration of Azure Functions into Visual Studio means that those automated processes can run on a company’s local computers and servers running Windows as well as in Azure cloud.

Related: Amazon expected to unveil new database options, AI tools

A company could use Azure Functions and other products to analyze comments on Twitter (TWTR), said Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer of Microsoft Azure. “Using machine language you can see if comments are happy or unhappy.” If the system deems the comments negative, it can then send an email or text to the appropriate person, or open a ticket in a customer relationship management system, he said.

The overall thrust of the tools, several of which were previously announced but are now available in preview versions, is to make software development easier for corporate and other developers, Russinovich told Fortune before the event. That’s important because most companies, from car makers to publishers, are now also in the business of building and running custom software for their employees and customers.

Microsoft is pushing Azure as the focal point for its computing efforts and as an alternative to Amazon Web Services. Unfortunately for Microsoft, Azure suffered a bit of a hiccup that the company attributed to “intermittent authentication failures” during the show Wednesday, as pointed out by attendees on Twitter.