Microsoft Azure Blockchain Cloud Workbench Service is Doing Big Data in a Big Way

More than three years ago, one of the first companies to bring blockchain technology to the cloud was Microsoft Azure, and that would prove to be just a taste of what's to come. Now, it seems like Microsoft has the intention of connecting this technology to just about everything else in their product line.

Steadily, and over time, the international software behemoth has been quietly building bridges and connections between its various blockchain services and other, more widely used and known infrastructure and platforms. These include the likes of Office 365 Outlook, SharePoint Online, Salesforce, Dynamics 365 CRM Online, SAP, and even Twitter.

According to the general manager of Microsoft Azure, Matt Kerner, the underlying idea is to allow Microsoft Consumers to port their data from any of these platforms onto the cloud, and from there, onto a blockchain that will be linked to all of them.

So why is it that Microsoft wants to do this? Well, along with the usually touted efficiencies of blockchain technology, wherever it's applied, one of the more understated benefits that Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) brings with it, especially for a cloud environment like Azure, according to the company, is that it amasses data from multiple companies in a standardized format, but at scale.

So why is this factor significant for Microsoft? There is an understated potential in mining data of all sorts of insights, and that becomes a generally limitless prospect, the company believes.

As a result, the company has begun integrating tools such as Microsoft Flow and Logic Apps – both of which offer hundreds of connectors to thousands of other applications – into the Azure Blockchain Workbench, a service that the company released in May of this year.

The goal of this was to make the creation of blockchain-based apps easier (Workbench currently has Ethereum Proof of Authority configured as the consensus protocol).

Kerner goes on to explain that this move is all part of a wider evolution going on in the world of big data. Prior to blockchain, he continues on to say, cloud computing enabled large scale departments in the same company to break out of their previous data silos and collaborate with larger scale data sets with other departments, increasing its capability through machine learning (ML) and Artificial intelligence (AI).

“Blockchain empowers the next step – enabling a single, authentic data set shared across counterparties. This is already improving the way transactions happen,” Kerner told CoinDesk, adding, “We believe the same will be true with data analytics.”

Taking a step back from this whole process, there are many that would argue that data is now the most valuable naturally occurring resource we have on the planet, and it's a value and quantity that is growing exponentially. And as the race to prove what the best form of data analytics increases, companies are starting to emerge whose whole purpose hinges on the structure and formatting of data to run AI algorithms on.

But with enterprise blockchain, you get the structured and formatted data part thrown in for free, as Kerner said many Azure customers were discovering.

“What blockchain is doing is creating a multi-party business process that is moving out of email, phone calls, spreadsheets and into a single system with a single view on the data that all of the participants can rely upon and trust,” he argues.

Looking even further forward in time, Kerner stated that bringing vast amounts of otherwise unstructured and previously siloed data into a context where it could be easily leveraged and shared across a wider plain would be the catalyst for a remarkable level of change.

“Even the fiercest of competitors can onboard and mutually derive benefit from that system and find new revenue streams.”

Taking The Fight To IBM

One good example of Azure connecting and balancing components in a large and complex production environment are things like Insurwave, this serves to simplify maritime insurance for shipping hauls carried by Maersk.

This platform was built with the use of the RE Corda platform, and further help from EY and Guardtime, and is now in wider scale commercial production with insurers such as Willis Towers Watson, XL, Catlin, and MS Amlin.

What Insurwave specializes in is the tracking of shipping cargo, allowing it to adjust insurance premiums in real time, collating all sorts of data, including things like the Internet of Things (IoT), sensors monitoring temperature, to what sort of territory the ship may be moving into, such as freak weather conditions like storms, or a war zone, and even heavily populated areas with known instances of pirate attacks.

Once all of this data has been shared on the blockchain, Power BI, which is a business analytics tool made by Microsoft, can then be used to gain further insights about the various shipping hauls.

Along with Kerner's comments, Ricardo Correia, the managing director, and the head of partner management at R3, referred said its relationship with Microsoft is a great deal more than Azure being Corda's default preferred cloud.

In addition to a one-click Corda capability, Correia pointed to integrating Corda into modules within the Azure marketplace.

“This enables Corda to plug into a number of different capabilities including Azure SQL, active directory for identity access management and key vault for key management,” he said.

Some of this is already in place thanks in large part to Insurwave's current application, with deeper integration also taking place in a number of use cases. Such examples include WebJet blockchain, which aims to bring together hotels and other travel arrangements, putting them together on a single ledger, and was cited by R3's CTO Richard Brown as an example of Corda extending beyond mainstream finance.

If we were to widen the lens here, the ability to track items in real time, while also being able to share things like IoT data thanks to blockchain, has made global trade and supply chain logistics some of the leading lights when it comes to domains to chase. Taking this into consideration from a strategic perspective, Insurwave challenges IBM's bid for the dominance of global trade, which also has Maersk in the position of flagship, so to speak.

It's been previously stated by IBM that this was its priority target for a great deal of time. However, to suggest that it would be a clear shot for them would be misplaced, especially since Correia has previously said that Microsoft is making its mark in supply chain – but with a little less fanfare than its erstwhile rival.

“It's in their interest given they too have very large supply chains with a number of their product offerings,” Correia stated.

When it comes to offering Blockchain as a Service (BaaS), IBM has been championing its Hyperledger Composer for the past couple of years. However, there are still some questions hovering overhead regarding the design of Composer, at the very least from an IBM perspective.

Azure's Kerner gave an otherwise tactfully equivocal opinion about Microsoft's enterprise blockchain rivals, simply adding that everything is and is being built with an eye towards creating and enabling some form of consortium, and that is not an exclusive policy held by Azure.

“It's got to be open. Any meaningful consortium is going to have members who have different choices that they have made around their cloud provider and who they choose to work with,” he said.

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