Partners: Microsoft's New Azure IoT Edge Service Pushes It Head To Head With GE In The Industrial Market

Microsoft's Azure IoT Edge service, unveiled Wednesday, pushes the traditionally IT vendor into the industrial market to compete with manufacturing conglomerate General Electric through its new vital edge analytics capabilities, partners told CRN.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company announced the service at its Build developer conference, saying it will help enable developers to move their computing needs to Windows and Linux devices – and utilize Microsoft's array of services, including Azure Machine Learning, Stream Analytics, and the Azure IoT Hub.

"This announcement pushes Azure out ahead of the AWS and IBM offerings and matches feature capabilities with GE from an edge capability," said Brian Blanchard, vice president of cloud solutions at 10th Magnitude, a Chicago-based solution provider.

[Related: Industrial IoT Startup IoTium Hopes To Expand Vertical Footprint With $8.4 Million Funding Round]

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"GE led the way in edge services, but was weaker initially in the cloud analysis category," Blanchard said. "AWS and IBM soon followed with edge-delivered streaming analytics, but no advanced analytics. Azure already had the cloud processing strength of an AWS or IBM offering. They've now added to that the edge processing capabilities of GE's Predix offering."

GE has approached the IoT market from an industrial standpoint. Its Predix software platform includes a range of integrated technologies at the edge, including Predix Machine for device provisioning, Predix Connectivity, and Predix EdgeManager for management, configuration, and administration of edge devices.

Predix performs two types of data analysis: operational analytics, which analyzes information in real time at the source – like a wind turbine or MRI machine – that detect split-second changes to prevent damage and optimize performance, and historical analytics, which collects and analyzes data over time.

Microsoft's existing IoT platform includes various offerings like Azure Stream Analytics and IoT Central, a service that can deploy and manage a company's IoT ecosystem from devices to cloud.

However, Azure IoT Edge fills a final gap in the company's real-time analytics capabilities. Like GE's platform, Microsoft's platform with Azure IoT Edge helps IoT devices run cloud services, process data in real time and communicate with sensors and other connected devices, even with intermittent cloud connectivity.

"The rationale is certainly consistent with other vendors such as GE, Siemens, and AWS and is a recognition that for many real-time analytic use cases in the real and physical world, analytics, logic and processing need to be as close to the action — and the data — as possible," said Scott Udell, vice president of IoT solutions at Boston-based Cloud Technology Partners. "I have no doubt that Microsoft will pursue a robust hardware and software partner ecosystem and seek to have as many vendors embed, support … or certify these new tools at the Edge."

GE said it remains a partner to, not a competitor with, Microsoft in the Industrial IoT market, a GE spokesperson told CRN. The two have partnered in the past in the industrial space; in July 2016, GE announced that its Predix platform would run on Azure and leverage applications available on both platforms for industrial customers.

"In our partnership with Microsoft to bring Predix to Azure, we are leveraging applications available on Azure, combined with Predix, to bring these joint capabilities to our industrial customers," a GE spokesperson told CRN. "The edge plays an important role in industrial IoT computing. While the cloud enables industrial companies to cost-effectively store and process the massive data sets and number crunching required to fulfill the vision for the Industrial Internet, the cloud alone isn’t enough for industrial companies looking to optimize their assets and operations. In the real world, they need to be able to put analytics at the edge – on any device or machine. Only then can we support remote and disconnected operations, produce intelligent machines that do their own on-board computing, and integrate and interoperate at the edge with traditional industrial control systems. That’s why GE built the Predix platform as a complete, distributed operating system for the Industrial Internet. It is the only software platform to provide complete connectivity from the edge to the cloud and computing capabilities at every level of the industrial software stack."

Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment on its positioning in the manufacturing market. However, it directed CRN to this statement from Sam George, partner director at Azure IoT: "Microsoft has the most comprehensive IoT portfolio with a wide range of IoT offerings to meet organizations where they are on their IoT journey, including everything businesses need to get started — ranging from operating systems for their devices, cloud services to control them, advanced analytics to gain insights, and business applications to enable intelligent action."

Partners said they're happy that Azure IoT Edge fleshes out Microsoft's platform as a whole so that solution providers in the manufacturing market can also use the platform's Azure Machine Learning, artificial intelligence features, Azure IoT Hub, and Stream Analytics services.

"One key advantage is that Azure IoT Edge capabilities now offer one consistent platform," said Blanchard. "You can write a single code base or configuration for stream analysis, machine learning, cognitive services … then choose where to execute the code based on environmental factors."

The new Azure IoT Edge service is better positioning Microsoft to lead in the industrial space, but it's also positioning partners to broaden their portfolios and work with manufacturers, according to partners.

"As an Azure partner building enterprise-grade IoT and cloud solutions, we now have a powerful, new tool set that we can bring to bear for situations where connectivity may be intermittent, and the need for rapid, low-latency decisions are critical," said CTP's Udell.

Meanwhile, Jeff Dunmall, executive vice president of cloud applications at Washington-based New Signature, said the new service would help his company strengthen its IoT solutions in the manufacturing space.

The solution provider hopes to use Azure IoT Edge for customers in the mining sector, for example. That industry has been plagued by the issue of improving infrastructure in areas where there is little or no connectivity.

"We were dealing with constraints in the mining sector – these customers were dealing with remote sites collecting vast amounts of data, but that had poor connectivity," Dunmall said. "The cloud has been hard to adapt in those situations. Now, we can send up only relevant data to the cloud, which dramatically reduces the data we need to transfer and makes the overall solution more efficient."

10th Magnitude will use the new service to do business with a number of organizations that mix chemicals and fluids to create products, using models where decisions are made in milliseconds.

"For us personally, we’ve been eagerly awaiting the ability to talk about this technology for months," said Blanchard. "IoT Edge allows us to be more streamlined in the creation of solutions that suffer from connection disruptions, real-time responses, and complex device management scenarios. Looking forward, we are expecting a tighter relationship between system integrators and the manufacturers of devices."

Blanchard said his company can now leverage Azure IoT Edge to tackle these scenarios: "Decisions at the device, teamed with analytics in the cloud, creates a unique opportunity for this type of customer," he said.