Cisco expects chip shortage to last another six months

Sabina Weston

26 Apr, 2021

The global semiconductor shortage will last for at least another six months, according to Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins.

Robbins told the BBC that it would take “another six months to get through the short term” of the global chip shortage, adding that the crisis is unlikely to be fully resolved until 2022.

“The providers are building out more capacity. And that’ll get better and better over the next 12 to 18 months,” he said.

According to Robbins, the shortage has been caused by unprecedented demand for semiconductors, which “go in virtually everything”.

“When COVID hit, everyone thought that the demand side was going to decline significantly and in fact we saw the opposite,” Robbins said. “And at the same time demand went up instead which was a complete shock to so many of us.”

The UK’s first national lockdown saw a massive surge in demand for virtual office components such as laptops and network peripherals as companies scrambled to accommodate their employees in the mass shift to working from home

Robbins’ statement comes as the European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton announced plans to hold discussions with Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger and TSMC Europe president Maria Marced on 30 April.

Breton is reportedly looking to secure the EU’s role in chip production by persuading a leading chip manufacturer, most likely TSMC, to open a fabrication plant in the region, with France, Germany, or Poland mentioned as potential locations.

Opening a major factory in Europe would help the continent to become less reliant on shipments coming in from Asia, which has proven increasingly difficult due to pandemic travel and transport restrictions. Breton is seeking to double the EU’s share of global semiconductor production to 20% by 2030.

“Increasing our autonomy does not mean isolating ourselves in a world where supply chains are global,” Breton told Reuters. “In parallel to exploring how we can increase Europe’s capacity…we will continue to build bridges with international partners – but with us in the driving seat,” he added, confirming the meetings.

NHS adopts predictive AI tech from controversial startup

Zach Marzouk

26 Apr, 2021

The NHS has partnered with AI startup Faculty to improve its forecasting and predictive capabilities to improve patient care.

The new partnership, which saw Faculty appointed as a partner following a tender process, will reportedly help the NHS to build on its success using AI so far and address new areas where AI forecasting tools can improve service delivery and patient care, such as understanding and predicting A&E demand and winter pressures.

Faculty has been working with the NHS during the COVID-19 pandemic and developed the Early Warning System (EWS). This AI tool is purportedly based on Bayesian hierarchical modelling, using aggregate data to warn hospitals about potential spikes in cases so they can divert staff, beds and vital equipment to where it’s needed.

Currently, there are around 1,000 users of the forecasts across the NHS, who use the outputs for their own analysis or to help inform the prioritisation of safe care delivery for patients on a daily basis, according to Faculty.

“The response to the pandemic has demonstrated the importance and impact of using data and machine learning techniques to make predictions about the future and inform more effective decision-making, wrote the company.

“The techniques applied in the EWS allow forecasts to use specific information from that trust, as well as incorporating a broader set of contextual information that impacts the forecast, such as what’s happening in COVID-19 admissions in other local hospital trusts.”

Faculty has faced controversy in the past when it comes to government contracts. Last year, the startup, which had worked on the Vote Leave campaign, won a contract to analyse social media data, utility bills and credit score ratings, according to the Guardian. However, the full details were unknown as the published version of the contract was partly redacted.

After facing pressure from Open Democracy and Foxglove in June last year, the UK government released contracts governing its deals with a number of companies including Faculty. It emerged the Dominic Cummings-linked firm was being paid over £1 million to provide AI services for the NHS, with Open Democracy claiming that the terms of the deal were changed after initial demands for transparency were made under a FOI request.

Furthermore, cabinet minister Lord Agnew owed £90,000 of shares in the company when it was awarded a £2.3m contract from the NHSX to help run the NHS Covid-19 Data Store, according to Digital Health. A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed the conflict of interest, although the organisation found “no evidence he was involved in awarding or managing the procurements”. It also notes he relinquished his shares on 23 August 2020.

At the start of the month, NHS Digital signed a deal with Scandit, an augmented reality solutions provider, to digitise the UK’s Covid testing process. The company was going to provide the NHS with a data capture service in the form of barcode scanning technology to make it easier to track and identify tested samples.

Huawei bolsters cloud services as hardware unit falters

Bobby Hellard

26 Apr, 2021

Embattled Chinese telecoms giant Huawei is pivoting towards software and cloud services in a bid to attract more developers.

The firm launched six new cloud products over the weekend, further expanding its ambitions to take on the likes of Alibaba, Amazon, and Google, according to CNBC

The six cloud products include containers, artificial intelligence (AI) programming assistants, databases, computing services and infrastructure software. Each was launched at the company’s three-day developer conference in Shenzhen, which has cloud, AI and open source as its main theme.

The announcement also included a $200 million investment in Huawei’s developer programme, which aims to boost its software ecosystem and cloud services. 

Huawei’s cloud efforts have paid off, according to Canalys Research, with revenues jumping 168% year on year in 2020. However, the firm is still far behind the likes of Amazon and Alibaba in China. Huawei Cloud is currently the second-largest player in China with a 17.4% market share, compared to Alibaba’s 40%, according to Canalys.

“By 2025, 100% of enterprises around the globe will be utilising cloud technology,”  said Richard Yu Chengdong, executive director of Huawei. “Cloud is the future of the ICT industry and the foundation for enterprises digital transformation. Developers are the soul of the industry.”

The cloud update comes after a tough year for Huawei, with its hardware unit struggling in the face of US sanctions. Its 5G equipment and services have been shunned in the US and UK over security fears and its smartphone sales have declined swiftly. It is widely believed that the lack of Google services on its Mate and P series of handsets is a big turn off for Western customers – although reports also suggest a decline in China too. 

The firm has been rapidly building out its own operating system, pivoting Harmony OS from an IoT-focused platform to one that can work on high-end smartphones. It is due to be released on Huawei handset in the coming weeks, but it’s still in need of development and is a far cry from Android

Intel’s data centre business shrinks 20% year-on-year

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

23 Apr, 2021

Intel’s data centre division sustained a 20.5% year-on-year decline, according to the firm’s first-quarter financial results for 2021, with overall revenues falling by 1%.

The embattled US chipmaker earned $19.7 billion during the first three months of 2021, with its data centre business accruing $5.56 billion. This, however, represents a $1.43 billion drop in earnings for its data centre business compared with the first quarter of 2020.

Intel’s overall revenues remained roughly flat, falling 0.6% over this period, with a 54% surge in revenue for notebook CPUs, driven largely by COVID-19, offsetting declines elsewhere.

“We are in a slowdown of cloud consumption – the cloud market typically goes through two to three quarters of purchasing activity and then one to two quarters of digestion,” Gartner VP Analyst and Intel analyst Alan Priestley told IT Pro. “Throughout 2020 cloud was a buying period and now we are entering a digestion period.

“The overall enterprise market is still impacted by the pandemic, 1Q20 was relatively strong (pre-pandemic) but it has been in decline since. Both Intel’s average selling price and units sold were down in this report while in 1Q20 they were relatively strong.”

The company described its data centre revenue as “better than expected” in a call with analysts, with Intel’s chief financial officer, George Davis, suggesting he expects revenues to increase through the rest of the year. This is because he expects momentum to pick up in the firm’s dealings with enterprise and government customers.

Intel is also pinning its hopes of a data centre recovery on the launch of its third-gen Intel Xeon Scalable processor, codenamed Ice Lake, which claims to deliver 62% greater performance against the previous generation of data centre chips.

The company also claims that this chip is the only data centre CPU with built-in artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced security capabilities.

Intel faces competition, however, in the form of Nvidia’s newly-announced Arm-based data centre CPU, which combines Arm CPU cores with a low-power memory subsystem to help it analyse gigantic datasets.

Dubbed Nvidia Grace, the launch of this chip is an attempt to topple Intel in the data centre market, after its chief executive Jensen Huang outlined plans to go after the chipmaker in August 2020.

In an interview with the Financial Times (FT), he spoke of the firm’s intentions to supply “the full technology stack needed to run data centres”. This launch also comes a year after Nvidia’s $7 billion acquisition of Mellanox Technologies, which makes critical data centre components.

Intel recently announced plans to revitalise its business after a rocky year, with the firm investing $20 billion into building two Arizona-based factories, alongside the pursuit of its integrated device manufacturing (IDM) 2.0 strategy.

This strategy will also see the company launch a fully-fledged foundry service, which will involve making custom CPUs for tech firms and national governments.

New Chrome OS update makes it easier to check for hardware faults

Bobby Hellard

22 Apr, 2021

Google has released a diagnostic app for Chrome OS that lets users initiate a scan for hardware faults within a Chromebook.

The app is part of a recent update to Chrome OS that also aims to reduce the number of tabs you open by giving the launcher more instant capabilities.

The diagnostic app will be accessible from the launcher so users can instantly scan various parts of their device for issues. This can be used on their Chromebook’s CPU, memory, and battery and give quick insights on what might be slowing their device down.

The Chromebook launcher, which is where users can normally find apps, local files, or Google search, will now also include a calculator, weather updates, stock prices, and even quick word definitions in an attempt to create a single source for all of a Chromebook user’s needs.

For example, if the battery is draining faster than one would normally expect, the app can run a ‘discharge test’ to see if the hardware is the cause of the problem. The app will also offer up links to relevant support articles and save the test results in a session log that can be shared with customer support teams if the problem is severe enough. There will also be a list of standard troubleshooting advice for more minor faults.

In the coming weeks, Chrome OS will also receive the ‘Live Captions‘ feature that was recently added to the Chrome browser. These are automatic, real-time captions for any media that has audio, and will be an option on “most” Chrome OS devices inside the Accessibility menu.

The updates come as Chromebook sales continue to increase, according to recent Gartner research, which suggests that shipments reached “triple figures” for the first quarter of 2021. This follows on from strong sales in Q4 of 2020, where Canalys suggested demand was “through the roof“.

Microsoft to help Met Office build world’s most advanced climate forecasting supercomputer

Sabina Weston

22 Apr, 2021

The UK’s Meteorological Office has signed a multimillion-pound agreement with Microsoft for the provision of a new supercomputing capability designed to protect the public and infrastructure from the effects of severe weather brought on by climate change.

Part of a £1.2 billion investment fund announced last year, the new supercomputer will be built using HPE’s Cray supercomputer hardware and will place it in the top 25 supercomputers in the world, and twice as powerful as any other in the UK.

Apart from providing highly-accurate weather forecasts, it will also be powered entirely by renewable energy and will use market-leading energy efficiencies, saving 7,415 tonnes CO2 in the first year of operational service alone.

With work on the supercomputer already underway, it’s expected to become operational in July 2022.

The liquid-cooled HPE Cray EX supercomputer will be used to create elaborately detailed city-scale simulations, designed to improve the accuracy of localised weather predictions. The data will also be used to improve city design and help reduce risks associated with the rollout of new transport networks.

The deal will see Microsoft provide the Met Office with Azure’s supercomputing as a service platform, including those across its artificial intelligence (AI) and high-performance data archive systems.

In order to be able “to make progress with the ecological challenges we face, [this] requires innovation, technology, and partnerships”, according to Microsoft UK CEO Clare Barclay.

“The potential of the deep expertise, data gathering capacity and historical archive of the Met Office, combined with the sheer scale and power of supercomputing on Microsoft Azure will mean we can improve forecasting, help tackle climate change and ensure the UK remains at the forefront of climate science for decades to come,” she said.

Met Office chief executive Penny Endersby said that, by working with Microsoft, the Met Office “will provide the highest quality weather and climate datasets and ever more accurate forecasts that enable decisions to allow people to stay safe and thrive”.

“This will be a unique capability which will keep not just the Met Office, but the UK at the forefront of environmental modelling and high-performance computing,” she added.

The news comes as the UK government signed a new three-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Microsoft, which provides public sector organisations with discounts and beneficial terms for Microsoft 365, Azure, and associated consulting services. The new MOU, titled the Digital Transformation Arrangement 2021 (DTA21), is the first to also include Dynamics 365 and Power Platform cloud services.

Google Meet updates aim to combat meeting fatigue

Bobby Hellard

21 Apr, 2021

Google has unveiled a host of new functions for the web version of its video conferencing platform Google Meet.

The updates mainly focus on hosts with new options that aim to make presentations more engaging, but there are also AI-based video quality enhancements that aim to make participants feeds clearer.

These updates are a refresh for both the service and its users, with Google looking to reduce “meeting fatigue“. Users can choose to have their video feed in a standard tile in the grid or as a floating picture, which can be moved and resized or even minimised completely. Google says it’s also planning that will enable users to turn off the self-feed across all Google Meet calls.

“The new Meet enhancements are largely inspired by customer and user feedback,” the tech giant said in a blog post. “Beginning next month, desktop and laptop users will see a new, richer user interface with an array of easy-to-access features that make meetings more productive and inclusive.”
Meet’s new user interface, which will be available in May, will include easy-to-access features for more productive and inclusive meetings. Presenters will be able to pin and unpin content midway through a presentation and make the content tile the same size as participant tiles. While they will still see the full presentation, the presenter will have a better view of reactions. 

Controls are also getting a rejig, with an update to the bottom navigation bar. Dial-in codes, attachments, call lists, chat and other functions will all sit along the bottom for ease of access, with Google also aiming to increase screen space for more participants. 

Participants might also look a little better thanks to some automated light adjustments. This feature, due to arrive on Meet in the coming weeks, will detect users that appear underexposed and enhance the brightness for them. The same software will also zoom in if a participant needs it and position them squarely in front of the camera.

As with seemingly all video conferencing platform updates, Google will be adding more fun backgrounds. There will be three: a classroom, a party and a forest, set to be released in the coming week. 

UK gov agrees new three-year cloud deal with Microsoft

Zach Marzouk

21 Apr, 2021

The UK government has signed a three-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Microsoft to help public sector organisations continue to unlock the benefits of cloud computing and business applications.

The MoU is titled “Digital Transformation Agreement 2021” and allows all eligible public sector organisations to benefit from discounts and beneficial terms for Microsoft 365, Azure, and for the first time, Dynamics 365 and Power Platform cloud services.

The agreement renews the existing DTA MoU as a three-year agreement and will run from May 1 2021 to April 2024. It was negotiated between the tech giant and the Crown Commercial Service.

The relationship between the tech giant and the government has become increasingly focused on cloud services since the latter launched its Cloud First policy in 2013 which was reassessed in 2019 and remains a flagship technology policy, according to Microsoft.

“This new agreement with Microsoft builds on the government’s One Government Cloud Strategy, which supports the key principle of treating government as one single customer,” said Gareth Rhys Williams, the government chief commercial officer.

“It shows the government’s determination to drive transformation as well as adopt value for money technologies that improve services and ensure government departments and their staff have the digital tools they need, now and in the future.”

This isn’t the only company to have signed an MoU with the government. AWS signed one in November last year to help accelerate the public sector’s digital transformation drive and raise the level of participation among smaller cloud providers.

In June last year, UKCloud signed an MoU to allow the company to offer its services to the public sector either directly or indirectly through its partner community. The month before that, Google Cloud signed a similar agreement to provide cloud computing to the country’s public sector agencies.

The agreement, which isn’t legally binding, was set to make it easier and more affordable for public sector agencies to access the full range of Google Cloud services for digital transformation.

Hackers exploit Pulse Secure VPN flaws in sophisticated global campaign

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

21 Apr, 2021

At least two major hacking groups have deployed a dozen malware families to exploit vulnerabilities in Pulse Connect Secure’s suite of virtual private network (VPN) devices to spy on the US defence sector.

Hackers infiltrated the Pulse Connect Secure (PCS) platform by exploiting CVE-2021-22893, a critical remote code execution flaw rated a maximum of ten on the threat severity scale, in combination with a number of previously discovered vulnerabilities

Ivanti, Pulse Secure’s parent company, has released mitigations for the flaw, as well as a tool to determine if customer’s systems have been compromised, although a patch won’t be available until May 2021.

The purpose of the hack, and the scale of the infiltration, isn’t yet clear, but researchers with FireEye have linked the attack to Chinese state-backed groups. Although the predominant focus of their investigation was infiltration against US defence companies, researchers detected samples across the US and Europe. 

They were first alerted to several intrusions at defence, government and financial organisations around the world earlier this year, based on the exploitation of Pulse Secure VPN devices. They weren’t able to determine how hackers obtained administrative rights to the appliances, although they now suspect Pulse Secure vulnerabilities from 2019 and 2020 were to blame, while other intrusions were due to CVE-2021-22893.

They identified two groups, referred to as UNC2630 and UNC2717, each conducting attacks during this period against US defence agencies and global government agencies respectively. They suspect that at least the former operates on behalf of the Chinese government, although there isn’t enough evidence to make a determination on the second.

FireEye has recommended that all Pulse Secure Connect customers should assess the impact of the available mitigations and apply them if possible. They should also use the most recent version of the Pulse Secure tool to detect whether their systems have been infiltrated. 

Scott Caveza, research engineering manager with Tenable, said that alongside the new flaw, attackers also seem to be leveraging three previously fixed flaws including CVE-2019-11510, CVE-2020-8243 and CVE-2020-8260. The first of the three, which has been routinely exploited in the wild since it was first disclosed in August 2019, was among Tenable’s top five most commonly exploited flaws last year. 

“Because it is a zero-day and the timetable for the release of a patch is not yet known, CVE-2021-22893 gives attackers a valuable tool to gain entry into a key resource used by many organizations, especially in the wake of the shift to the remote workforce over the last year,” said Caveza. 

“Attackers can utilise this flaw to further compromise the PCS device, implant backdoors and compromise credentials. While Pulse Secure has noted that the zero-day has seen limited use in targeted attacks, it’s just a matter of time before a proof-of-concept becomes publicly available, which we anticipate will lead to widespread exploitation, as we observed with CVE-2019-11510.”

Trend Micro research previously found that attackers were heavily targeting VPNs, including exploiting flaws present in Fortinet’s VPN and Pulse Connect Secure.

Adobe co-founder Charles Geschke dies aged 81

Bobby Hellard

19 Apr, 2021

Charles “Chuck” Geschke, the co-founder of Adobe and the co-creator of the portable document format (PDF), has died at the age of 81. 
Together with John Warnock, Geschke set up Adobe in 1982 and helped to develop many software innovations that are still in use today, almost 40 years later. 

The current CEO of Adobe, Shantanu Narayen, sent an email to employees announcing Geschke’s passing. 

“It is with profound sadness that I share that our beloved co-founder Dr Chuck Geschke, has passed away at the age of 81, leaving an indelible mark on our company and the world,” Narayen wrote. “This is a huge loss for the entire Adobe community and the technology industry, for whom he has been a guide and hero for decades.”

Imaging Science Laboratory

Geschke was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1939 and enjoyed a successful career in maths and technology long before co-founding Adobe. He taught mathematics at John Carroll University in the 1960s before completing a PhD in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in 1972. 

After his studies, Geschke began working at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), building a mainframe computer and developing programming tools for the Xerox Star workstation. In 1978, he started the Imaging Sciences Laboratory at PARC and researched graphics, optics and image processing. While working at the labs he hired a computer scientist called John Warnock with whom he formed a strong working partnership.

Warnock and Geschke developed interpress – a paged description language (PDL) – but were unable to convince Xerox management of its commercial value. The two men left to form their own company, with PDL eventually forming the basis of PostScritpt. 

Adobe Creek

Like a number of today’s biggest tech firms, Adobe was founded in a garage – John Warnock’s, to be precise – but the startup was originally called “Adobe Creek”. PostScript was developed on Apple computers and resulted in one of the first desktop publishing systems – users could see their documents on screen, exactly as they would appear in print. This was known as WYSIWYG, an acronym for What You See Is What You Get, and helped to create a whole new industry within printing and has led to one of the most popular software suites of all time. 

Geschke was Adobe’s COO from 1986 to 1994 but retired in 2000. In 1992 he was kidnapped at gunpoint and held captive for four days by two men who tried to demand ransom from his wife, Nancy “Nan” Geschke. He was found, unharmed, and the two men were sentenced to life terms in state prison. 

In 2009, Geschke was awarded the National Medal of Technology by Barack Obama, but despite this and his contribution to the modern world, Geschke remained a very grounded man. 

“He was really a humble, humble man – I can say that, as his wife,” Nan Geschke told Mercury News. “He was very proud of his success, of course, but he was very circumspect about how much he had to do with that.”