Jul
26
2018
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Facebook acquires Redkix to enhance communications on Workplace by Facebook

Facebook had a rough day yesterday when its stock plunged after a poor earnings report. What better way to pick yourself up and dust yourself off than to buy a little something for yourself. Today the company announced it has acquired Redkix, a startup that provides tools to communicate more effectively by combining email with a more formal collaboration tool. The companies did not reveal the acquisition price.

Redkix burst out of the gate two years ago with a $17 million seed round, a hefty seed amount by any measure. What prompted this kind of investment was a tool that combined a collaboration tool like Slack or Workplace by Facebook with email. People could collaborate in Redkix itself, or if you weren’t a registered user, you could still participate by email, providing a more seamless way to work together.

Alan Lepofsky, who covers enterprise collaboration at Constellation Research, sees this tool as providing a key missing link. “Redkix is a great solution for bridging the worlds between traditional email messaging and more modern conversational messaging. Not all enterprises are ready to simply switch from one to the other, and Redkix allows for users to work in whichever method they want, seamlessly communicating with the other,” Lepofsky told TechCrunch.

As is often the case with these kinds of acquisitions, the company bought the technology  itself along with the team that created it. This means that the Redkix team including the CEO and CTO will join Facebook and they will very likely be shutting down the application after the acquisition is finalized.

Lepofsky thinks that enterprises that are adopting Facebook’s enterprise tool will be able to more seamlessly transition between the two modes of communication, the Workplace by Facebook tool and email, as they prefer.

Although a deal like this has probably been in the works for some time, after yesterday’s earning’s debacle, Facebook could be looking for ways to enhance its revenue in areas beyond the core Facebook platform. The enterprise collaboration tool does offer a possible way to do that in the future, and if they can find a way to incorporate email into it, it could make it a more attractive and broader offering.

Facebook is competing with Slack, the darling of this space and others like Microsoft, Cisco and Google around communications and collaboration. When it launched in 2015, it was trying to take that core Facebook product and put it in a business context, something Slack had been doing since the beginning.

To succeed in business, Facebook had to think differently than as a consumer tool, driven by advertising revenue and had to convince large organizations that they understood their requirements. Today, Facebook claims 30,000 organizations are using the tool and over time they have built in integrations to other key enterprise products, and keep enhancing it.

Perhaps with today’s acquisition, they can offer a more flexible way to interact with the platform and could increase those numbers over time.

Jul
19
2018
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How Facebook configures its millions of servers every day

When you’re a company the size of Facebook with more than two billion users on millions of servers, running thousands of configuration changes every day involving trillions of configuration checks, as you can imagine, configuration is kind of a big deal. As with most things with Facebook, they face scale problems few companies have to deal and often reach the limits of mere mortal tools.

To solve their unique issues, the company developed a new configuration delivery process called Location Aware Delivery or LAD for short. Before developing LAD, the company had been using an open source tool called Zoo Keeper to distribute configuration data, and while that tool worked, it had some fairly substantial limitations for a company the size of Facebook.

Perhaps the largest of those was being limited to 5 MB distributions with configurations limited to 2500 subscribers at a time. To give you a sense of how configuration works, it involves delivering a Facebook service like Messenger in real time with the correct configuration. That could mean delivering it in English for one user and Spanish for another, all on the fly across millions of servers.

Facebook wanted to create a tool that overcame those limitations, separated the data from the distribution mechanism, had a latency time of less than five seconds and supported 10X more files than Zoo Keeper. Oh yes, and it wanted all of that to run on millions of clients and handle the crazy update rates and traffic spikes that only Facebook could bring to the table.

The product the Facebook engineering team created, LAD (wonder how the Dodgers feel about this), consists of a couple of parts: A proxy that sits on every single machine in the Facebook family and delivers configuration files to any machine that wants or needs one. The second piece is a distributor, which as the name implies delivers configuration information. It achieves this by checking for new updates, and when it finds them, it creates a distribution tree for a set of machines, which are looking for an update.

As Facebook’s Ali Haider-Zaveri wrote in a blog post announcing the new distribution method, the tree methodology helps solve a number of problems Facebook faced when distributing configuration updates at extreme volume. “By leveraging a tree, LAD ensures that updates are pushed only to interested proxies rather than to all machines in the fleet. In addition, a parent machine can directly send updates to its children, which ensures that no single machine near the root is overwhelmed,” Haider-Zaveri wrote.

As for those limitations, the company has been able to overcome those too. Instead of a 5 MB update limit, they have increased it to 100 MB, and instead of 2500 user limit, they have increased it to 40,000.

Such a system didn’t come easily. It required testing and retesting, but it has reached production today — at least for now, until Facebook faces another challenge and finds a new way to do things nobody considered before (because they never reached the scale of Facebook).

Jun
28
2018
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Facebook is using machine learning to self-tune its myriad services

Regardless of what you may think of Facebook as a platform, they run a massive operation, and when you reach their level of scale you have to get more creative in how you handle every aspect of your computing environment.

Engineers quickly reach the limits of human ability to track information, to the point that checking logs and analytics becomes impractical and unwieldy on a system running thousands of services. This is a perfect scenario to implement machine learning, and that is precisely what Facebook has done.

The company published a blog post today about a self-tuning system they have dubbed Spiral. This is pretty nifty, and what it does is essentially flip the idea of system tuning on its head. Instead of looking at some data and coding what you want the system to do, you teach the system the right way to do it and it does it for you, using the massive stream of data to continually teach the machine learning models how to push the systems to be ever better.

In the blog post, the Spiral team described it this way: “Instead of looking at charts and logs produced by the system to verify correct and efficient operation, engineers now express what it means for a system to operate correctly and efficiently in code. Today, rather than specify how to compute correct responses to requests, our engineers encode the means of providing feedback to a self-tuning system.”

They say that coding in this way is akin to declarative code, like using SQL statements to tell the database what you want it to do with the data, but the act of applying that concept to systems is not a simple matter.

“Spiral uses machine learning to create data-driven and reactive heuristics for resource-constrained real-time services. The system allows for much faster development and hands-free maintenance of those services, compared with the hand-coded alternative,” the Spiral team wrote in the blog post.

If you consider the sheer number of services running on Facebook, and the number of users trying to interact with those services at any given time, it required sophisticated automation, and that is what Spiral is providing.

The system takes the log data and processes it through Spiral, which is connected with just a few lines of code. It then sends commands back to the server based on the declarative coding statements written by the team. To ensure those commands are always being fine-tuned, at the same time, the data gets sent from the server to a model for further adjustment in a lovely virtuous cycle. This process can be applied locally or globally.

The tool was developed by the team operating in Boston, and is only available internally inside Facebook. It took lots of engineering to make it happen, the kind of scope that only Facebook could apply to a problem like this (mostly because Facebook is one of the few companies that would actually have a problem like this).

May
01
2018
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Workplace, Facebook’s enterprise version, now has 52 SaaS apps and bots, opens up for more integrations

Workplace, the more secure, closed enterprise version of Facebook that competes against the likes of Slack, Microsoft Teams and Hipchat as a platform for employees to communicate and work on things together, says that it today has tens of thousands of organisations using its platform.

Now to pick up more, and to bring more of customers into the paid premium tier of Workplace, Facebook is announcing a couple of new developments at F8.

First, it’s expanding the premium tier of the service with several more integrations — apps that it says have been the most requested by the “tens of thousands” of organizations using Workplace — including Jira, Sharepoint, and SurveyMonkey, bringing the total now to just over 50. And second, Facebook is now taking applications for app developers who want to integrate with the platform.

The latter is a significant shift: up to now, Facebook had been handpicking third-party integrations itself.

The new apps that are being announced today roughly fall into three categories, as outlined by Facebook. Those that let users share information; those that let users get daily summaries; and those that let users speed up data entry and data queries by way of bots.

New integrations for JIRA, Cornerstone OnDemand and Medallia allow users to bring in previews of content from these apps so that they can discuss them in Workplace. Users of Sharepoint from Microsoft can now also share folders from that into Workplace groups.

Meanwhile, users of SurveyMonkey, Hubspot, Marketo, Vonage and Zoom can get notifications from those apps to update on how campaigns and other work is running within those services.

Lastly, Workplace is now bringing bots into its platform to help manage queries from apps outside of it. A new integration with ADP for example will let employees start a chat with it to request a payslip, book and get updates on vacation time and more. Others that are launching bots for querying their apps include AdobeSign, Kronos, Smartsheet and Workday.

The bigger idea behind today’s app expansion, and opening up the platform to more users, is to continue to expand the usefulness of Workplace.

It’s been a fairly methodical journey, the antithesis of “move fast and break things,” Facebook’s (sometimes notorious) mantra.

When the service made its official debut in closed beta back in January 2015 (when it was called Facebook at Work), it was little more than a basic version of Facebook that could be used in a more closed environment, a little like a closed Facebook Group.

It rebranded to Workplace when it officially left its closed beta in October 2016, but that was nearly two years later.

The subsequent addition of apps and features like chat (which came a year after that) have also been very gradual. Even today, there is a big gulf between the 50 or so apps that you can use with Workplace and the 1,400+ that are available on a platform like Slack.

Julien Codorniou, who leads the Workplace effort at Facebook, describes the company’s slower approach to adding apps and features as very intentional.

“We don’t need 1,000 apps on Workplace,” he said. “Our customers ask for an application like Sharepoint or Jira. We wanted to keep the integrations meaningful, and to keep them beautiful in the news feed.”

In 2017 Workplace snapped up retail giant Walmart as a customer, and in a way that deal is indicative of how Workplace has positioned itself as a product.

Facebook is targeting businesses that have a mix of employees that range from those who sit at desks to those who never sit at a desk. And as a result, it wants to keep the number of apps and IT noise low to avoid putting off those users.

“We try to connect people who have never had access to software as a service by making products like ServiceNow easy to use,” Codorniou said.

So there is a common touch, but it only goes so far.

Ultimately, the full set of app integrations is only available for those users who are on the premium tier of the product. Pricing is $3 per active user, per month up to 5,000 users. More users are negotiated with Facebook. Those who are standard users get a much more limited range of apps, including Box, OneDrive and Dropbox and RSS. Codorniou would not comment on whether Facebook had plans to add more apps into the free tier.

Mar
16
2018
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With great tech success, comes even greater responsibility

As we watch major tech platforms evolve over time, it’s clear that companies like Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon (among others) have created businesses that are having a huge impact on humanity — sometimes positive and other times not so much.

That suggests that these platforms have to understand how people are using them and when they are trying to manipulate them or use them for nefarious purposes — or the companies themselves are. We can apply that same responsibility filter to individual technologies like artificial intelligence and indeed any advanced technologies and the impact they could possibly have on society over time.

This was a running theme this week at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

The AI debate rages on

While the platform plays are clearly on the front lines of this discussion, tech icon Elon Musk repeated his concerns about AI running amok in a Q&A at South by Southwest. He worries that it won’t be long before we graduate from the narrow (and not terribly smart) AI we have today to a more generalized AI. He is particularly concerned that a strong AI could develop and evolve over time to the point it eventually matches the intellectual capabilities of humans. Of course, as TechCrunch’s Jon Shieber wrote, Musk sees his stable of companies as a kind of hedge against such a possible apocalypse.

Elon Musk with Jonathan Nolan at South by Southwest 2018. Photo: Getty Images/Chris Saucedo

“Narrow AI is not a species-level risk. It will result in dislocation… lost jobs… better weaponry and that sort of thing. It is not a fundamental, species-level risk, but digital super-intelligence is,” he told the South by Southwest audience.

He went so far as to suggest it could be more of a threat than nuclear warheads in terms of the kind of impact it could have on humanity.

Taking responsibility

Whether you agree with that assessment or not, or even if you think he is being somewhat self-serving with his warnings to promote his companies, he could be touching upon something important about corporate responsibility around the technology that startups and established companies alike should heed.

It was certainly on the mind of Apple’s Eddy Cue, who was interviewed on stage at SXSW by CNN’s Dylan Byers this week. “Tech is a great thing and makes humans more capable, but in of itself is not for good. People who make it, have to make it for good,” Cue said.

We can be sure that Twitter’s creators never imagined a world where bots would be launched to influence an election when they created the company more than a decade ago. Over time though, it becomes crystal clear that Twitter, and indeed all large platforms, can be used for a variety of motivations, and the platforms have to react when they think there are certain parties who are using their networks to manipulate parts of the populace.

Apple’s Eddie Cue speaking at South by Southwest 2018. Photo: Ron Miller

Cue dodged any of Byers’ questions about competing platforms, saying he could only speak to what Apple was doing because he didn’t have an inside view of companies like Facebook and Google (which he didn’t ever actually mention by name). “I think our company is different than what you’re talking about. Our customers’ privacy is of utmost importance to us,” he said. That includes, he said, limiting the amount of data they collect because they are not worrying about having enough to serve more meaningful ads. “We don’t care where you shop or what you buy,” he added.

Andy O’Connell from Facebook’s Global Policy Development team, speaking on a panel on the challenges of using AI to filter “fake news” said, that Facebook recognizes it can and should play a role if it sees people manipulating the platform. “This is a whole society issue, but there are technical things we are doing and things we can invest in [to help lessen the impact of fake news],” he said. He added that Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has expressed it as challenge to the company to make the platform more secure and that includes reducing the amount of false or misleading news that makes it onto the platform.

Recognizing tech’s limitations

As O’Connell put forth, this is not just a Facebook problem or a general technology problem. It’s a social problem and society as a whole needs to address it. Sometimes tech can help, but, we can’t always look to tech to solve every problem. The trouble is that we can never really anticipate how a given piece of technology will behave or how people use it once we put it out there.

Photo: Ron Miller

All of this suggests that none of these problems, some of which we never could have never have even imagined, are easy to solve. For every action and reaction, there can be another set of unintended consequences, even with the best of intentions.

But it’s up to the companies who are developing the tech to recognize the responsibility that comes with great economic success or simply the impact of whatever they are creating could have on society. “Everyone has a responsibility [to draw clear lines]. It is something we do and how we want to run our company. In today’s world people have to take responsibility and we intend to do that,” Cue said.

It’s got to be more than lip service though. It requires thought and care and reacting when things do run amok, while continually assessing the impact of every decision.

Mar
09
2018
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InfoSum’s first product touts decentralized big data insights

 Nick Halstead’s new startup, InfoSum, is launching its first product today — moving one step closer to his founding vision of a data platform that can help businesses and organizations unlock insights from big data silos without compromising user privacy, data security or data protection law. So a pretty high bar then. Read More

Nov
15
2017
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Facebook open sources Open/R distributed networking software

 Facebook is no stranger when it comes to open sourcing its computing knowledge. Over the years, it has consistently created software and hardware internally, then transferred that wisdom to the open source community to let them have it. Today, it announced it was open sourcing its modular network routing software called Open/R, as the tradition continues. Facebook obviously has unique scale… Read More

Oct
26
2017
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Facebook’s Workplace, now at 30,000 orgs, adds Chat desktop apps and group video chat

 It’s been once year since Workplace, Facebook’s social network designed specifically for businesses and other organizations, came out of beta to take on the likes of Slack, Atlassian, Microsoft and others in the world of enterprise collaboration. Now, with 30,000 organizations using Workplace across some 1 million groups (more than double the figures Facebook published April)… Read More

Oct
11
2017
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Everything announced at Oculus’ Connect 4 VR conference

 Standalone headsets, VR replacements for your computer monitor and ways to share VR to the News Feed were highlights of today’s big Oculus conference. Click through or scroll down to get just the need-to-know info and GIFs from our in-depth coverage of Facebook’s vision for the future of virtual reality.
  Read More

Oct
05
2017
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Facebook quietly launches Mac and PC Workplace Chat apps with screen share

 TechCrunch has discovered that Facebook has stealthily launched official desktop PC and Mac chat apps with screen sharing — two features users have been begging for. Right now, they’re only available for Workplace, Facebook’s enterprise collaboration software that competes with Slack and other business apps. But users would surely enjoy if the consumer Messenger app got its… Read More

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