May
06
2019
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Microsoft and GitHub grow closer

Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of GitHub closed last October. Today, at its annual Build developer conference, Microsoft announced a number of new integrations between its existing services and GitHub. None of these are earth-shattering or change the nature of any of GitHub’s fundamental features, but they do show how Microsoft is starting to bring GitHub closer into the fold.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft isn’t announcing any major GitHub features at Build, though it was only a few weeks ago that the company made a major change by giving GitHub Free users access to unlimited private repositories. For major feature releases, GitHub has its own conference.

So what are the new integrations? Most of them center around identity management. That means GitHub Enterprise users can now use Azure Active Directory to access GitHub. Developers will also be able to use their existing GitHub accounts to log into Azure features like the Azure Portal and Azure DevOps. “This update enables GitHub developers to go from repository to deployment with just their GitHub account,” Microsoft argues in its release announcement.

As far as selling GitHub goes, Microsoft also today announced a new Visual Studio subscription with access to GitHub Enterprise for Microsoft’s Enterprise Agreement customers. Given that there is surely a lot of overlap between Visual Studio’s enterprise customers and GitHub Enterprise users, this move makes sense. Chances are, it’ll also make moving to GitHub Enterprise more enticing for current Visual Studio subscribers.

Lastly, the Azure Boards app, which offers features like Kanban boards and sprint planning tools, is now also available in the GitHub Marketplace.

May
02
2019
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Microsoft launches a fully managed blockchain service

Microsoft didn’t rush to bring blockchain technology to its Azure cloud computing platform, but over the course of the last year, it started to pick up the pace with the launch of its blockchain development kit and the Azure Blockchain Workbench. Today, ahead of its Build developer conference, it is going a step further by launching Azure Blockchain Services, a fully managed service that allows for the formation, management and governance of consortium blockchain networks.

We’re not talking cryptocurrencies here, though. This is an enterprise service that is meant to help businesses build applications on top of blockchain technology. It is integrated with Azure Active Directory and offers tools for adding new members, setting permissions and monitoring network health and activity.

The first support ledger is J.P. Morgan’s Quorum. “Because it’s built on the popular Ethereum protocol, which has the world’s largest blockchain developer community, Quorum is a natural choice,” Azure CTO Mark Russinovich writes in today’s announcement. “It integrates with a rich set of open-source tools while also supporting confidential transactions—something our enterprise customers require.” To launch this integration, Microsoft partnered closely with J.P. Morgan.

The managed service is only one part of this package, though. Microsoft also today launched an extension to Visual Studio Code to help developers create smart contracts. The extension allows Visual Studio Code users to create and compiled Etherium smart contracts and deploy them other on the public chain or on a consortium network in Azure Blockchain Service. The code is then managed by Azure DevOps.

Building applications for these smart contracts is also going to get easier thanks to integrations with Logic Apps and Flow, Microsoft’s two workflow integration services, as well as Azure Functions for event-driven development.

Microsoft, of course, isn’t the first of the big companies to get into this game. IBM, especially, made a big push for blockchain adoption in recent years and AWS, too, is now getting into the game after mostly ignoring this technology before. Indeed, AWS opened up its own managed blockchain service only two days ago.

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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Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.

Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.

“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.

That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

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
30
2019
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Docker looks to partners and packages to ease container implementation

Docker appears to be searching for ways to simplify the core value proposition of the company — creating, deploying and managing containers. While most would agree it has revolutionized software development, like many technology solutions, it takes a certain level of expertise and staffing to pull off. At DockerCon, the company’s customer conference taking place this week in San Francisco, Docker announced several ways it could help customers with the tough parts of implementing a containerized solution.

For starters, the company announced a beta of Docker Enterprise 3.0 this morning. That update is all about making life simpler for developers. As companies move to containerized environments, it’s a challenge for all but the largest organizations like Google, Amazon and Facebook, all of whom have massive resource requirements and correspondingly large engineering teams.

Most companies don’t have that luxury though, and Docker recognizes if it wants to bring containerization to a larger number of customers, it has to create packages and programs that make it easier to implement.

Docker Enterprise 3.0 is a step toward providing a solution that lets developers concentrate on the development aspects, while working with templates and other tools to simplify the deployment and management side of things.

The company sees customers struggling with implementation and how to configure and build a containerized workflow, so it is working with systems integrators to help smooth out the difficult parts. Today, the company announced Docker Enterprise as a Service, with the goal of helping companies through the process of setting up and managing a containerized environment, using the Docker stack and adjacent tooling like Kubernetes.

The service provider will take care of operational details like managing upgrades, rolling out patches, doing backups and undertaking capacity planning — all of those operational tasks that require a high level of knowledge around enterprise container stacks.

Capgemini will be the first go-to-market partner. “Capgemini has a combination of automation, technology tools, as well as services on the back end that can manage the installation, provisioning and management of the enterprise platform itself in cases where customers don’t want to do that, and they want to pay someone to do that for them,” Scott Johnston, chief product officer at Docker told TechCrunch.

The company has released tools in the past to help customers move legacy applications into containers without a lot of fuss. Today, the company announced a solution bundle called Accelerate Greenfield, a set of tools designed to help customers get up and running as container-first development companies.

“This is for those organizations that may be a little further along. They’ve gone all-in on containers committing to taking a container-first approach to new application development,” Johnston explained. He says this could be cloud native microservices or even a LAMP stack application, but the point is that they want to put everything in containers on a container platform.

Accelerate Greenfield is designed to do that. “They get the benefits where they know that from the developer to the production end point, it’s secure. They have a single way to define it all the way through the life cycle. They can make sure that it’s moving quickly, and they have that portability built into the container format, so they can deploy [wherever they wish],” he said.

These programs and products are all about providing a level of hand-holding, either by playing a direct consultative role, working with a systems integrator or providing a set of tools and technologies to walk the customer through the containerization life cycle. Whether they provide a sufficient level of help that customers require is something we will learn over time as these programs mature.

Apr
30
2019
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Docker updates focus on simplifying containerization for developers

Over the last five years, Docker has become synonymous with software containers, but that doesn’t mean every developer understands the technical details of building, managing and deploying them. At DockerCon this week, the company’s customer conference taking place in San Francisco, it announced new tools that have been designed to make it easier for developers, who might not be Docker experts, to work with containers.

As the technology has matured, the company has seen the market broaden, but in order to take advantage of that, it needs to provide a set of tools that make it easier to work with. “We’ve found that customers typically have a small cadre of Docker experts, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of developers who also want to use Docker. And we reasoned, how can we help them get productive very, very quickly, without them having to become Docker experts,” Scott Johnston, chief product officer at Docker, told TechCrunch.

To that end, it announced a beta of Docker Enterprise 3.0, which includes several key components. For starters, Docker Desktop Enterprise lets IT set up a Docker environment with the kind of security and deployment templates that make sense for each customer. The developers can then pick the templates that make sense for their implementations, while conforming with compliance and governance rules in the company.

“These templates already have IT-approved container images, and have IT-approved configuration settings. And what that means is that IT can provide these templates through these visual tools that allow developers to move fast and choose the ones they want without having go back for approval,” Johnston explained.

The idea is to let the developers concentrate on building applications, and the templates provide all the Docker tooling pre-built and ready to go, so they don’t have to worry about all of that.

Another piece of this is Docker Applications, which allows developers to build complex containerized applications as a single package and deploy them to any infrastructure they wish — on-prem or in the cloud. Five years ago, when Docker really got started with containers, they were a simpler idea, often involving just a single one, but as developers broke down those larger applications into microservices, it created a new level of difficulty, especially for operations that had to deploy these increasingly large sets of application containers.

“Operations can now programmatically change the parameters for the containers, depending on the environments, without having to go in and change the application. So you can imagine that ability lowers the friction of having to manage all these files in the first place,” he said.

The final piece of that is the orchestration layer, and the popular way to handle that today is with Kubernetes. Docker has created its own flavor of Kubernetes, based on the open-source tool. Johnston says, as with the other two pieces, the goal here is to take a powerful tool like Kubernetes and reduce the overall complexity associated with running it, while making it fully compatible with a Docker environment.

For that, Docker announced Docker Kubernetes Service (DKS), which has been designed with Docker users in mind, including support for Docker Compose, a scripting tool that has been popular with Docker users. While you are free to use any flavor of Kubernetes you wish, Docker is offering DKS as a Docker-friendly version for developers.

All of these components have one thing in common besides being part of Docker Enterprise 3.0. They are trying to reduce the complexity associated with deploying and managing containers and to abstract away the most difficult parts, so that developers can concentrate on developing without having to worry about connecting to the technical underpinnings of building and deploying containers. At the same time, Docker is trying to make it easier for the operations team to manage it all. That is the goal, at least. In the end, DevOps teams will be the final judges of how well Docker has done, once these tools become generally available later this year.

The Docker Enterprise 3.0 beta will be available later this quarter.

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.

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