All posts by Sabina Weston

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.

Zoom launches $100 million fund for app developers


Sabina Weston

20 Apr, 2021

Zoom has announced a $100 million (£71.5M) venture fund that aims to “stimulate growth” of the video conferencing platform’s ecosystem of Zoom Apps, as well as their integrations, developer platform, and hardware

The newly launched fund will invest in developer partners with “an early market traction” who propose viable products with the potential to benefit the experience of Zoom users.

Chosen companies will be awarded initial investments of between $250,000 (£179,000) and $2.5 million (£1.8 million) to develop the new solutions to be used by Zoom customers.

The company announced that, at the time being, “dozens” of Zoom Apps are being developed and are “an important component in building the future of video communications”.

Although the announcement can be seen as an effort by the company to remain relevant in the face of the post-pandemic return to the office, Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan hinted that the fund was inspired by his own experience in launching the video conferencing platform back in 2011.

“Without the support of early investors, Zoom would not be what it is today. What I’ve learned over the past year is that we need to keep meetings productive and fun. My hope is that the Zoom Apps Fund will help our customers meet happier and collaborate even more seamlessly, and at the same time help entrepreneurs build new businesses as our platform evolves,” he said.

The announcement of the fund comes less than a month after the company launched new tools for developers to help them build video-based applications and websites with fully customisable, native user interfaces, called Video SDK. Developers can also access APIs, webhooks, chatbots, and even an analytical platform that provide real-time data on their builds, such as customer engagement and performance figures.

As one of the biggest beneficiaries of the pandemic, Zoom experienced a 355% rise in adoption in the second quarter of 2020 as consumers and businesses adopted video conferencing platform following the mass shift to remote working. However, the gradual reopening of working spaces and offices means that Zoom might be cast away in favour of traditional face-to-face meetings.

This has prompted the company to reveal new features aimed at hybrid workforces, including new updates to its Zoom Rooms video conferencing hardware suite.

IBM’s infrastructure services spin-off to be named Kyndryl


Sabina Weston

13 Apr, 2021

IBM has unveiled the name of its Managed Infrastructure Services business which is to become a fully-fledged public company by the end of this year.

The company previously referred to the spin-off as simply ‘NewCo’, but it has now been announced that the new infrastructure services company is to be named Kyndryl – a combination of the words ‘kinship’ and ‘tendril’.

The news comes six months after IBM declared that it would be splitting its business into two separate entities, bringing an end to a strategy that saw it attempt to shift towards cloud growth while maintaining a foothold in its legacy business.

Martin Schroeter, who was appointed Kyndryl CEO at the beginning of this year, said that the name “evokes the spirit of true partnership and growth”.

“Customers around the world will come to know Kyndryl as a brand that runs the vital systems at the heart of progress, and an independent company with the best global talent in the industry,” he added.

According to Kyndryl chief marketing officer Maria Bartolome Winans, “creating a name is just the start of our journey as a brand”.

“It will help identify us and support recognition, but the meaning of the name will be built and enhanced over time from our behaviours, aspirations and actions, and what we enable our customers to do. Our vision is to be the leading company that designs, runs and modernises the critical technology infrastructure of the world’s most important businesses and institutions, ultimately powering human progress,” said Winans.

Kyndryl’s headquarters are to be located in New York City, which Schroeter described as “one of the world’s most vibrant and global urban centres”, adding that the decision “underscores [Kyndryl’s] commitment to the economic health of cities”. IBM’s headquarters are to remain nearby, in Armonk, NY.

Despite being a newly-formed company, Kyndryl is uniquely positioned as a well-established business thanks to its ties with IBM, which already holds a global base of 4,600 customers.

The tax-free deal of separating Kyndryl from IBM is expected to be finalised by the end of 2021, with the latter set to focus entirely on its AI capabilities and the hybrid cloud

NHS to digitise coronavirus testing with new Scandit deal


Sabina Weston

8 Apr, 2021

NHS Digital has signed a deal with augmented reality (AR) solutions provider Scandit in an effort to digitise the UK’s Covid testing process.

The Swiss software company will provide the NHS with a data capture service, which will be available for free to any hospital or NHS organisation involved in Covid test tracking, PPE tracking, or patient care, until 30th November 2021.

Specifically, the company will be deploying barcode scanning technology which will make it easier and faster for healthcare workers and volunteers to track and identify the tested samples. Test site staff members will be able to identify patients from a safe distance, avoiding the risk of contagion, by scanning a barcode on a booking form with the help of a smartphone.

After the samples are taken, they will be stored in a vial with a barcode attached to it, allowing staff to quickly scan it in order to ensure the test sample matches the booking ID and minimise mistakes.

The announcement of the deal comes days after the government proposed twice-weekly rapid Covid-testing which would be made available to everyone in England starting 9 April.

Rapid testing has so far been available to those considered to be most at risk, such as persons over 60 and with underlying health conditions, as well as people who are unable to work from home and frontline NHS staff. However, the government is now encouraging everyone to take regular tests, in order to prevent outbreaks as well as return to “a more normal way of life”.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said that, due to one in three Covid carriers being asymptomatic, “regular rapid testing is going to be fundamental in helping us quickly spot positive cases and squash any outbreaks”.

“The vaccine programme has been a shot in the arm for the whole country, but reclaiming our lost freedoms and getting back to normal hinges on us all getting tested regularly,” he added.

Due to the more regular Covid testing pitched by the government, the NHS is facing a significant increase in workload over the coming weeks. The process is to be facilitated with the help of Scandit-supplied technology, at no extra cost.

Commenting on the deal, Scandit CEO Samuel Mueller said that the Swiss software company’s tech “ensures that tests can be tracked quickly and easily”.

“It also integrates easily with smartphones, meaning that the NHS has been able to scale the number of testing sites and make it easy to deploy home-testing effectively. There is no acceptable margin of error. Our clinical-quality barcode scanning technology delivers a highly accurate read rate whether the scan is happening through a car window at a drive-in mobile test site or by someone who is self-testing at home,” he added.

Mueller said that Scandit has been “helping NHS Digital digitise their nationwide testing process since the start of the pandemic”.

“We have taken steps to support the NHS at every step of the way to integrate our technology into the complex NHS IT infrastructure seamlessly. We look forward to continuing this partnership and helping the NHS make it possible to deliver quick Covid-19 tests for every UK resident that needs it,” Mueller added.

Microsoft is submerging servers in boiling liquid to prevent Teams outages


Sabina Weston

7 Apr, 2021

Microsoft has revealed that it’s been experimenting with a “two-phase immersion cooling technology” to prevent its data centre servers from overheating and causing outages across its cloud-based communications platforms such as Microsoft Teams.

At a Microsoft data centre on the bank of the Columbia River in Washington state, engineers are submerging servers in a steel holding tank filled with boiling liquid.

Unlike water, which is seen as precarious to electronic equipment, the liquid used by Microsoft engineers is harmless to the server hardware as it’s designed to cool its processors by carrying away the heat as it boils.

The liquid has been engineered to boil at 50 degrees Celsius, which is 50 degrees cooler than the boiling point of water. The lower temperature has been specifically chosen in order to carry away the heat while allowing Microsoft’s servers to operate at full power without the risk of failure due to overheating.

According to Microsoft’s data centre advanced development group VP Christian Belady, “air cooling is not enough”. 

“That’s what’s driving us to immersion cooling, where we can directly boil off the surfaces of the chip,” he said.

Husam Alissa, a principal hardware engineer on Microsoft’s team for data centre advanced development, said that the tech giant is “the first cloud provider that is running two-phase immersion cooling in a production environment,” which is the next step in Microsoft’s long-term plan to keep up with the increasing demand for cloud computing.

The demand has been fuelled by the rise of remote working, which depends largely on the reliability of collaboration tools such as Teams or communication tools such as Exchange.

In fact, according to Marcus Fontoura, chief architect of Azure compute, two-phase liquid immersion cooling enables increased flexibility for the efficient management of cloud resources, allowing them to manage sudden spikes in data centre compute demand to the servers in the liquid-cooled tanks. The servers run at elevated power without risk of overheating due to  “overclocking”.

“For instance, we know that with Teams when you get to 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock, there is a huge spike because people are joining meetings at the same time,” Fontoura said. “Immersion cooling gives us more flexibility to deal with these burst-y workloads.”

Using specially-designed liquid to cool the servers is not only cheaper than air cooling but also more sustainable than using water, allowing Microsoft to meet its commitment to replenish more water than it consumes by 2030.

LinkedIn tackles UK’s soaring unemployment with a suite of new features


Sabina Weston

1 Apr, 2021

Microsoft and LinkedIn have launched new features to help the UK’s 1.7 million unemployed connect to new job opportunities by promoting their skills and expertise.

The four newly-announced tools include a dedicated Service Page for freelancers and SMBs, a Cover Story feature which lets users share videos of their work, Creator Mode which helps turn a LinkedIn profile page into a content portfolio, and a Career Coach tool which provides personalised guidance for those entering the job market.

The Career Coach is a Microsoft Teams app powered by LinkedIn which uses an AI-based skill identifier to help students better understand their goals, interests, and skills. As a LinkedIn integration, it works by aligning a student’s profile with current job market trends and connecting them to mentors, as well as promoting skills, which LinkedIn managing director Josh Graff described as “the engine of growth”.

“There is tremendous value in job seekers understanding their transferable skills and ensuring they are front and centre when applying to roles,” he said. “Traditional hiring practices of assessing candidates based on their formal qualifications and experience means that so many capable people that are currently unemployed, or facing unemployment, risk being locked out of the job market since they may not tick all the “right” boxes.”

Graff also said that the “already uneven playing field” of the job market had been “further exacerbated” by the pandemic. Last year, LinkedIn was forced to axe 960 jobs, approximately 6% of its global workforce, due to the global health crisis.

Apart from the four new features created in collaboration with LinkedIn, Microsoft also recently launched a new online platform aiming to connect more UK job seekers with companies looking for apprentices.

Announced last month, the Microsoft Apprenticeship Connector seeks to simplify the search process by listing current apprenticeship vacancies across Microsoft’s network of partners and customers, such as Intequal, Firebrand, and GP Strategies.

Commenting on the announcement, Microsoft senior director of Corporate, External and Legal Affairs, Hugh Milward, said that it’s necessary to “change in how businesses identify, recruit and nurture talent”. 

According to Milward, “a truly inclusive recovery will require a skills-based economy and that only happens if you have a skills-based jobs market”.

“We are committed to leading that change by helping people get the skills they need to succeed and employers the tools to make their first of many skills-based hires,” he added.

The news comes just days after chancellor Rishi Sunak urged companies that had benefited financially during the pandemic to invest the money in driving the UK’s recovery and “create jobs in the process”.

According to the most recent ONS findings, 5% of the UK workforce is currently out of work.

Amazon is reportedly developing custom networking chips


Sabina Weston

31 Mar, 2021

Amazon is reportedly gearing up to produce its own networking chips in face of the global shortageThe Information has learned. 

The in-house chips would be used for Amazon’s internal IT infrastructure and AWS, speeding up the cloud division’s data centre servers as well as enhancing its artificial intelligence (AI) services, according to the information obtained by the publication. 

The move would diminish the need for the company to outsource production, which has proven increasingly unreliable in the past year. Although Amazon already manufactures its semiconductor switches in-house, their production is reliant on silicon supplied by San Jose, California-based company Broadcom

In April 2020, the chip manufacturer warned customers that they would be required to place their orders at least six months in advance, instead of the normal two to three months. Broadcom’s VP of sales Nilesh Mistry said that this was due to “unreliable” transport options caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It isn’t clear whether Amazon’s reported decision to develop custom silicon chips for its hardware network switches was influenced by this issue, but the move will likely make it easier for the tech giant to avoid supply chain disruptions and have more control over its own infrastructure.

Amazon’s in-house chip development will be made possible thanks to its 2015 acquisition of Israeli chip manufacturer Annapurna Labs, which the tech giant purchased for $350 million (£254 million).

Israel is also set to be the base of Google Cloud’s new server chip design division. Last week, the tech giant announced that it had hired Intel’s engineering veteran Uri Frank to lead its increasing investments in custom silicon.

Google Cloud’s VP of Systems Infrastructure Amin Vahdat said that the company is “thrilled to welcome Uri Frank as our VP of Engineering for server chip design”, adding that the tech giant had “long looked to Israel for novel technologies including Waze, Call Screen, flood forecasting, high-impact features in Search, and Velostrata’s cloud migration tools”. 

“We look forward to growing our presence in this global innovation hub,” he added.

Apple has also recently started equipping its MacBooks with its own custom ARM-based processors in order to lessen its reliance on Intel. 

Harris Federation disables students’ emails following ransomware attack


Sabina Weston

30 Mar, 2021

Students at London-based Harris Federation schools have been cut off from their email accounts after the trust became the latest educational institution to fall victim to a ransomware attack.

The incident, which took place over the weekend, comes just days after the University of Northampton fell victim to a cyber attack and follows a worrying trend of hackers targeting educational institutions and disrupting student learning, which has already been heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Harris Federation has been forced to “temporarily” disable its email systems and devices of all of the 50 primary and secondary academies that it manages, leaving 37,000 students unable to access their correspondence and coursework.

The academy trust said that the steps were necessary to mitigate the impact of a ransomware attack that encrypted the data on the schools’ IT systems.

It also added that it is “using the services of a specialised firm of cyber technology consultants” as well as “working closely with the National Crime Agency and the National Cyber Security Centre”. Details of the ransom are not publicly available and the trust was not immediately available for additional comment.

In the past five weeks alone, hackers have targeted the University of Northampton as well as Oxford University’s Division of Structural Biology. The recent increase in cyber attacks on educational institutions has prompted the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to issue an alert urging organisations to follow its guidance on ‘Mitigating malware and ransomware.’

NCSC director of operations Paul Chichester labelled the targeting of the education sector by cyber criminals as “completely unacceptable”.

“This is a growing threat and we strongly encourage schools, colleges, and universities to act on our guidance and help ensure their students can continue their education uninterrupted.

“We are committed to ensuring the UK education sector is resilient against cyber threats, and have published practical resources to help establishments improve their cyber security and response to cyber incidents.”

Commenting on the Harris Federation ransomware attack, Ilia Kolochenko, CEO of security company ImmuniWeb said that, “unlike large universities, which can afford spending considerable budgets on cybersecurity, primary schools often struggle to get budgets even for the very foundational security controls, let alone advance cyber defense solutions”.

“Worse, such victims commonly have no choice but to pay the ransom from modest school funds, leaving no money for other activities,” he added.

Kolochenko urged the UK government to “urgently intervene with cyber training, financial and technical support in the UK educational sector”. 

“For example, when buying security software, a volume-discount for all schools in the UK could be huge and make even premium security products affordable. Importantly, cyber police units are also deprived of sufficient funding proportional to surging and sophisticated cybercrime.

“Law enforcement agencies require undelayed financial support to attract new professionals, align forensic capacities with modern cyber threats and perform educational support and awareness among future victims.”

Google Cloud hires Intel exec to ramp up in-house chip production


Sabina Weston

23 Mar, 2021

Google Cloud has hired Intel engineering veteran Uri Frank to lead new server chip design efforts as part of the firm’s increasing investments in custom silicon.

Frank has spent the last two decades at Intel, advancing to Director Of Engineering in 2011 and later becoming VP of Platform and Silicon Engineering. Last year, he was appointed corporate VP of Intel’s Design Engineering Group but chose to leave the role earlier this month. 

It has now been revealed that Frank has been hired by Google and appointed VP of Engineering for the tech giant’s server chip design division which is to be based in Israel.

Announcing the move on his LinkedIn profile, Frank wrote that he “look[s] forward to growing a team here in Israel while accelerating Google Cloud’s innovations in compute infrastructure”, before adding that the tech giant is currently hiring system-on-a-chip (SOC) designers to join its growing sever chip team.

Google Cloud’s VP of Systems Infrastructure Amin Vahdat said that the company is “thrilled to welcome Uri Frank as our VP of Engineering for server chip design”, adding that Frank “brings nearly 25 years of custom CPU design and delivery experience” that will help Google “build a world-class team in Israel”. 

“We’ve long looked to Israel for novel technologies including Waze, Call Screen, flood forecasting, high-impact features in Search, and Velostrata’s cloud migration tools, and we look forward to growing our presence in this global innovation hub,” he stated.

Vahdat also elaborated on the company’s decision to focus on in-house SoC design. 

“Instead of integrating components on a motherboard where they are separated by inches of wires, we are turning to “Systems on Chip” (SoC) designs where multiple functions sit on the same chip, or on multiple chips inside one package. In other words, the SoC is the new motherboard,” he wrote.

The decision to produce custom chips in-house as opposed to outsourcing follows similar moves from companies including AWS and Apple.

This trend has been largely influenced by the difficulties in fulfilling the growing demand for chips, which has resulted in a significant global shortage of components. By manufacturing chips in-house, companies can be more self-sufficient, instead of relying on their suppliers.

Google Cloud hires Intel exec to ramp up in-house chip production


Sabina Weston

23 Mar, 2021

Google Cloud has hired Intel engineering veteran Uri Frank to lead new server chip design efforts as part of the firm’s increasing investments in custom silicon.

Frank has spent the last two decades at Intel, advancing to Director Of Engineering in 2011 and later becoming VP of Platform and Silicon Engineering. Last year, he was appointed corporate VP of Intel’s Design Engineering Group but chose to leave the role earlier this month. 

It has now been revealed that Frank has been hired by Google and appointed VP of Engineering for the tech giant’s server chip design division which is to be based in Israel.

Announcing the move on his LinkedIn profile, Frank wrote that he “look[s] forward to growing a team here in Israel while accelerating Google Cloud’s innovations in compute infrastructure”, before adding that the tech giant is currently hiring system-on-a-chip (SOC) designers to join its growing sever chip team.

Google Cloud’s VP of Systems Infrastructure Amin Vahdat said that the company is “thrilled to welcome Uri Frank as our VP of Engineering for server chip design”, adding that Frank “brings nearly 25 years of custom CPU design and delivery experience” that will help Google “build a world-class team in Israel”. 

“We’ve long looked to Israel for novel technologies including Waze, Call Screen, flood forecasting, high-impact features in Search, and Velostrata’s cloud migration tools, and we look forward to growing our presence in this global innovation hub,” he stated.

Vahdat also elaborated on the company’s decision to focus on in-house SoC design. 

“Instead of integrating components on a motherboard where they are separated by inches of wires, we are turning to “Systems on Chip” (SoC) designs where multiple functions sit on the same chip, or on multiple chips inside one package. In other words, the SoC is the new motherboard,” he wrote.

The decision to produce custom chips in-house as opposed to outsourcing follows similar moves from companies including AWS and Apple.

This trend has been largely influenced by the difficulties in fulfilling the growing demand for chips, which has resulted in a significant global shortage of components. By manufacturing chips in-house, companies can be more self-sufficient, instead of relying on their suppliers.