May
21
2019
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Microsoft makes a push for service mesh interoperability

Services meshes. They are the hot new thing in the cloud native computing world. At KubeCon, the bi-annual festival of all things cloud native, Microsoft today announced that it is teaming up with a number of companies in this space to create a generic service mesh interface. This will make it easier for developers to adopt the concept without locking them into a specific technology.

In a world where the number of network endpoints continues to increase as developers launch new micro-services, containers and other systems at a rapid clip, they are making the network smarter again by handling encryption, traffic management and other functions so that the actual applications don’t have to worry about that. With a number of competing service mesh technologies, though, including the likes of Istio and Linkerd, developers currently have to choose which one of these to support.

“I’m really thrilled to see that we were able to pull together a pretty broad consortium of folks from across the industry to help us drive some interoperability in the service mesh space,” Gabe Monroy, Microsoft’s lead product manager for containers and the former CTO of Deis, told me. “This is obviously hot technology — and for good reasons. The cloud-native ecosystem is driving the need for smarter networks and smarter pipes and service mesh technology provides answers.”

The partners here include Buoyant, HashiCorp, Solo.io, Red Hat, AspenMesh, Weaveworks, Docker, Rancher, Pivotal, Kinvolk and VMware . That’s a pretty broad coalition, though it notably doesn’t include cloud heavyweights like Google, the company behind Istio, and AWS.

“In a rapidly evolving ecosystem, having a set of common standards is critical to preserving the best possible end-user experience,” said Idit Levine, founder and CEO of Solo.io. “This was the vision behind SuperGloo — to create an abstraction layer for consistency across different meshes, which led us to the release of Service Mesh Hub last week. We are excited to see service mesh adoption evolve into an industry-level initiative with the SMI specification.”

For the time being, the interoperability features focus on traffic policy, telemetry and traffic management. Monroy argues that these are the most pressing problems right now. He also stressed that this common interface still allows the different service mesh tools to innovate and that developers can always work directly with their APIs when needed. He also stressed that the Service Mesh Interface (SMI), as this new specification is called, does not provide any of its own implementations of these features. It only defines a common set of APIs.

Currently, the most well-known service mesh is probably Istio, which Google, IBM and Lyft launched about two years ago. SMI may just bring a bit more competition to this market since it will allow developers to bet on the overall idea of a service mesh instead of a specific implementation.

In addition to SMI, Microsoft also today announced a couple of other updates around its cloud-native and Kubernetes services. It announced the first alpha of the Helm 3 package manager, for example, as well as the 1.0 release of its Kubernetes extension for Visual Studio Code and the general availability of its AKS virtual nodes, using the open source Virtual Kubelet project.

May
16
2019
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Unveiling its latest cohort, Alchemist announces $4 million in funding for its enterprise accelerator

The enterprise software and services-focused accelerator Alchemist has raised $4 million in fresh financing from investors BASF and the Qatar Development Bank, just in time for its latest demo day unveiling 20 new companies.

Qatar and BASF join previous investors, including the venture firms Mayfield, Khosla Ventures, Foundation Capital, DFJ and USVP, and corporate investors like Cisco, Siemens and Juniper Networks.

While the roster of successes from Alchemist’s fund isn’t as lengthy as Y Combinator, the accelerator program has launched the likes of the quantum computing upstart Rigetti, the soft-launch developer tool LaunchDarkly and drone startup Matternet .

Some (personal) highlights of the latest cohort include:

  • Bayware: Helmed by a former head of software-defined networking from Cisco, the company is pitching a tool that makes creating networks in multi-cloud environments as easy as copying and pasting.
  • MotorCortex.AI: Co-founded by a Stanford engineering professor and a Carnegie Mellon roboticist, the company is using computer vision, machine learning and robotics to create a fruit packer for packaging lines. Starting with avocados, the company is aiming to tackle the entire packaging side of pick and pack in logistics.
  • Resilio: With claims of a 96% effectiveness rate and $35,000 in annual recurring revenue with another $1 million in the pipeline, Resilio is already seeing companies embrace its mobile app that uses a phone’s camera to track stress levels and application-based prompts on how to lower it, according to Alchemist.
  • Operant Networks: It’s a long-held belief (of mine) that if computing networks are already irrevocably compromised, the best thing that companies and individuals can do is just encrypt the hell out of their data. Apparently Operant agrees with me. The company is claiming 50% time savings with this approach, and have booked $1.9 million in 2019 as proof, according to Alchemist.
  • HPC Hub: HPC Hub wants to democratize access to supercomputers by overlaying a virtualization layer and pre-installed software on underutilized super computers to give more companies and researchers easier access to machines… and they’ve booked $92,000 worth of annual recurring revenue.
  • DinoPlusAI: This chip developer is designing a low latency chip for artificial intelligence applications, reducing latency by 12 times over a competing Nvidia chip, according to the company. DinoPlusAI sees applications for its tech in things like real-time AI markets and autonomous driving. Its team is led by a designer from Cadence and Broadcom and the company already has $8 million in letters of intent signed, according to Alchemist.
  • Aero Systems West: Co-founders from the Air Force’s Research Labs and MIT are aiming to take humans out of drone operations and maintenance. The company contends that for every hour of flight time, drones require seven hours of maintenance and check ups. Aero Systems aims to reduce that by using remote analytics, self-inspection, autonomous deployment and automated maintenance to take humans out of the drone business.

Watch a live stream of Alchemist’s demo day pitches, starting at 3PM, here.

 

May
06
2019
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Microsoft wants you to work less

Microsoft today announced updates to its MyAnalytics platform and a new Outlook feature that are meant to help you work less, find more time to focus on the work that actually matters and, by extension, get more downtime.

Until now, for example, MyAnalytics, Microsoft’s tool for helping employees track their productivity, would provide you with a measure of how much time you spent working after hours. That’s not necessarily a healthy number to track. Going forward, MyAnalytics will track the number of days you managed to unplug after work and didn’t check your email or work on a document at 8pm (something Microsoft’s own PR department could learn from given that it has a tendency to provide essential press materials for next-day embargoes at 6:30pm). The idea here, obviously, is to get employees to focus on this number instead of how much they work when they are off the clock.

“Our customers often tell us they spend all day in meetings with little time to focus on pressing tasks and projects,” Microsoft communications chief Frank X. Shaw also noted in a press briefing ahead of today’s announcement.

To combat this, the company today launched a few new features that will let you set up regular “focus time.” The first of this is a tool that lets you set up focus time each week, as well as a feature in Microsoft teams that will alert your fellow employees when you are trying to get things done.

Because your colleagues often don’t care about your flow, though, and are prone to scheduling yet another unnecessary meeting during those times, Microsoft is also launching a new AI-powered Outlook plugin that will help you rebook your focus time and find times for focusing on specific to-do items.

In the future, the company also plans to introduce well-being, networking and collaboration plans.

Focus plans will become available in preview in the next few months for Microsoft 365 and Office 365 users, with E5 customers getting them first.

May
02
2019
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Microsoft launches a drag-and-drop machine learning tool

Microsoft today announced three new services that all aim to simplify the process of machine learning. These range from a new interface for a tool that completely automates the process of creating models, to a new no-code visual interface for building, training and deploying models, all the way to hosted Jupyter-style notebooks for advanced users.

Getting started with machine learning is hard. Even to run the most basic of experiments take a good amount of expertise. All of these new tools great simplify this process by hiding away the code or giving those who want to write their own code a pre-configured platform for doing so.

The new interface for Azure’s automated machine learning tool makes creating a model as easy importing a data set and then telling the service which value to predict. Users don’t need to write a single line of code, while in the backend, this updated version now supports a number of new algorithms and optimizations that should result in more accurate models. While most of this is automated, Microsoft stresses that the service provides “complete transparency into algorithms, so developers and data scientists can manually override and control the process.”

For those who want a bit more control from the get-go, Microsoft also today launched a visual interface for its Azure Machine Learning service into preview that will allow developers to build, train and deploy machine learning models without having to touch any code.

This tool, the Azure Machine Learning visual interface looks suspiciously like the existing Azure ML Studio, Microsoft’s first stab at building a visual machine learning tool. Indeed, the two services look identical. The company never really pushed this service, though, and almost seemed to have forgotten about it despite that fact that it always seemed like a really useful tool for getting started with machine learning.

Microsoft says that this new version combines the best of Azure ML Studio with the Azure Machine Learning service. In practice, this means that while the interface is almost identical, the Azure Machine Learning visual interface extends what was possible with ML Studio by running on top of the Azure Machine Learning service and adding that services’ security, deployment and lifecycle management capabilities.

The service provides an easy interface for cleaning up your data, training models with the help of different algorithms, evaluating them and, finally, putting them into production.

While these first two services clearly target novices, the new hosted notebooks in Azure Machine Learning are clearly geared toward the more experiences machine learning practitioner. The notebooks come pre-packaged with support for the Azure Machine Learning Python SDK and run in what the company describes as a “secure, enterprise-ready environment.” While using these notebooks isn’t trivial either, this new feature allows developers to quickly get started without the hassle of setting up a new development environment with all the necessary cloud resources.

May
02
2019
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Microsoft announces the $3,500 HoloLens 2 Development Edition

As part of its rather odd Thursday afternoon pre-Build news dump, Microsoft today announced the HoloLens 2 Development Edition. The company announced the much-improved HoloLens 2 at MWC Barcelona earlier this year, but it’s not shipping to developers yet. Currently, the best release date we have is “later this year.” The Development Edition will launch alongside the regular HoloLens 2.

The Development Edition, which will retail for $3,500 to own outright or on a $99 per month installment plan, doesn’t feature any special hardware. Instead, it comes with $500 in Azure credits and 3-month trials of Unity Pro and the Unity PiXYZ plugin for bringing engineering renderings into Unity.

To get the Development Edition, potential buyers have to join the Microsoft Mixed Reality Developer Program and those who already pre-ordered the standard edition will be able to change their order later this year.

As far as HoloLens news goes, that’s all a bit underwhelming. Anybody can get free Azure credits, after all (though usually only $200) and free trials of Unity Pro are also readily available (though typically limited to 30 days).

Oddly, the regular HoloLens 2 was also supposed to cost $3,500. It’s unclear if the regular edition will now be somewhat cheaper, cost the same but come without the credits, or really why Microsoft isn’t doing this at all. Turning this into a special “Development Edition” feels more like a marketing gimmick than anything else, as well as an attempt to bring some of the futuristic glamour of the HoloLens visor to today’s announcements.

The folks at Unity are clearly excited, though. “Pairing HoloLens 2 with Unity’s real-time 3D development platform enables businesses to accelerate innovation, create immersive experiences, and engage with industrial customers in more interactive ways,” says Tim McDonough, GM of Industrial at Unity, in today’s announcement. “The addition of Unity Pro and PiXYZ Plugin to HoloLens 2 Development Edition gives businesses the immediate ability to create real-time 2D, 3D, VR, and AR interactive experiences while allowing for the importing and preparation of design data to create real-time experiences.”

Microsoft also today noted that Unreal Engine 4 support for HoloLens 2 will become available by the end of May.

May
02
2019
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Microsoft brings Azure SQL Database to the edge (and Arm)

Microsoft today announced an interesting update to its database lineup with the preview of Azure SQL Database Edge, a new tool that brings the same database engine that powers Azure SQL Database in the cloud to edge computing devices, including, for the first time, Arm-based machines.

Azure SQL Edge, Azure corporate vice president Julia White writes in today’s announcement, “brings to the edge the same performant, secure and easy to manage SQL engine that our customers love in Azure SQL Database and SQL Server.”

The new service, which will also run on x64-based devices and edge gateways, promises to bring low-latency analytics to edge devices as it allows users to work with streaming data and time-series data, combined with the built-in machine learning capabilities of Azure SQL Database. Like its larger brethren, Azure SQL Database Edge will also support graph data and comes with the same security and encryption features that can, for example, protect the data at rest and in motion, something that’s especially important for an edge device.

As White rightly notes, this also ensures that developers only have to write an application once and then deploy it to platforms that feature Azure SQL Database, good old SQL Server on premises and this new edge version.

SQL Database Edge can run in both connected and fully disconnected fashion, something that’s also important for many use cases where connectivity isn’t always a given, yet where users need the kind of data analytics capabilities to keep their businesses (or drilling platforms, or cruise ships) running.

May
02
2019
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Couchbase’s mobile database gets built-in ML and enhanced synchronization features

Couchbase, the company behind the eponymous NoSQL database, announced a major update to its mobile database today that brings some machine learning smarts, as well as improved synchronization features and enhanced stats and logging support, to the software.

“We’ve led the innovation and data management at the edge since the release of our mobile database five years ago,” Couchbase’s VP of Engineering Wayne Carter told me. “And we’re excited that others are doing that now. We feel that it’s very, very important for businesses to be able to utilize these emerging technologies that do sit on the edge to drive their businesses forward, and both making their employees more effective and their customer experience better.”

The latter part is what drove a lot of today’s updates, Carter noted. He also believes that the database is the right place to do some machine learning. So with this release, the company is adding predictive queries to its mobile database. This new API allows mobile apps to take pre-trained machine learning models and run predictive queries against the data that is stored locally. This would allow a retailer to create a tool that can use a phone’s camera to figure out what part a customer is looking for.

To support these predictive queries, Couchbase mobile is also getting support for predictive indexes. “Predictive indexes allow you to create an index on prediction, enabling correlation of real-time predictions with application data in milliseconds,” Carter said. In many ways, that’s also the unique value proposition for bringing machine learning into the database. “What you really need to do is you need to utilize the unique values of a database to be able to deliver the answer to those real-time questions within milliseconds,” explained Carter.

The other major new feature in this release is delta synchronization, which allows businesses to push far smaller updates to the databases on their employees’ mobile devices. That’s because they only have to receive the information that changed instead of a full updated database. Carter says this was a highly requested feature, but until now, the company always had to prioritize work on other components of Couchbase.

This is an especially useful feature for the company’s retail customers, a vertical where it has been quite successful. These users need to keep their catalogs up to data and quite a few of them supply their employees with mobile devices to help shoppers. Rumor has it that Apple, too, is a Couchbase user.

The update also includes a few new features that will be more of interest to operators, including advanced stats reporting and enhanced logging support.

Apr
29
2019
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With Kata Containers and Zuul, OpenStack graduates its first infrastructure projects

Over the course of the last year and a half, the OpenStack Foundation made the switch from purely focusing on the core OpenStack project to opening itself up to other infrastructure-related projects as well. The first two of these projects, Kata Containers and the Zuul project gating system, have now exited their pilot phase and have become the first top-level Open Infrastructure Projects at the OpenStack Foundation.

The Foundation made the announcement at its Open Infrastructure Summit (previously known as the OpenStack Summit) in Denver today after the organization’s board voted to graduate them ahead of this week’s conference. “It’s an awesome milestone for the projects themselves,” OpenStack Foundation executive direction Jonathan Bryce told me. “It’s a validation of the fact that in the last 18 months, they have created sustainable and productive communities.”

It’s also a milestone for the OpenStack Foundation itself, though, which is still in the process of reinventing itself in many ways. It can now point at two successful projects that are under its stewardship, which will surely help it as it goes out and tries to attract others who are looking to bring their open-source projects under the aegis of a foundation.

In addition to graduating these first two projects, Airship — a collection of open-source tools for provisioning private clouds that is currently a pilot project — hit version 1.0 today. “Airship originated within AT&T,” Bryce said. “They built it from their need to bring a bunch of open-source tools together to deliver on their use case. And that’s why, from the beginning, it’s been really well-aligned with what we would love to see more of in the open-source world and why we’ve been super excited to be able to support their efforts there.”

With Airship, developers use YAML documents to describe what the final environment should look like and the result of that is a production-ready Kubernetes cluster that was deployed by OpenStack’s Helm tool — though without any other dependencies on OpenStack.

AT&T’s assistant vice president, Network Cloud Software Engineering, Ryan van Wyk, told me that a lot of enterprises want to use certain open-source components, but that the interplay between them is often difficult and that while it’s relatively easy to manage the life cycle of a single tool, it’s hard to do so when you bring in multiple open-source tools, all with their own life cycles. “What we found over the last five years working in this space is that you can go and get all the different open-source solutions that you need,” he said. “But then the operator has to invest a lot of engineering time and build extensions and wrappers and perhaps some orchestration to manage the life cycle of the various pieces of software required to deliver the infrastructure.”

It’s worth noting that nothing about Airship is specific to the telco world, though it’s no secret that OpenStack is quite popular in the telco world and unsurprisingly, the Foundation is using this week’s event to highlight the OpenStack project’s role in the upcoming 5G rollouts of various carriers.

In addition, the event will showcase OpenStack’s bare-metal capabilities, an area the project has also focused on in recent releases. Indeed, the Foundation today announced that its bare-metal tools now manage more than a million cores of compute. To codify these efforts, the Foundation also today launched the OpenStack Ironic Bare Metal program, which brings together some of the project’s biggest users, like Verizon Media (home of TechCrunch, though we don’t run on the Verizon cloud), 99Cloud, China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom, Mirantis, OVH, Red Hat, SUSE, Vexxhost and ZTE.

Apr
24
2019
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Docker developers can now build Arm containers on their desktops

Docker and Arm today announced a major new partnership that will see the two companies collaborate in bringing improved support for the Arm platform to Docker’s tools.

The main idea here is to make it easy for Docker developers to build their applications for the Arm platform right from their x86 desktops and then deploy them to the cloud (including the Arm-based AWS EC2 A1 instances), edge and IoT devices. Developers will be able to build their containers for Arm just like they do today, without the need for any cross-compilation.

This new capability, which will work for applications written in JavaScript/Node.js, Python, Java, C++, Ruby, .NET core, Go, Rust and PHP, will become available as a tech preview next week, when Docker hosts its annual North American developer conference in San Francisco.

Typically, developers would have to build the containers they want to run on the Arm platform on an Arm-based server. With this system, which is the first result of this new partnership, Docker essentially emulates an Arm chip on the PC for building these images.

“Overnight, the 2 million Docker developers that are out there can use the Docker commands they already know and become Arm developers,” Docker EVP of Strategic Alliances David Messina told me. “Docker, just like we’ve done many times over, has simplified and streamlined processes and made them simpler and accessible to developers. And in this case, we’re making x86 developers on their laptops Arm developers overnight.”

Given that cloud-based Arm servers like Amazon’s A1 instances are often significantly cheaper than x86 machines, users can achieve some immediate cost benefits by using this new system and running their containers on Arm.

For Docker, this partnership opens up new opportunities, especially in areas where Arm chips are already strong, including edge and IoT scenarios. Arm, similarly, is interested in strengthening its developer ecosystem by making it easier to develop for its platform. The easier it is to build apps for the platform, the more likely developers are to then run them on servers that feature chips from Arm’s partners.

“Arm’s perspective on the infrastructure really spans all the way from the endpoint, all the way through the edge to the cloud data center, because we are one of the few companies that have a presence all the way through that entire path,” Mohamed Awad, Arm’s VP of Marketing, Infrastructure Line of Business, said. “It’s that perspective that drove us to make sure that we engage Docker in a meaningful way and have a meaningful relationship with them. We are seeing compute and the infrastructure sort of transforming itself right now from the old model of centralized compute, general purpose architecture, to a more distributed and more heterogeneous compute system.”

Developers, however, Awad rightly noted, don’t want to have to deal with this complexity, yet they also increasingly need to ensure that their applications run on a wide variety of platforms and that they can move them around as needed. “For us, this is about enabling developers and freeing them from lock-in on any particular area and allowing them to choose the right compute for the right job that is the most efficient for them,” Awad said.

Messina noted that the promise of Docker has long been to remove the dependence of applications from the infrastructure on which they run. Adding Arm support simply extends this promise to an additional platform. He also stressed that the work on this was driven by the company’s enterprise customers. These are the users who have already set up their systems for cloud-native development with Docker’s tools — at least for their x86 development. Those customers are now looking at developing for their edge devices, too, and that often means developing for Arm-based devices.

Awad and Messina both stressed that developers really don’t have to learn anything new to make this work. All of the usual Docker commands will just work.

Apr
09
2019
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Google Cloud challenges AWS with new open-source integrations

Google today announced that it has partnered with a number of top open-source data management and analytics companies to integrate their products into its Google Cloud Platform and offer them as managed services operated by its partners. The partners here are Confluent, DataStax, Elastic, InfluxData, MongoDB, Neo4j and Redis Labs.

The idea here, Google says, is to provide users with a seamless user experience and the ability to easily leverage these open-source technologies in Google’s cloud. But there is a lot more at play here, even though Google never quite says so. That’s because Google’s move here is clearly meant to contrast its approach to open-source ecosystems with Amazon’s. It’s no secret that Amazon’s AWS cloud computing platform has a reputation for taking some of the best open-source projects and then forking those and packaging them up under its own brand, often without giving back to the original project. There are some signs that this is changing, but a number of companies have recently taken action and changed their open-source licenses to explicitly prevent this from happening.

That’s where things get interesting, because those companies include Confluent, Elastic, MongoDB, Neo4j and Redis Labs — and those are all partnering with Google on this new project, though it’s worth noting that InfluxData is not taking this new licensing approach and that while DataStax uses lots of open-source technologies, its focus is very much on its enterprise edition.

“As you are aware, there has been a lot of debate in the industry about the best way of delivering these open-source technologies as services in the cloud,” Manvinder Singh, the head of infrastructure partnerships at Google Cloud, said in a press briefing. “Given Google’s DNA and the belief that we have in the open-source model, which is demonstrated by projects like Kubernetes, TensorFlow, Go and so forth, we believe the right way to solve this it to work closely together with companies that have invested their resources in developing these open-source technologies.”

So while AWS takes these projects and then makes them its own, Google has decided to partner with these companies. While Google and its partners declined to comment on the financial arrangements behind these deals, chances are we’re talking about some degree of profit-sharing here.

“Each of the major cloud players is trying to differentiate what it brings to the table for customers, and while we have a strong partnership with Microsoft and Amazon, it’s nice to see that Google has chosen to deepen its partnership with Atlas instead of launching an imitation service,” Sahir Azam, the senior VP of Cloud Products at MongoDB told me. “MongoDB and GCP have been working closely together for years, dating back to the development of Atlas on GCP in early 2017. Over the past two years running Atlas on GCP, our joint teams have developed a strong working relationship and support model for supporting our customers’ mission critical applications.”

As for the actual functionality, the core principle here is that Google will deeply integrate these services into its Cloud Console; for example, similar to what Microsoft did with Databricks on Azure. These will be managed services and Google Cloud will handle the invoicing and the billings will count toward a user’s Google Cloud spending commitments. Support will also run through Google, so users can use a single service to manage and log tickets across all of these services.

Redis Labs CEO and co-founder Ofer Bengal echoed this. “Through this partnership, Redis Labs and Google Cloud are bringing these innovations to enterprise customers, while giving them the choice of where to run their workloads in the cloud, he said. “Customers now have the flexibility to develop applications with Redis Enterprise using the fully integrated managed services on GCP. This will include the ability to manage Redis Enterprise from the GCP console, provisioning, billing, support, and other deep integrations with GCP.”

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