Sep
22
2020
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Microsoft brings new robotic process automation features to its Power Platform

Earlier this year, Microsoft acquired Softomotive, a player in the low-code robotic process automation space with a focus on Windows. Today, at its Ignite conference, the company is launching Power Automate Desktop, a new application based on Softomotive’s technology that lets anyone automate desktop workflows without needing to program.

“The big idea of Power Platform is that we want to go make it so development is accessible to everybody,” Charles Lamanna, Microsoft’s corporate VP for its low-code platform, told me. “And development includes understanding and reporting on your data with Power BI, building web and mobile applications with Power Apps, automating your tasks — whether it’s through robotic process automation or workflow automation — with Power Automate, or building chatbots and chat-based experiences with Power Virtual Agent.”

Power Automate already allowed users to connect web-based applications, similar to Zapier and IFTTT, but the company also launched a browser extension late last year to help users connect native system components to Power Automate. Now, with the integration of the Softomotive technology and the launch of this new low-code Windows application, it’s taking this integration into the native Windows user interface one step further.

“Everything still runs in the cloud and still connects to the cloud, but you now have a rich desktop application to author and record your UI automations,” Lamanna explained. He likened it to an “ultimate connector,” noting that the “ultimate API is just the UI.”

He also stressed that the new app feels like any other modern Office app, like Outlook (which is getting a new Mac version today, by the way) or Word. And like the modern versions of those apps, Power Automate Desktop derives a lot of its power from being connected to the cloud.

It’s also worth noting that Power Automate isn’t just a platform for automating simple two or three-step processes (like sending you a text message when your boss emails you), but also for multistep, business-critical workflows. T-Mobile, for example, is using the platform to automate some of the integration processes between its systems and Sprint.

Lamanna noted that for some large enterprises, adopting these kinds of low-code services necessitates a bit of a culture shift. IT still needs to have some insights into how these tools are used, after all, to ensure that data is kept safe, for example.

Another new feature the company announced today is an integration between the Power Platform and GitHub, which is now in public preview. The idea here is to give developers the ability to create their own software lifecycle workflows. “One of the core ideas of Power Platform is that it’s low code,” Lamanna said. “So it’s built first for business users, business analysts, not the classical developers. But pro devs are welcome. The saying I have is: we’re throwing a party for business users, but pro devs are also invited to the party.” But to get them onto the platform, the team wants to meet them where they are and let them use the tools they already use — and that’s GitHub (and Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code).

Sep
22
2020
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EasySend raises $16M from Intel, more for its no-code approach to automating B2C interfaces

No-code and low-code software have become increasingly popular ways for companies — especially those that don’t count technology as part of their DNA — to bring in more updated IT processes without the heavy lifting needed to build and integrate services from the ground up.

As a mark of that trend, today, a company that has taken this approach to speeding up customer experience is announcing some funding. EasySend, an Israeli startup which has built a no-code platform for insurance companies and other regulated businesses to build out forms and other interfaces to take in customer information and subsequently use AI systems to process it more efficiently, is announcing that it has raised $16 million.

The funding has actually come in two tranches, a $5 million seed round from Vertex Ventures and Menora Insurance that it never disclosed, and another $11 million round that closed more recently, led by Hanaco with participation from Intel Capital. The company is already generating revenue, and did so from the start, enough that it was actually bootstrapped for the first three years of its life.

Tal Daskal, EasySend’s CEO and co-founder, said that the funding being announced today will be used to help it expand into more verticals: up to now its primary target has been insurance companies, although organically it’s picked up customers from a number of other verticals, such as telecoms carriers, banks and more.

The plan will be now to hone in on specifically marketing to and building solutions for the financial services sector, as well as hiring and expanding in Asia, Europe and the US.

Longer term, he said, that another area EasySend might like to look at more in the future is robotic process automation (RPA). RPA, and companies that deal in it like UIPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, is today focused on the back office, and EasySend’s focus on the “front office” integrates with leaders in that area. But over time, it would make sense for EasySend to cover this in a more holistic way, he added.

Menora was a strategic backer: it’s one of the largest insurance providers in Israel, Daskal said, and it used EasySend to build out better ways for consumers to submit data for claims and apply for insurance.

Intel, he said, is also strategic although how is still being worked out: what’s notable to mention here is that Intel has been building out a huge autonomous driving business in Israel, anchored by MobileEye, and not only will insurance (and overall risk management) play a big part in how that business develops, but longer term you can see how there will be a need for a lot of seamless customer interactions (and form filling) between would-be car owners, operators, and passengers in order for services to operate more efficiently.

Intel Capital chose to invest in EasySend because of its intelligent and impactful approach to accelerating digital transformation to improve customer experiences,” said Nick Washburn, senior managing director, Intel Capital, in a statement. “EasySend’s no-code platform utilizes AI to digitize thousands of forms quickly and easily, reducing development time from months to days, and transforming customer journeys that have been paper-based, inefficient and frustrating. In today’s world, this is more critical than ever before.”

The rise and persistence of Covid-19 globally has had a big, multi-faceted impact how we all do business, and two of those ways have fed directly into the growth of EasySend.

First, the move to remote working has given organizations a giant fillip to work on digital transformation, refreshing and replacing legacy systems with processes that work faster and rely on newer technologies.

Second, consumers have really reassessed their use of insurance services, specifically health and home policies, respectively to make sure they are better equipped in the event of a Covid-19-precipitated scare, and to make sure that they are adequately covered for how they now use their homes all hours of the day.

EasySend’s platform for building and running interfaces for customer experience fall directly into the kinds of apps and services that are being identified and updated, precisely at a time when its initial target customers, insurers, are seeing a surge in business. It’s that “perfect storm” of circumstances that the startup wouldn’t have wished on the world, but which has definitely helped it along.

While there are a lot of companies on the market today that help organizations automate and run their customer interaction processes, the Daskal said that EasySend’s focus on using AI to process information is what makes the startup more unique, as it can be used not just to run things, but to help improve how things work.

It’s not just about taking in character recognition and organizing data, it’s “understanding the business logic,” he said. “We have a lot of data and we can understand [for example] where customers left the process [when filling out forms]. We can give insights into how to increase the conversion rates.”

It’s that balance of providing tools to do business better today, as well as to focus on how to build more business for tomorrow, that has caught the eye of investors.

“Hanaco is firmly invested in building a digital future. By bridging the gap between manual processes and digitization, EasySend is making this not only possible, but also easy, affordable, and practical,” said Hanaco founding partner Alon Lifshitz, in a statement.

Aug
26
2020
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LaunchNotes raises a $1.8M seed round to help companies communicate their software updates

LaunchNotes, a startup founded by the team behind Statuspage (which Atlassian later acquired) and the former head of marketing for Jira, today announced that it has raised a $1.8 million seed round co-led by Cowboy Ventures and Bull City Ventures. In addition, Tim Chen (general partner, Essence Ventures), Eric Wittman (chief growth officer, JLL Technologies), Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan (VP Product, LinkedIn), Scot Wingo (co-founder and CEO, Spiffy), Lin-Hua Wu (chief communications officer, Dropbox) and Steve Klein (co-founder, Statuspage) are participating in this round.

The general idea behind LaunchNotes is to help businesses communicate their software updates to internal and external customers, something that has become increasingly important as the speed of software developments — and launches — has increased.

In addition to announcing the new funding round, LaunchNotes also today said that it will revamp its free tier to include the ability to communicate updates externally through public embeds as well. Previously, users needed to be on a paid plan to do so. The team also now allows businesses to customize the look and feel of these public streams more and it did away with subscriber limits.

“The reason we’re doing this is largely because [ … ] our long-term goal is to drive this shift in how release communications is done,” LaunchNotes co-founder Jake Brereton told me. “And the easiest way we can do that and get as many teams on board as possible is to lower the barrier to entry. Right now, that barrier to entry is asking users to pay for it.”

As Brereton told me, the company gained about 100 active users since it launched three months ago.

Image Credits: LaunchNotes

“I think, more than anything, our original thesis has been validated much more than I expected,” co-founder and CEO Tyler Davis added. “This problem really does scale with team size and in a very linear way and the interest that we’ve had has largely been on the much larger, enterprise team side. It’s just become very clear that that specific problem — while it is an issue for smaller teams — is much more of a critical problem as you grow and as you scale out into multiple teams and multiple business units.”

It’s maybe no surprise then that many of the next items on the team’s roadmap include features that large companies would want from a tool like this, including integrations with issue trackers, starting with Jira, single sign-on solutions and better team management tools.

“With that initial cohort being on the larger team size and more toward enterprise, issue tracker integration is a natural first step into our integrations platform, because a lot of change status currently lives in all these different tools and all these different processes and LaunchNotes is kind of the layer on top of that,” explained co-founder Tony Ramirez. “There are other integrations with things like feature flagging systems or git tools, where we want LaunchNotes to be the one place where people can go. And for these larger teams, that pain is more acute.”

The fact that LaunchNotes is essentially trying to create a system of record for product teams was also part of what attracted Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee to the company.

Image Credits: LaunchNotes

“One of the things that I thought was kind of exciting is that this is potentially a new system of record for product people to use that kind of lives in different places right now — you might have some of it in Jira and some in Trello, or Asana, and some of that in Sheets and some of it in Airtable or Slack,” she said. She also believes that LaunchNotes will make a useful tool when bringing on new team members or handing off a product to another developer.

She also noted that the founding team, which she believes has the ideal background for building this product, was quite upfront about the fact that it needs to bring more diversity to the company. “They recognized, even in the first meeting, ‘Hey, we understand we’re three guys, and it’s really important to us to actually build out [diversity] on our cap table and in our investing team, but then also in all of our future hires so that we are setting our company up to be able to attract all kinds of people,” she said.

Aug
21
2020
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As the pandemic creates supply chain chaos, Craft raises $10M to apply some intelligence

During the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chains have suddenly become hot. Who knew that would ever happen? The race to secure PPE, ventilators and minor things like food was and still is an enormous issue. But perhaps, predictably, the world of “supply chain software” could use some updating. Most of the platforms are deployed “empty” and require the client to populate them with their own data, or “bring their own data.” The UIs can be outdated and still have to be juggled with manual and offline workflows. So startups working in this space are now attracting some timely attention.

Thus, Craft, the enterprise intelligence company, today announces it has closed a $10 million Series A financing round to build what it characterizes as a “supply chain intelligence platform.” With the new funding, Craft will expand its offices in San Francisco, London and Minsk, and grow remote teams across engineering, sales, marketing and operations in North America and Europe.

It competes with some large incumbents, such as Dun & Bradstreet, Bureau van Dijk and Thomson Reuters . These are traditional data providers focused primarily on providing financial data about public companies, rather than real-time data from data sources such as operating metrics, human capital and risk metrics.

The idea is to allow companies to monitor and optimize their supply chain and enterprise systems. The financing was led by High Alpha Capital, alongside Greycroft. Craft also has some high-flying angel investors, including Sam Palmisano, chairman of the Center for Global Enterprise and former CEO and chairman of IBM; Jim Moffatt, former CEO of Deloitte Consulting; Frederic Kerrest, executive vice chairman, COO and co-founder of Okta; and Uncork Capital, which previously led Craft’s seed financing. High Alpha partner Kristian Andersen is joining Craft’s board of directors.

The problem Craft is attacking is a lack of visibility into complex global supply chains. For obvious reasons, COVID-19 disrupted global supply chains, which tended to reveal a lot of risks, structural weaknesses across industries and a lack of intelligence about how it’s all holding together. Craft’s solution is a proprietary data platform, API and portal that integrates into existing enterprise workflows.

While many business intelligence products require clients to bring their own data, Craft’s data platform comes pre-deployed with data from thousands of financial and alternative sources, such as 300+ data points that are refreshed using both Machine Learning and human validation. Its open-to-the-web company profiles appear in 50 million search results, for instance.

Ilya Levtov, co-founder and CEO of Craft, said in a statement: “Today, we are focused on providing powerful tracking and visibility to enterprise supply chains, while our ultimate vision is to build the intelligence layer of the enterprise technology stack.”

Kristian Andersen, partner with High Alpha commented: “We have a deep conviction that supply chain management remains an underinvested and under-innovated category in enterprise software.”

In the first half of 2020, Craft claims its revenues have grown nearly threefold, with Fortune 100 companies, government and military agencies, and SMEs among its clients.

Jul
09
2020
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Freshworks acquires IT orchestration service Flint

Customer engagement company Freshworks today announced that it has acquired Flint, an IT orchestration and cloud management platform based in India. The acquisition will help Freshworks strengthen its Freshservice IT support service by bringing a number of new automation tools to it. Maybe just as importantly, though, it will also bolster Freshworks’ ambitions around cloud management.

Freshworks CPO Prakash Ramamurthy, who joined the company last October, told me that while the company was already looking at expanding its IT services (ITSM) and operations management (ITOM) capabilities before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, having those capabilities has now become even more important, given that a lot of these teams are now working remotely.

“If you take ITSM, we allow for customers to create their own workflow for service catalog items and so on and so forth, but we found that there’s a lot of things which were repetitive tasks,” Ramamurthy said. “For example, I lost my password or new employee onboarding, where you need to auto-provision them in the same set of accounts. Flint had integrated with Freshservice to help automate and orchestrate some of these routine tasks and a lot of customers were using it and there’s a lot of interest in it.”

He noted that while the company was already seeing increased demand for these tools earlier in the year, the pandemic made that need even more obvious. And given that pressing need, Freshworks decided that it would be far easier to acquire an existing company than to build its own solution.

“Even in early January, we felt this was a space where we had to have a time-to-market advantage,” he said. “So acquiring and aggressively integrating it into our product lines seemed to be the most optimal thing to do than take our time to build it — and we are super fortunate that we placed the right bet because of what has happened since then.”

The acquisition helps Freshworks build out some of its existing services, but Ramamurthy also stressed that it will really help the company build out its operations management capabilities to go from alert management to also automatically solving common IT issues. “We feel there’s natural synergy and [Flint’s] orchestration solution and their connectors come in super handy because they have connectors to all the modern SaaS applications and the top five cloud providers and so on.”

But Flint’s technology will also help Freshworks build out its ability to help its users manage workloads across multiple clouds, an area where it is going to compete with a number of startups and incumbents. Since the company decided that it wants to play in this field, an acquisition also made a lot of sense given how long it would take to build out expertise in this area, too.

“Cloud management is a natural progression for our product line,” Ramamurthy noted. “As more and more customers have a multi-cloud strategy, we want to give them a single pane of glass for all the work workloads they’re running. And if they wanted to do cost optimization, if you want to build on top of that, we need the basic plumbing to be able to do discovery, which is kind of foundational for that.”

Freshworks will integrate Flint’s tools into Freshservice and likely offer it as part of its existing tiered pricing structure, with service orchestration likely being the first new capability it will offer.

May
29
2020
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How startups can leverage elastic services for cost optimization

Due to COVID-19, business continuity has been put to the test for many companies in the manufacturing, agriculture, transport, hospitality, energy and retail sectors. Cost reduction is the primary focus of companies in these sectors due to massive losses in revenue caused by this pandemic. The other side of the crisis is, however, significantly different.

Companies in industries such as medical, government and financial services, as well as cloud-native tech startups that are providing essential services, have experienced a considerable increase in their operational demands — leading to rising operational costs. Irrespective of the industry your company belongs to, and whether your company is experiencing reduced or increased operations, cost optimization is a reality for all companies to ensure a sustained existence.

One of the most reliable measures for cost optimization at this stage is to leverage elastic services designed to grow or shrink according to demand, such as cloud and managed services. A modern product with a cloud-native architecture can auto-scale cloud consumption to mitigate lost operational demand. What may not have been obvious to startup leaders is a strategy often employed by incumbent, mature enterprises — achieving cost optimization by leveraging managed services providers (MSPs). MSPs enable organizations to repurpose full-time staff members from impacted operations to more strategic product lines or initiatives.

Why companies need cost optimization in the long run

May
27
2020
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RudderStack raises $5M seed round for its open-source Segment competitor

RudderStack, a startup that offers an open-source alternative to customer data management platforms like Segment, today announced that it has raised a $5 million seed round led by S28 Capital. Salil Deshpande of Uncorrelated Ventures and Mesosphere/D2iQ co-founder Florian Leibert (through 468 Capital) also participated in this round.

In addition, the company also today announced that it has acquired Blendo, an integration platform that helps businesses transform and move data from their data sources to databases.

Like its larger competitors, RudderStack helps businesses consolidate all of their customer data, which is now typically generated and managed in multiple places — and then extract value from this more holistic view. The company was founded by Soumyadeb Mitra, who has a Ph.D. in database systems and worked on similar problems previously when he was at 8×8 after his previous startup, MairinaIQ, was acquired by that company.

Mitra argues that RudderStack is different from its competitors thanks to its focus on developers, its privacy and security options and its focus on being a data warehouse first, without creating yet another data silo.

“Our competitors provide tools for analytics, audience segmentation, etc. on top of the data they keep,” he said. “That works well if you are a small startup, but larger enterprises have a ton of other data sources — at 8×8 we had our own internal billing system, for example — and you want to combine this internal data with the event stream data — that you collect via RudderStack or competitors — to create a 360-degree view of the customer and act on that. This becomes very difficult with the SaaS-hosted data model of our competitors — you won’t be sending all your internal data to these cloud vendors.”

Part of its appeal, of course, is the open-source nature of RudderStack, whose GitHub repository now has more than 1,700 stars for the main RudderStack server. Mitra credits getting on the front page of HackerNews for its first sale. On that day, it received over 500 GitHub stars, a few thousand clones and a lot of signups for its hosted app. “One of those signups turned out to be our first paid customer. They were already a competitor’s customer, but it wasn’t scaling up so were looking to build something in-house. That’s when they found us and started working with us,” he said.

Because it is open source, companies can run RudderStack anyway they want, but like most similar open-source companies, RudderStack offers multiple hosting options itself, too, that include cloud hosting, starting at $2,000 per month, with unlimited sources and destination.

Current users include IFTTT, Mattermost, MarineTraffic, Torpedo and Wynn Las Vegas.

As for the Blendo acquisition, it’s worth noting that the company only raised a small amount of money in its seed round. The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition.

“With Blendo, I had the opportunity to be part of a great team that executed on the vision of turning any company into a data-driven organization,” said Blendo founder Kostas Pardalis, who has joined RudderStack as head of Growth. “We’ve combined the talented Blendo and RudderStack teams together with the technology that both companies have created, at a time when the customer data market is ripe for the next wave of innovation. I’m excited to help drive RudderStack forward.”

Mitra tells me that RudderStack acquired Blendo instead of building its own version of this technology because “it is not a trivial technology to build — cloud sources are really complicated and have weird schemas and API challenges and it would have taken us a lot of time to figure it out. There are independent large companies doing the ETL piece.”

May
13
2020
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Startups are transforming global trade in the COVID-19 era

Global trade watchers breathed a sigh of relief on January 15, 2020.

After two years of threats, tariffs and tweets, there was finally a truce in the trade war between the U.S. and China. The agreement signed by President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office didn’t resolve all trade tensions and maintained most of the $360 billion in tariffs the administration had put on Chinese goods. But for the first time in months, it looked like manufacturers, importers and shippers could start to put two difficult years behind them.

Then came COVID-19, at first a local disruption in Wuhan, China. Then it spread throughout Hubei province, causing havoc in a concentric circle that eventually engulfed the rest of China, where industrial production fell by more than 13.5% in the first two months of the year. When the virus spread everywhere, chaos ensued: Factories shuttered. Borders closed. Supply chains crumbled.

“It has had a cascading effect through the entire world’s economy,” says Anja Manuel, co-founder and managing partner of Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel LLC, an international strategic consulting firm based in Silicon Valley.

The crisis has caused a drastic contraction in global trade; the World Trade Organization estimates trade volumes will fall 13-20% in 2020. And spinning activity back up could be tricky: Even as China starts to get back online, the slowdown there could reduce worldwide exports by $50 billion this year. When factories do reopen, there’s no guarantee whether they will have parts available or empty warehouses, says Manuel, who also serves on the advisory board of Flexport, a shipping logistics startup. “Our supply chains are so tightly-knit and so just-in-time that throw a few wrenches in it like we’ve just done, and it’s going to be really hard to stand it back up again. The idea that we go back to normal the moment we lift restrictions is unlikely, fanciful, even.”

Getting to that new normal, though, is a job that a number of logistics startups are embracing. Already on the rise, companies like Flexport, Haven and Factiv see a global trade crisis as a setback, but also an opportunity to demonstrate the value of their digital platforms in a very much analog industry.

Apr
22
2020
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Fishtown Analytics raises $12.9M Series A for its open-source analytics engineering tool

Philadelphia-based Fishtown Analytics, the company behind the popular open-source data engineering tool dbt, today announced that it has raised a $12.9 million Series A round led by Andreessen Horowitz, with the firm’s general partner Martin Casado joining the company’s board.

“I wrote this blog post in early 2016, essentially saying that analysts needed to work in a fundamentally different way,” Fishtown founder and CEO Tristan Handy told me, when I asked him about how the product came to be. “They needed to work in a way that much more closely mirrored the way the software engineers work and software engineers have been figuring this shit out for years and data analysts are still like sending each other Microsoft Excel docs over email.”

The dbt open-source project forms the basis of this. It allows anyone who can write SQL queries to transform data and then load it into their preferred analytics tools. As such, it sits in-between data warehouses and the tools that load data into them on one end, and specialized analytics tools on the other.

As Casado noted when I talked to him about the investment, data warehouses have now made it affordable for businesses to store all of their data before it is transformed. So what was traditionally “extract, transform, load” (ETL) has now become “extract, load, transform” (ELT). Andreessen Horowitz is already invested in Fivetran, which helps businesses move their data into their warehouses, so it makes sense for the firm to also tackle the other side of this business.

“Dbt is, as far as we can tell, the leading community for transformation and it’s a company we’ve been tracking for at least a year,” Casado said. He also argued that data analysts — unlike data scientists — are not really catered to as a group.

Before this round, Fishtown hadn’t raised a lot of money, even though it has been around for a few years now, except for a small SAFE round from Amplify.

But Handy argued that the company needed this time to prove that it was on to something and build a community. That community now consists of more than 1,700 companies that use the dbt project in some form and over 5,000 people in the dbt Slack community. Fishtown also now has over 250 dbt Cloud customers and the company signed up a number of big enterprise clients earlier this year. With that, the company needed to raise money to expand and also better service its current list of customers.

“We live in Philadelphia. The cost of living is low here and none of us really care to make a quadro-billion dollars, but we do want to answer the question of how do we best serve the community,” Handy said. “And for the first time, in the early part of the year, we were like, holy shit, we can’t keep up with all of the stuff that people need from us.”

The company plans to expand the team from 25 to 50 employees in 2020 and with those, the team plans to improve and expand the product, especially its IDE for data analysts, which Handy admitted could use a bit more polish.

Dec
16
2019
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Cisco acquires ultra-low latency networking specialist Exablaze

Cisco today announced that it has acquired Exablaze, an Australia-based company that designs and builds advanced networking gear based on field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). The company focuses on solutions for businesses that need ultra-low latency networking, with a special emphasis on high-frequency trading. Cisco plans to integrate Exablaze’s technology into its own product portfolio.

“By adding Exablaze’s segment leading ultra-low latency devices and FPGA-based applications to our portfolio, financial and HFT customers will be better positioned to achieve their business objectives and deliver on their customer value proposition,” writes Cisco’s head of corporate development Rob Salvagno.

Founded in 2013, Exablaze has offices in Sydney, New York, London and Shanghai. While financial trading is an obvious application for its solutions, the company also notes that it has users in the big data analytics, high-performance computing and telecom space.

Cisco plans to add Exablaze to its Nexus portfolio of data center switches. The company also argues that in addition to integrating Exablaze’s current portfolio, the two companies will work on next-generation switches, with an emphasis on creating opportunities for expanding its solutions into AI and ML segments.

“The acquisition will bring together Cisco’s global reach, extensive sales and support teams, and broad technology and manufacturing base, with Exablaze’s cutting-edge low-latency networking, layer 1 switching, timing and time synchronization technologies, and low-latency FPGA expertise,” explains Exablaze co-founder and chairman Greg Robinson.

Cisco, which has always been quite acquisitive, has now made six acquisitions this year. Most of these were software companies, but with Acacia Communications, it also recently announced its intention to acquire another fabless semiconductor company that builds optical interconnects.

 

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