Box launches free e-signature tool for all customers


Bobby Hellard

27 Jul, 2021

Box has launched a new e-signature function as a free addition to its platform that allows users to complete transactions entirely in the cloud.

The company said that ‘Box Sign’, which is available now, will also come with a robust set of application programming interfaces (APIs), which will allow businesses to modernise and manage all their agreements via the cloud.

With businesses transitioning into hybrid environments where employees are separated between the office and the home, Box hopes its new feature can help to streamline its customer experience by removing any need for physical documentation.

“Every day, more transactions are moving from paper-based manual workflows to the cloud, and we will only see this trend accelerate as companies shift to a hybrid work environment,” said Diego Dugatkin, chief product officer at Box.

“With the addition of natively embedded e-signatures, Box customers will be able to manage the entire content lifecycle in the cloud, realising the value of their content – at no additional cost. From the moment a file is created to when it’s shared, edited, published, approved, signed, classified, and retained, the entire content lifecycle can now happen in the Box Content Cloud.”

The ability to sign off documents in the cloud has come from Box’s $55 million acquisition of Dutch startup SignRequest, which was only announced in February of this year. The takeover was seen as a way for Box to muscle in on Dropbox’s territory, with Box Sign touted as the first use case at the time of the deal.

The cloud service has reportedly come under some investor pressure for middling stock performance during the pandemic and there were even suggestions that the company’s leadership were considering a sale and had held talks with potential buyers.

Box was thought to be well placed to grow during the pandemic and, while it has benefited from the shift to working from home over the last 12 months, its growth has been far lower than rival cloud businesses.

Google Cloud seeks to abandon its ‘Killed By Google’ reputation


Sabina Weston

27 Jul, 2021

Google Cloud is looking to turn around the tech giant’s reputation for sunsetting legacy tools despite their popularity among customers.

This is according to statements made by Google Cloud VP Kripa Krishnan, who told Business Insider that the company will be readjusting its approach towards killing off products:

“We want Google Cloud to be something stable that customers can rely on for a long-term time,” she told the publication on Monday, adding that the company was “obviously (…) not doing the right thing” by sunsetting fan favourites such as Picasa and Reader or even the less popular Google+.

“What we were doing was clearly not working. We are trying to address that head on,” said Krishnan, who leads Google’s Technical Infrastructure team.

The decision to address Google’s poor reputation was prompted by “Killed By Google” – a satirical website and Twitter account run by software engineer Cody Ogden, who keeps track of all the tools Google has decided to shutdown.

Google’s new approach now includes a new policy of notifying customers at least one year in advance that a product will be killed off, excluding instances of an intractable security bug or intellectual property issues.

However, even in these cases, the company will “do everything possible to make migration as effortless as possible for customers”.

“If we need to make a breaking change, we will make sure the burden is on us,” she said.

According to Krishnan, Google Cloud will try to win back the trust of developers by being more supportive of customer needs and “not just announce something”.

“My intent is we don’t have these issues going forward,” she said.

Krishnan’s announcement comes months after Google killed off Cloud Print, its cloud-based printing solution, without providing users with a clear reason for the closure. Last year, the tech giant also unceremoniously abandoned Hangouts, its most popular messaging app, with only a few weeks notice.

Despite this, Krishnan insisted that Google “already [has] dependability and reliability”.

“We just want to make sure we extend it to its fullest extent possible in Google Cloud,” she added.

Rackspace to lay off 10% of workforce


Sabina Weston

26 Jul, 2021

Rackspace Technology plans to lay off 10% of its workforce, with 85% of these roles set to be replaced through its offshore service centres.

That’s according to a regulatory filing submitted by the cloud computing services provider last week, informing the Securities and Exchange Commission, the US market regulator, of its plans.

The document states that on 21 July, Rackspace “committed to an internal restructuring plan, which will drive a change in the types of and location of certain positions and is expected to result in the termination of approximately 10% of the Company’s workforce”.

“The Company anticipates that approximately 85% of these roles will be backfilled in the Company’s offshore service centres,” it added. The affected employees were notified of the decision on the same day, and are expected to leave Rackspace over the next 12 months. The restructuring means that the company will spend between $70 and $80 million (£50-58 million) over the next 12-24 months on “severance payments, healthcare benefits and other exit costs”.

Rackspace will instead focus on “expanding its internal training programme to further develop expertise in cloud services”, such as cloud, data, and cloud native software engineering.

In another regulatory filing, the San Antonio, Texas-based cloud computing company also stated that it’s planning to invest between $65 and $70 million (£47-50 million) in expanding its offerings in areas including “cloud migration, Elastic Engineering, cloud native application development, data/artificial intelligence/machine learning and security services”.

The investments are expected to deliver the company “an estimated $95-$100 million of gross cost savings”.

Commenting on the decision, Rackspace CEO Kevin Jones said that the initiatives will allow the company “to take full advantage of current market trends, drive significant earnings leverage as revenue continues to grow, and compete even more effectively with other cloud service providers”. 

“In addition, we are more closely aligning our Rackers with next-generation service offerings that offer more compelling growth potential both for them and the company,” he added.

Besides its offices in Texas, New Jersey, California, Virginia in the US, Rackspace also has two facilities in Melbourne and Sydney in Australia. IT Pro reached out to find out which out of these offices will be affected by the job cuts but the company has yet to respond. 

Salesforce’s $28bn Slack acquisition: What’s next for workplace collaboration?


Keumars Afifi-Sabet

22 Jul, 2021

Despite the eye-watering $27.7 billion (roughly £20.2 billion) fee involved, nobody raised an eyebrow at Salesforce’s acquisition of the workplace collaboration platform Slack in December 2020. Workplace collaboration is all the rage – especially following the pandemic – with several entities hoping to capitalise on the changing world of work, including Microsoft Teams, Facebook Workplace, and even Citrix, with its multi-billion-dollar Wrike acquisition.

Slack has long been one of the biggest names on the scene, although its early dominance was dwarfed by the emergence of Teams, which surged in popularity thanks to its capacity to tap into the ubiquity of Microsoft products.

With US antitrust regulators clearing the $27.7 billion deal this week – one of the biggest acquisitions in tech history – Salesforce is now free to position Slack as a much stronger challenger.

The CRM giant will also have been buoyed by a 36% surge in year-on-year revenue for the first quarter of the year, with Slack adding 13,000 more paid customers too, taking its total to 169,000. With late-2020 stagnation firmly in the rearview mirror, this is the sort of momentum Salesforce hopes to build on, as it eyes up expanding on cross-business collaboration and undergoing a fundamental rewiring of the nature of work.

Better connected

There were fears in December that Salesforce muscling its way into operations would spell the end for Slack as we knew it. Much of Salesforce’s rhetoric over subsequent months, however, seemed to align well with Slack’s existing plans; namely devising a means to replace email entirely in light of a longstanding antagonism to the legacy system.

Launched last June, Slack Connect is a way for organisations to add up to 20 others into a single Slack channel, allowing businesses to migrate supply chains and external ecosystems into a single hub. It was seen as a smart move – after all, what more proof might you need that you’re onto something when Microsoft Teams launches an effective carbon copy feature? Salesforce sees this tool as the foundation for building on its vision for a ‘digital HQ’ that allows businesses to collaborate across the virtual borders traditionally established between companies.

“We couldn’t be more excited to have Slack as part of the Salesforce family, combining the #1 CRM and the trailblazing digital platform for the work anywhere world,” Marc Benioff, chair and CEO of Salesforce, said after the deal cleared. “Together we’ll define the future of enterprise software, creating the digital HQ that enables every organisation to deliver customer and employee success from anywhere.”

Stewart Butterfield, CEO and co-founder of Slack, and Salesforce president Bret Taylor added in an interview with Reuters that this merger is an opportunity to connect customers to smoothen the process of making business deals. Slack channels, for example, can be recreated to replace all emails, phone calls, and video conferences that might otherwise occur between, say, a sales team doing a deal with a procurement team at another company. Slack’s growing list of integrations also means that documents from third-party platforms such as Google Drive can be signed with services like DocuSign.

Reimagining the workplace

With this acquisition closing, Salesforce has been keen to push the idea of a ‘digital HQ’, which is very much an idea born of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies across the world, the firm says, have learned that surviving as a business is incredibly challenging without means to connect with employees, customers, and partners through digital channels. As such, headquarters are no longer physical locations and are instead mostly based in the cloud, with every industry adjusting to a digital-first environment.

Alluding to the fundamental changes we’ve seen throughout the last few months, Butterfield, who will continue to lead Slack, sees the acquisition as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink and reshape everything about how and where we work”. The merger, the firm adds, will create a business operating system for whatever this new world of work is.

Although Salesforce says it’s committed to Slack’s roadmap and vision, with the platform continuing to operate under its own brand, the firm has suggested it will integrate Slack into its Customer 360 platform. Launched in 2018, this tool gives companies the capacity to connect Salesforce apps and create unified customer IDs to build a single view of the customer. It was built on the technology of a previous acquisition, MuleSoft, to allow companies to connect apps, data sources, and devices across any cloud service or on-premise server. Every Salesforce Cloud and industry-specific platform will now be deeply integrated with Slack, with the platform serving as the new interface for Customer 360.

Integrations remain a priority

Part of Salesforce’s mission to make the digital workplace more accessible also involves expanding the integrations and interoperability in Slack. Speaking to Reuters, Butterfield added Slack will continue to integrate with Microsoft, despite an intense rivalry, because that sits in line with the goal of making it easier for employees to get things done.

“What customers want is interoperability. They don’t want to have to make hard choices,” he added. “We’ll integrate with everyone – Microsoft and Salesforce, of course, but also ServiceNow and Workday, and more or less anyone you can think of.”

Given the expansion of remote working, changing workplace culture, as well as digitisation of the workplace, this could be one of the most important acquisitions in tech history in terms of its timing. This period is very much seen as a fresh start for defining the nature of work, and what the workplace means, although it’s not clear how things will settle once the pandemic is well and truly over and businesses embark on their next, more stable, chapter.

For all this talk about reimagining the workplace, a cross-industry disinclination to define what this actually means suggests it’s still very much an unknown quantity. This acquisition, however, might be the right deal at the right time for both Salesforce and Slack to attack this question head-on, and help position them as influential architects of whatever comes next.

Amazon releases trove of Alexa tools to address developer apathy


Bobby Hellard

22 Jul, 2021

Amazon is aiming to re-energise its Alexa voice platform with the release of a trove of new developer tools, announced at its Alexa Live conference on Wednesday.

The company hopes the new tools will help create more variety on the platform and encourage Alexa device owners to discover and engage with more Alexa apps and services, referred to as ‘skills’.

However, the update has come after a significant drop in new skills being developed over the last three years. As of October 2020, total Alexa skills in the UK were 37,000, and 77,000 in the US, according to research from Voicebot.ai.

The findings suggest that in 2019, the rate of new Alexa skills introduced per day in the US was 58% lower than in 2018, with a further decline of 38% in 2020. The rate of new skills per day in the UK was 66% lower in the first three quarters of 2020 compared to the full year 2019.

Part of the problem is that finding new skills is hampered by its voice-only interface – with users being unable to easily see what’s available at a glance. Amazon has attempted to fix this by launching Alexa-enabled devices with smart screens, but with the launch of new tools that help developers better surface their skills to users, the firm clearly feels more could be done.

This includes a new feature that will see Alexa respond to common requests, such as “Alexa, tell me a story” or “Alexa, let’s play a game”, with personalised skill suggestions based on customer use. And a new “contextual discovery” mechanism will allow customers to use natural language and phrases to accomplish tasks across skills.

For users with screen-based devices, the new tools include widgets and Featured Skill Cards for developers to promote their news apps – essentially as a way to make Alexa skills discoverable like apps on a mobile phone. 

Amazon is also improving the ways in which developers can monetise their applications with support for ‘Paid Skills’, and in-skill purchases.

Microsoft acquires security startup CloudKnox


Bobby Hellard

22 Jul, 2021

Microsoft has announced the acquisition CloudKnox, a security startup that helps businesses manage their cloud access credentials.

The terms of the deal have not been disclosed but it is another addition to Microsoft’s burgeoning security portfolio.

CloudKnox, which was founded in California in 2015, uses automated software to spot and remove cases of unused permissions and virtual identities. It can also be used to show alerts for unusual activity or attempts to use in-active or compromised employee credentials. The firm’s software is already compatible with Microsoft’s Azure, as well as Google Cloud and AWS.

According to Microsoft’s corporate vice president, Joy Chik, recent high-profile breaches have demonstrated just how quickly bad actors can infiltrate systems by exploiting “misappropriated privileged credentials”, a problem that has been exacerbated by a surge in demand for remote access over the past year.

“While organisations are reaping the benefits of cloud adoption, they still struggle to assess, prevent, enforce and govern privileged access across hybrid and multi-cloud environments,” Chik said in a blog post. “Even if they piece multiple siloed systems together, they still get an incomplete view of privileged access.

“Traditional Privileged Access Management and Identity Governance and Administration solutions are well suited for on-premises environments, however they fall short of providing the necessary end-to-end visibility for multi-cloud entitlements and permissions.”

The acquisition also highlights Microsoft’s current focus on securing its cloud services. Last week, the firm announced the takeover of RiskIQ, a startup that provides customers with cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) protection to detect phishing attacks, fraud attempts, and malware infections. Again, however, the terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The tech giant’s own security services have generated over $10 billion in revenue over the past 12 months, which is a 40% increase year-on-year, and one of its fastest-growing business segments.

Is it cloudy in manufacturing?

22 Jul, 2021

More than a quarter of IT directors in manufacturing are concerned about slow performance when running applications in the cloud, according to new research from label design and management software provider NiceLabel. However, eliminating issues around performance and legacy systems integration would spark a faster migration, with 50% ‘much more likely to move their applications to the cloud’ as a result.

How manufacturing approaches its use of cloud deployments will be subjective. As Rohit Gupta, senior product manager at Cognizant, tells IT Pro, some businesses are further along their cloud path than others: “Some manufacturers have taken Industry 4.0 very seriously and have made an effort to implement technologies at scale to adopt it. However, most manufacturers have taken Industry 4.0 one step at a time, first trying to prove the benefits of each technology they implement so they can scale up confidently further down the line. The era of scaling up will arrive when Industry 4.0 is truly realised but we’re not fully there yet.”

IoT and 5G will usher in a new level of connectivity all manufacturers can benefit from and cloud is an essential partner, albeit one that will need to be integrated with a range of new and legacy technologies.

The manufacturing cloud

In the past, manufacturing operations management (MOM) applications were deployed within a manufacturer’s site. With little network capacity, businesses had a very insular approach. As Industry 4.0 continues to develop, and a new age of connectivity expands, MOM applications can move to the cloud, if this is viable.

Speaking to IT Pro, Maddie Walker, Industry X practice lead at Accenture UKI, explains that bringing manufacturers increasingly into cloud environments is the future of their businesses. “Firstly, Industry 4.0 has brought connectivity to the factory floor,” she says. “For example, you have market leaders using digital monitoring and maintenance technologies and automating processes to speed up decision making. You also have leading companies deploying full robotic automation in production. By embedding AI and analytics into operations, and evolving with robotics and digital twin technologies, manufacturers are augmenting their human workforces with technology and providing greater insights.”

Another critical trend is composable IT architectures and how they connect with cloud and hybrid data centre deployments that might be in place. “By identifying available resource pools, the IT architecture will be able to assess, review and determine the availability and utilisation of all IT resource pools – ensuring that there is compute and storage space for operations,” explains Andreas Rindler, managing director at consultancy firm BCG Platinion. “Meanwhile, dynamic resource sharing will mean that the architecture can optimise the utilisation and provisioning of the right resources where and when needed, speeding up processes.”

And the use of digital twins is also expected to expand across manufacturing rapidly. Estimates from Juniper Research put spending on digital twin technologies to be over a third (34%) of total spending by manufacturers this year.

Smart manufacturing

The creation of the smart factory has been a long time coming. Today several technologies are converging to make the manufacturing landscape more intelligent. 

Walker explains that data and analytics are at the core of the smart factory: “Combining IoT with data analytics tools on the cloud allows manufacturers to receive key information at pace and provides them with a detailed picture of where efficiencies can be made across their suite of smart manufacturing products. It’s these insights that allow factories to be ‘smart’ – by linking humans, machines, and products across the value chain and decisions can be made quickly.”

Even with a range of mature and semi-mature technologies available, the manufacturing space can seem sluggish compared to other sectors or industries. Mark Yeeles, vice president of industrial automation at Schneider Electric UK&I, believes the slow pace of digitisation is not entirely the manufacturers’ fault. “Most accounts, several digitisation efforts have yet to achieve their anticipated benefits,” he says. “However, we can’t place all the blame on the technology for not reaching its full potential. The technology is there – frequently, the complexities that operate within running a business or factory that hold it back. 

“For example, many factories and the automation machinery within them aren’t always brand new, made by a singular brand and interconnected by a cutting-edge operating system. Embracing this fact and helping customers to connect by using [technologies] such as the Cloud can help them to scale up and garner greater intelligence to make better business decisions and improve operational efficiency.

There is little doubt that the cloud will have a profound and long-lasting impact on every aspect of manufacturing. As Gupta says, the future is cloudy: “The era of scaling up will arrive when Industry 4.0 is truly realised but we’re not fully there yet. The number of manufacturers currently using cloud in any sophisticated way is minimal because the industry has been slower to keep up with the digital world. However, this will very quickly change as the adoption rate of cloud in manufacturing is staggering – 94% of companies already use a cloud service in some form (according to Flexera). This tells us that there is a lot more to come, and soon, so watch this space.”

Manufacturers can see that the cloud will underpin their businesses, but cost and updating legacy systems are slowing the adoption of Industry 4.0. However, investments must be made to take advantage of the range of technologies integrated to create a smart factory. 

Eric Stoop, CEO of manufacturing software specialist EASE, implores leaders across manufacturing businesses to embrace the cloud now: “While this is understandable, especially as the pandemic continues, history shows us that those who take action in difficult times come out the other side stronger. Manufacturers should view any cloud technology spend as an investment in future profitability rather than a cost that impacts the bottom line in the short term. “

5G, IoT, AR and AI will all influence how a factory will operate not in the distant future but tomorrow. The manufacturing space has a range of new technologies to deploy. The hesitancy evident in some quarters is understandable as any change in the manufacturing industry has always been traditionally slower than in other sectors. However, change is accelerating and manufacturers who can embrace the new technologies and integrate them seamlessly will create next-generation factories.

ICO launches AI risk assessment toolkit for businesse


Bobby Hellard

21 Jul, 2021

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is launching a risk assessment toolkit for businesses so they can check if their use of artificial intelligence (AI) systems breaches data protection laws.

The AI and Data Protection Risk Assessment Toolkit, available in beta, draws upon the regulator’s previously published guidance on AI, as well as other publications provided by the Alan Turing Institute. 

The toolkit contains risk statements that organisations can use while processing personal data to understand the implications this can have for the rights of individuals. It will also provide suggestions for best practices that companies can put in place to manage and mitigate risks and ensure they’re complying with data protection laws. 

It’s based on an auditing framework, according to the ICO, which was developed by its internal assurance and investigation teams following a call for help from industry leaders back in 2019

The framework provides a clear methodology to audit AI applications and ensures they process personal data in compliance with the law. The ICO said that if an organisation is using AI to process personal data, then by using its toolkit, it can have high assurance that it is complying with data protection legislation.

“We are presenting this toolkit as a beta version and it follows on from the successful launch of the alpha version in March 2021,” said Alister Pearson, the ICO’s Senior Policy Officer for Technology and Innovation Service. “We are grateful for the feedback we received on the alpha version. We are now looking to start the next stage of the development of this toolkit.

“We will continue to engage with stakeholders to help us achieve our goal of producing a product that delivers real-world value for people working in the AI space. We plan to release the final version of the toolkit in December 2021.”

The ICO has urged anyone interested in testing the toolkit on a live AI application to get in contact with the regulator via email (AI@ico.org.uk).

Google Cloud beefs up security following surge in ransomware attacks


Sabina Weston

21 Jul, 2021

Google Cloud has announced two new capabilities centred around bolstering cloud security measures, following the recent surge in ransomware attacks which many fear could lead to a global digital pandemic.

These include Cloud IDS, a managed intrusion detection system, as well as a stack of products, integrations and tools known as Autonomic Security Operations.

While Cloud IDS aims to help organisations detect malware, spyware, command-and-control attacks, and other network-based threats, the Autonomic Security Operations offers highly automated threat management and is marks the first stage in BT and Google’s new security partnership.

The UK operator will help roll out the new Google Cloud products to the managed security services market, the tech giant has announced, with BT Security managing director Kevin Brown adding that the company is “thrilled to partner with Google to bring Autonomic Security Operations to the global market through a managed security service offering”. 

“The deep experience we’ve gained from protecting the world’s largest brands and our networks across 180 countries will combine with Google’s technology vision and capabilities through ASO, providing our customers with world-class security capabilities,” he added.

Meanwhile, for Cloud IDS, Google Cloud has enlisted Palo Alto Networks to power the tool within its advanced threat detection technologies. The stack, which targets regulated industries such as financial services, retail, and healthcare, aims to be easy to operate and deploy, with Google being in charge of managing scaling, availability, and threat detection updates.

These sectors are especially vulnerable to ransomware attacks, with hackers recently targeting both Irish and US health services, as well as US department store retailer Kmart late last year. 

Google Cloud Security VP and general manager Sunil Potti said that the new products have been launched due to the fact that cyber security has “risen to the forefront of concerns for enterprises and governments around the globe.

“Attacks ripping across the software supply chain, zero-day issues in widely used email services, and ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure industries all provide evidence that adversaries are getting bolder, more successful and more prevalent,” he added.

Cloud IDS is available for free for the duration of the public preview, while those interested in Autonomic Security Operations have been asked to contact Google Cloud’s Sales team.

AWS shuts down NSO Group infrastructure


Sabina Weston

20 Jul, 2021

Amazon Web Services (AWS) has shut down infrastructure and accounts linked to Israeli firm NSO Group.

The news comes after an investigation found that the company’s Pegasus spyware was used to target at least 50,000 journalists, government and union officials, human rights activists, business executives, religious figures, academics, NGO employees, and lawyers.

Pegasus was used to extract messages, photos, and emails, as well as to record calls and activate microphones on iOS and Android devices.

NSO Group denied the accusations, stating that its tools are used “for the sole purpose of saving lives through preventing crime and terror acts”.

“Our technologies are being used every day to break up pedophilia rings, sex and drug-trafficking rings, locate missing and kidnapped children, locate survivors trapped under collapsed buildings, and protect airspace against disruptive penetration by dangerous drones,” the company announced.

However, AWS has branded NSO Group’s actions as “hacking activity”.

A spokesperson for the cloud computing provider told IT Pro that it had shut down NSO Group’s infrastructure as it “was confirmed to be supporting the reported hacking activity”.

This was “in accordance with [AWS’] terms of use”, they added.

Amnesty International, a partner of the Pegasus Project, a collective of 17 media organisations investigating the spyware, found evidence to suggest that NSO Group had only been an AWS customer for a few months.

One Pegasus-infected phone that was dissected by the organisation sent data “to a service fronted by Amazon CloudFront, suggesting NSO Group has switched to using AWS services in recent months”.

Amazon CloudFront is a content delivery network (CDN) that provides customers with the ability to deliver content, including data, videos, and APIs, securely with low latency and at a high speed.

“Amnesty International suspects the shutting down of the V4 infrastructure coincided with NSO Group’s shift to using cloud services such as Amazon CloudFront to deliver the earlier stages of their attacks,” said the human rights NGO, adding that “the use of cloud services protects NSO Group from some Internet scanning techniques”.

AWS didn’t elaborate on whether the decision to ban NSO Group from its services could be reconsidered in the future.