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Microsoft hones Azure AI Services at Microsoft Ignite 2017

To enable developers to build artificial intelligence-infused applications, Microsoft has delivered a series of new tools for creating AI services on its Azure cloud.

ORLANDO -- While Microsoft has previously touted itself as a mobile-first, cloud-first technology provider, the company continues to evolve its focus and is further employing its artificial intelligence capabilities together with its Azure cloud to help customers along their journey to digital transformation.

At its Microsoft Ignite 2017 conference last month, the company introduced new and improved AI capabilities, including Azure Machine Learning (AML), new Visual Studio tools for AI, new Cognitive Services and other new enterprise AI services and tools.

Microsoft's goal with Azure

Microsoft's goal is to use Azure to help democratize the use of AI technologies by simplifying and bringing AI services to any developer anywhere. A key message at Ignite 2017 was to school enterprises on how to infuse cloud, AI and mixed reality into business applications.

In a statement, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said the company is "pushing the frontiers of what's possible with mixed reality and artificial intelligence infused across Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 and Azure, to transform and have impact in the world."

As the conduit through which Microsoft delivers practically all the goods the company produces, Azure is key.

There's a set of technology -- things like IoT, AI, microservices, serverless computing and more -- this is all happening right now thanks in large part to cloud computing.
Scott Guthrieexecutive vice president, Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise Group

"One of the defining aspects of cloud computing is the ability to innovate and release new technology faster and at greater scale than ever before," said Scott Guthrie, executive vice president at Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise Group, during his keynote at Ignite. "There's a set of technology -- things like IoT, AI, microservices, serverless computing and more -- this is all happening right now thanks in large part to cloud computing."

Moreover, "to enable the new generation of AI-powered apps and experiences, Azure has built the entire stack for AI -- from infrastructure, to platform services, to AI dev tools," Guthrie said in a blog post. "Azure offers the most complete, end-to-end AI capabilities such that AI solutions are possible for any developer and any scenario."

Azure Machine Learning

At Microsoft Ignite 2017, the company announced new Azure Machine Learning capabilities, including a new Machine Learning Workbench, which improves AI productivity of developers and data scientists.

These new capabilities provide rapid data wrangling and agile experimentation using familiar and open tools, Guthrie said. "AI developers and data scientists can now use Azure Machine Learning to develop, experiment and deploy AI models on any type of data, on any scale, in Azure and on premises," he added.

In addition to the AML Workbench, Microsoft launched the AML Experimentation service and the AML Model Management service. The AML Experimentation service helps data scientists increase their rate of experimentation with big data and GPUs. The AML Model Management service enables users to host, version, manage and monitor machine learning models. Microsoft also announced a new capability of integrating AML with the Excel spreadsheet.

Visual Studio Code Tools for AI

At Ignite 2017, Microsoft also released Visual Studio Code Tools for AI, which provides capabilities for easily building models with deep learning frameworks, including Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit (CNTK), Google TensorFlow and others.

"The Visual Studio Code Tools for AI are particularly interesting because they should effectively ease the way into creating AI-enabled applications and services for the hundreds of thousands of developers who are already skilled in Microsoft's Visual Studio," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

Yet, he warns that this isn't a "simplified approach" that eliminates the need for learning AI skills and frameworks, he said.

"Obviously, Microsoft isn't the only vendor out there with its sights set on commercial AI products and AI services," King noted. "But the company is focusing its attention and energies on delivering AI tools and solutions that existing customers, developer allies and partners will find immediately valuable."

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