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

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

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

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

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

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

As we wrote at the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct
10
2018
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Zenefits’ Parker Conrad returns with Rippling to kill HR & IT busywork

Parker Conrad likes to save time, even though it’s gotten him in trouble. The former CEO of Zenefits was pushed out of the $4.5 billion human resources startup because he built a hack that let him and employees get faster insurance certifications. But 2.5 years later, he’s back to take the busy work out of staff onboarding as well as clumsy IT services like single sign-on to enterprise apps. Today his startup Rippling launches its combined employee management system, which Conrad calls a much larger endeavor than the minimum viable product it announced while in Y Combinator’s accelerator 18 months ago.

“It’s not an HR system. It’s a level below that,” Conrad tells me. “It’s this unholy, crazy mashup of three different things.” First, it handles payroll, benefits, taxes and PTO across all 50 states. “Except Syria and North Korea, you can pay anyone in the world with Rippling,” Conrad claims. That makes it a competitor with Gusto… and Zenefits.

Second, it’s a replacement for Okta, Duo and other enterprise single-sign on security apps that authenticate staffers across partnered apps. Rippling bookmarklets make it easy to auth into over 250 workplace apps, like Gmail, Slack, Dropbox, Asana, Trello, AWS, Salesforce, GitHub and more. When an employee is hired or changes teams, a single modification to their role in Rippling automatically changes all the permissions of what they can access.

And third, it handles computer endpoint security like Jamf. When an employee is hired, Rippling can instantly ship them a computer with all the right software installed and the hard drive encrypted, or have staffers add the Rippling agent that enforces the company’s security standards. The system is designed so there’s no need for an expert IT department to manage it.

“Distributed, fragmented systems of record for employee data are secretly the cause of almost all the annoying administrative work of running a company,” Conrad explains. “If you could build this system that ties all of it together, you could eliminate all this crap work.” That’s Rippling. It’s opening up to all potential clients today, charging them a combined subscription or à la carte fees for any of the three wings of the product.

Conrad refused to say how much Rippling has raised total, citing the enhanced scrutiny Zenefits’ raises drew. But he says a Wall Street Journal report that Rippling had raised $7 million was inaccurate. “We haven’t raised any priced VC rounds. Just a bunch of seed money. We raised from Initialized Capital, almost all the early seed investors at Zenefits and a lot of individuals.” He cited Y Combinator, YC Growth Fund, YC’s founder Jessica Livingston and president Sam Altman, other YC partners, as well as DFJ and SV Angel.

“Because we were able to raise a bunch of money and court great engineers . . . we were able to spend a lot of time building this fundamental technology,” Conrad tells me. Rippling has about 50 team members now, with about 40 of them being engineers, highlighting just how thoroughly Conrad wants to eradicate manual work about work, starting with his own startup.

The CEO refused to discuss details of exactly what went down at Zenefits and whether he thought his ejection was fair. He was accused of allowing Zenefits’ insurance brokers to sell in states where they weren’t licensed, and giving some employees a macro that let them more quickly pass the online insurance certification exam. Conrad ended up paying about $534,000 in SEC fines. Zenefits laid off 430 employees, or 45 percent of its staff, and moved to selling software to small-to-medium sized businesses through a network of insurance brokers.

But when asked what he’d learned from Zenefits, Conrad looked past those troubles and instead recalled that “one of the mistakes that we made was that we did a lot stuff manually behind the scenes. When you scale up, there are these manual processes, and it’s really hard to come back later when it’s a big hard complicated thing and replace it with technology. You get upside down on margins. If you start at the beginning and never let the manual processes creep in . . . it sort of works.”

Perhaps it was trying to cut corners that got Conrad into the Zenefits mess, but now that same intention has inspired Rippling’s goal of eliminating HR and IT drudgery with an all-in-one tool.

“I think I’m someone who feels the pain of that kind of stuff particularly strongly. So that’s always been a real irritant to me, and I saw this problem. The conventional wisdom is ‘don’t build something like this, start with something much smaller,’ ” Conrad concludes. “But I knew if I didn’t do this, that no one else was gong to do it and I really wanted this system to exist. This is a company that’s all about annoying stuff and making that fucking annoying stuff go away.”

Feb
14
2017
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Gamalon leverages the work of an 18th century reverend to organize unstructured enterprise data

Red and white dice casting shadows on grey surface It’s hard to fathom that the work of Reverend Thomas Bayes is still coming back to drive cutting edge advancements in AI, but that’s exactly what’s happening. DARPA-backed Gamalon is the latest carrier of the Bayesian baton, launching today with a solution to help enterprises better manage their gnarly unstructured data. The world of enterprise is full of… Read More

Dec
22
2016
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Xplenty raises another $4 million to help you integrate all your data

Network of light streams in cloudy sky The internet has changed a lot over the last two decades, but many companies are still using legacy technologies to extract, transform and load their data into warehouses. One new entrant, Xplenty, is hoping that its fresh approach, prioritizing cloud services, will provide a solid foothold in the massive market for data integration tools. Having grown to serve over 100 customers, Xplenty… Read More

Jul
25
2015
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Software For The Full-Stack Era

newspapers The history of software is dominated by companies that automated how the biggest companies in the world did business. IBM automated clerical tasks, SAP unified corporate financials, and Siebel digitized Rolodexes for relationship-driven salespeople. With that focus in mind, it’s no wonder that many of the world’s largest technology companies survive based on their ties to IT… Read More

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