Jul
31
2020
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Even as cloud infrastructure growth slows, revenue rises over $30B for quarter

The cloud market is coming into its own during the pandemic as the novel coronavirus forced many companies to accelerate plans to move to the cloud, even while the market was beginning to mature on its own.

This week, the big three cloud infrastructure vendors — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — all reported their earnings, and while the numbers showed that growth was beginning to slow down, revenue continued to increase at an impressive rate, surpassing $30 billion for a quarter for the first time, according to Synergy Research Group numbers.

Jul
09
2020
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Docker partners with AWS to improve container workflows

Docker and AWS today announced a new collaboration that introduces a deep integration between Docker’s Compose and Desktop developer tools and AWS’s Elastic Container Service (ECS) and ECS on AWS Fargate. Previously, the two companies note, the workflow to take Compose files and run them on ECS was often challenging for developers. Now, the two companies simplified this process to make switching between running containers locally and on ECS far easier.

docker/AWS architecture overview“With a large number of containers being built using Docker, we’re very excited to work with Docker to simplify the developer’s experience of building and deploying containerized applications to AWS,” said Deepak Singh, the VP for compute services at AWS. “Now customers can easily deploy their containerized applications from their local Docker environment straight to Amazon ECS. This accelerated path to modern application development and deployment allows customers to focus more effort on the unique value of their applications, and less time on figuring out how to deploy to the cloud.”

In a bit of a surprise move, Docker last year sold off its enterprise business to Mirantis to solely focus on cloud-native developer experiences.

“In November, we separated the enterprise business, which was very much focused on operations, CXOs and a direct sales model, and we sold that business to Mirantis,” Docker CEO Scott Johnston told TechCrunch’s Ron Miller earlier this year. “At that point, we decided to focus the remaining business back on developers, which was really Docker’s purpose back in 2013 and 2014.”

Today’s move is an example of this new focus, given that the workflow issues this partnership addresses had been around for quite a while already.

It’s worth noting that Docker also recently engaged in a strategic partnership with Microsoft to integrate the Docker developer experience with Azure’s Container Instances.

Jun
05
2020
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Slack’s new integration deal with AWS could also be about tweaking Microsoft

Slack and Amazon announced a big integration late yesterday afternoon. As part of the deal, Slack will use Amazon Chime for its call feature, while reiterating its commitment to use AWS as its preferred cloud provider to run its infrastructure. At the same time, Amazon has agreed to offer Slack as an option for all internal communications.

“Some parts of Amazon had licensed Slack before, but this is the first time it will be offered as an option to all employees,” an Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Make no mistake, this is a big deal as the SaaS communications tool increases its ties with AWS, but this agreement could also be about slighting Microsoft and its rival Teams product by making a deal with a cloud rival. In the past, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield has had choice words for Microsoft saying the Redmond technology giant sees his company as an “existential threat.”

Whether that’s true  — Teams is but one piece of a huge technology company — it’s impossible not to look at the deal in this context. Aligning more deeply with AWS sends a message to Microsoft, whose Azure infrastructure services compete with AWS.

Butterfield didn’t say that of course. He talked about how synergistic the deal was. “Strategically partnering with AWS allows both companies to scale to meet demand and deliver enterprise-grade offerings to our customers. By integrating AWS services with Slack’s channel-based messaging platform, we’re helping teams easily and seamlessly manage their cloud infrastructure projects and launch cloud-based services without ever leaving Slack,” he said in a statement.

The deal also includes several other elements including integrating AWS Key Management Service with Slack Enterprise Key Management (EKM) for encryption key management, deeper alignment with AWS’s chatbot service and direct integration with AWS AppFlow to enable secure transfer of data between Slack and Amazon S3 storage and the Amazon Redshift data warehouse.

AWS CEO Andy Jassy saw it as a pure integration play. “Together, AWS and Slack are giving developer teams the ability to collaborate and innovate faster on the front end with applications, while giving them the ability to efficiently manage their backend cloud infrastructure,” Jassy said in a statement.

Like any good deal, it’s good for both sides. Slack gets a big customer in AWS and AWS now has Slack directly integrating more of its services. One of the reasons enterprise users are so enamored with Slack is the ability to get work done in a single place without constantly having to change focus and move between interfaces.

This deal will provide more of that for common customers, while tweaking a common rival. That’s what you call win-win.

May
20
2020
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Directly, which taps experts to train chatbots, raises $11M, closes out Series B at $51M

Directly, a startup whose mission is to help build better customer service chatbots by using experts in specific areas to train them, has raised more funding as it opens up a new front to grow its business: APIs and a partner ecosystem that can now also tap into its expert network. Today Directly is announcing that it has added $11 million to close out its Series B at $51 million (it raised $20 million back in January of this year, and another $20 million as part of the Series B back in 2018).

The funding is coming from Triangle Peak Partners and Toba Capital, while its previous investors in the round included strategic backers Samsung NEXT and Microsoft’s M12 Ventures (who are both customers, alongside companies like Airbnb), as well as Industry Ventures, True Ventures, Costanoa Ventures and Northgate. (As we reported when covering the initial close, Directly’s valuation at that time was at $110 million post-money, and so this would likely put it at $120 million or higher, given how the business has expanded.)

While chatbots have now been around for years, a key focus in the tech world has been how to help them work better, after initial efforts saw so many disappointing results that it was fair to ask whether they were even worth the trouble.

Directly’s premise is that the most important part of getting a chatbot to work well is to make sure that it’s trained correctly, and its approach to that is very practical: find experts both to troubleshoot questions and provide answers.

As we’ve described before, its platform helps businesses identify and reach out to “experts” in the business or product in question, collect knowledge from them, and then fold that into a company’s AI to help train it and answer questions more accurately. It also looks at data input and output into those AI systems to figure out what is working, and what is not, and how to fix that, too.

The information is typically collected by way of question-and-answer sessions. Directly compensates experts both for submitting information as well as to pay out royalties when their knowledge has been put to use, “just as you would in traditional copyright licensing in music,” its co-founder Antony Brydon explained to me earlier this year.

It can take as little as 100 experts, but potentially many more, to train a system, depending on how much the information needs to be updated over time. (Directly’s work for Xbox, for example, used 1,000 experts but has to date answered millions of questions.)

Directly’s pitch to customers is that building a better chatbot can help deflect more questions from actual live agents (and subsequently cut operational costs for a business). It claims that customer contacts can be reduced by up to 80%, with customer satisfaction by up to 20%, as a result.

What’s interesting is that now Directly sees an opportunity in expanding that expert ecosystem to a wider group of partners, some of which might have previously been seen as competitors. (Not unlike Amazon’s AI powering a multitude of other businesses, some of which might also be in the market of selling the same services that Amazon does).

The partner ecosystem, as Directly calls it, use APIs to link into Directly’s platform. Meya, Percept.ai, and SmartAction — which themselves provide a range of customer service automation tools — are three of the first users.

“The team at Directly have quickly proven to be trusted and invaluable partners,” said Erik Kalviainen, CEO at Meya, in a statement. “As a result of our collaboration, Meya is now able to take advantage of a whole new set of capabilities that will enable us to deliver automated solutions both faster and with higher resolution rates, without customers needing to deploy significant internal resources. That’s a powerful advantage at a time when scale and efficiency are key to any successful customer support operation.”

The prospect of a bigger business funnel beyond even what Directly was pulling in itself is likely what attracted the most recent investment.

“Directly has established itself as a true leader in helping customers thrive during these turbulent economic times,” said Tyler Peterson, Partner at Triangle Peak Partners, in a statement. “There is little doubt that automation will play a tremendous role in the future of customer support, but Directly is realizing that potential today. Their platform enables businesses to strike just the right balance between automation and human support, helping them adopt AI-powered solutions in a way that is practical, accessible, and demonstrably effective.”

In January, Mike de la Cruz, who took over as CEO at the time of the funding announcement, said the company was gearing up for a larger Series C in 2021. It’s not clear how and if that will be impacted by the current state of the world. But in the meantime, as more organizations are looking for ways to connect with customers outside of channels that might require people to physically visit stores, or for employees to sit in call centres, it presents a huge opportunity for companies like this one.

“At its core, our business is about helping customer support leaders resolve customer issues with the right mix of automation and human support,” said de la Cruz in a statement. “It’s one thing to deliver a great product today, but we’re committed to ensuring that our customers have the solutions they need over the long term. That means constantly investing in our platform and expanding our capabilities, so that we can keep up with the rapid pace of technological change and an unpredictable economic landscape. These new partnerships and this latest expansion of our recent funding round have positioned us to do just that. We’re excited to be collaborating with our new partners, and very thankful to all of our investors for their support.”

May
11
2020
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Amazon releases Kendra to solve enterprise search with AI and machine learning

Enterprise search has always been a tough nut to crack. The Holy Grail has always been to operate like Google, but in-house. You enter a few keywords and you get back that nearly perfect response at the top of the list of the results. The irony of trying to do search locally has been a lack of content.

While Google has the universe of the World Wide Web to work with, enterprises have a much narrower set of responses. It would be easy to think that should make it easier to find the ideal response, but the fact is that it’s the opposite. The more data you have, the more likely you’ll find the correct document.

Amazon is trying to change the enterprise search game by putting it into a more modern machine learning-driven context to use today’s technology to help you find that perfect response just as you typically do on the web.

Today the company announced the general availability of Amazon Kendra, its cloud enterprise search product that the company announced last year at AWS re:Invent. It uses natural language processing to allow the user to simply ask a question, then searches across the repositories connected to the search engine to find a precise answer.

“Amazon Kendra reinvents enterprise search by allowing end-users to search across multiple silos of data using real questions (not just keywords) and leverages machine learning models under the hood to understand the content of documents and the relationships between them to deliver the precise answers they seek (instead of a random list of links),” the company described the new service in a statement.

AWS has tuned the search engine for specific industries including IT, healthcare and insurance. It promises energy, industrial, financial services, legal, media and entertainment, travel and hospitality, human resources, news, telecommunications, mining, food and beverage and automotive will be coming later this year.

This means any company in one of those industries should have a head start when it comes to searching because the system will understand the language specific to those verticals. You can drop your Kendra search box into an application or a website, and it has features like type ahead you would expect in a tool like this.

Enterprise search has been around for a long time, but perhaps by bringing AI and machine learning to bear on it, we can finally solve it once and for all.

May
08
2020
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Microsoft and AWS exchange poisoned pen blog posts in latest Pentagon JEDI contract spat

Microsoft and Amazon are at it again as the fight for the Defense Department JEDI contract continues. In a recent series of increasingly acerbic pronouncements, the two companies continue their ongoing spat over the $10 billion, decade-long JEDI contract spoils.

As you may recall (or not), last fall in a surprise move, the DoD selected Microsoft as the winning vendor in the JEDI winner-take-all cloud infrastructure sweepstakes. The presumed winner was always AWS, but when the answer finally came down, it was not them.

To make a very long story short, AWS took exception to the decision and went to court to fight it. Later it was granted a stay of JEDI activities between Microsoft and the DoD, which as you can imagine did not please Microsoft . Since then, the two companies have been battling in PR pronouncements and blog posts trying to get the upper hand in the war for public opinion.

That fight took a hard turn this week when the two companies really went at it in dueling blog posts after Amazon filed its latest protest.

First there was Microsoft with PR exec Frank Shaw taking exception to AWS’s machinations, claiming the company just wants a do-over:

This latest filing – filed with the DoD this time – is another example of Amazon trying to bog down JEDI in complaints, litigation and other delays designed to force a do-over to rescue its failed bid.

Amazon’s Drew Herdner countered in a blog post published this morning:

Recently, Microsoft has published multiple self-righteous and pontificating blog posts that amount to nothing more than misleading noise intended to distract those following the protest.

The bottom line is that Microsoft believes it won the contract fair and square with a more competitive bid, while Amazon believes it should have won on technical superiority, and that there was political interference from the president because he doesn’t like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post.

If you’ve been following this story from the beginning (as I have), you know it has taken a series of twists and turns. It’s had lawsuits, complaints, drama and intrigue. The president has inserted himself into it, too. There have been accusations of conflicts of interest. There have been investigations, lawsuits and more investigations.

Government procurement tends to be pretty bland, but from the start when the DoD chose to use the cutesy Star Wars-driven acronym for this project, it has been anything but. Now it’s come down to two of the world’s largest tech companies exchanging angry blog posts. Sooner or later this is going to end right?

May
07
2020
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VC’s largest funds make big bets on vertical B2B marketplaces

During the waning days of the first dot-com boom, some of the biggest names in venture capital invested in marketplaces and directories whose sole function was to consolidate information and foster transparency in industries that had remained opaque for decades.

The thesis was that thousands of small businesses were making specialized products consumed by larger businesses in huge industries, but the reach of smaller players was limited by their dependence on a sales structure built on conferences and personal interactions.

Companies making pharmaceuticals, chemicals, construction materials and medical supplies represented trillions in sales, but those huge aggregate numbers hide how fragmented these supply chains are — and how difficult it is for buyers to see the breadth of sellers available.

Now, similar to the way business models popularized by Kozmo.com and Webvan in decades past have since been reincarnated as Postmates and DoorDash, the B2B directory and marketplace rises from the investment graveyard.

The first sign of life for the directory model came with the success of GoodRX back in 2011. The company proved that when information about pricing in a previously opaque industry becomes available, it can unleash a torrent of new demand.

May
01
2020
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In spite of pandemic (or maybe because of it), cloud infrastructure revenue soars

It’s fair to say that even before the impact of COVID-19, companies had begun a steady march to the cloud. Maybe it wasn’t fast enough for AWS, as Andy Jassy made clear in his 2019 Re:invent keynote, but it was happening all the same and the steady revenue increases across the cloud infrastructure market bore that out.

As we look at the most recent quarter’s earnings reports for the main players in the market, it seems the pandemic and economic fall out has done little to slow that down. In fact, it may be contributing to its growth.

According to numbers supplied by Synergy Research, the cloud infrastructure market totaled $29 billion in revenue for Q12020.

Image Credit: Synergy Research

Synergy’s John Dinsdale, who has been watching this market for a long time, says that the pandemic could be contributing to some of that growth, at least modestly. In spite of the numbers, he doesn’t necessarily see these companies getting out of this unscathed either, but as companies shift operations from offices, it could be part of the reason for the increased demand we saw in the first quarter.

“For sure, the pandemic is causing some issues for cloud providers, but in uncertain times, the public cloud is providing flexibility and a safe haven for enterprises that are struggling to maintain normal operations. Cloud provider revenues continue to grow at truly impressive rates, with AWS and Azure in aggregate now having an annual revenue run rate of well over $60 billion,” Dinsdale said in a statement.

AWS led the way with a third of the market or more than $10 billion in quarterly revenue as it continues to hold a substantial lead in market share. Microsoft was in second, growing at a brisker 59% for 18% of the market. While Microsoft doesn’t break out its numbers, using Synergy’s numbers, that would work out to around $5.2 billion for Azure revenue. Meanwhile Google came in third with $2.78 billion.

If you’re keeping track of market share at home, it comes out to 32% for AWS, 18% for Microsoft and 8% for Google. This split has remained fairly steady, although Microsoft has managed to gain a few percentage points over the last several quarters as its overall growth rate outpaces Amazon.

Apr
30
2020
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AWS hits $10B for the quarter putting it on a $40B run rate

AWS, the cloud arm of Amazon, would be a pretty successful business on its own. Today, the company announced it has passed $10 billion for the quarter, putting the cloud business on an impressive run rate of more than $40 billion.

It was a bright spot for the company in an earnings report that saw it report net income of $2.5 billion, down $1 billion from a year ago.

Still, most companies would take that for the entire business, but AWS, which started off as kind of a side hustle for Amazon back in 2006, has grown into a powerful business all on its own. With a growth rate of 33%, it’s still growing briskly, even if it’s slowing down a bit as the law of large numbers begins to work against it.

Even though Microsoft has grown more quickly — in yesterday’s report Microsoft reported that Azure was growing at a 59% clip — AWS had such a big head start and controls a big chunk of the market share.

To give you a sense of how quickly this business has grown, Bloomberg’s Jon Erlichman tweeted the Q1 numbers for AWS since 2014, and it’s pretty amazing growth:

In 2014, it was a $4 billion a year business. Today it is 9.1x that and still going strong. The good news for everyone involved is that this is a huge market, and while nobody could ever characterize the pandemic and it’s economic fall-out as good news for anyone, the fact is that it is forcing companies to move to the cloud faster than they might have wanted to go.

That should bode well for all the cloud infrastructures vendors, even as the economy shrinks, the kinds of services these vendors offer should be in more demand than ever, and that means these numbers could just keep growing for some time.

Apr
22
2020
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AWS launches Amazon AppFlow, its new SaaS integration service

AWS today launched Amazon AppFlow, a new integration service that makes it easier for developers to transfer data between AWS and SaaS applications like Google Analytics, Marketo, Salesforce, ServiceNow, Slack, Snowflake and Zendesk. Like similar services, including Microsoft Azure’s Power Automate, for example, developers can trigger these flows based on specific events, at pre-set times or on-demand.

Unlike some of its competitors, though, AWS is positioning this service more as a data transfer service than a way to automate workflows and while the data flow can be bi-directional, AWS’s announcement focuses mostly on moving data from SaaS applications to other AWS services for further analysis. For this, AppFlow also includes a number of tools for transforming the data as it moves through the service.

“Developers spend huge amounts of time writing custom integrations so they can pass data between SaaS applications and AWS services so that it can be analysed; these can be expensive and can often take months to complete,” said AWS principal advocate Martin Beeby in today’s announcement. “If data requirements change, then costly and complicated modifications have to be made to the integrations. Companies that don’t have the luxury of engineering resources might find themselves manually importing and exporting data from applications, which is time-consuming, risks data leakage, and has the potential to introduce human error.”

Every flow (which AWS defines as a call to a source application to transfer data to a destination) costs $0.001 per run, though, in typical AWS fashion, there’s also cost associated with data processing (starting at 0.02 per GB).

“Our customers tell us that they love having the ability to store, process, and analyze their data in AWS. They also use a variety of third-party SaaS applications, and they tell us that it can be difficult to manage the flow of data between AWS and these applications,” said Kurt Kufeld, Vice President, AWS. “Amazon AppFlow provides an intuitive and easy way for customers to combine data from AWS and SaaS applications without moving it across the public Internet. With Amazon AppFlow, our customers bring together and manage petabytes, even exabytes, of data spread across all of their applications – all without having to develop custom connectors or manage underlying API and network connectivity.”

At this point, the number of supported services remains comparatively low, with only 14 possible sources and four destinations (Amazon Redshift and S3, as well as Salesforce and Snowflake). Sometimes, depending on the source you select, the only possible destination is Amazon’s S3 storage service.

Over time, the number of integrations will surely increase, but for now, it feels like there’s still quite a bit more work to do for the AppFlow team to expand the list of supported services.

AWS has long left this market to competitors, even though it has tools like AWS Step Functions for building serverless workflows across AWS services and EventBridge for connections applications. Interestingly, EventBridge currently supports a far wider range of third-party sources, but as the name implies, its focus is more on triggering events in AWS than moving data between applications.

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