Microsoft continues tradition of ‘big and bold’ bets for future

TechX cloud conference hears of guiding principles for future development
Josh Holmes, Microsoft, addresses TechX Dublin 2019 (Image: Microsoft)

13 November 2019

In association with Microsoft.

Cloud computing was very much the focus of Microsoft’s TechX Summit in Dublin, in the context of a platform on which great things could be achieved.

Digital transformation, new business models, new applications, leveraging new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and quantum computing, were all highlighted as examples of what can be done.

Cathriona Hallahan, managing director, Microsoft Ireland, talked about technology as a force for good, and co-creating value with partners and customers, highlighting how Microsoft has evolved as a company.

Josh Holmes, principal software engineer, Microsoft, in his keynote developed that evolution story.

Josh Holmes talks early myths and new realities at the TechX conference. (Image: Microsoft)

Bold claims, backed up

Citing the founding myths of the likes of Hewlett Packard and other tech companies, he said they often started with a bold claim that was only later backed up. Microsoft, he said, was no different.

When Paul Allen and Bill Gates first pitched the idea of selling software independent of the then target machine, the Altair 8800, they actually had no code to show. Holmes said, despite not having a machine on which to develop their code, the pair simulated it, developed the BASIC interpreter and went ahead anyway. And the rest is now part of the legend of early computing.

“It was big bet, a bold bet and that is still infused in Microsoft culture today,” said Holmes.

While the Gates era mission statement of “a computer on every desk and in every home” served Microsoft well over the years, it is now firmly supplanted by the Satya Nadella era one of “to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more.”

Speaking to TechPro, Holmes said, “This is a mission statement I can believe in. This is one I can get behind.”

That statement is already in effect, but it also has a strong future, thanks to a $12 billion investment by Nadella in R&D, to make those bold bets, said Holmes.

Guiding those efforts are a few key principles.

Regardless of size

Firstly, is to be bold, regardless of size.

The example given to illustrate this was Microsoft’s Project Natick that saw it take a 12 metre pressure vessel, containing some 864 servers, with a 27.6 petabyte storage capacity, and sink it 30 metres down off the north coast of Scotland.

The result of an open submission White Paper during a Think Week event, the Natick trial saw the vessel operate for 90 days submerged, enjoying free cooling via ambient sea water and current flows, to operate as a lights-out data centre. It was so successful, a second trial aimed for 18 months submersion.

Half the world’s population lives within 200 km of a coast, said Holmes, and 30 metres down in any ocean, there is a consistent low temperature. Plus, renewable energy, via wind, wave and solar, is generally more available in such locations. Thus, Natick made sense on many levels and continues to be developed as a means to deploy fast commission, close to the customer data centre infrastructure that is of minimal impact to the environment in its operation.

The Project Natick pressure vessel before payload installation. (Image: Microsoft)

A bold bet, says Holmes, even on a small scale. Though that scale, he asserts, is held back only by the deployment infrastructure, not the compute power, energy needs or endurance of the vessel. It is simply the infrastructure to deploy the vessels that constrains.

Payload racks being prepared for installation. (Image: Microsoft)

Project Natick has applications in many areas, as cloud expands, demanding faster access to data, closer to where it is gathered and used, and edge computing develops apace to accommodate these and other needs.

Inclusion concerns

Another theme for current future developments is optimism and inclusion. All too often we hear of the obstacles for those to who are differently abled, whether on a physical, sensory or mental level.

Holmes cited the example of a group called Wounded Warriors that were re-engineering Xbox controllers for wounded veterans who simply wanted to enjoy games. A Microsoft engineer, Matt Hite heard of the efforts and wanted to help. The result was the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Enhanced with additional capabilities to handle more sensors and inputs, including a co-pilot feature for two controllers to be linked, the Adaptive Controller allows players to use whatever range of mobility and control they have to play.

Holmes quoted Bryce Johnson, a senior inclusive designer on the Xbox team, “We are not trying to design for all of us, we are trying to design for each of us.”

Having built on the work of the Wounded Warrior efforts and co-created a whole new capability, the controller was priced to make it just as accessible – €89.99 or $99.

Grounded on trust

Grounded on trust was another key theme for development direction, said Holmes, and this was characterised by Project InnerEye.

This is a project that develops ML techniques for automatic delineation of tumours, as well as healthy anatomy in 3D radiological images. The technology enables the extraction of targeted radiomics measurements for quantitative radiology, efficient contouring for radiotherapy planning, and precise surgery planning and navigation. This means that InnerEye turns multi-dimensional radiological images into measuring devices. They can map, measure and track the development of tumours for human decision support, allowing far more targeted, effective and timely interventions than was possibly previously.

Microsoft has worked with partners on the project, such as Terarecon, to embed the technology in applications developed from long experience in the medical field, and radiology in particular.

Rather than do all of this ourselves, said Holmes, we opened it up to the partners to fully implement.

This key approach, allowing partners to fully leverage co-created technologies, said Holmes, has proven hugely beneficial.

According to figures based on financial reports and IDC estimates, in the context of the partner ecosystem, for every $1 Microsoft makes, its partners make $9.64.

Execution at scale

The last development principle is that of execution at scale.

Under this heading, Holmes talked about Microsoft’s work in quantum computing.

Coming full circle to the Allen and Gates big bet, Microsoft is using simulation and emulation to allow the development of code and programming techniques that are preparing developers for the new paradigm of quantum computing.

Q# is a language in which to develop for quantum computers. Microsoft has already made available a quantum developer kit to prepare developers, teams and organisations for the availability of quantum platforms.

The developer kit, simulation, and free training tools, all allow people to think in that mindset, said Holmes. They will be able to solve problems and be proficient by the time the real platforms become available. 

Quantum computing research is already impacting how development is directed today, Holmes confirmed. He said the often cited example of today’s levels of encryption being ineffective in a quantum computing environment is well known, but added it will also have profound effects for identity and access management.

Passwords will be entirely obsolete, with layered biometrics as the likely replacement. But people need to be prepared now for such eventualities, smoothing any transition, he said.

With the advent of efficient quantum machines, such as the topological quantum computer concept, it may become possible to produce realistic simulations of the human brain, and with it the potential for general AI.

This raises serious ethical questions, said Holmes, and requires the development of frameworks for informed and responsible development.

With these guiding principles of being bold, but inclusive and responsible, Microsoft aims to fulfil its mission statement of empowerment for everyone, everywhere, concluded Holmes.

TechCentral Reporters

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