Apr
06
2021
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Esri brings its flagship ArcGIS platform to Kubernetes

Esri, the geographic information system (GIS), mapping and spatial analytics company, is hosting its (virtual) developer summit today. Unsurprisingly, it is making a couple of major announcements at the event that range from a new design system and improved JavaScript APIs to support for running ArcGIS Enterprise in containers on Kubernetes.

The Kubernetes project was a major undertaking for the company, Esri Product Managers Trevor Seaton and Philip Heede told me. Traditionally, like so many similar products, ArcGIS was architected to be installed on physical boxes, virtual machines or cloud-hosted VMs. And while it doesn’t really matter to end-users where the software runs, containerizing the application means that it is far easier for businesses to scale their systems up or down as needed.

Esri ArcGIS Enterprise on Kubernetes deployment

Esri ArcGIS Enterprise on Kubernetes deployment. Image Credits: Esri

“We have a lot of customers — especially some of the larger customers — that run very complex questions,” Seaton explained. “And sometimes it’s unpredictable. They might be responding to seasonal events or business events or economic events, and they need to understand not only what’s going on in the world, but also respond to their many users from outside the organization coming in and asking questions of the systems that they put in place using ArcGIS. And that unpredictable demand is one of the key benefits of Kubernetes.”

Deploying Esri ArcGIS Enterprise on Kubernetes

Deploying Esri ArcGIS Enterprise on Kubernetes. Image Credits: Esri

The team could have chosen to go the easy route and put a wrapper around its existing tools to containerize them and call it a day, but as Seaton noted, Esri used this opportunity to re-architect its tools and break it down into microservices.

“It’s taken us a while because we took three or four big applications that together make up [ArcGIS] Enterprise,” he said. “And we broke those apart into a much larger set of microservices. That allows us to containerize specific services and add a lot of high availability and resilience to the system without adding a lot of complexity for the administrators — in fact, we’re reducing the complexity as we do that and all of that gets installed in one single deployment script.”

While Kubernetes simplifies a lot of the management experience, a lot of companies that use ArcGIS aren’t yet familiar with it. And as Seaton and Heede noted, the company isn’t forcing anyone onto this platform. It will continue to support Windows and Linux just like before. Heede also stressed that it’s still unusual — especially in this industry — to see a complex, fully integrated system like ArcGIS being delivered in the form of microservices and multiple containers that its customers then run on their own infrastructure.

Image Credits: Esri

In addition to the Kubernetes announcement, Esri also today announced new JavaScript APIs that make it easier for developers to create applications that bring together Esri’s server-side technology and the scalability of doing much of the analysis on the client-side. Back in the day, Esri would support tools like Microsoft’s Silverlight and Adobe/Apache Flex for building rich web-based applications. “Now, we’re really focusing on a single web development technology and the toolset around that,” Esri product manager Julie Powell told me.

A bit later this month, Esri also plans to launch its new design system to make it easier and faster for developers to create clean and consistent user interfaces. This design system will launch April 22, but the company already provided a bit of a teaser today. As Powell noted, the challenge for Esri is that its design system has to help the company’s partners put their own style and branding on top of the maps and data they get from the ArcGIS ecosystem.

 

Mar
18
2021
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Slapdash raises $3.7M seed to ship a workplace apps command bar

The explosion in productivity software amid a broader remote work boom has been one of the pandemic’s clearest tech impacts. But learning to use a dozen new programs while having to decipher which data is hosted where can sometimes seem to have an adverse effect on worker productivity. It’s all time that users can take for granted, even when carrying out common tasks like navigating to the calendar to view more info to click a link to open the browser to redirect to the native app to open a Zoom call.

Slapdash is aiming to carve a new niche out for itself among workplace software tools, pushing a desire for peak performance to the forefront with a product that shaves seconds off each instance where a user needs to find data hosted in a cloud app or carry out an action. While most of the integration-heavy software suites to emerge during the remote work boom have focused on promoting visibility or re-skinning workflows across the tangled weave of SaaS apps, Slapdash founder Ivan Kanevski hopes that the company’s efforts to engineer a quicker path to information will push tech workers to integrate another tool into their workflow.

The team tells TechCrunch that they’ve raised $3.7 million in seed funding from investors that include S28 Capital, Quiet Capital, Quarry Ventures and Twenty Two Ventures. Angels participating in the round include co-founders at companies like Patreon, Docker and Zynga.

Image Credits: Slapdash

Kanevski says the team sought to emulate the success of popular apps like Superhuman, which have pushed low-latency command line interface navigation while emulating some of the sleek internal tools used at companies like Facebook, where he spent nearly six years as a software engineer.

Slapdash’s command line widget can be pulled up anywhere, once installed, with a quick keyboard shortcut. From there, users can search through a laundry list of indexable apps including Slack, Zoom, Jira and about 20 others. Beyond command line access, users can create folders of files and actions inside the full desktop app or create their own keyboard shortcuts to quickly hammer out a task. The app is available on Mac, Windows, Linux and the web.

“We’re not trying to displace the applications that you connect to Slapdash,” he says. “You won’t see us, for example, building document editing, you won’t see us building project management, just because our sort of philosophy is that we’re a neutral platform.”

The company offers a free tier for users indexing up to five apps and creating 10 commands and spaces; any more than that and you level up into a $12 per month paid plan. Things look more customized for enterprise-wide pricing. As the team hopes to make the tool essential to startups, Kanevski sees the app’s hefty utility for individual users as a clear asset in scaling up.

“If you anticipate rolling this out to larger organizations, you would want the people that are using the software to have a blast with it,” he says. “We have quite a lot of confidence that even at this sort of individual atomic level, we built something pretty joyful and helpful.”

Mar
02
2021
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Microsoft launches Power Fx, a new open source low-code language

Microsoft today announced Power Fx, a new low-code language that takes its cues from Excel formulas. Power Fx will become the standard for writing logic customization across Microsoft’s own low-code Power Platform, but since the company is open-sourcing the language, Microsoft also hopes that others will implement it as well and that it will become the de facto standard for these kinds of use cases.

Since Power Platform itself targets business users more so than professional developers, it feels like a smart move to leverage their existing knowledge of Excel and their familiarity with Excel formulas to get started.

“We have this long history of programming languages and something really interesting happened over the last 15 years, which is programming languages became free, they became open source and they became community-driven,” Charles Lamanna, the CVP of Power Platform engineering at Microsoft, told me. He noted that even internal languages like C#, TypeScript or Google’s Go are good examples for this.

“That’s been an ongoing trend. And what’s interesting is: that’s all for pro devs and coders. If we go back and look at the low-code/no-code space, there actually are programming languages, like the Excel programming language, or in every low-code/no-code platform has its own programming language. But those aren’t open, those aren’t portable, and those are community-driven,” Lamanna explained.

Microsoft says the language was developed by a team led by Vijay Mital, Robin Abraham, Shon Katzenberger and Darryl Rubin. Beyond Excel, the team also took inspiration from tools and languages like Pascal, Mathematica and Miranda, a functional programming language developed in the 1980s.

Microsoft plans to bring Power Fx to all of its low-code platforms, but given the focus on community, it’ll start making appearances in Power Automate, Power Virtual Agents and elsewhere soon.

But the team clearly hopes that others will adopt it as well. Low-code developers will see it pop up in the formula bars of products like Power Apps Studio, but more sophisticated users will also be able to use it to go to Visual Studio Code and build more complex applications with it.

As the team noted, it focused on not just making the language Excel-like but also having it behave like Excel — or like a REPL, for you high-code programmers out there. That means formulas are declarative and instantly recalculate as developers update their code.

Most low-code/no-code tools these days offer an escape hatch to allow users to either extend their apps with more sophisticated code or have their tool export the entire code base. Because at the end of the day, you can only take these tools so far. By default, they are built to support a wide range of scenarios, but since every company has its own way of doing things, they can’t cover every use case.

“We imagine that probably the majority of developers — and I say ‘developers’ as business users to coders that use Power Platform — will ultimately drop into writing these formulas in some form. The idea is that on that first day that you get started with Power Platform, we’re not going to write any formulas, right? […] It’s a macro recorder, it’s templates. Same thing for Power Apps: it’s pure visual, drag and drop, you don’t write a single formula. But what’s great about Power Platform, in week number two, when you’re using this thing, you learn a little bit more sophistication. You start to use a little bit more of the advanced capabilities. And before you know it, you actually have professionals who are Power Platform or low-code developers because they’re able to go down that spectrum of capability.”


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Oct
09
2020
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How Roblox completely transformed its tech stack

Picture yourself in the role of CIO at Roblox in 2017.

At that point, the gaming platform and publishing system that launched in 2005 was growing fast, but its underlying technology was aging, consisting of a single data center in Chicago and a bunch of third-party partners, including AWS, all running bare metal (nonvirtualized) servers. At a time when users have precious little patience for outages, your uptime was just two nines, or less than 99% (five nines is considered optimal).

Unbelievably, Roblox was popular in spite of this, but the company’s leadership knew it couldn’t continue with performance like that, especially as it was rapidly gaining in popularity. The company needed to call in the technology cavalry, which is essentially what it did when it hired Dan Williams in 2017.

Williams has a history of solving these kinds of intractable infrastructure issues, with a background that includes a gig at Facebook between 2007 and 2011, where he worked on the technology to help the young social network scale to millions of users. Later, he worked at Dropbox, where he helped build a new internal network, leading the company’s move away from AWS, a major undertaking involving moving more than 500 petabytes of data.

When Roblox approached him in mid-2017, he jumped at the chance to take on another major infrastructure challenge. While they are still in the midst of the transition to a new modern tech stack today, we sat down with Williams to learn how he put the company on the road to a cloud-native, microservices-focused system with its own network of worldwide edge data centers.

Scoping the problem

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).

May
28
2020
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Mirantis releases its first major update to Docker Enterprise

In a surprise move, Mirantis acquired Docker’s Enterprise platform business at the end of last year, and while Docker itself is refocusing on developers, Mirantis kept the Docker Enterprise name and product. Today, Mirantis is rolling out its first major update to Docker Enterprise with the release of version 3.1.

For the most part, these updates are in line with what’s been happening in the container ecosystem in recent months. There’s support for Kubernetes 1.17 and improved support for Kubernetes on Windows (something the Kubernetes community has worked on quite a bit in the last year or so). Also new is Nvidia GPU integration in Docker Enterprise through a pre-installed device plugin, as well as support for Istio Ingress for Kubernetes and a new command-line tool for deploying clusters with the Docker Engine.

In addition to the product updates, Mirantis is also launching three new support options for its customers that now give them the option to get 24×7 support for all support cases, for example, as well as enhanced SLAs for remote managed operations, designated customer success managers and proactive monitoring and alerting. With this, Mirantis is clearly building on its experience as a managed service provider.

What’s maybe more interesting, though, is how this acquisition is playing out at Mirantis itself. Mirantis, after all, went through its fair share of ups and downs in recent years, from high-flying OpenStack platform to layoffs and everything in between.

“Why we do this in the first place and why at some point I absolutely felt that I wanted to do this is because I felt that this would be a more compelling and interesting company to build, despite maybe some of the short-term challenges along the way, and that very much turned out to be true. It’s been fantastic,” Mirantis CEO and co-founder Adrian Ionel told me. “What we’ve seen since the acquisition, first of all, is that the customer base has been dramatically more loyal than people had thought, including ourselves.”

Ionel admitted that he thought some users would defect because this is obviously a major change, at least from the customer’s point of view. “Of course we have done everything possible to have something for them that’s really compelling and we put out the new roadmap right away in December after the acquisition — and people bought into it at very large scale,” he said. With that, Mirantis retained more than 90% of the customer base and the vast majority of all of Docker Enterprise’s largest users.

Ionel, who almost seemed a bit surprised by this, noted that this helped the company to turn in two “fantastic” quarters and was profitable in the last quarter, despite COVID-19.

“We wanted to go into this acquisition with a sober assessment of risks because we wanted to make it work, we wanted to make it successful because we were well aware that a lot of acquisitions fail,” he explained. “We didn’t want to go into it with a hyper-optimistic approach in any way — and we didn’t — and maybe that’s one of the reasons why we are positively surprised.”

He argues that the reason for the current success is that enterprises are doubling down on their container journeys and because they actually love the Docker Enterprise platform, like infrastructure independence, its developer focus, security features and ease of use. One thing many large customers asked for was better support for multi-cluster management at scale, which today’s update delivers.

“Where we stand today, we have one product development team. We have one product roadmap. We are shipping a very big new release of Docker Enterprise. […] The field has been completely unified and operates as one salesforce, with record results. So things have been extremely busy, but good and exciting.”

May
19
2020
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Gremlin brings chaos engineering to Windows platform

Chaos engineering is about helping companies set up worst-case scenarios and testing them to see what causes the operating system to fall over, but up until now, it has mostly been for teams running Linux servers. Gremlin, the startup that offers Chaos Engineering as a Service, released a new tool to give engineers working on Microsoft Windows systems access to a similar set of experiments.

Gremlin co-founder and CEO Kolton Andrus says that the four-year-old company started with Linux support, then moved to Docker containers and Kubernetes, but there has been significant demand for Windows support, and the company decided it was time to build this into the platform too.

“The same types of failure can occur, but it happens in different ways on different operating systems. And people need to be able to respond to that. So it’s been the blind spot, and we [decided to] prioritize the types of experiments that people [running Windows] need the most,” he said.

He added, “What we’re launching here is that core set of capabilities for customers so they can go out and get started right away.”

To that end, the Gremlin Windows agent lets engineers run experiments on shutdown, CPU, disk, I/O, memory and latency attacks. It’s worth noting that a third of the world’s servers still run on Windows, and having this ability to test these systems in this way has been mostly confined to companies that could afford to build their own systems in-house.

What Gremlin is doing for Windows is what it has done for the other supported systems. It’s enabling any company to take advantage of chaos engineering tools to help prevent system failure. During the pandemic, as some systems have become flooded with traffic, having this ability to experiment with different worst-case scenarios and figuring out what brings your system to its knees is more important than ever.

The Gremlin Windows agent not only gives the company a wider range of operating system support, it also broadens its revenue base, which is also increasingly important at a time of economic uncertainty.

The company, which is based in the San Francisco area, was founded in 2016 and has raised more than $26 million, according to Crunchbase data. The company raised the bulk of that, $18 million, in 2018.

Apr
30
2020
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Microsoft makes it easier to get started with Windows Virtual Desktops

Microsoft today announced a slew of updates to various parts of its Microsoft 365 ecosystem. A lot of these aren’t all that exciting (though that obviously depends on your level of enthusiasm for products like Microsoft Endpoint Manager), but the overall thrust behind this update is to make life easier for the IT admins that help provision and manage corporate Windows — and Mac — machines, something that’s even more important right now, given how many companies are trying to quickly adapt to this new work-from-home environment.

For them, the highlight of today’s set of announcements is surely an update to Windows Virtual Desktop, Microsoft’s service for giving employees access to a virtualized desktop environment on Azure and that allows IT departments to host multiple Windows 10 sessions on the same hardware. The company is launching a completely new management experience for this service that makes getting started significantly easier for admins.

Ahead of today’s announcement, Brad Anderson, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Microsoft 365, told me that it took a considerable amount of Azure expertise to get started with this service. With this update, you still need to know a bit about Azure, but the overall process of getting started is now significantly easier. And that, Anderson noted, is now more important than ever.

“Some organizations are telling me that they’re using on-prem [Virtual Desktop Infrastructure]. They had to go do work to basically free up capacity. In some cases, that means doing away with disaster recovery for some of their services in order to get the capacity,” Anderson said. “In some cases, I hear leaders say it’s going to take until the middle or the end of May to get the additional capacity to spin up the VDI sessions that are needed. In today’s world, that’s just unacceptable. Given what the cloud can do, people need to have the ability to spin up and spin down on demand. And that’s the unique thing that a Windows Virtual Desktop does relative to traditional VDI.”

Anderson also believes that remote work will remain much more common once things go back to normal — whenever that happens and whatever that will look like. “I think the usage of virtualization where you are virtualizing running an app in a data center in the cloud and then virtualizing it down will grow. This will introduce a secular trend and growth of cloud-based VDI,” he said.

In addition to making the management experience easier, Microsoft is now also making it possible to use Microsoft Teams for video meetings in these virtual desktop environments, using a feature called ‘A/V redirection’ that allows users to connect their local audio and video hardware and virtual machines with low latency. It’ll take another month or so for this feature to roll out, though.

Also new is the ability to keep service metadata about Windows Virtual Desktop usage within a certain Azure region for compliance and regulatory reasons.

For those of you interested in Microsoft Endpoint Manager, the big news here is better support for macOS-based machines. Using the new Intune MDM agent for macOS, admins can use the same tool for managing repetitive tasks on Windows 10 and macOS.

Productivity Score — a product only an enterprise manager would love — is also getting an update. You can now see how people in an organization are reading, authoring and collaborating around content in OneDrive and SharePoint, for example. And if they aren’t, you can write a memo and tell them they should collaborate more.

There are also new dashboards here for looking at how employees work across devices and how they communicate. It’s worth noting that this is aggregate data and not another way for corporate to look at what individual employees are doing.

The one feature here that does actually seem really useful, especially given the current situation, is a new Network Connectivity category that helps IT to figure out where there are networking challenges.

Feb
28
2020
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Microsoft’s Cortana drops consumer skills as it refocuses on business users

With the next version of Windows 10, coming this spring, Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant will lose a number of consumer skills around music and connected homes, as well as some third-party skills. That’s very much in line with Microsoft’s new focus for Cortana, but it may still come as a surprise to the dozens of loyal Cortana fans.

Microsoft is also turning off Cortana support in its Microsoft Launcher on Android by the end of April and on older versions of Windows that have reached their end-of-service date, which usually comes about 36 months after the original release.

cortana

As the company explained last year, it now mostly thinks of Cortana as a service for business users. The new Cortana is all about productivity, with deep integrations into Microsoft’s suite of Office tools, for example. In this context, consumer services are only a distraction, and Microsoft is leaving that market to the likes of Amazon and Google .

Because the new Cortana experience is all about Microsoft 365, the subscription service that includes access to the Office tools, email, online storage and more, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the assistant’s new feature will give you access to data from these tools, including your calendar, Microsoft To Do notes and more.

And while some consumer features are going away, Microsoft stresses that Cortana will still be able to tell you a joke, set alarms and timers, and give you answers from Bing.

For now, all of this only applies to English-speaking users in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., most of the productivity features will launch in the future.

Feb
28
2020
--

Microsoft’s Cortana drops consumer skills as it refocuses on business users

With the next version of Windows 10, coming this spring, Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant will lose a number of consumer skills around music and connected homes, as well as some third-party skills. That’s very much in line with Microsoft’s new focus for Cortana, but it may still come as a surprise to the dozens of loyal Cortana fans.

Microsoft is also turning off Cortana support in its Microsoft Launcher on Android by the end of April and on older versions of Windows that have reached their end-of-service date, which usually comes about 36 months after the original release.

cortana

As the company explained last year, it now mostly thinks of Cortana as a service for business users. The new Cortana is all about productivity, with deep integrations into Microsoft’s suite of Office tools, for example. In this context, consumer services are only a distraction, and Microsoft is leaving that market to the likes of Amazon and Google .

Because the new Cortana experience is all about Microsoft 365, the subscription service that includes access to the Office tools, email, online storage and more, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the assistant’s new feature will give you access to data from these tools, including your calendar, Microsoft To Do notes and more.

And while some consumer features are going away, Microsoft stresses that Cortana will still be able to tell you a joke, set alarms and timers, and give you answers from Bing.

For now, all of this only applies to English-speaking users in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., most of the productivity features will launch in the future.

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