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Changing landscape: Microsoft adopts an open approach

Unlike closed source that is accessible only by its creator, open source usually refers to the platform that is publicly accessible for inspecting, development, and modification as well as sharing

twitter-logo Nidhi Singal        Last Updated: May 8, 2019  | 18:58 IST
Changing landscape: Microsoft adopts an open approach

For decades, under the leadership of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Microsoft did not venture into open-source technologies. However, there is a wind of change in the company as it is embracing open-source for its cloud services.

Unlike closed source that is accessible only by its creator, open source usually refers to the platform that is publicly accessible for inspecting, development, and modification as well as sharing.

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Although the company has been gradually moving towards open-source technologies, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, during the opening keynote of Build 2019 talked about how the company is delivering new open source technologies and developer tools in Azure and Windows. Microsoft's cloud platforms - spanning infrastructure, data, AI and mixed reality, productivity and collaboration, business applications, and gaming - aim to bring together a global collective of developers and technology capabilities to create new experiences for organisations and individuals.

Azure,  a flexible, enterprise-grade cloud computing platform for building, testing, deploying and managing applications and services through Microsoft-managed data centres,  is being built as an open platform.

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"We are building out Azure as an open platform. We really want to make sure that every layer of the stack again meets the needs of the developers. We are not stopping there. We are extending the cloud to the Edge. This is what we always had as a vision for distributed computing. World's brands are building on Azure, 95 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies already use Azure," said Nadella.

To enable extremely low latency and cost-effective inferencing, Microsoft is announcing the general availability of hardware-accelerated models that run on Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs). It has also introduced ONNX Runtime support for NVIDIA TensorRT and Intel nGraph for high-speed inferencing on NVIDIA and Intel chipsets. As the reinforcement learning algorithms need to practice in a simulated environment that can replicate the thousands or millions of different real-world scenarios they might encounter, the Microsoft toolchain also includes AirSim, an open source simulation platform originally developed by Microsoft researchers, which uses AI to teach drones, self-driving cars or robots in high fidelity simulated environments.

Even the Microsoft Edge browser will be built on Chromium Open Source.  In December last year, Microsoft announced its intention to adopt the Chromium open source project in the development of Microsoft Edge on the desktop, to create better web compatibility. Microsoft intends to become a significant contributor to the Chromium project, in a way that can make not just Microsoft Edge - but other browsers as well - better on both PCs and other devices.

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Also, enterprise customers will have the new Internet Explorer mode that will bring full IE11 compatibility to Microsoft Edge for their internal sites, without compromising the modern web experience on the public internet. This mode will solve problems by seamlessly rendering legacy IE-only content in high fidelity inside of Microsoft Edge, without the need to open a separate browser or change any settings manually. Microsoft Edge will use existing Enterprise Mode Site List to identify sites, which require IE rendering and will simply switch to Internet Explorer mode behind the scenes.

Other two features include collections and privacy. While Collections will allow users to collect, organise, share and export content more efficiently, Office integration and privacy controls will allow customers to choose from three levels of privacy: unrestricted, balanced and strict. Depending on the option selected, Microsoft Edge will adjust how third parties will track the user across the web, giving them more choice and transparency for a more personalised experience. Microsoft is directly working with the teams at Google and is looking forward to working with the open source community. The preview builds are already available for Windows device and the builds for macOS will be available soon.

Nadella also said that the world's brands are using Microsoft 365 productivity tool across work and life. "The main thing about this is putting people at the centre and then thinking about all of their activities across applications and devices. A very rich database has been created across schedules, documents, projects and more, which will be available as a first-class database structure," he said.

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Microsoft is building its voice assistant Cortana as a conversational interface for Microsoft 365 by reasoning on the top of the graph data. Cortana would focus on 'time to leave' on Outlook, heads-ups, commitments, suggested replies and much more. Cortana would continue to be an assistant that spans all the endpoints of Microsoft 365. It's also been wired to bot framework and can be wired into Alexa or any other assistant. As Cortana has fallen behind Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa in recent years, Microsoft has been slowly repositioning it as a skill for anybody who's a Microsoft 365 subscriber.

With the aim of making voting secure, more accessible and more efficient in the US and in democratic nations around the world, the technology giant has announced ElectionGuard - a free open-source software development kit (SDK) from Defending Democracy Program. Developed with the assistance of Galois, ElectionGuard will enable end-to-end verification of elections, open results to third-party organisations for secure validation, and allow individual voters to confirm their votes were correctly counted. Currently, Microsoft has partnered with election technology suppliers, responsible for more than half of the voting machines sold in the U.S, which they will make public later this year.

In a significantly big shift, Microsoft also announced its plan to ship a full Linux kernel in Windows 10. Developers are to gain from this shift as this will improve the performance of Microsoft's Linux subsystem in Windows. The kernel itself will initially be based on version 4.19, the latest long-term stable release of Linux. The kernel provided for WSL2 will be fully open source. When WSL2 is released in Windows Insider builds, instructions for creating own WSL kernel will be made available on Github. For developers, this would mean improved performance of Microsoft's Linux subsystem in Windows.

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