Apr
03
2020
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Want to survive the downturn? Better build a platform

When you look at the most successful companies in the world, they are almost never just one simple service. Instead, they offer a platform with a range of services and an ability to connect to it to allow external partners and developers to extend the base functionality that the company provides.

Aspiring to be a platform and actually succeeding at building one are not the same. While every startup probably sees themselves as becoming a platform play eventually, the fact is it’s hard to build one. But if you can succeed and your set of services become an integral part of a given business workflow, your company could become bigger and more successful than even the most optimistic founder ever imagined.

Look at the biggest tech companies in the world, from Microsoft to Oracle to Facebook to Google and Amazon. All of them offer a rich complex platform of services. All of them provide a way for third parties to plug in and take advantage of them in some way, even if it’s by using the company’s sheer popularity to advertise.

Michael A. Cusumano, David B. Yoffie and Annabelle Gawer, who wrote the book The Business of Platforms, wrote an article recently in MIT Sloan Review on The Future of Platforms, saying that simply becoming a platform doesn’t guarantee success for a startup.

“Because, like all companies, platforms must ultimately perform better than their competitors. In addition, to survive long-term, platforms must also be politically and socially viable, or they risk being crushed by government regulation or social opposition, as well as potentially massive debt obligations,” they wrote.

In other words, it’s not cheap or easy to build a successful platform, but the rewards are vast. As Cusumano, Yoffie and Gawer point out their studies have found, “…Platform companies achieved their sales with half the number of employees [of successful non-platform companies]. Moreover, platform companies were twice as profitable, were growing twice as fast, and were more than twice as valuable as their conventional counterparts.”

From an enterprise perspective, look at a company like Salesforce . The company learned long ago that it couldn’t possibly build every permutation of customer requirements with a relatively small team of engineers (especially early on), so it started to build hooks into the platform it had built to allow customers and consultants to customize it to meet the needs of individual organizations.

Eventually Salesforce built APIs, then it built a whole set of development tools, and built a marketplace to share these add-ons. Some startups like FinancialForce, Vlocity and Veeva have built whole companies on top of Salesforce.

Rory O’Driscoll, a partner at Scale Venture Partners, speaking at a venture capitalist panel at BoxWorks in 2014, said that many startups aspire to be platforms, but it’s harder than it looks. “You don’t make a platform. Third-party developers only engage when you achieve a critical mass of users. You have to do something else and then become a platform. You don’t come fully formed as a platform,” he said at the time.

If you’re thinking, how you could possibly start a company like that in the middle of a massive economic crisis, consider that Microsoft launched in 1975 in the middle of recession. Google and Salesforce both launched in the late 1990s, just ahead of the dot-com crash, and Facebook launched in 2004, four years before the massive downturn in 2008. All went on to become tremendously successful companies

That success often requires massive spending and sales and marketing burn, but when it works, the rewards are enormous. Just don’t expect that it’s an easy path to success.

Mar
31
2020
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Microsoft launches Edge Zones for Azure

Microsoft today announced the launch of Azure Edge Zones, which will allow Azure users to bring their applications to the company’s edge locations. The focus here is on enabling real-time low-latency 5G applications. The company is also launching a version of Edge Zones with carriers (starting with AT&T) in preview, which connects these zones directly to 5G networks in the carrier’s data center. And to round it all out, Azure is also getting Private Edge Zones for those who are deploying private 5G/LTE networks in combination with Azure Stack Edge.

In addition to partnering with carriers like AT&T, as well as Rogers, SK Telecom, Telstra and Vodafone, Microsoft is also launching new standalone Azure Edge Zones in more than 10 cities over the next year, starting with LA, Miami and New York later this summer.

“For the last few decades, carriers and operators have pioneered how we connect with each other, laying the foundation for telephony and cellular,” the company notes in today’s announcement. “With cloud and 5G, there are new possibilities by combining cloud services, like compute and AI with high bandwidth and ultra-low latency. Microsoft is partnering with them bring 5G to life in immersive applications built by organization and developers.”

This may all sound a bit familiar, and that’s because only a few weeks ago, Google launched Anthos for Telecom and its Global Mobile Edge Cloud, which at first glance offers a similar promise of bringing applications close to that cloud’s edge locations for 5G and telco usage. Microsoft argues that its offering is more comprehensive in terms of its partner ecosystem and geographic availability. But it’s clear that 5G is a trend all of the large cloud providers are trying to tap into. Microsoft’s own acquisition of 5G cloud specialist Affirmed Networks is yet another example of how it is looking to position itself in this market.

As far as the details of the various Edge Zone versions go, the focus of Edge Zones is mostly on IoT and AI workloads, while Microsoft notes that Edge Zones with Carriers is more about low-latency online gaming, remote meetings and events, as well as smart infrastructure. Private Edge Zones, which combine private carrier networks with Azure Stack Edge, is something only a small number of large enterprise companies would likely to look into, given the cost and complexity of rolling out a system like this.

 

Mar
26
2020
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Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

Google, Amazon and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant and startups and small-to-medium sized businesses are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expense besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SaaS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dot-com crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, investors can get less cautious and customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest, if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors also could offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. There are sure to be holes that cloud economists can poke in this proposal, but my goal is to get the conversation started. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal.

Mar
26
2020
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Microsoft acquires 5G specialist Affirmed Networks

Microsoft today announced that it has acquired Affirmed Networks, a company that specializes in fully virtualized, cloud-native networking solutions for telecom operators.

With its focus on 5G and edge computing, Affirmed looks like the ideal acquisition target for a large cloud provider looking to get deeper into the telco business. According to Crunchbase, Affirmed raised a total of $155 million before this acquisition, and the company’s more than 100 enterprise customers include the likes of AT&T, Orange, Vodafone, Telus, Turkcell and STC.

“As we’ve seen with other technology transformations, we believe that software can play an important role in helping advance 5G and deliver new network solutions that offer step-change advancements in speed, cost and security,” writes Yousef Khalidi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Azure Networking. “There is a significant opportunity for both incumbents and new players across the industry to innovate, collaborate and create new markets, serving the networking and edge computing needs of our mutual customers.”

With its customer base, Affirmed gives Microsoft another entry point into the telecom industry. Previously, the telcos would often build their own data centers and stuff it with costly proprietary hardware (and the software to manage it). But thanks to today’s virtualization technologies, the large cloud platforms are now able to offer the same capabilities and reliability without any of the cost. And unsurprisingly, a new technology like 5G, with its promise of new and expanded markets, makes for a good moment to push forward with these new technologies.

Google recently made some moves in this direction with its Anthos for Telecom and Global Mobile Edge Cloud, too. Chances are we will see all of the large cloud providers continue to go after this market in the coming months.

In a somewhat odd move, only yesterday Affirmed announced a new CEO and president, Anand Krishnamurthy. It’s not often that we see these kinds of executive moves hours before a company announces its acquisition.

The announcement doesn’t feature a single hint at today’s news and includes all of the usual cliches we’ve come to expect from a press release that announces a new CEO. “We are thankful to Hassan for his vision and commitment in guiding the company through this extraordinary journey and positioning us for tremendous success in the future,” Krishnamurthy wrote at the time. “It is my honor to lead Affirmed as we continue to drive this incredible transformation in our industry.”

We asked Affirmed for some more background about this and will update this post if we hear more. Update: an Affirmed spokesperson told us that this was “part of a succession plan that had been determined previously.  So it was not related [to] any specific event.”

Mar
20
2020
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Google cancels I/O developer conference in light of COVID-19 crisis

Google announced on Twitter today that it was cancelling its annual I/O developer conference out of concern for the health and safety of all involved. It will not be holding any online conference in its place either.

“Out of concern for the health and safety of our developers, employees, and local communities — and in line with recent ‘shelter in place’ orders by the local Bay Area counties — we sadly will not be holding I/O in any capacity this year,” the company tweeted.

This is not a small deal, as Google uses this, and the Google Cloud Next conference, which it has also canceled, to let developers, customers, partners and other interested parties know about what new features, products and services they will be introducing in the coming year.

Without a major venue to announce these new tools, it will be harder for the company to get the word out about them or gain the power of human networking that these conferences provide. All of that is taking a backseat this year over concerns about the virus.

The company made clear that it does not intend to reschedule these events in person or in a virtual capacity at all this year, and will look for other ways to inform the community of changes, updates and new services in the coming months.

“Right now, the most important thing all of us can do is focus our attention on helping people with the new challenges we all face. Please know that we remain committed to finding other ways to share platform updates with you through our developer blogs and community forums,” the company wrote.

Mar
09
2020
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Box is now letting all staff work from home to reduce coronavirus risk

Box has joined a number of tech companies supporting employees to work remotely from home in response  the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

It’s applying the policy to all staff, regardless of location.

Late yesterday Box co-founder Aaron Levie tweeted a statement detailing the cloud computing company’s response to COVID-19, the name of the disease caused by the coronavirus — to, as he put it, “ensure the availability of our service and safety of our employees”.

In recent days Twitter has similarly encouraged all staff members to work from home. While companies including Amazon, Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft have also advised some staff to work remotely to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus.

In its response statement Box writes that it’s enacted its business continuity plans “to ensure core business functions and technology are operational in the event of any potential disruption”.

“We have long recognized the potential risks associated with service interruptions due to adverse events, such as an earthquake, power outage or a public health crisis like COVID-19, affecting our strategic, operational, stakeholder and customer obligations. This is why we have had a Business Continuity program in place to provide the policies and plans necessary for protecting Box’s operations and critical business functions,” the company writes.

In a section on “workforce resilience and business continuity” it notes that work from home practices are a normal part of its business operations but says it’s now extending the option to all its staff, regardless of the office or location they normally work out of — saying it’s doing so “out of an abundance of caution during COVID-19”.

Other measures the company says it’s taken to further reduce risk include suspending all international travel and limiting non-essential domestic travel; reducing large customer events and gatherings; and emphasizing health and hygiene across all office locations — “by maintaining sanitation supplies and encouraging an ‘if you are sick, stay home’ mindset”.

It also says it’s conducting all new hire orientation and candidate interviews virtually.

Box names a number of tools it says it routinely uses to support mobility and remote working, including its own service for secure content collaboration; Zoom’s video communication tool; the Slack messaging app; Okta for secure ID; plus additional unnamed “critical cloud tools” for ensuring “uninterrupted remote work for all employees”.

Clearly spying the opportunity to onboard new users, as more companies switch on remote working as a result of COVID-19 concerns, Box’s post also links to free training resources for its own cloud computing tools.

This report was updated with a correction to clarify that COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus; rather than another name for the virus

Mar
05
2020
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Google Cloud goes after the telco business with Anthos for Telecom and its Global Mobile Edge Cloud

Google Cloud today announced a new solution for its telecom customers: Anthos for Telecom. You can think of this as a specialized edition of Google’s container-based Anthos multi-cloud platform for both modernizing existing applications and building new ones on top of Kubernetes. The announcement, which was originally slated for MWC, doesn’t come as a major surprise, given Google Cloud’s focus on offering very targeted services to its enterprise customers in a number of different verticals.

Given the rise of edge computing and, in the telco business, 5G, Anthos for Telecom makes for an interesting play in what could potentially be a very lucrative market for Google. This is also the market where the open-source OpenStack project has remained the strongest.

What’s maybe even more important here is that Google is also launching a new service called the Global Mobile Edge Cloud (GMEC). With this, telco companies will be able to run their applications not just in Google’s 20+ data center regions, but also in Google’s more than 130 edge locations around the world.

“We’re basically giving you compute power on our edge, where previously it was only for Google use, through the Anthos platform,” explained Eyal Manor, the VP of Engineering for Anthos. “The edge is very powerful and I think we will now see substantially more innovation happening for applications that are latency-sensitive. We’ve been investing in edge compute and edge networking for a long time in Google over the years for the internal services. And we think it’s a fairly unique capability now to open it up for third-party customers.”

For now, Google is only making this available to its teleco partners, with AT&T being the launch customers, but over time, Manor said, it’ll likely open its edge cloud to other verticals, as well. Google also expects to be able to announce other partners in the near future.

As for Anthos for Telecom, Manor notes that this is very much what its customers are asking for, especially now that so many of their new applications are containerized.

“[Anthos] brings the best of cloud-as-a-service to our customers, wherever they are, in multiple environments and provide the lock-in free environment with the latest cloud tools,” explained Manor. “The goal is really to empower developers and operators to move faster in a consistent way, so regardless of where you are, you don’t have to train your technical staff. It works on-premise, it works on GCP and on other clouds. And that’s what we hear from customers — customers really like choice.”

In the telecom industry, those customers also want to get higher up the stack and get consistency between their data centers and the edge — and all of that, of course, is meant to bring down the cost of running these networks and services.

“We don’t want to manage the [technology] we previously invested in for many years because the upgrades were terribly expensive and slow for that. I hear that consistently. And please Google, make this seem like a service in the cloud for us,” Manor said.

For developers, Anthos also promises to provide the same development experience, no matter where the application is deployed — and Google now has an established network of partners that provides both solutions to developers as well as operators around Anthos. To this effect, Google is also launching new partnerships with the Amdocs customer experience platform and Netcracker today.

“We’re excited to unveil a new strategy today to help telecommunications companies innovate and accelerate their digital transformation through Google Cloud,” said Thomas Kurian, CEO of Google Cloud, in today’s announcement. “By collaborating closely with leading telecoms, partners and customers, we can transform the industry together and create better overall experiences for our users globally.”

Mar
04
2020
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Google Cloud announces four new regions as it expands its global footprint

Google Cloud today announced its plans to open four new data center regions. These regions will be in Delhi (India), Doha (Qatar), Melbourne (Australia) and Toronto (Canada) and bring Google Cloud’s total footprint to 26 regions. The company previously announced that it would open regions in Jakarta, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Seoul and Warsaw over the course of the next year. The announcement also comes only a few days after Google opened its Salt Lake City data center.

GCP already had a data center presence in India, Australia and Canada before this announcement, but with these newly announced regions, it now offers two geographically separate regions for in-country disaster recovery, for example.

Google notes that the region in Doha marks the company’s first strategic collaboration agreement to launch a region in the Middle East with the Qatar Free Zones Authority. One of the launch customers there is Bespin Global, a major managed services provider in Asia.

“We work with some of the largest Korean enterprises, helping to drive their digital transformation initiatives. One of the key requirements that we have is that we need to deliver the same quality of service to all of our customers around the globe,” said John Lee, CEO, Bespin Global. “Google Cloud’s continuous investments in expanding their own infrastructure to areas like the Middle East make it possible for us to meet our customers where they are.”

Mar
03
2020
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Datastax acquires The Last Pickle

Data management company Datastax, one of the largest contributors to the Apache Cassandra project, today announced that it has acquired The Last Pickle (and no, I don’t know what’s up with that name either), a New Zealand-based Cassandra consulting and services firm that’s behind a number of popular open-source tools for the distributed NoSQL database.

As Datastax Chief Strategy Officer Sam Ramji, who you may remember from his recent tenure at Apigee, the Cloud Foundry Foundation, Google and Autodesk, told me, The Last Pickle is one of the premier Apache Cassandra consulting and services companies. The team there has been building Cassandra-based open source solutions for the likes of Spotify, T Mobile and AT&T since it was founded back in 2012. And while The Last Pickle is based in New Zealand, the company has engineers all over the world that do the heavy lifting and help these companies successfully implement the Cassandra database technology.

It’s worth mentioning that Last Pickle CEO Aaron Morton first discovered Cassandra when he worked for WETA Digital on the special effects for Avatar, where the team used Cassandra to allow the VFX artists to store their data.

“There’s two parts to what they do,” Ramji explained. “One is the very visible consulting, which has led them to become world experts in the operation of Cassandra. So as we automate Cassandra and as we improve the operability of the project with enterprises, their embodied wisdom about how to operate and scale Apache Cassandra is as good as it gets — the best in the world.” And The Last Pickle’s experience in building systems with tens of thousands of nodes — and the challenges that its customers face — is something Datastax can then offer to its customers as well.

And Datastax, of course, also plans to productize The Last Pickle’s open-source tools like the automated repair tool Reaper and the Medusa backup and restore system.

As both Ramji and Datastax VP of Engineering Josh McKenzie stressed, Cassandra has seen a lot of commercial development in recent years, with the likes of AWS now offering a managed Cassandra service, for example, but there wasn’t all that much hype around the project anymore. But they argue that’s a good thing. Now that it is over ten years old, Cassandra has been battle-hardened. For the last ten years, Ramji argues, the industry tried to figure out what the de factor standard for scale-out computing should be. By 2019, it became clear that Kubernetes was the answer to that.

“This next decade is about what is the de facto standard for scale-out data? We think that’s got certain affordances, certain structural needs and we think that the decades that Cassandra has spent getting harden puts it in a position to be data for that wave.”

McKenzie also noted that Cassandra provides users with a number of built-in features like support for mutiple data centers and geo-replication, rolling updates and live scaling, as well as wide support across programming languages, give it a number of advantages over competing databases.

“It’s easy to forget how much Cassandra gives you for free just based on its architecture,” he said. “Losing the power in an entire datacenter, upgrading the version of the database, hardware failing every day? No problem. The cluster is 100 percent always still up and available. The tooling and expertise of The Last Pickle really help bring all this distributed and resilient power into the hands of the masses.”

The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition.

Mar
02
2020
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Google cancels Cloud Next because of coronavirus, goes online-only

Google today announced that it is canceling the physical part of Cloud Next, its cloud-focused event and its largest annual conference by far with around 30,000 attendees, over concerns around the current spread of COVID-19.

Given all of the recent conference cancellations, this announcement doesn’t come as a huge surprise, especially after Facebook canceled its F8 developer conference only a few days ago.

Cloud Next was scheduled to run from April 6 to 8. Instead of the physical event, Google will now host an online event under the “Google Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect” moniker. So there will still be keynotes and breakout sessions, as well as the ability to connect with experts.

“Innovation is in Google’s DNA and we are leveraging this strength to bring you an immersive and inspiring event this year without the risk of travel,” the company notes in today’s announcement.

The virtual event will be free and in an email to attendees, Google says that it will automatically refund all tickets to this year’s conference. It will also automatically cancel all hotel reservations made through its conference reservation system.

It now remains to be seen what happens to Google’s other major conference, I/O, which is slated to run from May 12 to 14 in Mountain View. The same holds true for Microsoft’s rival Build conference in Seattle, which is scheduled to start on May 19. These are the two premier annual news events for both companies, but given the current situation, nobody would be surprised if they get canceled, too.

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