Jul
19
2018
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Microsoft caps off a fine fiscal year seemingly without any major missteps in its last quarter

Microsoft is capping off a rather impressive year without any major missteps in its final report for its performance in its 2018 fiscal year, posting a quarter that seems to have been largely non-offensive to Wall Street.

In the past year, Microsoft’s stock has gone up more than 40%. In the past two years, it’s nearly doubled. All of this came after something around a decade of that price not really doing anything as Microsoft initially missed major trends like the shift to mobile and the cloud. But since then, new CEO Satya Nadella has turned that around and increased the company’s focused on both, and Azure is now one of the company’s biggest highlights. Microsoft is now an $800 billion company, which while still considerably behind Apple, Amazon and Google, is a considerable high considering the past decade.

In addition, Microsoft passed $100 billion in revenue for a fiscal year. So, as you might expect, the stock didn’t really do anything, given that nothing seemed to be too wrong with what was going on. For a company that’s at around $800 billion, that it’s not doing anything bad at this point is likely a good thing. That Microsoft is even in the discussion of being one of the companies chasing a $1 trillion market cap is likely something we wouldn’t have been talking about just three or four years ago.

The company said it generated $30.1 billion in revenue, up 17% year-over-year, and adjusted earnings of $1.13 per share. Analysts were looking for earnings of $1.08 per share on revenue of $29.23 billion.

So, under Nadella, this is more or less a tale of two Microsofts — one squarely pointed at a future of productivity software with an affinity toward cloud and mobile tools (though Windows is obviously still a part of this), and one that was centered around the home PC. Here are a couple highlights from the report:

  • LinkedIn: Microsoft said revenue for LinkedIn increased 37%, with LinkedIn sessions growth of 41%. Microsoft’s professional network was also listed in a bucket of other segments that it attributed to an increased operating expenditures, which also included cloud engineering, and commercial sales capacity. It was also bucketed into a 12% increase in research and development with cloud engineering, as well as a bump in sales and marketing expenses. This all seems pretty normal for a network Microsoft hopes to continue to grow.
  • Azure: Microsoft’s cloud platform continued to drive its server products and cloud services revenue, which increased 26%. The company said Azure’s revenue was up 89% “due to growth from consumed and SaaS revenue.” Once again, Microsoft didn’t break out specifics on its Azure products, though it seems pretty clear that this is one of their primary growth drivers.
  • Office 365: Office 365 saw commercial revenue growth of 38%, and consumer subscribers increased to 31.4 million. Alongside LinkedIn, Microsoft seems to be assembling a substantial number of subscription SaaS products that offset a shift in its model away from personal computing and into a more cloud-oriented company.
  • GitHub: Nada here in the report. Microsoft earlier this year said it acquired it for a very large sum of money (in stock), but it isn’t talking about it. But bucket it alongside Office 365 and LinkedIn as part of that increasingly large stable of productivity tools for businesses, as Github is one of the most widely-adopted developer tools available.

Jul
19
2018
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How Facebook configures its millions of servers every day

When you’re a company the size of Facebook with more than two billion users on millions of servers, running thousands of configuration changes every day involving trillions of configuration checks, as you can imagine, configuration is kind of a big deal. As with most things with Facebook, they face scale problems few companies have to deal and often reach the limits of mere mortal tools.

To solve their unique issues, the company developed a new configuration delivery process called Location Aware Delivery or LAD for short. Before developing LAD, the company had been using an open source tool called Zoo Keeper to distribute configuration data, and while that tool worked, it had some fairly substantial limitations for a company the size of Facebook.

Perhaps the largest of those was being limited to 5 MB distributions with configurations limited to 2500 subscribers at a time. To give you a sense of how configuration works, it involves delivering a Facebook service like Messenger in real time with the correct configuration. That could mean delivering it in English for one user and Spanish for another, all on the fly across millions of servers.

Facebook wanted to create a tool that overcame those limitations, separated the data from the distribution mechanism, had a latency time of less than five seconds and supported 10X more files than Zoo Keeper. Oh yes, and it wanted all of that to run on millions of clients and handle the crazy update rates and traffic spikes that only Facebook could bring to the table.

The product the Facebook engineering team created, LAD (wonder how the Dodgers feel about this), consists of a couple of parts: A proxy that sits on every single machine in the Facebook family and delivers configuration files to any machine that wants or needs one. The second piece is a distributor, which as the name implies delivers configuration information. It achieves this by checking for new updates, and when it finds them, it creates a distribution tree for a set of machines, which are looking for an update.

As Facebook’s Ali Haider-Zaveri wrote in a blog post announcing the new distribution method, the tree methodology helps solve a number of problems Facebook faced when distributing configuration updates at extreme volume. “By leveraging a tree, LAD ensures that updates are pushed only to interested proxies rather than to all machines in the fleet. In addition, a parent machine can directly send updates to its children, which ensures that no single machine near the root is overwhelmed,” Haider-Zaveri wrote.

As for those limitations, the company has been able to overcome those too. Instead of a 5 MB update limit, they have increased it to 100 MB, and instead of 2500 user limit, they have increased it to 40,000.

Such a system didn’t come easily. It required testing and retesting, but it has reached production today — at least for now, until Facebook faces another challenge and finds a new way to do things nobody considered before (because they never reached the scale of Facebook).

Jul
19
2018
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CloudHealth adds support for Google Cloud amidst growing demand

CloudHealth, a startup that enables customers to manage a multi-cloud environment, announced today it was adding support for Google Cloud Platform.

With today’s addition, CloudHealth now supports AWS, Azure, VMware and Google, giving customers a fairly comprehensive view of their cloud usage.

Company co-founder and CTO Joe Kinsella says the company has been seeing inbound interest for Google Cloud support dating back to 2014, but up until now there hasn’t been enough interest to warrant a startup investing the resources necessary to support another platform. He says that has changed over the last 12-18 months as they’ve seen an increase in requests and decided to take the plunge.

Google Cloud cost summary page in CloudHealth. Screenshot: CloudHealth

“I think a lot of the initiatives that have been driven since Diane Greene joined Google [at the end of 2015] and began really driving towards the enterprise are bearing fruit. And as a result, we’re starting to see a really substantial uptick in interest,” he said.

As for why Google is gaining traction, Kinsella believes they have found ways to differentiate themselves in some key areas. “Its two biggest differentiated services are in machine learning services and the App Engine service. I also think that they have generated a lot of innovation across Infrastructure as a Service and Platform as a Service, and they built really reliable, durable, flexible, highly configurable services,” he said.

Dave Bartoletti, an analyst with Forrester Research, who specializes in the public cloud says he has also seen increasing interest in Google Cloud. “Google’s developer experience (e.g., role/account management, CI/CD toolchains, and language support) now rivals AWS and Microsoft. Very strong identity and access management, security, database, and AI/ML services are drawing increasing numbers of traditional enterprise customers,” Bartoletti told TechCrunch.

CloudHealth is a cloud-based subscription service. Customers sign up and enter their cloud credentials and they get an integrated view of their cloud activity in a single interface. Kinsella says their solution provides several primary benefits including visibility, governance, compliance and cost control.

Cross cloud usage view in CloudHealth. Screenshot: CloudHealth

The company’s primary competitor is customers trying to build a tool to monitor multi-cloud activity themselves, something that Bartoletti also sees. “Cloud cost monitoring and optimization tools help clients pay only for what they use, pay as little as possible for what they use, and develop best practices for workload sizing and automated operations to continue to save money over time, without needing to build a large cost management practice in house,” he said.

The company, which has over 300 employees, is based in downtown Boston with multiple offices around the world. It was founded in 2012 and has raised over $87 million with its most recent Series D round generating $46 million from the likes of Kleiner Perkins, Scale Venture Partners, Meritech Capital Partners, Sapphire Ventures and .406 Ventures.

Jul
18
2018
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Okta nabs ScaleFT to build out ‘Zero Trust’ security framework

Okta, the cloud identity management company, announced today it has purchased a startup called ScaleFT to bring the Zero Trust concept to the Okta platform. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

While Zero Trust isn’t exactly new to a cloud identity management company like Okta, acquiring ScaleFT gives them a solid cloud-based Zero Trust foundation on which to continue to develop the concept internally.

“To help our customers increase security while also meeting the demands of the modern workforce, we’re acquiring ScaleFT to further our contextual access management vision — and ensure the right people get access to the right resources for the shortest amount of time,” Okta co-founder and COO Frederic Kerrest said in a statement.

Zero Trust is a security framework that acknowledges work no longer happens behind the friendly confines of a firewall. In the old days before mobile and cloud, you could be pretty certain that anyone on your corporate network had the authority to be there, but as we have moved into a mobile world, it’s no longer a simple matter to defend a perimeter when there is effectively no such thing. Zero Trust means what it says: you can’t trust anyone on your systems and have to provide an appropriate security posture.

The idea was pioneered by Google’s “BeyondCorp” principals and the founders of ScaleFT are adherents to this idea. According to Okta, “ScaleFT developed a cloud-native Zero Trust access management solution that makes it easier to secure access to company resources without the need for a traditional VPN.”

Okta wants to incorporate the ScaleFT team and, well, scale their solution for large enterprise customers interested in developing this concept, according to a company blog post by Kerrest.

“Together, we’ll work to bring Zero Trust to the enterprise by providing organizations with a framework to protect sensitive data, without compromising on experience. Okta and ScaleFT will deliver next-generation continuous authentication capabilities to secure server access — from cloud to ground,” Kerrest wrote in the blog post.

ScaleFT CEO and co-founder Jason Luce will manage the transition between the two companies, while CTO and co-founder Paul Querna will lead strategy and execution of Okta’s Zero Trust architecture. CSO Marc Rogers will take on the role of Okta’s Executive Director, Cybersecurity Strategy.

The acquisition allows the Okta to move beyond purely managing identity into broader cyber security, at least conceptually. Certainly Roger’s new role suggests the company could have other ideas to expand further into general cyber security beyond Zero Trust.

ScaleFT was founded in 2015 and has raised $2.8 million over two seed rounds, according to Crunchbase data.

Jul
18
2018
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Swim.ai raises $10M to bring real-time analytics to the edge

Once upon a time, it looked like cloud-based serviced would become the central hub for analyzing all IoT data. But it didn’t quite turn out that way because most IoT solutions simply generate too much data to do this effectively and the round-trip to the data center doesn’t work for applications that have to react in real time. Hence the advent of edge computing, which is spawning its own ecosystem of startups.

Among those is Swim.ai, which today announced that it has raised a $10 million Series B funding round led by Cambridge Innovation Capital, with participation from Silver Creek Ventures and Harris Barton Asset Management. The round also included a strategic investment from Arm, the chip design firm you may still remember as ARM (but don’t write it like that or their PR department will promptly email you). This brings the company’s total funding to about $18 million.

Swim.ai has an interesting take on edge computing. The company’s SWIM EDX product combines both local data processing and analytics with local machine learning. In a traditional approach, the edge devices collect the data, maybe perform some basic operations against the data to bring down the bandwidth cost and then ship it to the cloud where the hard work is done and where, if you are doing machine learning, the models are trained. Swim.ai argues that this doesn’t work for applications that need to respond in real time. Swim.ai, however, performs the model training on the edge device itself by pulling in data from all connected devices. It then builds a digital twin for each one of these devices and uses that to self-train its models based on this data.

“Demand for the EDX software is rapidly increasing, driven by our software’s unique ability to analyze and reduce data, share new insights instantly peer-to-peer – locally at the ‘edge’ on existing equipment. Efficiently processing edge data and enabling insights to be easily created and delivered with the lowest latency are critical needs for any organization,” said Rusty Cumpston, co-founder and CEO of Swim.ai. “We are thrilled to partner with our new and existing investors who share our vision and look forward to shaping the future of real-time analytics at the edge.”

The company doesn’t disclose any current customers, but it is focusing its efforts on manufacturers, service providers and smart city solutions. Update: Swim.ai did tell us about two customers after we published this story: The City of Palo Alto and Itron.

Swim.ai plans to use its new funding to launch a new R&D center in Cambridge, UK, expand its product development team and tackle new verticals and geographies with an expanded sales and marketing team.

Jul
17
2018
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Google’s new ‘Grab and Go’ project helps business loan Chromebooks to their employees

At Google, the company offers a ‘Grab and Go’ program that allows employees to use self-service stations to quickly borrow and return Chromebooks without having to go through a lengthy IT approval process. Now, it’s bringing this same idea to other businesses.

Chromebooks have found their place in education and a number of larger enterprise companies are also getting on board with the idea of a centrally managed device that mostly focuses on the browser. That’s maybe no surprise, given that both schools and enterprises are pretty much looking for the same thing from these devices.

At Google, the system has seen more than 30,000 users that have completed more than 100,000 loans so far.

While Google wants others to run similar programs (and use more Chromebooks in the process) it’s worth noting that this is a limited preview program and that Google isn’t building and selling racks or other infrastructure for this. As a Google spokesperson told us, Google will give companies that want to try this the open source code to build this system and advise them through the setup and deployment. It will also engage with partners to help them build the hardware or set up a ‘Grab and Go’ as a service system.

Employees who want to use one of these ‘Grab and Go’ stations simply pick up a laptop, sign in and move on with their day. When they are done, they simply return the laptop. That’s it. Easy.

That’s not quite as exciting as Google building and selling racks of Chromebooks, but this project is clearly another move to bring Chromebooks to the enterprise. Specifically, Google says that this program is meant for frontline workers who only need devices for a short period of time, as well as shift workers and remote workers.

Jul
17
2018
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Walmart enlists Microsoft cloud in battle against Amazon

Once a seemingly unstoppable retail juggernaut, Walmart’s been scrambling to define its digitally in this Amazon-defined era. This morning, the company announced that it’s struck a five-year deal with Microsoft, Amazon’s chief cloud competitor.

These sorts of partnerships are a regular occurrence for AWS — in fact, it announced one with Fortnite maker Epic Games, just this morning. The companies involved tend to put on a big show, in return for a discount on services, but Walmart and Microsoft are happily playing into the concept of teaming up to take on Amazon.

Microsoft’s certainly not making any bones about the competition. In an interview, Satya Nadella told The Wall Street Journal that the fight against Amazon “is absolutely core to this,” adding, “How do we get more leverage as two organizations that have depth and breadth and investment to be able to outrun our respective competition?”

Of course, neither Walmart nor Microsoft can be framed as an underdog in any respect, but Amazon’s stranglehold on online retail also can’t be understated. Not even a massive outage at the height of Prime Day could do much to ruffle the company’s feathers.

Included in the deal are AI/ML technologies design to help optimize the in-store experience — one of the key factors Walmart brings to the table in a battle against Amazon, which has mostly just dabbled in brick and mortar. For its part, Walmart has been testing cashier-less stores along the lines of Amazon’s, but the company has just to officially unveil its plans in that space.

Jul
17
2018
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Standard Cognition raises another $5.5M to create a cashier-less checkout experience

As Amazon looks to increasingly expand its cashier-less grocery stories — called Amazon Go – across different regions, there’s at least one startup hoping to end up everywhere else beyond Amazon’s empire.

Standard Cognition aims to help businesses create that kind of checkout experience based on machine vision, using image recognition to figure out that a specific person is picking up and walking out the door with a bag of Cheetos. The company said it’s raised an additional $5.5 million in a round in what the company is calling a seed round extension from CRV. The play here is, like many startups, to create something that a massive company is going after — like image recognition for cashier-less checkouts — for the long tail businesses rather than locking them into a single ecosystem.

Standard Cognition works with security cameras that have a bit more power than typical cameras to identify people that walk into a store. Those customers use an app, and the camera identifies everything they are carrying and bills them as they exit the store. The company has said it works to anonymize that data, so there isn’t any kind of product tracking that might chase you around the Internet that you might find on other platforms.

“The platform is built at this point – we are now focused on releasing the platform to each retail partner that signs on with us,” Michael Suswal, Co-founder and COO said. “Most of the surprises coming our way come from learning about how each retailer prefers to run their operations and store experiences. They are all a little different and require us to be flexible with how we deploy.”

It’s a toolkit that makes sense for both larger and smaller retailers, especially as the actual technology to install cameras or other devices that can get high-quality video or have more processing power goes down over time. Baking that into smaller retailers or mom-and-pop stores could help them get more foot traffic or make it easier to keep tabs on what kind of inventory is most popular or selling out more quickly. It offers an opportunity to have an added layer of data about how their store works, which could be increasingly important over time as something like Amazon looks to start taking over the grocery experience with stores like Amazon Go or its massive acquisition of Whole Foods.

“While we save no personal data in the cloud, and the system is built for privacy (no facial recognition among other safety features that come with being a non-cloud solution), we do use the internet for a couple of things,” Suswal said. “One of those things is to update our models and push them fleet wide. This is not a data push. It is light and allows us to make updates to models and add new features. We refer to it as the Tesla model, inspired by the way a driver can have a new feature when they wake up in the morning. We are also able to offer cross-store analytics to the retailer using the cloud, but no personal data is ever stored there.”

It’s thanks to advances in machine learning — and the frameworks and hardware that support it — that have made this kind of technology easier to build for smaller companies. Already there are other companies that look to be third-party providers for popular applications like voice recognition (think SoundHound) or machine vision (think Clarifai). All of those aim to be an option outside of whatever options larger companies might have like Alexa. It also means there is probably going to be a land grab and that there will be other interpretations of what the cashier-less checkout experience looks like, but Standard Cognition is hoping it’ll be able to get into enough stores to be an actual challenger to Amazon Go.

Jul
17
2018
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Dialpad dials up $50M Series D led by Iconiq

Dialpad announced a $50 million Series D investment today, giving the company plenty of capital to keep expanding its business communications platform.

The round was led by Iconiq Capital with help from existing investors Andreessen Horowitz, Amasia, Scale Ventures, Section 32 and Work-Bench. With today’s round, the company has now raised $120 million.

As technology like artificial intelligence and internet of things advances, it’s giving the company an opportunity to expand its platform. Dialpad products include UberConference conferencing software and VoiceAI for voice transcription applications.

The company is competing in a crowded market that includes giants like Google and Cisco and a host of smaller companies like GoToMeeting (owned by LogMeIn), Zoom and BlueJeans. All of these companies are working to provide cloud-based meeting and communications services.

Increasingly, that involves artificial intelligence like natural language processing (NLP) to provide on the fly transcription services. While none of these services is perfect yet, they are growing increasingly accurate.

VoiceAI was launched shortly after Dialpad acquired TalkIQ in May to take this idea a step further by applying sentiment analysis and analytics to voice transcripts. The company plans to use the cash infusion to continue investing in artificial intelligence on the Dialpad platform.

Post call transcript generated by VoiceAI. Screenshot: Dialpad

CEO Craig Walker certainly sees the potential of artificial intelligence for the company moving forward. “Smart CIOs know AI isn’t just another trendy tech tool, it’s the future of work. By arming sales and support teams, and frankly everybody in the organization, with VoiceAI’s real-time artificial intelligence and insights, businesses can dramatically improve customer satisfaction and ultimately their bottom line,” Walker said in a statement.

Dialpad is also working with voice-driven devices like the Amazon Alexa and it announced Alexa integration with Dialpad in April. This allows Alexa users to make calls by saying something like, “Alexa, call Liz Green with Dialpad” and the Echo will make the phone call on your behalf using Dialpad software.

According to the company website, it has over 50,000 customers including WeWork, Stitch Fix, Uber and Reddit. The company says it has added over 10,000 new customers since its last funding round in September, 2017.

Jul
16
2018
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Fastly raises another $40 million before an IPO

Last round before the IPO. That’s how Fastly frames its new $40 million Series F round. It means that the company has raised $219 million over the past few years.

The funding round was led by Deutsche Telekom Capital Partners with participation from Sozo Ventures, Swisscom Ventures, and existing investors.

Fastly operates a content delivery network to speed up web requests. Let’s say you type nytimes.com in your browser. In the early days of the internet, your computer would send a request to one of The New York Times’ servers in a data center. The server would receive the request and send back the page to the reader.

But the web has grown immensely, and this kind of architecture is no longer sustainable. The New York Times use Fastly to cache its homepage, media and articles on Fastly’s servers. This way, when somebody types nytimes.com, Fastly already has the webpage on its servers and can send it directly. For some customers, it can represent as much as 90 percent of requests.

Scale and availability are one of the benefits of using a content delivery network. But speed is also another one. Even though the web is a digital platform, it’s very physical by nature. When you load a page on a server on the other side of the world, it’s going to take hundreds of milliseconds to get the page. Over time, this latency adds up and it feels like a sluggish experience.

Fastly has data centers and servers all around the world so that you can load content in less than 20 or 30 milliseconds. This is particularly important for Stripe or Ticketmaster as response time can greatly influence an e-commerce purchase.

Fastly’s platform also provides additional benefits, such as DDoS mitigation and web application firewall. One of the main challenges for the platform is being able to cache content as quickly as possible. Users upload photos and videos all the time, so it should be on Fastly’s servers within seconds.

The company has tripled its customer base over the past three years. It had a $100 million revenue run rate in 2017. Customers now include Reddit, GitHub, Stripe, Ticketmaster and Pinterest.

There are now 400 employees working for Fastly. It’s worth noting that women represent 42 percent of the executive team, and 65 percent of the engineering leads are women, people of color or LGBTQ (or the intersection of those categories). And if you haven’t read all the diversity reports from tech companies, those are great numbers.

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