Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has identified machine learning as the firm's key focus as cloud computing usage becomes more widespread.

It is an area that is fast becoming the battleground for the big cloud providers. Google and Amazon Web Services both offer a range of tools that make it easier for developers to create 'intelligent' applications, while the likes of Salesforce are keen to incorporate artificial intelligence into their software services.

Speaking at an event in London's Canary Wharf financial district, Nadella's sales pitch placed emphasis on the role of machine learning across Microsoft's range of cloud products – from infrastructure and platform as a service offerings in Azure, to its Dynamics and Office365 cloud software.

First he highlighted how Azure Iaas will support "the next generation of applications".

He said: "Whenever you think about the infrastructure layer in computing, you are always driven by the applications of the future: what are developers writing, not just today, but what is going to be the core currency of the applications of the future?" 

The answer, Nadella continued, is "very clear". "It is going to be data and more importantly the ability to reason over data to create intelligence," he explained. "That is what is unique about the applications that are getting created today."

"And so we are building out our infrastructure to support that, to empower every developer to be able to infuse intelligence into everything that they are doing."

Nadella added that its infrastructure is being supported by GPUs which are "tuned" to support machine learning workloads such as deep neural networks

He added: "Every compute node of Azure actually has FPGAs - field programmable gate arrays - that means you can distribute your AI workloads to run at the speed of silicon."

Targeting developers with Cortana

Nadella said that its platform as service offerings centre around the machine learning capabilities of its Cortana Intelligence system, as well as its Bot Framework.

"We are building out Cortana, but [developers] have the same capability in terms of language understanding, dialogue understanding, 'conversations as a platform' capabilities allowing you to build agents, whether it is for customer service or for selling, or any need you may imagine as a developer. 

"Those are the building block services for how you can build intelligence."

Finally, Nadella discussed the software as service tools, to which Microsoft has added machine learning capabilities.

"When you use Office 365 it is not just simply that you are moving to the cloud as a new delivery mechanism, it is about the intelligence that is being infused into the application," he said. "So we are using the very same concepts of neural networks for example to deliver a focused inbox."

As well as highlighting the growth of its cloud services in the UK - there are now around 1,000 customers of its recently launched facilities - Nadella's keynote focused on how cloud, and more specifically, artificial intelligence will support the next wave of innovation for businesses which have become accustomed to the basics of cloud computing as infrastructure. The vendor is clearly targeting the developers will create these applications with a range of tools across its product range. It is an intriguing vision.

However, the challenge for Microsoft is that it is not the only game in town. At the Cloud Next event in San Francisco, Google made very similar noises in a bid to appeal to new customers, but also Microsoft's core audience, more established businesses. AWS is also targeting developers with its Machine Learning predictive analytics, while IBM has invested heavily in its Watson platform.

Ultimately it will be customers that benefit, and it will be interesting to see the results as more and more businesses get to grips with the possibilities of machine learning within their operations.