Weeknote 18/2020: Microsoft 365, the rise of the humans and some data platform discovery

Some highlights from the last week of “lockdown” lunacy*…

Office 365 rebranding to Microsoft 365

For the last couple of years, Microsoft has had a subscription bundle called Microsoft 365, which includes Office 365 Enterprise, Enterprise Mobility and Security and Windows 10 Enterprise. Now some bright spark has decided to rebrand some Office 365 products as Microsoft 365. Except for the ones that they haven’t (Office 365 Enterprise E1/3/5). And Office 365 ProPlus (the subscription-based version of the Office applications) is now “Microsoft 365 Apps for Enterprise”. Confused? Join the club…

Read more on the Microsoft website.

The Rise of the Humans

A few years ago, I met Dave Coplin (@DCoplin). At the time he was working for Microsoft, with the assumed title of “Chief Envisioning Officer” (which was mildly amusing when he was called upon to interview the real Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella at Future Decoded). Dave’s a really smart guy and a great communicator with a lot of thoughts about how technology might shape our futures so I’m very interested in his latest project: a YouTube Channel called The Rise of the Humans.

Episode 1 streamed on Wednesday evening and featured a discussion on Algorithmic Bias (and why it’s so important to understand who wrote an algorithm that might be judging you) along with some discussion about some of the tech news of the week and “the new normal” for skills development, education and technology. There’s also a workshop to accompany the podcast, which I intend to try out with my family…

Data Platform Discovery Day

I spent Thursday in back-to-back webcasts, but that was a good thing. I’d stumbled across the presence of Data Platform Discovery Day and I joined the European event to learn about all sorts of topics, with talks delivered by MVPs from around the world.

The good thing for me was that the event was advertised as “level 100” and, whilst some of the presenters struggled with that concept, I was able to grasp just enough knowledge on a variety of topics including:

  • Azure Data Factory.
  • Implementing Power BI in the enterprise.
  • An introduction to data science.
  • SQL Server and containers.
  • The importance of DevOps (particularly apt as I finished reading The Pheonix Project this week).
  • Azure SQL Database Managed Instances.
  • Data analysis strategy with Power BI.

All in all, it was a worthwhile investment of time – and there’s a lot there for me to try and put into practice over the coming weeks.


I like my 2x2s, and found this one that may turn out to be very useful over the coming weeks and months…


I wrote part 2 of my experiences getting started with Azure Sphere, this time getting things working with a variety of Azure Services including IoT Hub, Time Series Insights and IoT Central.


I spent some time “rediscovering” my desk under the piles of assorted “stuff” this week. I also, finally, put my holographic Windows 2000 CD into a frame and it looks pretty good on the wall!

* I’m just trying to alliterate. I don’t really think social distancing is lunacy. It’s not lockdown either.

Getting started with Azure Sphere: Part 2 (integration with Azure services)

Last week, I wrote about my experiences getting some sample code running on an Avnet Azure Sphere Starter Kit. That first post walked through installing the SDK, setting up my development environment (I chose to use Visual Studio Code), configuring the device (including creating a tenant, claiming the device, connecting the device to Wi-Fi, and updating the OS), and downloading and deploying a sample app.

Since then, I’ve managed to make some steps forward with the Element 14 out of the box demo by Brian Willess (part 1, part 2 and part 3). Rather than repeat Brian’s posts, I’ll focus on what I did to work around a few challenges along the way.

Working around compiler errors in Visual Studio Code using the command line

My first issue was that the Element 14 blogs are based on Visual Studio – not Visual Studio Code and I was experiencing issues where Code would complain it couldn’t find a compiler.

Thanks my colleague Andrew Hawker who was also experimenting with his Starter Kit, but using a Linux VM, I had a workaround. That workaround was to run CMake and Ninja from the command line, then to sideload the resulting app package onto the device from the Azure Sphere Developer Command Prompt:

cmake ^
-G "Ninja" ^
-DCMAKE_TOOLCHAIN_FILE="C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft Azure Sphere SDK\CMakeFiles\AzureSphereToolchain.cmake" ^
-DAZURE_SPHERE_TARGET_HARDWARE_DEFINITION_DIRECTORY="C:\Users\%username%\AzureSphereHacksterTTC\Hardware\avnet_mt3620_sk" ^
--no-warn-unused-cli ^
-DCMAKE_MAKE_PROGRAM="ninja.exe" ^
azsphere device sideload deploy --imagepackage AvnetStarterKitReferenceDesign.imagepackage

I wasn’t able to view the debug output (despite my efforts to use PuTTY to read but I was confident that the app was working on the device so moved on to integrating with cloud services.

Brian Willess has since updated the repo so it should now work with Visual Studio Code (at least for the high level application) and I have successfully tested the non-connected scenario (part 1) with the changes.

Integration with Azure IoT Hub, device twins and Azure Time Series Insights

Part 2 of the series of posts I was working though is where the integration starts. The basic steps (refer to Brian Willess’ post for full details) were:

  1. Create an Azure IoT hub, which is a cloud-hosted back-end for secure communication with Internet of Things (IoT) devices, of which the Azure Sphere is just one of many options.
  2. Create and configure the IoT Hub Device Provisioning Service (DPS), including:
    • Downloading a certificate from the Azure Sphere tenant (using azsphere tenant download-CA-certificate --output CAcertificate.cer at the Azure Sphere Developer Command Prompt) and using this to authenticate with the DPS, including validation with the verification code generated by the Azure portal (azsphere tenant download-validation-certificate --output validation.cer --verificationcode verificationcode) and uploading the resulting certificate to the portal.
    • Creating an Enrollment Group, to enrol any newly-claimed device whose certificate is signed by my tenant. This stage also includes the creation of an initial device twin state, editing the JSON to include some extra lines:
      "userLedRed": false,
      "userLedGreen": false,
      "userLedBlue": true
    • The initial blue illumination of the LED means that we can see when the Azure Sphere has successfully connected to the IoT Hub.
  3. Edit the application source code (I used Visual Studio Code but any editor will do) to:
    • Uncomment #define IOT_HUB_APPLICATION in build_options.h.
    • Update the CmdArgs line in app_manifest.json with the ID Scope from the DPS Overview in the Azure portal.
    • Update the AllowedConnections line in app_manifest.json with the FQDNs from the DPS Overview (Global Device Endpoint) and the IoT Hub (Hostname) in the Azure portal.
    • Update the DeviceAuthentication line in app_manifest.json with the Azure Sphere tenant ID (which may be obtained using azsphere tenant show-selected at the Azure Sphere Developer Command Prompt).
  4. Build and run the app. I used the CLI as detailed above, but this should now be possible within Visual Studio Code.
  5. Use the device twin capabilities to manipulate the device, for example turning LEDs on/off (though clearly there are more complex scenarios that could be used in real deployments!).
  6. Create a Time Series Insights resource in Azure, which is an analytics solution to turn IoT data into actionable insights.
    • Create the Time Series Insights environment using the existing IoT Hub with an access policy of iothubowner and consumer group of $Default.
  7. Add events inside the Time Series Insights to view the sensor readings from the Azure Sphere device.
Time Series Insights showing sensor data from an Azure Sphere device.

Time Series Insights can get expensive for a simple test project without any real value. I could quickly have used my entire month’s Azure credits, so I deleted the resource group used to contain my Azure Sphere resources before moving on to the next section…

Integration with Azure IoT Central

Azure IoT Central is a hosted IoT platform. It is intended to take away much of the underlying complexity and let organisations quickly build IoT solutions using just a web interface.

Following part 3 in Brian Willess’ Azure Sphere series, I was able to get my device working with IoT Central, both using the web interface to control the LEDs on the board and also pushing sensor data to a dashboard. As before, these are the basic steps and refer to Brian Willess’ post for full details:

  1. Create a new IoT Central application.
  2. Select or create a template:
    • Use the IoT device custom template.
    • Either import an existing capability model (this was mine) or create one, adding interfaces (sensors, buttons, information, etc.) and capabilities.
    • Create custom views – e.g. for LED device control or for device metrics.
  3. Publish the template.
  4. Configure DPS:
    • Download a certificate from the Azure Sphere tenant using azsphere tenant download-CA-certificate --output CAcertificate.cer at the Azure Sphere Developer Command Prompt. (This is the same certificate already generated for the IoT Hub example.)
    • Upload the certificate to IoT Central and generate a validation code, then use azsphere tenant download-validation-certificate --output validation.cer --verificationcode verificationcode to apply this.
    • Upload the new validation certificate.
  5. Create a non-simulated device in IoT Central:
  6. Run ShowIoTCentralConfig.exe, providing the ID Scope and a shared access signature key for the device (both obtained from the Device Connection details in IoT Central) and the Device ID (from the device created in the previous step). Make a note of details provided by the tool
  7. Configure the application source code to connect to IoT Central:
    • Uncomment #define IOT_CENTRAL_APPLICATION in build_options.h.
    • Update the CmdArgs line in app_manifest.json with the ID Scope obtained from the Device Connection details in IoT Central.
    • Update the AllowedConnections line in app_manifest.json with the FQDNs obtained by running ShowIoTCentralConfig.exe.
    • Update the DeviceAuthentication line in app_manifest.json with the Azure Sphere tenant ID (which may be obtained using azsphere tenant show-selected at the Azure Sphere Developer Command Prompt).
  8. Build and run the application.
  9. Associate the Azure Sphere device with IoT Central (the device created previously was just a “dummy” to get some configuration details). IoT Central should have found the real device but it will need to be “migrated” to the appropriate device group to pick up the template created earlier.
  10. Open the device and enjoy the data!

I hadn’t expected IoT Central to cost much (if anything, because the first two devices are free) but I think the app I’m using is pretty chatty so I’m being charged for extra messages (30,000 a month sounds like a lot until you realise it’s only around 40 an hour on a device that’s sending frequent updates to/from the service). It seems to be costing just under £1/day (from a pool of credits) so I won’t be worrying too much!

What’s next for my Azure Sphere device?

Having used Brian Willess’ posts at Element 14 to get an idea of how this should work, I think my next step is to buy some external sensors and write some real code to monitor something real… unfortunately the sensors I want are on back order until the summer but watch this space!

Weeknote 17/2020: Geeking out and taking advantage of the sunshine

Another week of socially-distanced, furloughed fun: here are some of the highlights…

“Playing” with tech: Azure Sphere

I took a break from exam study this week, partly because I had some internal meetings that made a big hole in the calendar and diverted my attention. Instead, I finally got my Azure Sphere Starter Kit IoT device working, with both Microsoft samples and with some more practical advice from Brian Willess at Element 14.

I’m blogging my progress (slightly behind the actual learning) but over the course of a few days, supported by Brian’s blog posts, I managed to get the sensor readings from my device working locally, with Azure IoT Hub and Time Series Insights, and then finally in Azure IoT Central.

The next stop is to try and write some code of my own rather than using other people’s – it’s been a while since I wrote any C/C++!


I also wrote some blog posts:

Other geek stuff

I finished watching “Devs“. No spoilers here, but the ending did leave me a little flat…

I didn’t spot any SpaceX Starlink satellites, despite a few attempts and some very clear evenings. This website seemed particularly helpful, although the developer (@modeless) had to remove the Google Street View content when the site got popular.

Being “too British”

Thursday meant my usual trip to the local market, followed by the supermarket, buying provisions for my family and others. Because product availability is a bit “hit and miss”, in the supermarket (and because I prioritise supporting local businesses over the big retailers, where I can), I bought some peppers (capsicums) from the market greengrocer. There was no price displayed but, as he bagged them, he said they were expensive… and he was not wrong: £3/lb, I think! But I was too embarrassed to say “no thanks at that price” so bought them anyway. Lesson learned…

To add insult to injury, when I got to Sainsbury’s they had plenty, at a much more reasonable price…

“On holiday”, in the garden

The week wrapped up with sunshine, low wind and reasonably high temperatures (19°C is not bad for April in England!). After a decent bike ride with my son (permissible under the current social distancing advice), I made the time to just relax a bit…

What a great way to end the week!

Getting started with Azure Sphere: Part 1 (setup and running a sample app)

Late in 2019, I got my hands on an Azure Sphere Starter Kit, which I’ve been intending to use for an IoT project, using some of the on-board sensors for temperature and potentially an external one for humidity…

For those who aren’t familiar with Azure Sphere, it’s Microsoft’s Secure Internet of Things (IoT) solution using certified chips, a custom operating system and a security service. My device is an Avnet Azure Sphere MT3620 Starter Kit and this blog post focuses on getting it up and running with one of the sample applications that Microsoft provides, using Windows 10 (other options include Linux).

Installing Visual Studio Code and the Azure Sphere SDK

Having obtained the kit, the next stop was Microsoft’s Getting Started with Azure Sphere page. I downloaded and installed Visual Studio Code (I don’t really need the whole Visual Studio 2019 application – though I later found that a lot of the advice on the Internet assumes that’s what you’re using…) and then immediately found that there are two versions of the Azure Sphere Software Development Kit (SDK). According to the Microsoft docs, either can be used with Visual Studio Code but I found the setup for the Azure Sphere SDK for Visual Studio failed when it can’t find Visual Studio (not really surprising) and so I used the Azure Sphere SDK for Windows.

Connecting the hardware

I plugged in the Avnet Azure Sphere Starter Kit, using the supplied USB cable, and watched as Windows installed drivers after which a virtual network interface was present and three COM ports appeared in Device Manager.

Setting up my dev environment

Installing Visual Studio Code and the Azure Sphere SDK was only the first part of getting ready to create code for the device. I needed to install the Azure Sphere extension (easily found in the Extensions Marketplace):

The Azure Sphere extension also installs two dependencies:

  • C/C++
  • CMake Tools

I also need to install CMake (in my case it was version 3.17.1). Not really knowing what I was doing, I followed the defaults but on reflection, I probably should have let CMake add its directory to the system %PATH% variable (I later uninstalled and reinstalled CMake to do this, but could just have added C:\Program Files\CMake\bin to the Path in the user environment variables).

The final installation was Ninja. Windows Defender SmartScreen blocked this app, but I was later able to work around that, by unblocking in the properties for ninja.exe:

I missed the point in the Microsoft documentation that said I needed to manually add Ninja to the %PATH% environment variable but I later went back and added the folder that I copied ninja.exe to (which, for me, was C:\Users\%username%\Tools).

(The above steps were my second attempt – the first time I installed MinGW-W64 to work around issues when Visual Studio Code couldn’t find a compiler, together with several changes in settings.json. I later removed all of that and managed to compile and deploy a sample application using just the settings above…)

Configuring the Azure Sphere device for use

There are a few steps required to configure the device for use. These are all completed using the Azure Sphere Developer Command Prompt, which was installed earlier, with the SDK.

Creating an Azure Sphere tenant and claiming the device

Each Azure Sphere device must be “claimed” and associated with a “tenant”. I followed the Microsoft documentation to do this…

azsphere login --newuser user@domain.tld

After completing Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) and confirming I wanted to allow Azure Sphere to use my account, I was logged in but with a warning that I don’t have access to any Azure Sphere tenants, so I created one:

azsphere tenant create --name "Mark Wilson"

Warning – more research required: I used a Microsoft Account, as per the Microsoft instructions, but am now concerned I should have used an Azure Active Directory (Organisational/Work or School) account (especially as Role Based Access Control is supported from Azure Sphere 19.10 onwards). As a device can only be claimed once and, once claimed, the device is permanently associated with the Azure Sphere tenant, I’m stuck with these settings now…

I then went ahead and claimed the device:

azsphere device claim

Connecting to Wi-Fi and updating the device operating system

I checked the current OS version on the device:

azsphere device show-deployment-status

As can be seen, not only is the OS out of date, but the device is not connected to a network, so I connected to Wi-Fi:

azsphere device wifi show-status
azsphere device wifi add --ssid "SSID" --psk password
azsphere device wifi show-status

Now, with network connectivity in place, the device had a fighting chance of an OS update and according to the Microsoft documentation:

The Azure Sphere device checks for Azure Sphere OS and application updates each time it boots, when it initially connects to the internet, and at 24-hour intervals thereafter. If updates are available, download and installation could take as much as 15-20 minutes and might cause the device to restart.

Configure networking and update the device OS

I tried several restarts using azsphere device restart with no success. In the end, I left the device connected overnight and, by the morning, it had updated to 20.03.

Finally, I enabled application development on the device, ready to download some code and deploy an application:

azure sphere device enable-development

Downloading a sample app

My initial attempts to use the app that I wanted to didn’t work so I decided to test my setup with one of the Microsoft Quick Starts.

I needed to use git to clone the Azure Sphere Samples Repo, so that meant installing git. Then, from the Terminal in Visual Studio Code, I ran git clone https://github.com/Azure/azure-sphere-samples.git.

I then opened the Samples\HelloWorld\HelloWorld_HighLevelApp folder in Visual Studio Code, ready to build and deploy the app.

Building and deploying the app

Having set up my dev environment, set up the device and downloaded some sample code, I followed the instructions in the Visual Studio Code Azure Sphere Extension to run the following in the Command Palette: Azure Sphere: Configure Settings (selecting High-Level Application) and CMake: Build.

I was then able to build and deploy the sample app to my Azure Sphere device, by starting a debug session (F5) .

and was rewarded with a blinking LED on the board!

Azure Sphere Starter Kit with blinking LED

I can also view the application status with azsphere device app show-status.

Next steps

The next step is to get the app I really wanted to use working on the device, making use of some of the on-board sensors and then integrating this with some of the Azure services. I’m having trouble compiling that code at the moment, so that blog post may be a while longer…

Further reading