Conversation with Sam George
Good day, this is Ed Maguire, Insights Partner at Momenta Partners, back again with another special guest for Edge Podcast series. Today we have Sam George who’s the director of Azure IoT, he’s responsible for Microsoft IoT Central, Azure IoT Suite, Azure IoT Edge, and
Thank you, Ed. It’s great to join you and your listeners this morning, thanks for having me.
I’d say the biggest thing that’s informed my view, and I think really Microsoft’s view, has been all the customers that we’ve met with, that helped shape our understanding of the needs in the space. We benefitted from this very
One of the things we did early-on is, we realized IoT can be a complex topic, and part of what our position was going to be in IoT was to simplify it to enable mass adoption. That’s something which really goes to Microsoft’s heritage, if you look back on our past, back in the day building client applications using C++, invented visual basic, sort of revolutionized client programming, and you can think of what we’ve done and what our focus has been on IoT, it’s doing the same thing for IoT. When we step back and think about an IoT solution, and this is from hundreds of hours of customer conversations, and partner conversations; one of the things we realized, and it was important to realize early-on is, what is IoT, what constitutes an IoT solution, why would you do it? Why would you bother?
In a lot of ways what we found is, what companies were looking for is the ability to sense their products, their assets in real-time, to be able to have that be just a digital process like the rest of their businesses were and completing and marrying the physical world to the digital world. There’s a whole bunch of things you can do once you do that, and when you zoom in and look at an IoT solution we see a very simple three-tiered structure;
Then what we’ve done is, we’ve simply gone about it and said, how can we dramatically simplify it for connecting too and managing those things, as the extreme scales you find in IoT, how can you do that securely? How can you do that across a huge array of devices and assets which people are wanting to connect to? How do you make it so that insights are simple to gain? And then how do you make it so that you connect to any business process and drive action? So, the big thing that influenced us was all of those conversations very early-on with customers and partners.
So, in many respects it was more of a poll conversation than a push, at least as I’ve observed Microsoft’s evolution in the space, you weren’t necessarily focused on the category, but I think what’s interesting of course about Microsoft is there’s a uniquely broad set of capabilities and technologies but connecting to operational technologies and making that bridge is a little bit of a different domain than traditional IT for instance
How did you approach some of the
That’s a great question, we took a very humble approach, we spent a lot of time learning
I also felt as we were doing this, which was right around when Saatchi came on as our CEO, and as you mentioned earlier in the podcast I’ve been at Microsoft for a long time, there’s such a great revolution that happened when Saatchi took over as CEO. It really helped us especially in the IoT space we really benefited from it, because instead of looking at it at IoT from the lens of what can customers do with what we already have, we looked at it through the lens of, what are the business problems and the
You also have a whole different range of partnerships and have built an ecosystem that is in many respects distinct from working with ISV’s for instance that
That’s right. What that freed us up to do is to find what are all the problems that companies are going to look to us for? We heard a number of them, we heard problems around security, problems around needing to be processing extreme amounts of data, challenges around managing large, large, large fleets, challenges around wanting these offerings, wanting these solutions to run not just in the cloud but on premises, and in hybrid configurations. Anyway, we took all of that in that form, the genesis of our IoT strategy and the IoT offerings we’d been building out now for four years. So, it’s been an amazing journey, and what’s most exciting to us about the Internet of Things is, we are really getting to the point where companies can benefit from it really quickly today, from a technology point of view.
The really interesting part I’m looking at is, in a lot of ways when you remove the technology barriers, what you’re left with in IoT is that a company is faced with their own digital transformation, and I know everybody talks about digital transformation, but it’s a real thing which I see every day with companies. So, imagine a company that has an asset which they
You’d spoken about simplicity as a driving mission. IoT over the last several years in many respects was a concept or an idea that had seen some very optimistic expectations, which many vendors expected that we would see up into the right curve, where
First of all to talk about this, I think it’s important to lay out for a moment, when you think about a typical IoT solution, we’ve seen many-many thousands of these now, when you think about a typical IoT solution especially from a cloud point of view where you’re connecting to devices, you’re collecting data, you’re finding insights from that, you’re driving informed actions, there’s a very typical service architecture which we see again and again; we published and recently updated our reference architecture that explains all the different Azure services can work together, how
When you look at the service architecture, you typically see there’s a cloud gateway for connecting to and managing all of those devices, that’s what our Azure IoT Hub does. There’s data-storage like Azure Data Lake, Azure Storage, for collecting all of those volumes of telemetry, or even things like Azure Time Series Insights for dealing with the time series data
If you think about all of the services I’ve just talked about, in a lot of ways if you’re in
Something we did very early-on is we introduced solution accelerators, and what the solution accelerators are is something where you can add your subscription, tell us which region you want it provisioned into, and we’ll provision all of those services and produce a working end-to-end IoT solution, and it takes about five minutes. We lay down 10 different services, you get an Azure website which includes all the dashboarding capabilities that you need, and all that which you need for an IoT solution. Then it takes about another five minutes, you can connect devices, and so the very same day you can have a proof of concept, that week you can have a pilot, you can get into production much faster. So, that’s helped a lot, it helps because then people could see and touch IoT right away, as opposed to hearing about the value but not being able to get to it. That was one part of our evolution.
And for several years we’ve had it in
So that sort of speaks to the evolution we’ve had, we started with really hyper-skill Legos, I don’t mean to insult them by calling them Legos! For example, our messaging infrastructure when we started, it was processing about 10 million messages every month, and today its over two trillion a day. So, they’re pretty significant Legos! But from a business point of view you really don’t care about that, you trust Microsoft is going to have the skill you need, and our job is to take care of that. You want to be able to find out whether you can benefit from IoT, what that looks like, and what the return on investment is. So, today when you go on
It’s clear that driving force of Microsoft, that message really resonates with the market, because
I wanted to ask you about the platform strategy, and some of the way you think about partnerships. When I think about Microsoft as a business platform, which is a business where third-parties develop their own IP that leverages really the underlying
We’re a platform and partner company, yeah.
Absolutely, and IoT there’s quite a lot of confusion about IoT platforms, I’ve seen estimates of up to 500 platforms which seem quite redundant. Our view is there’s going to be some consolidation, and a lot of those capabilities get rolled up into applications. You’ve had some partnerships, you mentioned Schneider and I think of ABB, and Rockwell, and some others that come to mind, we’d love to get the perspective on your partner philosophy, and how the emphasis you put on the technology platform works and is helping to accelerate some of the work your partners are doing too.
That’s a great question. We are very much a platform and partner company,
So, that very much drives us, and it’s something I’m glad you asked about, because that’s part of our core philosophy in IoT, and it's an example with IoT Central, it’s a horizontal offering, meaning it doesn’t do any vertical specialization out of the box, partners provide that. And so even though we’re getting to the point where even companies that don’t have technical capabilities can use IoT Central, we still see a strong need for partners to provide that vertical specialization.
From the standpoint of being able to allocate resources from the partner’s perspective, they’re able to allocate their innovation resources, there are indeed budgets, not on reinventing the wheel, but they’re able to leverage all the work you’re putting into scalability, data management, and all these other abilities to connect devices, and then build that business logic on top. I think that’s pretty remarkable.
One more thing I might add to that, early-on what you saw is, initially when we were just getting started say four years ago, many of the partners started building their own IoT platform on top of Azure. What they’ve seen over time is that we tend to move pretty fast with all of these horizontal capabilities, and so what we’re seeing more and more is that the partners themselves are just simply using the Azure IoT platform now, as opposed to having to build a large layer on top. That has been a transformation which has been happening over the last several years. Eventually what they realize is, we’re moving pretty darn fast, and
I was interested
Absolutely, and going back to that structure which I talked about, about the things, the insights, and actions; insight is an incredibly important part of it, in
Let me give a couple of examples. Broadly speaking if you think about the state of the art right now, if you’re a company or you’re a partner that has data scientists, the offerings we have right now are very-very easy to use; we have a very sophisticated machine learning workbench now which enables you to build very sophisticated machinery models quickly, to be able to deploy those at high scale on the cloud. We’ve even made it now so that we can take those same machine running models and push them right down to IoT devices with IoT Edge, and we will talk about that in a moment. But, if you think of the state of the art and where a lot of innovation is happening,
Speaking to our heritage and our passion about democratizing technology, and making it available for mass adoption, that’s really where we’ve been coming from when you look at what we’re doing with our cognitive services. Now, our cognitive services are the typical machine learning workflow is collecting data,
Then, we took that image classifier, so I could send new images to the cloud, and it would say whether it was Scott or not. But then we also showed taking that same image classifier, that machine learning model, running it right down on a device connected to a camera, and then disconnected that from the cloud, and it was still recognizing
In fact, I was just about to go there because that’s one of the areas we’ve been focused on a lot. I’d love to get a bit of context on how you’re thinking about IoT Edge, and what the implications are for business logic, and how you design and create applications when you start to incorporate these technologies?
The way we think about this, and again we always like to have a context in which all of these innovations are happening. When you think about it,
So, IoT has benefitted from cloud, and then we see the next wave that’s been happening, and in our opinion is it’s been happening for about the last year and a half, that we call Edge computing, and of course Edge computing has also been around for a long time, it was just called something different, it was called embedded development, so, people were already building logic on devices to do things. What’s different about Edge computing is, it takes advantages of those previous ways of computing of IoT in cloud, and in our opinion Edge computing is really enabled by consistency of being able to run something either in the cloud, or out in the physical world, or both, so it enables you to have workload portability. The example I just gave about taking cognitive services and being able to run it in the cloud or on device; the mechanism that we’re using for portability between those two is containers, and so containers for those that are familiar are really revolutionizing modern application development in the cloud, where you’re able to create very fine-grain microservices, and manage fleets of them, to be able to even develop them locally on your laptop and run hundreds of containers, and push those out to the cloud to have constant integration, constant deployment approaches, using containers.
So, when we looked at our Edge computing approach,
So, that’s the next challenge that you run into with Edge computing. It’s easy to push workloads out to a million devices, managing, patching them, upgrading them, that’s where the real challenge comes in. So, we did that very intentionally only after we had very sophisticated device management capabilities in our IoT Hub, our Cloud Gateway. So, you can manage millions and millions of devices, and so now we’re able to not just manage those devices, but also these Edge workloads within them.
That philosophy to me mirrors a bit of when Azure was first designed, this ability to move
Now, what is interesting about this, where you start to get the
Let’s take an example of smart agriculture; smart agriculture environments typically have low network capabilities, high-latency kind of things, and that really lends itself, it motivates one of the needs for Edge computing. It also highlights in my opinion, one of the most wonderful parts about being a part of this IoT
Being able to take this technique of IoT and Edge computing and apply it to smart agriculture can have profound effects. So, let me talk about a real example, one of our partners Schneider Electric, we have a public case study documented on this that you can find online, in New Zealand them and their partners have built a solution which leverages both Azure IoT in the cloud, as well as Edge computing to dramatically reduce the amount of water that’s being applied whilst increasing crop yields, and decreasing the
They built some machine-learning models using Azure Machine Learning, to detect a variety of things right on the ground, as an example whether the crops were doing well, whether there was a pest infestation, whether they were about to water something like a ditch where the water was just going to run off. All of that logic is, they trained it in the cloud but then they pushed it out to the Edge, and then it runs as those
After the watering operation happens, then they take a summary of that data that was collected, and then they upload that to the cloud. So, the data is still being sent to the cloud because you want to be able to retrain
That’s an amazing case
I wanted to follow up on a second part, about blockchain. What are you guys thinking about in terms of potential there, and I know Microsoft has done a lot of pilots and a lot of work in that area, it would be interesting to hear from your perspective, the relevance of technologies at least in these very early days.
Blockchain as a secure tamper-proof yet distributed ledger, it really works well in scenarios, its related to IoT in that as your business starts tracking all of these assets and products, as you start benefitting from things like Edge computing,
So, we see it as highly relevant, more to businesses that are taking advantage of these connected scenarios, as opposed to being fundamental to IoT itself.
That aligns with my views as well. From your perspective, are there any industries or specific use cases that you see which are having real successes with unique approaches, or even unconventional uses of technology?
We see different industries moving at different rates right now, for a variety of reasons, but one of the industries
What’s fascinating about smart buildings is, that’s just the start, because once you’re able to figure out how much space you actually need, and know how your space is being used, and to reduce the amount of energy, it enables all sorts of new productivity experiences which ties in with our 365 offerings. As an example, a lot of companies have a lot of meeting rooms, and a lot of times those meetings rooms are booked but being able to know whether a meeting room is actually open or not, whether
So, there’s a lot of activity that’s happening in smart buildings
That’s a great point. I know you guys have been working with Steelcase for a while, and what’s so interesting to me is, to see this evolution from their perspective from being a provider of products, to basically a provider of productivity,
Your case is a great example of, ‘Hey, we’re going to make this leap between what we’ve always done, and what we’re going to do, going forward’, they’re very much doing it.
Looking forward into the crystal ball, with so much that’s amassed here, I’d love to get your sense of what you’re looking forward to over the next decade; how do you see the industry evolving in the future?
We’re obviously going to continue on our mission around simplifying and making it easier and easier, and so, you’re going to see a lot of that from us. That’s going to mean more and more complete parts of the puzzle, as an
So, now if I’m doing A-TRACK controls and I want these to be connected directly to the
The other thing that you’ll see more and more from us is dramatically simplifying the process of finding insights. That applies especially to IoT, and so we’re going to get to the point where you’re able to find insights, like what we’re doing with cognitive services is really just the beginning of making it so that this technique of being able to find these breakthrough opportunities, to be able to find the sort of needle in the haystack as it were of the signal in your data, is democratized, and that any knowledge worker can do that. One of the things in a step towards that which we introduced last year, was a service called Azure time series data, and for context, by 2020 the world is going to be generating somewhere around 44 zettabytes of data, that is a lot of data! Around 4 zettabytes of that will be time series data from devices. What time series data is, repeated measurements that are happening at second or minute increments, like
So, we took some sophisticated capabilities that we had in Azure for monitoring all the Azure services worldwide. We introduced what we call time series insights, and what it lets you do is store petabytes, or exabytes of data into this highly optimized store, and be able to query across it in seconds. Not just query across it in terms of a sequel query, but query across it visually so that you can see visual patterns. What it means is, if I’m an average knowledge worker and I’ve learned how to use Excel, I can find the insights over petabytes of IoT data, simply. That’s a pretty powerful thing, so you’ll see us continuing to make it easier to find these insights quickly, and that anyone can.
That’s really exciting and clearly coming back to the theme of simplicity around Microsoft, the company has come a long way. When I hear you talk about a micro Linux kernel, I know we’re in the Saatchi era as well.
Yes, very much.
It’s been a fantastic
For a little bit of context on this one, when we were starting IoT it was such a broad topic, and there were so many needs to do all at once whilst we were building the team, growing the business, and all of that. There was a certain book recommended to me which is, ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things’, by Ben Horowitz, that’s a great book about how to deal with situations where there is no easy way to prioritize your way out of it. I found that book to be very insightful and very valuable in my particular journey.
I appreciate the recommendation. I’ve not read that one so I’m going to have to cover that one soon. It’s been a great conversation.
This is Ed Maguire, Insights Partner with Moment Partners, and we’ve been speaking with Sam George, director of Azure IoT at Microsoft.
Sam, thank you very much for your time.
Thank you so much