17.1 million Brits lack essential digital skills for work

Sabina Weston

17 May, 2021

Over 17 million people in the UK lack essential digital skills (EDS) for work, while less than a quarter (23%) of employees reported having received any digital skills training from their employer.

That’s according to a new report released by FutureDotNow, a coalition of companies and civil society groups working in collaboration with the UK government to boost the nation’s digital skills. 

The coalition, which counts BCS, the Chartered Institute for ITDropboxCompTIA, and BT among its members, defines EDS as accessing payslips, booking shifts and leave, avoiding social media disasters, basic password practice, using cloud storage, analysing data, synchronising information across multiple devices, as well as basic cyber security skills such as being able to identify suspicious emails

All of these are not being addressed by the majority of UK organisations, the report has found. It also warns businesses of the risks presented by the lack of EDS among employees, such as slowing the adoption of digital processes, which negatively impacts business productivity and financial performance. This, in turn, leads to businesses being held back and the UK’s global competitiveness reduced.

FutureDotNow chief executive Liz Williams said that the report “reveals a hidden middle between digital exclusion and advanced digital skills which needs addressing urgently”.

“There’s a significant part of our workforce without the essential digital skills required for the new global digital world we’re competing in. Great businesses are underpowered like smartphones with a flat battery because their workforces lack these essential digital skills.

“FutureDotNow and its members, who are already seeing the power of working together to upskill their employees, will be able to help them take action. And our Playbook, launched today is a practical guide to identifying missing essential digital skills and how to go about upskilling employees,” she said.

According to techUK president Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, the pandemic has revealed “an increase in people wanting and needing to acquire essential digital skills”. 

“This has created positive momentum in driving the UK’s digital adoption which we must maintain in order to address the growing mismatch in the demand and supply of digital skills in the UK. FutureDotNow’s initiative to encourage business leaders to share knowledge and skills is critical to ensure the country and our citizens are ready for what comes next,” she added.

Oxford Uni and Oracle join forces on COVID analysis system

Bobby Hellard

17 May, 2021

Oxford University and Oracle have collaborated on a Global Pathogen Analysis System to help governments identify and act on the spread of new COVID variants. 

The system combines Oxford University’s Scalable Pathogen Pipeline Platform, which was first used for tuberculosis, to with the Oracle Cloud Infrastructure to analyse and compare sequence data for COVID. The university has already processed half of the world’s COVID sequences, which is more than 500,000 in total.

The Pathogen Pipeline is available worldwide, 24-hours a day in the Oracle Cloud and its processing capability has been enhanced with extensive new development work from Oracle that enables high performance and security. 

The system will use Oracle’s machine learning services to deliver comprehensive results within minutes of submission before sharing its findings with countries around the world in a secure environment. This includes identifying variants of interest and their potential impact on vaccine and treatment effectiveness. There will be an analytics dashboard to show which specific strains spread more quickly and whether certain genetic features contribute to its increased transmissibility and vaccine tolerance.  

“This powerful new tool will enable public health scientists in research establishments, public health agencies, healthcare services, and diagnostic companies around the world to help further understanding of infectious diseases, starting with the coronavirus,” said Derrick Crook, professor of microbiology in the Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford.

“The Global Pathogen Analysis System will help to establish a global common standard for assembling and analysing this new virus, as well as other microbial threats to public health. This adds a new dimension in our ability to process pathogen data. We are excited to partner with Oracle to further our research using this cutting-edge technology platform.”

The platform will be free for researchers and non-profits to use worldwide and the next steps will be extending the service to more pathogens beyond the COVID pandemic to enable governments to act on future outbreaks quickly. 

Slack Connect vs Microsoft Teams Connect: Is this better than email?

Bobby Hellard

17 May, 2021

Business communication is a hotly contested market with a slew of different services that your organisation can use for internal messaging. However, two companies that always seem to be pitted against each other in this space, Slack and Microsoft Teams, want to take this one step further. They want businesses to talk to other businesses from within their platforms, rather than use emails. 

Slack is a communications platform that, at its most basic, offers internal instant messaging and document sharing services to businesses. Managers and employees create and use various ‘channels’ to talk to each other and these channels help to either differentiate departments or workflows, depending on the preference of the organisation. 

Microsoft Teams is also a comms platform, but it has more emphasis on video conferencing and comes with Office 365 integration. It looks and feels very similar to Slack as it also uses ‘channels’ for collaboration. The two are fierce rivals, but currently seem to have the same goal: Make email obsolete.

Slack Connect

Slack has never hidden its contempt for email and some would say its platform is entirely built for the purpose of squashing the legacy technology. But while businesses can use Slack to talk internally, until recently they still had to depend on email to reach anyone outside their organisation. However, in June 2020, Slack launched a new feature to fix this and (in its mind) kill off email altogether – Slack Connect

Users can connect with external parties by navigating to the sidebar in Slack and clicking on ‘Add Channels’. This will offer up two options: ‘Create a new channel’ or ‘Browse all channels’ and users will need to click on the former. The channel will need a name before it can be created and then to make it different from your internal channels, you’ll need to send an invite to the outside party you wish to speak to. From there the onus is on the receiver who needs to accept the link and set the same channel up on their end (in their own Slack account). This is then verified and approved by account administrators on both sides. 

Microsoft Connect

As Slack would have it, Microsoft Teams is a poorer version of its platform that is only dominating in the space because it comes bundled in with Microsoft’s Office 365 suite of services – the argument being that it is forced upon users rather than something they would necessarily choose to use. Microsoft disputes this, naturally, but it is now offering a service similar to Slack Connect, which it has also named ‘Connect’. 

It’s currently available as a ‘preview’, with a full release scheduled for later in 2021. It works in a similar way to Slack in that you create the channel in your sidebar, under the ‘Your Teams’ section. The shared channel is called ‘Agent Portal Launch’ and once you click on this you’ll have a popup window where you can share a link with your intended party. Once again, it will need approval from administrators on both sides. 

Pros and cons

Users can only have a maxim of 20 organisations at one time with Slack Connect and bringing in anyone new to shared channels means taking someone out. You have to bear in mind that each connection has to be verified by the administrators of your account and the same process on the other end, so initially, it’s a lot more work than a simple email. But if you have a group of businesses you regularly converse with, having a shared channel is easier, faster and more collaborative – you’ll feel less like customers and partners, and more like colleagues. So far, there is no mention of any limits for the number of organisations you can link to with Microsoft Teams Connect. 

The debate around whether or not Teams is as good as Slack is frankly pointless because, as the smaller firm keeps pointing out, Teams comes bundled in with Office 365. Slack on its own doesn’t offer the breadth of services that Microsoft does so the biggest benefit with Teams is working within a suite of services many companies already use. As such, linking Teams accounts together also enables different businesses to work on projects simultaneously. This can be done with Slack as it has an integration with Google Workplace (formerly G Suite) but it’s not one holistic platform, it’s multiple providers joined together. 

However, as the first one to launch, Slack Connect has a head start on new features and security controls. Plus it’s soon to be operating under Salesforce which could potentially increase Slack’s business customers. Analysts suggest that the acquisition will see Salesforce using Slack Connect as an enterprise networking service

Why not just use email?

There are a number of issues that plague email, such as spam and phishing, which can slow productivity and also compromises a company’s security. Add to that the growing list of additional services people are now using to work remotely and connect to partners or customers, which all have to be installed and managed by IT, and things can get very messy, very quickly. Slack’s answer is to have everything you need – coworkers, partners, vendors, customers – in one place. 

It requires a paid Slack account for both sender and receiver, which in itself is an argument to continue with email. While Slack is popular, particularly with startups, it’s but one service in a very competitive market. There’s a very high likelihood that the people you want to speak with are using Microsoft Teams, which reportedly surpassed 75 million daily active users mid-way through 2020.  

Slack is determined to kill off email, however, and it recently added a function to Connect that lets users directly message individuals from outside their organisation. ‘Slack DMs’ works in the same way as Connect in that users send out an invite to a person at another organisation that is monitored by administrators on both sides. The function was initially launched with the option to add a bespoke message to the invite, but Slack had to shut that down after concerns were raised that it could be used to send abusive messages. Despite this, Slack DMs is now available with paid accounts and, so far, there isn’t a similar feature available on Microsoft Teams Connect.

There are lots of (often similar) benefits with both services and also plenty of room for new functions to be added. But it has to be said, there isn’t really enough in either to finally render email obsolete.

Google Cloud and SpaceX partner on Starlink internet service

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

14 May, 2021

SpaceX and Google Cloud Platform (GCP) have struck a partnership that’ll see the two companies deliver data management, cloud services, and applications to enterprise customers across the world.

The agreement will combine SpaceX’s flagship Starlink low-orbit satellite system with Google Cloud’s data centres to provide high-speed broadband to customers on the network edge.

Starlink, a low latency broadband system comprising roughly 1,500 satellites, will base its ground stations within Google’s data centres, with GCP’s high capacity private network supporting the delivery of the global satellite internet service.

The aim is to connect businesses and consumers to the internet and to cloud computing services regardless of where they’re based, and with the highest possible levels of connectivity.

“Applications and services running in the cloud can be transformative for organisations, whether they’re operating in a highly networked or remote environment,” said senior vice president for infrastructure at Google Cloud, Urs Hölzle.

“We are delighted to partner with SpaceX to ensure that organizations with distributed footprints have seamless, secure, and fast access to the critical applications and services they need to keep their teams up and running.”

Combining Starlink’s broadband system with Google’s infrastructure will offer organisations across the world networking availability and speeds that they should expect in the modern age, SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell added.

SpaceX began developing Starlink in 2015, and the system has undergone deployment tests over the last few years. The objective has been to deploy roughly 1,500 satellites by 2021 in order to launch the networking service for enterprise customers, which SpaceX has almost achieved.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also submitted filings in 2019 for approval of up to 30,000 additional satellites to complement the 12,000 Starlink satellites that the FCC had already approved, according to Space News.

SpaceX previously struck a partnership with Microsoft in October 2020 to allow the computing giant to launch a fleet of satellites to host its Azure Space platform. This services the space industry’s mission needs while also claiming to offer high networking speeds with low latency for public and private organisations.

The networking service, powered by GCP, will be available from the second half of this year.

Can IBM buy its way to cloud success?

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

14 May, 2021

IBM has been a fixture of the computing industry almost since its inception, defining various eras with products such as the Model 5150 or Watson, the AI-powered suite of business services. One of the secrets to its longevity has been a powerful ability to reinvent itself when market shifts threaten the viability of its business model. As a result, the company is just as relevant today as it was when founded in 1911. 

While we may not readily associate IBM with cloud computing, this is where the company sees its future, alongside the twin pillars of AI and quantum computing. As such, the firm has launched itself into a radical shift in pursuit of a revenue model reliant on expanding its hybrid cloud business. This is a strategy that’s seen IBM plot to cleave off its managed services business as well as make ten acquisitions within the space of a year, comprising one of the computing giant’s most comprehensive reinventions yet. It’s a process, however, that its executives feel is essential to IBM’s long-term survival.

The ‘$1 trillion hybrid cloud opportunity’

IBM’s leadership has often referenced the “$1 trillion hybrid cloud opportunity” as a key driver for the strategy, and for good reason. The market has shown a long-term move towards cloud services, Gartner VP analyst Craig Lowery tells IT Pro, with many businesses changing their strategies to help their clients achieve their cloud objectives. “Customers have been making their requirements known for many years,” Lowery says. IBM has, like many other companies, eventually had to respond to that, he adds, saying that its leadership “has taken the appropriate actions, as they see it, to align with customer needs”.

This explosive cloud growth coincides with the continued success of businesses such as AWS, Google Cloud and Alibaba, with a wave of digital transformation projects triggering an acceleration in cloud adoption. “Overall, these trends have maintained growth in cloud spending,” says Blake Murray, research analyst at Canalys. “However, increased spending is now happening across almost all industries, with the need for digitalisation, app modernisation, content streaming, collaboration software, online learning and gaming. This is likely to continue, as an increasingly digital world becomes a ‘new normal’.”

State of decline

Just as the fortunes of major cloud giants have surged, the financial power of IBM as a wider entity has dwindled over the previous decade.

Delving into specific business units, we can see that performance declined on all fronts between 2011 and 2016, but especially the Systems and Technology segment. Like for like comparisons beyond this point are difficult, as IBM underwent two internal restructures, once in 2015 then again in 2018, but these moves failed to stem the long-term trend, and revenues continued to decline. At the same time, IBM’s cloud operations – spread across all divisions – began to spark into life, mirroring wider industry trends. 

Today, cloud computing is one of IBM’s most important revenue streams and will continue to grow in significance. The rising value of the firm’s cloud business is clear, and a key reason why its leadership sees cloud computing as a future moneymaker.

Sparking an internal revolution

In October, IBM announced it would carve away its managed services business into a separate entity by the end of 2021. This is a key part of the overall strategy, the company’s vice-president for Hybrid Cloud EMEA, Agnieszka Bruyère, tells IT Pro, with its AI, quantum computing and cloud operations being recast as the three main pillars of IBM’s operations. 

The origins of this strategy stretch back two or three years, she adds, when the company first pinpointed the key role cloud computing would play in its clients’ digital transformation journeys. At that stage, however, 80% of its customers’ workloads were still residing in the data centre. This is partially why IBM is pursuing hybrid cloud. The firm, Bruyère explains, doesn’t consider the public cloud alone to be a viable long-term solution for helping its customers modernise. “It cannot be only a purely public cloud transformation,” she says. “It does not meet the companies’ reality in terms of security, compliance, business model, whatever, and really the best way to respond to companies’ challenges is a hybrid cloud strategy.”

The foundational step on this path was IBM’s record $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat, with the open-source giant brought in to bolster the company’s technology portfolio. Playing a key role in driving this deal forward was Arvind Krishna, who at the time was VP for hybrid cloud but was named CEO in April 2020. His promotion coincided with the recruitment of Bank of America veteran Howard Boville as his replacement. Since then, Bruyère tells IT Pro, IBM has adopted much-needed “clarity” on its hybrid cloud strategy, with the business taking more aggressive steps since.

The pair have played a key role in making a set of strategic acquisitions while paving the way for the divestiture of its entire managed services business. This follows a long history of divestments, Krishna recently commented, with IBM divesting networking in the 90s, PCs back in the 2000s and semiconductors about five years ago.

“We want to make sure we are focusing our investment in this space, and we really want to do it only in this space – hybrid cloud and AI,” Bruyère says. “Another new aspect is about the industrial offerings with the new management, and this is really important because it’s not only about building technical capabilities, but also bringing the regulation layer; the specifics for every industry.” 

The key difference since the leadership reshuffle is a strategic focus on the logistics around hybrid cloud, rather than the technology. The company has made efforts to apply its technology to the needs and requirements of particular industries, taking into account unique security, data protection and regulatory requirements, among other considerations. This was signalled with the launch of IBM Cloud for Financial Services, with specific sector-based services set to follow. 

IBM’s cloud computing ‘shopping spree’ 

The changed approach has also been expressed in the nature of IBM’s ten acquisitions since the Red Hat deal closed in 2019, one of the most recent being Taos Mountain, a cloud consultancy firm. IBM is hoping the services of each business, largely small enterprises, can give its wider cloud offering an added edge. 

Reflecting Bruyère’s assessment of IBM’s new strategic direction, Lowery highlights the importance of professional services in making cloud adoption work as the reason the company has focused on acquiring consultancies. Of course, of the ten, five are involved in consultancy. “The expertise about how to build in the cloud, how to build across clouds, how to build from cloud to your on-premises data centre – which is hybrid – most of that requires skills and expertise that are not readily available for hire, except through a professional services company,” he says. 

Red Hat, meanwhile, fits into the equation perfectly thanks to its technology for containers and container orchestration, as well as its OpenShift family of software products. “That technology is well-suited to building hybrid and multi-cloud solutions where you have one standard way for building applications,” Lowery adds. “It’s not the only way to solve hybrid and multi-cloud scenarios, but it is a valid way, and Red Hat brings IBM the technology to solve that particular set of problems in that way.” 

The rocky road to cloud success

Although the opportunity for IBM is undeniable, so too is the need for urgency. While the size of the cloud market has certainly grown in recent years, the grip of the biggest cloud companies has also tightened; as time passes it becomes increasingly difficult for a challenger to make serious inroads. 

Looking at how prospective customers plan to spend in the coming year, we can also see that IBM faces more of an uphill struggle for business than any other player in this space. 

Turning the tide commercially will be IBM’s most pressing challenge, although we can start to see these efforts pay off with a turnaround in IBM’s financial results for the first quarter of 2021. As far as Murray is concerned, the company is certainly on the right track with the actions it’s taking, especially the decision to spin off its managed services business into an entity named Kyndryl.

“It allows IBM to become much more nimble and responsive,” he explains, “increasing its relevance in a multi-cloud, hybrid world, and reducing competition with the largest systems integrators that will be critical partners for its hybrid cloud and AI offerings. The most important move it has made recently is establishing a new, simplified global sales structure and go-to-market model, giving partners ownership of all but its largest enterprise customers and removing compensation for IBM sales selling into any other accounts.”

Success will very much depend on IBM’s commitment to its new ecosystem and channel model, with a need to reduce complexity and refresh its rules of engagement, he adds. “In the past, IBM has made similar promises but failed to follow through. It now has an opportunity to establish itself as a vendor of partner choice.”

For Gartner’s Craig Lowery, the first thing he’ll be looking for as signs of green shoots would be when his clients begin showing more interest.“We know when a company is making an impact,” he explains, “when Gartner clients start asking about them and are getting the message in the market that the company has made a significant change and that the change has some substance to it.” 

Given the long-term nature of this transition, Lowery advises IBM’s executives to remain consistent in their approach, but also not to shy away from the need to make tweaks as and when required. The fact IBM is making these structural changes, he notes, shows its executives understand the shift that’s required to stay relevant in the future. “It’s clear to me that IBM knows these changes are necessary and that it is willing to do the hard work to make it happen.”

From cigarettes to the cloud: how tech took over F1

Bobby Hellard

17 May, 2021

In the 80s and 90s, tobacco sponsorships were as synonymous with Formula 1 as Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ – and, it’s a testament to the power of advertising that many of the sports most famous cars and drivers can still conjure the memory of a certain brand of cigarette.  

The Williams Renault driven by Damon Hill in 1996 won the Championship, and a mental image of the winning car will show a giant ‘Rothman’s’ logo. Four years earlier, Nigel Mansell did the same but his Williams car is as famous for its great big yellow advert for ‘Camel’. 

In 2006, when motorsport’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), brought in a sport-wide ban on tobacco advertising, nine of the ten Formula 1 (F1) teams had some form of cigarette logo on their cars. However, over the last 15-years, this advertising space has been largely taken over by technology firms.

For the 2021 season, there are logos for at least two technology companies on each car; Oracle is the proud sponsor of the RedBull team, the UK’s Darktrace has a prominent spot on the McLaren’s spoiler, Kaspersky is right at the front of the Ferrari and chipmaker AMD can be seen on closeups of Lewis Hamalton in the Mercedes

NetApp has also partnered with the UK’s Aston Martin team, which is back in F1 after an almost 60-year absence. The firm is providing cloud services to help collect, store and process data from the car, but it’s also a chance to promote NetApp in Britain. The company’s UK director, Chris Greenwood, tells IT Pro that the deal was a great opportunity for the firm to be linked with a British company, pointing out that the NetApp logo appears next to a Union Jack at the front of the car. A space that would not so long ago have been dominated by tobacco brands.

Up in smoke

The influence of tobacco in Formula 1 can be traced back to 1974 with Marlboro’s first partnership with McLaren. The famous brand of cigarette, which is owned by Philip Morris International, is perhaps more well known for its lucrative collaboration with Ferrari, which has arguably produced the sport’s most iconic cars. However, the tobacco industry as a whole was heavily invested in F1 from the mid-80s and lingered well beyond the millennium. But its involvement in sport, in general, goes back hundreds of years, according to sports advertising expert Tim Crow.

“When sport got organised and got big back in the 20s and 30s of the 20th century, you’ll find a lot of tobacco advertising and sponsorship happening then,” Crow points out. “But obviously TV cameras moved in in the 50s and 60s, and at the same time, the legislators were starting to outlaw cigarette advertising on television. So they needed to find another way to do advertising and get onto TV and sport represented a very good way. 

“Professional sport was still growing, still learning the ropes. And big tobacco came along and offered big checks, and sport took them. So it was that combination of sport getting big and getting the TV cameras in, and tobacco companies having to find a new way of getting onto TV without being able to use TV advertising.” 

In the case of Formula 1, cigarette branding almost covered every available space, from cars to drivers’ suits to massive billboards above the race tracks. Its impact was so great that it was still being felt decades later with the 2013 movie Rush, which tells the story of James Hunt’s rivalry with Niki Lauda. Hunt’s 1976 McLaren carries the Marlboro logo and its repeated use in the film forced the British Board of Film Classification to rate it ‘12A’. 

Value in Kind

Modern Formula 1 cars are virtually IoT ecosystems with nearly all components connected and fitted with sensors. Swaths of IT professionals are at the roadside and even further afield, monitoring and analysing continuous streams of data about every facet of performance. Everything from the tread of the tyres to the health of the driver is translated back to the team with various forms of cloud software used to inform race strategy and even predict car failure. 

They’re by no means the most lucrative sports sponsorship deals, but unlike the tobacco companies, tech firms are providing more than just hefty fees. They offer ‘value in kind’ deals ,where F1’s sprawling mass of engineers and analysts can access some of the most advanced hardware and software in the world. 

For example, Darktrace isn’t improving the McLaren car, as such, but it is protecting its data and the IT teams that analyse and share it. Likewise, Oracle has supplied cloud infrastructure to the RedBull team and Mercedes uses HPE’s edge computing services. Simply put, the modern version of F1 couldn’t function without the cloud and analytics, and it has been that way for a number of years. It’s this context that makes F1 a great place for technology sponsorships, Crow suggests.

“So they give the team’s stuff that the teams need to go racing,” Crow explains. “And instead of having to pay cash to do that, they give the teams their people and their knowledge and their expertise and their time and their services to do what is called ‘value in kind’ deals.”

“These are a big feature of sport, particularly, for example, in the Olympics where 60% of the value of total Olympic sponsorship is value in kind deals by B2B companies, who provide the Olympics with a whole range of products and services that the Olympics could not do without in order to put the show on.”

Similarly, the organisers of F1 also have deals with large tech companies. AWS has been a collaborator for the last few years, providing cloud and data analytics services as well as statistical platforms for use in TV broadcasting. A lot of the information that the drivers and teams have is also fed through to the live stream of the race. So you at home know more about the state of the car than which cigarette brand formerly paid for it.

Over two-thirds of companies still run software with WannaCry flaw

Danny Bradbury

13 May, 2021

Four years after the global WannaCry and NotPetya ransomware attacks, two-thirds of companies still haven’t patched the vulnerabilities that caused them, according to cloud network detection and response company ExtraHop.

The company investigated data from its Reveal(x) security platform in the first quarter of 2021 to determine which protocols its customers were running. It found that 88% of them were still running at least one device using SMBv1, which was a pivotal attack vector for the EternalBlue exploit used in the two ransomware attacks. 

Although a single device could mean a company is maintaining it just for use by an attack team, a more worrying statistic was that 67% of companies are running over 10 SMBv1-enabled devices. Over two-thirds (37%) were running more than 50, and 31% of companies checked had over 100 SMBv1 devices on their networks.

The report also highlighted heavy use of two other protocols in Windows servers. The first, called Local Loop Multicast Name Resolution (LLMNR), is an alternative to DNS for resolving basic names within a private network. It has a similar problem to Windows’ old NetBIOS naming service, in that it communicates with all clients on the network rather than a specific server. 

That enables an attacker to listen for and reply to access requests, creating a race condition to harvest the client’s hashed credentials if it establishes a conversation quickly enough. It can then decrypt those credentials, giving an attacker access to a client’s network account, or use them in a pass-the-hash attack.

The other protocol, New Technology LAN Manager (NTLM) v1, is a decades-old network authentication mechanism that has long been obsolete. Nevertheless, over a third (34%) of companies have over 10 devices using it, ExtraHop said. Almost one in five (19%) had over 100 devices using the protocol, despite Microsoft advising people to stop using it altogether in favor of the more secure Kerberos system.

The report also found that few companies had embraced using TLS encryption over HTTP (HTTPS), which browser vendors have aggressively enforced. It found that 81% of enterprise environments were still using HTTP to send access credentials in plain text.

ExtraHop said it analyzed over four petabytes of traffic each day in its investigation of online protocol usage.

Microsoft to shut down Azure Blockchain Service

Sabina Weston

13 May, 2021

Microsoft’s Azure Blockchain Service is set to be retired on 10 September 2021, with users being asked to migrate their ledger data to an alternative offering.

Although the platform still supports existing deployments, it’s no longer accepting new members or projects.

The decision to sunset Azure Blockchain Service after only two years was confirmed earlier this week, with Microsoft announcing its deprecation on 10 May.

With a deadline for the retirement set for 10 September, users are being requested to opt for an alternative platform.

The tech giant also provided a thorough migration guide which aims to guide customers, including GE, J.P. Morgan, Singapore Airlines, Starbucks, and Xbox, through the process, and recommended that they migrate their data to the ConsenSys Quorum Ethereum service.

“Based on your current development state, you can either opt to use existing ledger data on Azure Blockchain Service or start a new network and use the solution of your choice,” stated Microsoft. “We recommend creating a new consortium based on a solution of your choice in all scenarios where you do not need or intend to use existing ledger data on Azure Blockchain Service.”

Blockchain is a form of distributed ledger technology, made famous because it is the system on which Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are built upon. However, there is more to blockchain than just digital money, with the technology also being used by banks to digitise the transaction records of private placements, or by jewellery companies to help track the origin and ownership of precious gems.

Microsoft first started reselling blockchain as a service (BaaS) in 2015, but only launched the fully-managed consortium network, Azure Blockchain Service, in 2019, allowing users to build, govern, as well as expand blockchain networks at scale.

Microsoft has not provided a succinct reason as to what motivated this decision, although it’s suspected that the platform wasn’t performing as well as its rivals.

The process of the shutdown can also be followed on Twitter through @AzureEndofLife, which was created by Codit Azure architect Tom Kerkhove as a way of monitoring the process.

The news of the sunsetting of Azure Blockchain Service comes months after IBM and R3 announced that they were working together to provide clients with new options to scale blockchain technology while ensuring performance, compliance, and data privacy.

VMware names Raghu Raghuram as new CEO

Bobby Hellard

13 May, 2021

VMware has promoted executive VP and COO Rangarajan “Raghu” Raghuram as its new CEO, with the change taking effect at the beginning of June.

Raghuram replaces current CEO Zane Rowe, who took over as  “interim” CEO while the firm searched for a long term successor for Pat Gelsinger.

A number of analysts predicted a new CEO would come from within the company, with chief operating officer Sanjay Poonen thought to be the most likely candidate. However, Raghuram’s promotion came with the news that Poonen had decided to leave the company after seven years.

Raghuram is an 18-year veteran of VMware and is currently in charge of its products and cloud services. He was part of the team that helped to develop its core virtualisation business and since 2003 and is said to have played a “pivotal” role in the company’s mergers and acquisitions strategy and a key driver of its partnerships with Dell Technologies.

“Congratulations to my good friend @RaghuRaghuram on your well-deserved promotion to CEO. With his tenure of 18 years at VMware, Raghu is practically a founder. I know he will take the company to new heights in the years to come, I am cheering on,” Poonen posted on Twitter.

As CEO, Raghuram will be tasked with leading VMware as it is spun off from Dell Technologies. The latter has an 81% stake in the cloud company but plans to separate in order to generate more revenue and ultimately reduce its debts.

“I am thrilled to have Raghu step into the role of CEO at VMware,” Micheal Dell, chairman of the VMware Board of Directors, said. “Throughout his career, he has led with integrity and conviction, playing an instrumental role in the success of VMware. Raghu is now in position to architect VMware’s future, helping customers and partners accelerate their digital businesses in this multi-cloud world.”

UK gov pledges post-pandemic digital skills boost

Sabina Weston

12 May, 2021

The UK government has unveiled a new policy and funding programme which aims to ensure that all adults have equal opportunities to learn new skills such as coding.

Announced as part of the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday, the legislation is aimed at supporting the UK’s post-pandemic recovery by providing people with the chance to upskill and retrain regardless of their age. This includes facilitating access to student loans, providing employers with a statutory role in planning publicly-funded training programmes, as well as granting the Secretary of State for Education increased influence in monitoring whether colleges meet local needs.

The new policies are part of the recently unveiled ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’, which last month launched 400 free qualifications ranging from engineering and digital skills to social care.

Available to any adult who has not already achieved a qualification at Level 3, the digital qualifications offer digital skills boot camps in computer science, software deployment, systems infrastructure, cyber security, and coding. The courses have already managed to train 3,000 people, with another 14,000 signed up to attend later this year.

According to the government, the ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ will allow adults to “change careers, upskill regularly, and stay up to date with changing knowledge and technologies”.

BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT described it as “a significant step in the right direction to address the digital skills gap”.

BCS head of Apprenticeships, Annette Allmark, said that the government’s plans “will allow more people to access the training in digital skills they need for their careers – and to develop the skills the economy needs to flourish and ‘build back better’ after the pandemic”.

“Hopefully, this funding will also increase the diversity of people learning digital skills now and in the future. It’s important that the government continues to build on the many excellent training opportunities already available, such as the wide range of popular digital apprenticeships,” she added.

Allmark also stated that “there’s never been such a significant demand for digital skills – not just for an increasing number of digital occupations, but across all occupations as a result of businesses having to digitally transform during COVID”.

According to a recent study, the majority of surveyed HR decision-makers in the UK said they believed reliance on advanced digital skills was going to increase over the next five years. Despite this, participation in A-Level and further education IT courses has declined, with the number of students taking IT subjects at GCSE level falling by 40% since 2015.

However, there is always time to retrain: the new legislative measures aim to assist adults in gaining the competencies required for better-paid employment, which often require candidates to prove that they have the necessary skills. These jobs were found to be notoriously understaffed, with employers unable to fill a quarter of their vacancies due to a lack of employees with the right skills even prior to the pandemic, according to the government.

Allmark said that the areas dealing with “significant shortages of skilled people” are “vital sectors” including artificial intelligencecyber security, and software development

“In addition, the digital transformation in the NHS has accelerated during the pandemic with technology being widely used across the service,” she added.