Feb
15
2019
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As GE and Amazon move on, Google expands presence in Boston and NYC

NYC and Boston were handed huge setbacks this week when Amazon and GE decided to bail on their commitments to build headquarters in the respective cities on the same day. But it’s worth pointing out that while these large tech organizations were pulling out, Google was expanding in both locations.

Yesterday, upon hearing about Amazon’s decision to scrap its HQ2 plans in Long Island City, New York City Mayor de Blasio had this to say: “Instead of working with the community, Amazon threw away that opportunity. We have the best talent in the world and every day we are growing a stronger and fairer economy for everyone. If Amazon can’t recognize what that’s worth, its competitors will.” One of them already has. Google had already announced a billion-dollar expansion in Hudson Square at the end of last year.

In fact, the company is pouring billions into NYC real estate, with plans to double its 7,000-person workforce over the next 10 years. As TechCrunch’s Jon Russell reported, “Our investment in New York is a huge part of our commitment to grow and invest in U.S. facilities, offices and jobs. In fact, we’re growing faster outside the Bay Area than within it, and this year opened new offices and data centers in locations like Detroit, Boulder, Los Angeles, Tennessee and Alabama, wrote Google CFO Ruth Porat.”

Just this week, as GE was making its announcement, Google was announcing a major expansion in Cambridge, the city across the river from Boston that is home to Harvard and MIT. Kendall Square is also home to offices from Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Akamai, DigitalOcean and a plethora of startups.

Google will be moving into a brand new building that currently is home to the MIT Coop bookstore. It plans to grab 365,000 square feet of the new building when it’s completed, and, as in NYC, will be adding hundreds of new jobs to the 1,500 already in place. Brian Cusack, Google Cambridge Site lead points out the company began operations in Cambridge back in 2003 and has been working on Search, Android, Cloud, YouTube, Google Play, Research, Ads and more.

“This new space will provide room for future growth and further cements our commitment to the Cambridge community. We’re proud to call this city home and will continue to support its vibrant nonprofit and growing business community,” he said in a statement.

As we learned this week, big company commitments can vanish just as quickly as they are announced, but for now at least, it appears that Google is serious about its commitment to New York and Boston and will be expanding office space and employment to the tune of thousands of jobs over the next decade.

Feb
14
2019
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AWS announces new bare metal instances for companies who want more cloud control

When you think about Infrastructure as a Service, you typically pay for a virtual machine that resides in a multi-tenant environment. That means, it’s using a set of shared resources. For many companies that approach is fine, but when a customer wants more control, they may prefer a single tenant system where they control the entire set of hardware resources. This approach is also known as “bare metal” in the industry, and today AWS announced five new bare metal instances.

You end up paying more for this kind of service because you are getting more control over the processor, storage and other resources on your own dedicated underlying server. This is part of the range of products that all cloud vendors offer. You can have a vanilla virtual machine, with very little control over the hardware, or you can go with bare metal and get much finer grain control over the underlying hardware, something that companies require if they are going to move certain workloads to the cloud.

As AWS describes it in the blog post announcing these new instances, these are for highly specific use cases. “Bare metal instances allow EC2 customers to run applications that benefit from deep performance analysis tools, specialized workloads that require direct access to bare metal infrastructure, legacy workloads not supported in virtual environments, and licensing-restricted Tier 1 business critical applications,” the company explained.

The five new products, called m5.metal, m5d.metal, r5.metal, r5d.metal, and z1d.metal (catchy names there, Amazon) offer a variety of resources:

Chart courtesy of Amazon

These new offerings are available starting today as on-demand, reserved or spot instances, depending on your requirements.

Jan
23
2019
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AWS launches WorkLink to make accessing mobile intranet sites and web apps easier

If your company uses a VPN and/or a mobile device management service to give you access to its intranet and internal web apps, then you know how annoying those are. AWS today launched a new product, Amazon WorkLink, that promises to make this process significantly easier.

WorkLink is a fully managed service that, for $5 per month and per user, allows IT admins to give employees one-click access to internal sites, no matter whether they run on AWS or not.

After installing WorkLink on their phones, employees can then simply use their favorite browser to surf to an internal website (other solutions often force users to use a sub-par proprietary browser). WorkLink then goes to work, securely requests that site and — and that’s the smart part here — a secure WorkLink container converts the site into an interactive vector graphic and sends it back to the phone. Nothing is stored or cached on the phone and AWS says WorkLink knows nothing about personal device activity either. That also means when a device is lost or stolen, there’s no need to try to wipe it remotely because there’s simply no company data on it.

IT can either use a VPN to connect from an AWS Virtual Private Cloud to on-premise servers or use AWS Direct Connect to bypass a VPN solution. The service works with all SAML 2.0 identity providers (which is the majority of identity services used in the enterprise, including the likes of Okta and Ping Identity), and as a fully managed service, it handles scaling and updates in the background.

“When talking with customers, all of them expressed frustration that their workers don’t have an easy and secure way to access internal content, which means that their employees either waste time or don’t bother trying to access content that would make them more productive,” says Peter Hill, vice president of Productivity Applications at AWS, in today’s announcement. “With Amazon WorkLink, we’re enabling greater workplace productivity for those outside the corporate firewall in a way that IT administrators and security teams are happy with and employees are willing to use.”

WorkLink will work with both Android and iOS, but for the time being, only the iOS app (iOS 12+) is available. For now, it also only works with Safar, with Chrome support coming in the next few weeks. The service is also only available in Europe and North America for now, with additional regions coming later this year.

For the time being, AWS’s cloud archrivals Google and Microsoft don’t offer any services that are quite comparable with WorkLink. Google offers its Cloud Identity-Aware Proxy as a VPN alternative and as part of its BeyondCorp program, though that has a very different focus, while Microsoft offers a number of more traditional mobile device management solutions.

Jan
22
2019
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Okta appoints former Charles Schwab exec to board of directors

Okta, the Nasdaq-listed cloud identity management company, has recruited former Charles Schwab chief marketing officer Becky Saeger to its board of directors. The latest appointment comes one month after the company named Shellye Archambeau, former chief executive officer of MetricStream, to its board.

Saeger becomes Okta’s third female board member. Michelle Wilson, a former senior vice president and general counsel at Amazon, joined the company’s board in 2015. According to data collected by Women on Boards, women hold just over 17 percent of corporate board seats, up from 16.0 percent in 2017.

“A board is there for a few reasons,” Okta co-founder and CEO Todd McKinnon told TechCrunch. “One is to oversee a company’s management and strategy. A company like Okta is in a fast-growing industry and there is too much of a tendency for groupthink. You need someone around you to question the basis of what you’re thinking about.”

McKinnon has spoken openly about his commitment to diversity. In a letter to employees in early 2017, for example, he denounced President Donald Trump’s temporary ban on refugee admissions to the U.S. “Diversity of thought and experience are fundamental values at Okta, that includes religious beliefs, gender diversity, sexual orientation and political views,” he wrote. “No matter who you voted for, our opposition to this policy is not just about our business — it is also about our belief in the American freedoms and protections that have made our country so innovative and accepting of those most in need.”

Okta’s C-suite, though majority male, includes chief customer officer Krista Anderson-Copperman, executive vice president and chief of staff Angela Grady, and chief people officer Kristina Johnson.

Saeger, who McKinnon chose for her marketing and financial services acumen, also sits on the board of E*TRADE, an online broker.

“I am excited about the notion that as this company grows and evolves, the brand can become more visible and more meaningful,” Saeger told TechCrunch.

Headquartered in San Francisco, Okta debuted on the stock exchange in April 2017, closing up 38 percent on its first day of trading.

Jan
08
2019
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Amazon reportedly acquired Israeli disaster recovery service CloudEndure for around $200M

Amazon has reportedly acquired Israeli disaster recovery startup CloudEndure. Neither company has responded to our request for confirmation, but we have heard from multiple sources that the deal has happened. While some outlets have been reporting the deal was worth $250 million, we are hearing it’s closer to $200 million.

The company provides disaster recovery for cloud customers. You may be thinking that disaster recovery is precisely why we put our trust in cloud vendors. If something goes wrong, it’s the vendor’s problem — and you would be right to make this assumption, but nothing is simple. If you have a hybrid or multi-cloud scenario, you need to have ways to recover your data in the event of a disaster like weather, a cyberattack or political issue.

That’s where a company like CloudEndure comes into play. It can help you recover and get back and running in another place, no matter where your data lives, by providing a continuous backup and migration between clouds and private data centers. While CloudEndure currently works with AWS, Azure and Google Cloud Platform, it’s not clear if Amazon would continue to support these other vendors.

The company was backed by Dell Technologies Capital, Infosys and Magma Venture Partners, among others. Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research, says Infosys recently divested its part of the deal and that might have precipitated the sale. “So much information is sitting in the cloud that you need backups and regions to make sure you have seamless recovery in the event of a disaster,” Wang told TechCrunch.

While he isn’t clear what Amazon will do with the company, he says it will test just how open it is. “If you have multi-cloud and want your on-prem data backed up, or if you have backup on one cloud like AWS and want it on Google or Azure, you could do this today with CloudEndure,” he said. “That’s why I’m curious if they’ll keep supporting Azure or GCP,” he added.

CloudEndure was founded in 2012 and has raised just over $18 million. Its most recent investment came in 2016 when it raised $6 million, led by Infosys and Magma.

Jan
07
2019
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HQ2 fight continues as New York City and Seattle officials hold anti-Amazon summit

The heated debate around Amazon’s recently announced Long Island City “HQ2” is showing no signs of cooling down.

On Monday morning, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) hosted a briefing in which labor officials, economic development analysts, Amazon employees and elected New York State and City representatives further underlined concerns around the HQ2 process, the awarded incentives, and the potential impacts Amazon’s presence would have on city workers and residents.

While many of the arguments posed at the Summit weren’t necessarily new, the wide variety of stakeholders that showed up to express concern looked to contextualize the far-reaching risks associated with the deal.

The day began with representatives from New York union groups recounting Amazon’s shaky history with employee working conditions and questioning how the city’s working standards will be impacted if the 50,000 promised jobs do actually show up.

Two current employees working in an existing Amazon New York City warehouse in Staten Island provided poignant examples of improper factory conditions and promised employee benefits that never came to fruition. According to the workers, Amazon has yet to follow through on shuttle services and ride-sharing services that were promised to ease worker commutes, forcing the workers to resort to overcrowded and unreliable public transportation. One of the workers detailed that with his now four-hour commute to get to and from work, coupled with his meaningfully long shifts, he’s been unable to see his daughter for weeks.

Various economic development groups and elected officials including, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, and New York State Senator Mike Gianaris supported the labor arguments with spirited teardowns of the economic terms of the deal.

Like many critics of the HQ2 process, the speakers’ expressed their beliefs that Amazon knew where it wanted to bring its second quarters throughout the entirety of its auction process, given the talent pool and resources in the chosen locations, and that the entire undertaking was meant to squeeze out the best economic terms possible. And according to City Council Speaker Johnson, New York City “got played”.

Comptroller Stringer argued that Amazon is taking advantage of New York’s Relocation and Employment Assistance Program (REAP) and Industrial and Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP), which Stringer described as outdated and in need of reform, to receive the majority of the $2 billion-plus in promised economic incentives that made it the fourth largest corporate incentive deal in US history.

The speakers continued to argue that the unprecedented level of incentives will be nearly impossible to recoup and that New York will also face economic damages from lower sales tax revenue as improved Amazon service in the city cannibalizes local brick & mortar retail.

Fears over how Amazon’s presence will impact the future of New York were given more credibility with the presence of Seattle City Council members Lisa Herbold & Teresa Mosqueda, who had flown to New York from Seattle to discuss lessons learned from having Amazon’s Headquarters in the city and to warn the city about the negative externalities that have come with it.

Herbold and Mosqueda focused less on an outright rejection of the deal but instead emphasized that New York was in a position to negotiate for better terms focused on equality and corporate social responsibility, which could help the city avoid the socioeconomic turnover that has plagued Seattle and could create a new standard for public-private partnerships.

While the New York City Council noted it was looking into legal avenues, the opposition seemed to have limited leverage to push back or meaningfully negotiate the deal. According to state officials, the most clear path to fight the deal would be through votes by the state legislature and through the state Public Authorities Control Board who has to unanimously approve the subsidy package.

With the significant turnout seen at Monday’s summit, which included several high-ranking state and city officials, it seems clear that we’re still in the early innings of what’s likely to be a long battle ahead to close the HQ2 deal.

Amazon did not return requests for immediate comment.

Nov
29
2018
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AWS announces a slew of new Lambda features

AWS launched Lambda in 2015 and with it helped popularize serverless computing. You simply write code (event triggers) and AWS deals with whatever compute, memory and storage you need to make that work. Today at AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas, the company announced several new features to make it more developer friendly, while acknowledging that even while serverless reduced complexity, it still requires more sophisticated tools as it matures

It’s called serverless because you don’t have to worry about the underlying servers. The cloud vendors take care of all that for you, serving whatever resources you need to run your event and no more. It means you no longer have to worry about coding for all your infrastructure and you only pay for the computing you need at any given moment to make the application work.

The way AWS works is that it tends to release something, then builds more functionality on top of a base service as it sees increasing requirements as customers use it. As Amazon CTO Werner Vogels pointed out in his keynote on Thursday, developers debate about tools and everyone has their own idea of what tools they bring to the task every day.

For starters, they decided to please the language folks introducing support for new languages. Those developers who use Ruby can now use Ruby Support for AWS Lambda. “Now it’s possible to write Lambda functions as idiomatic Ruby code, and run them on AWS. The AWS SDK for Ruby is included in the Lambda execution environment by default,” Chris Munns from AWS wrote in a blog post introducing the new language support.

If C++ is your thing, AWS announced C++ Lambda Runtime. If neither of those match your programming language tastes, AWS opened it up for just about any language with the new Lambda Runtime API, which Danilo Poccia from AWS described in a blog post as “a simple interface to use any programming language, or a specific language version, for developing your functions.”

AWS didn’t want to stop with languages though. They also recognize that even though Lambda (and serverless in general) is designed to remove a level of complexity for developers, that doesn’t mean that all serverless applications consist of simple event triggers. As developers build more sophisticated serverless apps, they have to bring in system components and compose multiple pieces together, as Vogels explained in his keynote today.

To address this requirement, the company introduced Lambda Layers, which they describe as “a way to centrally manage code and data that is shared across multiple functions.” This could be custom code used by multiple functions or a way to share code used to simplify business logic.

As Lambda matures, developer requirements grow and these announcements and others are part of trying to meet those needs.

more AWS re:Invent 2018 coverage

Nov
14
2018
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Government denies Oracle’s protest of $10B Pentagon JEDI cloud RFP

When Oracle filed a protest in August with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI RFP process was unfair, it probably had little chance of succeeding. Today, the GAO turned away the protest.

The JEDI contract has been set up as a winner-take-all affair. With $10 billion on the table, there has been much teeth-gnashing and complaining that the deck has been stacked to favor one vendor, Amazon. The Pentagon has firmly denied this, but it hasn’t stopped Oracle and IBM from complaining loudly from the get-go that there were problems with the way the RFP was set up.

At least with the Oracle complaint, the GAO put that idea firmly to rest today. For starters, the GAO made it clear that the winner-take-all approach was just fine, stating “…the Defense Department’s decision to pursue a single-award approach to obtain these cloud services is consistent with applicable statutes (and regulations) because the agency reasonably determined that a single-award approach is in the government’s best interests for various reasons, including national security concerns, as the statute allows.”

The statement went on to say that the GAO didn’t find that the Pentagon favored any vendor during the RFP period. “GAO’s decision also concludes that the Defense Department provided reasonable support for all of the solicitation provisions that Oracle contended exceeded the agency’s needs.” Finally, the GAO found no evidence of conflict of interest on the DOD’s part as Oracle had suggested.

Oracle has been unhappy since the start of this process, going so far as having co-CEO Safra Catz steer her complaints directly to the president in a meeting last April long before the RFP period had even opened.

As I wrote in an article in September, Oracle was not the only vendor to believe that Amazon was the favorite:

The belief amongst the various other players, is that Amazon is in the driver’s seat for this bid, possibly because they delivered a $600 million cloud contract for the government in 2013, standing up a private cloud for the CIA. It was a big deal back in the day on a couple of levels. First of all, it was the first large-scale example of an intelligence agency using a public cloud provider. And of course the amount of money was pretty impressive for the time, not $10 billion impressive, but a nice contract.

Regardless, the RFP submission period ended last month. The Pentagon is expected to choose the vendor in April 2019, Oracle’s protest notwithstanding.

Oct
28
2018
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Forget Watson, the Red Hat acquisition may be the thing that saves IBM

With its latest $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat, IBM may have found something more elementary than “Watson” to save its flagging business.

Though the acquisition of Red Hat  is by no means a guaranteed victory for the Armonk, N.Y.-based computing company that has had more downs than ups over the five years, it seems to be a better bet for “Big Blue” than an artificial intelligence program that was always more hype than reality.

Indeed, commentators are already noting that this may be a case where IBM finally hangs up the Watson hat and returns to the enterprise software and services business that has always been its core competency (albeit one that has been weighted far more heavily on consulting services — to the detriment of the company’s business).

Watson, the business division focused on artificial intelligence whose public claims were always more marketing than actually market-driven, has not performed as well as IBM had hoped and investors were losing their patience.

Critics — including analysts at the investment bank Jefferies (as early as one year ago) — were skeptical of Watson’s ability to deliver IBM from its business woes.

As we wrote at the time:

Jefferies pulls from an audit of a partnership between IBM Watson and MD Anderson as a case study for IBM’s broader problems scaling Watson. MD Anderson cut its ties with IBM after wasting $60 million on a Watson project that was ultimately deemed, “not ready for human investigational or clinical use.”

The MD Anderson nightmare doesn’t stand on its own. I regularly hear from startup founders in the AI space that their own financial services and biotech clients have had similar experiences working with IBM.

The narrative isn’t the product of any single malfunction, but rather the result of overhyped marketing, deficiencies in operating with deep learning and GPUs and intensive data preparation demands.

That’s not the only trouble IBM has had with Watson’s healthcare results. Earlier this year, the online medical journal Stat reported that Watson was giving clinicians recommendations for cancer treatments that were “unsafe and incorrect” — based on the training data it had received from the company’s own engineers and doctors at Sloan-Kettering who were working with the technology.

All of these woes were reflected in the company’s latest earnings call where it reported falling revenues primarily from the Cognitive Solutions business, which includes Watson’s artificial intelligence and supercomputing services. Though IBM chief financial officer pointed to “mid-to-high” single digit growth from Watson’s health business in the quarter, transaction processing software business fell by 8% and the company’s suite of hosted software services is basically an afterthought for business gravitating to Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon for cloud services.

To be sure, Watson is only one of the segments that IBM had been hoping to tap for its future growth; and while it was a huge investment area for the company, the company always had its eyes partly fixed on the cloud computing environment as it looked for areas of growth.

It’s this area of cloud computing where IBM hopes that Red Hat can help it gain ground.

“The acquisition of Red Hat is a game-changer. It changes everything about the cloud market,” said Ginni Rometty, IBM Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, in a statement announcing the acquisition. “IBM will become the world’s number-one hybrid cloud provider, offering companies the only open cloud solution that will unlock the full value of the cloud for their businesses.”

The acquisition also puts an incredible amount of marketing power behind Red Hat’s various open source services business — giving all of those IBM project managers and consultants new projects to pitch and maybe juicing open source software adoption a bit more aggressively in the enterprise.

As Red Hat chief executive Jim Whitehurst told TheStreet in September, “The big secular driver of Linux is that big data workloads run on Linux. AI workloads run on Linux. DevOps and those platforms, almost exclusively Linux,” he said. “So much of the net new workloads that are being built have an affinity for Linux.”

Oct
24
2018
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Alexa for Business opens up to third-party device makers

Last year, Amazon announced a new initiative, Alexa for Business, designed to introduce its voice assistant technology and Echo devices into a corporate setting. Today, it’s giving the platform a big upgrade by opening it up to device makers who are building their own solutions that have Alexa built in.

The change came about based on feedback from the existing organizations where Alexa for Business is today being used, Amazon says. The company claims thousands of businesses have added an Amazon Echo alongside their existing office equipment since the program’s debut last year, including companies like Express Trucking, Fender and Propel Insurance, for example.

But it heard from businesses that they want to have Alexa built in to existing devices, to minimize the amount of technology they need to manage and monitor.

The update will allow device makers building with the Alexa Voice Service (AVS) SDK to now create products that can be registered with Alexa for Business, and managed as shared devices across the organization.

The device management capabilities include the ability to configure things like the room designation and location and monitor the device’s health, as well as manage which public and private skills are assigned to the shared devices.

A part of Alexa for Business is the ability for organizations to create their own internal — and practical — skills for a business setting, like voice search for employee directories, Salesforce data or company calendar information.

Amazon also recently launched its own feature for Alexa for Business users that offers the ability for staff to book conference rooms.

Amazon says it’s already working with several brands on integrating Alexa into their own devices, including Plantronics, iHome and BlackBerry. And it’s working with solution providers like Linkplay and Extron, it says. (Citrix has also begun to integrate with the “for Business” platform.)

“We’ve been using Alexa for Business since its launch by pairing Echo devices with existing Polycom equipment,” noted Laura Marx, VP of Alliance Marketing at Plantronics, in a statement about its plans to make equipment that works with Alexa. “Integrating those experiences directly into products like Polycom Trio will take our customer experience to the next level of convenience and ease of use,” she said.

Plantronics provided an early look at the Alexa experience earlier this year, and iHome has an existing device with Alexa built in – the iAVS16. However, it has not yet announced which product will be offered through Alexa for Business.

It’s still too soon to see how well any of Amazon’s business initiatives with Alexa pay off — after all, Echo devices today are often used for consumer-orientated purposes like playing music, getting news and information, setting kitchen timers and making shopping lists. But if Amazon is able to penetrate businesses with Echo speakers and other Alexa-powered business equipment, it could make inroads into a profitable voice market, beyond the smart home.

But not everyone believes Alexa in the workplace is a good idea. Hackers envision how the devices could be used for corporate espionage and hacks, and warn that companies with trade secrets shouldn’t have listening devices set around their offices.

Amazon, however, is plodding ahead. It has even integrated with Microsoft’s Cortana so Alexa can gain access to Cortana’s knowledge of productivity features like calendar management, day at a glance and customer email.

The Alexa for Business capabilities are provided as an extension to the AVS Device SDK, starting with version 1.10, available to download from GitHub.

 

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