Salesforce cancels Dreamforce 2020 due to coronavirus

Bobby Hellard

30 Apr, 2020

Salesforce has cancelled all physical events for the rest of the year, including November’s Dreamforce conference, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, the company will “reimagine” all conferences as virtual events. 

The spread of COVID-19 has seen nearly all major events of 2020 either cancelled or pushed to 2021, while most technology firms, such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, have opted to turn their conferences into virtual experiences.

In March, Salesforce turned its World Tour Sydney into a virtual event, transforming what would have been a physical event for 11,000 people into an online conference viewed by 80,000, according to the company.

Dreamforce, which was scheduled for November, is a key event for the company, attracting 171,000 people last year and reportedly creating more than $240 million in revenue for the San Francisco Bay Area. The event is one of the largest in the tech calendar, usually attracting significant media attention and famous speakers, such as former US president Barack Obama in 2019.

“As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, our first priority is to help ensure the health and safety of our customers, partners, employees and communities,” the company said on its website.

“With this in mind, we have decided to reimagine our events through the end of the year in new and virtual ways. This will be true for all events, including Dreamforce, Tableau Conference 2020, Tableau Conference Europe, TrailheaDX India and our World Tours.”

The company said it will reimburse partners that had sponsored the event and people that had purchased tickets, though it won’t refund flights or hotel accommodation.

“We will record as much content as possible for on-demand viewing,” the company added. “Some content and experiences may only be available during the live virtual events so we encourage our community to join us live for maximum engagement.”

NetApp acquires virtual desktop firm CloudJumper

Sabina Weston

30 Apr, 2020

Cloud data services provider NetApp has announced the acquisition of CloudJumper, a leading player in the remote desktop services (RDS) and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) markets.

The acquisition is said to have resulted in a new NetApp Virtual Desktop Service (VDS) which aims to resolve the most demanding issues faced in virtual desktop services and application management.

It is also said to provide customers with a total solution on the public cloud of their choice in order to deploy, manage, and monitor applications, as well as optimisation, the company explained.

Anthony Lye, senior vice president and general manager of NetApp’s Cloud Data Services business unit, said that providing “a consistent virtual desktop experience at scale while keeping data available and secure without sacrificing performance has always been important and is especially critical in today’s unprecedented environment”.

“NetApp and CloudJumper provide a simplified management platform for delivering virtual desktop infrastructure, storage and data management across Microsoft Azure, AWS and Google Cloud with best in class virtual desktop management combined with best in class storage and data services,” he added.

NetApp is said to contribute to the existing CloudJumper channel partner program by providing resources to strengthen the capabilities of MSP, VAR, SI, and ISV partners in order to resolve customer issues and expand their businesses.

NetApp VDS will also provide CloudJumper’s customers with flexible and adaptable data storage, according to NetApp, which includes features such as global file caching and backup, which will assist businesses in moving their operations to the cloud

NetApp VDS is available immediately on the NetApp Cloud Central site. It will also be integrated with Azure NetApp Files and Cloud Volumes in the near future.

Cloud services have, to an extent, escaped the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Google Cloud has experienced a 52% year-on-year surge in revenue for the first quarter of 2020, while Microsoft beat Wall Street expectations on Wednesday following increased demand in its cloud-based services such as Teams and Xbox.

Microsoft revenue beats estimates after Teams surge

Bobby Hellard

30 Apr, 2020

Microsoft beat Wall Street expectations on Wednesday following increased demand in its cloud-based services during the coronavirus pandemic, as more and more people are tapping into Teams and Xbox gaming while in lockdown.

Teams, in particular, saw another massive spike in daily active users, jumping up to 75 million, according to CEO Satya Nadella, which is almost double what the company reported a month ago

For its fiscal fourth quarter, the tech giant gave business forecasts that were below analyst estimates, suggesting hardware sales and services like LinkedIn would struggle.

But strong sales of its Windows operating services and also Surface hardware helped buoy the company, with shares rising 5% for the quarter. This was matched by “all-time-high” engagement on Xbox live, which Microsoft said had 19 million active users.

Since the pandemic took hold, demand for Microsoft’s cloud-services had put a strain on its data centres, forcing the tech giant to limit usage for new customers. The company has prioritised healthcare organisations and governments instead.

While the active Teams users were up, Microsoft’s CFO Amy Hood said some of the increased usage came from subscribers with access to the software as part of Office 365 that had simply turned it on for the first time. She also added that a large number came from the service being rolled out for free during the pandemic.

“In those instances, you also won’t see revenue, but seeing great usage obviously is terrific for us longer term if people want to convert that to a paying seat,” Hood said to Reuters.

“While I’m really excited about the long-term potential for revenue, you won’t see it in this (fiscal third) quarter, or really even in Q4. It’s more about people being more and more engaged with Microsoft products.”

Despite the increased demand for cloud service, Azure growth actually dropped from 62% to 58% compared to the same period last year, which company officials said was a result of how large the business had become.

Google Cloud revenue surge defies coronavirus turbulence

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

29 Apr, 2020

Google Cloud has defied the current economic turbulence to experience a 52% year-on-year surge in revenue for the first quarter of 2020, despite its parent company Alphabet beginning to feel the effects.

The company’s cloud business generated $2.78 billion in revenue during the first quarter of 2020, representing a 52% year-on-year surge. This is in line with its financial results from the previous quarter, with $2.6 billion in revenue representing year-on-year growth of 53%, according to Business Insider.

This continued surge is in spite of Alphabet’s executives bemoaning a “sudden and significant” slowdown in revenue in March due to the effects of COVID-19.

Although Google’s total ad revenues rose to $33.76 billion during the quarter, representing 13% year-on-year growth, this increase in revenue began to rapidly decelerate towards the end of the quarter.

“Q1 was in many ways the tale of two quarters. For our advertising business, the first two months of the quarter were strong,” Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said in an earnings call with analysts.

“In March, we experienced a significant and sudden slowdown in ad revenues. The timing of the slowdown correlated to the locations and sectors impacted by the virus and related shutdown orders. 

“As the impact of COVID-19 came into view, we delayed some ad launches and prioritized supporting our customers as many adjusted their strategies.”

While the firm’s quarterly financial results are slightly tarnished with a deceleration in ad revenue, the continued growth of its cloud business, led by Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian, offers signs of encouragement. 

That Google Cloud has been somewhat immune from the dire economic consequences ongoing pandemic may not come as much of a surprise, given cloud providers have generally sustained heightened demand.

The number of G Suite users, for example, has risen sharply over the last few weeks. With millions of people now working from home fuelling a 25-times surge in usage for industry-focused video conferencing platform Google Meets.

This is an effect felt by major cloud players across the industry, with SAP, for example, reported an increase in revenue last week of 7% for the first quarter of 2020. Services like Microsoft Teams, meanwhile, have also experienced a massive rise in the usage of collaboration software.

Azure Arc now supports Red Hat customers

Bobby Hellard

29 Apr, 2020

Microsoft has expanded Azure Arc‘s Linux and Kubernetes capabilities to allow Red Hat customers to manage OpenShift clusters and data services on Azure.

The announcement came during the virtual Red Hat Summit where the open source giant unveiled a raft of new features for OpenShift and Kubernetes to help organisations develop and manage virtual machines, containers and serverless workloads.

Microsoft’s announcements will enable Azure Arc customers to centrally manage, secure and control Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) servers and OpenShift clusters from Azure at scale. It will also allow customers to apply their own policies and manage compliance for servers and multiple clusters.

Applications built in GitHub repositories can also be automatically deployed via Azure Policy and Azure Arc to any linked OpenShift cluster with policies that can be used to keep them up to date.

Red Hat’s own announcements start with OpenShift virtualisation, which is available now as a technology preview within OpenShift.

This has been developed via the KubeVirt open source project and enables organisations to deploy and manage applications consisting of virtual machines alongside containers and serverless. This can be done all in one unified cloud-native platform, according to Red Hat.

This update comes with Red Hat OpenShift 4.4, the latest version of Red Hat’s enterprise Kubernetes platform. Based on Kubernetes 1.17, OpenShift 4.4 is intended to offer a developer’s view of platform metrics and monitoring for application workloads. This includes monitoring integration for Red Hat Operators and costs management for specific applications across a hybrid cloud environment.

The company has also addressed management challenges for running cloud-native applications across large-scale, production and distributed Kubernetes clusters with Red Hat Advanced Cluster Management for Kubernetes. This will also be available as a technology preview and will provide a single, simplified control point for the monitoring and deployment of OpenShift clusters at scale.

“While some vendors seek to protect legacy technology stacks by dragging Kubernetes and cloud-native functionality backwards to preserve proprietary virtualisation, Red Hat does the opposite,” the company said. “Bringing traditional application stacks forward into a layer of open innovation, enabling customers to truly transform at their speed, not at the whims of proprietary lock-in.”

The updates come just days after parent company IBM posted its first-quarter figures with revealed that Red Hat had seen 18% growth revenue in the first three months of 2020. As a key driver of IBM’s hybrid cloud strategy, Red Hat has helped IBM’s cloud revenues to consistently rise.

Oracle agrees partnership with Zoom to support surge in users

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

28 Apr, 2020

Zoom has chosen public cloud giant Oracle to manage the enormous surge in users that its video conferencing platform has sustained a result of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Oracle Cloud Infrastructure will be adopted to support Zoom’s rapid growth and evolving business needs as it continues to develop its services. To illustrate the platform’s exorbitant growth, the firm added 100 million new users within a three-week period and also claims to boast 300 million daily meeting participants.

Zoom realised it needed additional cloud capacity immediately, so the service provider’s second-generation infrastructure was chosen to help the firm scale its capabilities so it could continue to deliver an undisrupted service to users and customers. 

“We recently experienced the most significant growth our business has ever seen, requiring massive increases in our service capacity. We explored multiple platforms, and Oracle Cloud Infrastructure was instrumental in helping us quickly scale our capacity and meet the needs of our new users,” said Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan. 

“We chose Oracle Cloud Infrastructure because of its industry-leading security, outstanding performance, and unmatched level of support.”

Oracle claims it’s well placed to support Zoom’s rapid expansion thanks to its network architecture, capacity and the locations of its data centres. For reference, Zoom is currently transferring more than 7,000TB through Oracle’s systems each day, with this figure is only expected to grow.

Despite Zoom’s rapid growth and overnight success, the platform has been tarnished with a heft backlash around a collection of security and privacy shortcomings, varying in severity. The phenomenon of ‘Zoom-bombing’, for example, was deemed severe enough for the FBI to officially warn consumers and businesses against the potential for their meetings to be infiltrated by unauthorised third-parties.

Moreover, claims in Zoom promotional material that the platform guaranteed encryption was debunked following an investigation by journalists and analysts. The company last week released a major update adding 256-bit encryption to address these concerns, as part of a 90-day plan to rectify the overarching security concerns.

For Oracle, meanwhile, the deal represents a chance to eat into the massive market share enjoyed by its major cloud rivals Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure. 

Google is reportedly in talks to snap up Kubernetes startup D2iQ

Bobby Hellard

28 Apr, 2020

Google is reportedly in talks to acquire D2iQ, a cloud software company that specialises in application management.

The company was valued at $775 million after a Series D funding round in 2018, according to Axios, although it’s current value is thought to be considerably lower.

It’s not a done deal, and may not happen at all, an unnamed source told Axios, with at least one board member of D2iQ said to be against the acquisition. The cloud company laid off about 13% of its workforce last week to cut costs ahead of an estimated 40% drop in sales, according to Business Insider.

The company was formally known as Mesosphere but changed to D2iQ (which stands for Day-Two-I-Q) last year to better suit a change in strategy built around Kubernetes offerings.

“We chose the name D2iQ because it reflects both our legacy and future focus: to deliver enterprise-grade cloud platforms so that our customers can embrace prevailing open-source and cloud-native innovations while realising smarter Day 2 operations,” CEO Mike Fey wrote in a blog post.

It already has a relationship with Google as a Google Cloud and G Suite partner, but it’s thought that Google is interested in acquiring the firm due to its integrated Kubernetes software. The open source server management technology was originally developed by Google and the startup could be part of a strategy to help the tech giant compete with Amazon in the cloud computing market.

If a buyout goes ahead, it would be the third major acquisition for Google’s cloud business of 2020. The company announced two in February with Dutch-based mainframe migration specialist Cornerstone Technologies and data analytics firm Looker, which was subject to a review from the UK’s competition markets watchdog.

How to improve Zoom video chat privacy and security

Aaron Lee

30 Apr, 2020

Zoom has rocketed in popularity around the world, since the start of the Coronavirus lockdown. But the video conferencing app has also been criticised for a number of privacy and security issues.

Here are some top tips for making Zoom more secure and if after reading you feel the video conferencing platform isn’t for you, some recommendations for alternatives.

What is Zoom?

Zoom is a free video conferencing app. It allows up to 100 participants to video chat at the same time, with a 40-minute time limit for free users.

The app has been used for teleconferencing, remote education, job interviews, and other purposes where video communication is necessary.

Following the enforcement of social distancing to combat the Coronavirus outbreak, Zoom has received a flood of new users, as people embrace video chatting for work and socialising.

It’s daily users have skyrocketed from 10 million back in December 2019 to to 300 million in April this year.

However, Zoom’s ability to protect user privacy has been heavily securitised. The company wrongly claimed earlier versions of its app had end-to-end encryption. It was also found to be passing users’ device data to Facebook and, in what has become known as “Zoom-bombing”, uninvited guests have crashed meetings.

Issues such as these have led to a string of companies, schools and governments avoiding the platform entirely.

In April, Zoom announced that its 5.0 update will introduce 256-bit encryption. This new version of the service focuses on fixing security issues that have been raised – including “Zoom-bombing”. The update is rolling out to users now, although the new security standard won’t take effect until 30 May.

Even if you’d prefer not to use Zoom, you may find yourself installing the app because it is what friends, family or colleagues have chosen. In that case, you’ll want to make sure your experience is as secure as possible.

How to improve Zoom security

General security

Regardless of what device you are using to access Zoom, keep these things in mind to improve your security:

  • Use the latest version of Zoom: Make sure you’re running the latest version of the app to ensure you have access to the most recent security updates and features. Visit this page to see the latest versions of Zoom and find your device to check you’re up to date.

  • Use a dedicated email address to sign up: Unless you’ve been instructed to use your work email by your employer, you can sign up using a different email address to the one you normally use.

  • Review Zoom’s settings on your device: Zoom’s settings can be overwhelming, but checking a few essential ones are enabled, as detailed below, will help you stay secure when using the software.

How to secure your Zoom meetings

If you are hosting, these settings will help you keep your Zoom meetings and live streams more secure.

Some settings can be found and changed across all of Zoom’s platforms. For simplicity, we recommend accessing them via the Zoom web portal. You will need to be signed in as an administrator, and then go to Account Management > Account Settings.

Activate the Waiting Rooms feature: Zoom’s Waiting Room feature allows you to control when participants can join your meeting. It’s available to all Zoom users and is especially useful when hosting public events.

To activate it, scroll to the Meeting section, find the Waiting Room option, and check that it is enabled. Once it is, you can choose to place all participants or guests (those not on your Zoom contacts or not logged in) in a virtual waiting room before admitting them to the meeting.

Zoom’s waiting room feature should now be activated by default for basic, pro, and education accounts, but it’s worth double checking.

Allow only signed-in users to join: Authentication Profiles gives you the power to restrict participants from joining meetings, unless they are authorised. This feature is restricted to Pro, Business, Enterprise and Education plans, however, and is not available on the free tier.

To enable it, navigate to the Schedule Meeting section, check that the Only authenticated users can join meetings option is selected. Once activated, you must then set how you wish to authenticate your participants. See Zoom’s support page for how to do this.

Avoid using your Personal Meeting ID for public events: Think of Zoom’s Personal Meeting ID (PMI) as the keys to your virtual home. You don’t want to give it out to just anyone. And you certainly shouldn’t post it on social media. PMIs should only be shared with trusted contacts.

When scheduling your public meetings or one-off live streams, ensure the Use Personal Meeting ID option is disabled. Instead a random unique meeting ID will be generated and you can share that with your audience.

Lock a meeting: It’s also possible to lock your Zoom meeting so no new participants can join, whether they have a password or not. During the meeting, click the Participants pop-up menu and select Lock Meeting.

There are more ways to keep your meetings safe, including preventing participants from screen sharing, disabling participants video feeds, and ejecting unwanted guests. For further advice on Zoom privacy and security, visit Zoom’s help centre.

Zoom alternatives

Zoom isn’t the only video conferencing service around. Here are some alternatives you may want to consider.

Google Hangouts: The search giant’s meeting app allows up to 150 participants to chat via text or voice, but a maximum of 25 for video calls.

Microsoft Teams and Skype: Built into the Office 365 suite, many business and education users may have access to Microsoft’s video chatting apps without realising it. For Microsoft Teams, 250 participants can join a meeting, 20 for a private chat, but only 4 video participants will be shown at any one time. Meanwhile, Skype supports up to 50 participants on video calls.

FaceTime: Only available to those with Apple devices, up to 32 people can participate in a group FaceTime video call.

WhatsApp: This popular mobile messaging app also supports video calls, and recently increased its video group chats to up to eight users.

AWS launches human review service for machine learning models

Bobby Hellard

27 Apr, 2020

AWS has launched a service that improves machine learning model accuracy by continuously identifying and improving low confidence predictions. 

Amazon Augmented Artificial Intelligence (A2I), which is now generally available, allows for human review of model predictions using reviewers from Mechanical Turk, third-party vendors, or an organisations’ own employees.

The service aims to help developers build human review systems, structure the review process and manage the review workforce. AWS suggests that developers could use A2I to quickly spin up and manage a workforce of humans to review and validate the accuracy of machine learning predictions. 

This could be used for an application that collects financial information from scanned mortgage documents or even one that uses image recognition to identify counterfeit items online. The idea is that the review helps the predictive model get better over time. 

A2I could be used by AWS customers that use services such as Amazon SageMaker, Amazon Rekognition or Amazon Textract, which are often used in critical and sensitive cases that need often need human judgements. 

“Even with these advancements, our customers still say there are critical use cases where human judgment is required like in law enforcement investigations or times when human review can be used to resolve the ambiguity in predictions when confidence levels fall below a given threshold for less sensitive use cases, and the current human review process involves a lot of custom effort and cost,” said Swami Sivasubramanian, VP for Amazon Machine Learning.”

A2I is already being used by a number of organisations, including the National Health Service (NHS) Business Services Authority, which provides a range of support services to NHS organisations, NHS contractors, and patients. The organisation processes 54 million paper prescriptions each month, according to AWS. 

“Human judgment is critical and in fact is often required for decisions involving medical payments,” said Chris Suter, the head of cloud platforms and innovation at NHS BSA.

Facebook rolls out video conferencing upgrades to take on Zoom

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

27 Apr, 2020

Facebook will update its ecosystem of messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Portal, with a set of features aimed at capitalising on the heightened demand for video conferencing.

Messenger Rooms, which largely resembles the features included in video conferencing app Zoom, is set to be rolled out to Facebook and Messenger this week.

The free service will offer Facebook users the tools to host catchups with up to 50 participants with no time limits. The user interface (UI) will also allow up to 16 people to share the same screen.

This is in addition to added capabilities for existing video hosting features, such as allowing Facebook users able to join live broadcasts midway through.

While the likes of Messenger and WhatsApp have played a role in helping friends, family and colleagues stay in touch during the coronavirus lockdown, users have flocked to services like Zoom and Skype to maintain face-to-face contact.

“Lately Facebook has felt the demand for real-time video,” the company said in a statement

“Between WhatsApp and Messenger, more than 700 million accounts participate in calls every day. In many countries, video calling on Messenger and WhatsApp more than doubled, and views of Facebook Live and Instagram Live videos increased significantly in March. 

“Spending time with each other should be spontaneous, not strained. So to help people feel like they’re together, even when they are — or have to be — physically apart, we’re announcing features across our products that make video chat and live video easier and more natural.”

This massive spike in demand has seen the likes of Zoom prosper almost overnight, with the video conferencing service gaining 100 million new users within a three-week period. As a result, the company’s fortunes have expanded and its shares have risen sharply.

Like Zoom and Skype, Facebook’s video conferencing service can be used by those without an account by distributing a meeting link. No software is required, and catchups can be started through the News Feed, Groups or Events. The company is also exploring ways to create this functionality from Instagram Direct, WhatsApp and Portal too. 

WhatsApp, meanwhile, has been updated with Group Calls feature that can allow video-chatting between eight participants, all sharing the same screen. While primarily a consumer-oriented app, many businesses use the application for colleagues to stay in touch. The addition of expanded video functionality, with secured end-to-end encryption, may tempt users to stay in-app for meetings rather than shift across to other services.

The security and privacy settings within these services, meanwhile, will be of particular concern to many, with Facebook seen by a large number of people as questionable when it comes to gathering and handling user data.

Zoom came under significant criticism during its explosion in popularity for not featuring a number of important privacy and security controls. As a result, its rise in usage coincided with the emergence of a phenomenon known as ‘Zoom-bombing’, where unauthorised third-parties would invade meetings unannounced.

The company has recently worked to address these issues as part of a 90-day effort to improve the security of its platform. Last week, for example, the firm upgraded the software to version 5.0, introducing 256-bit encryption and administrative controls. 

Messenger Rooms includes a host of privacy and security settings, allowing users to manage, for example, who can join meeting rooms. Users can also remove participants from a call and locking an entire meeting down.

While Rooms offers a certain level of encryption, the video chats hosted through the service won’t benefit from end-to-end encryption as WhatsApp does. Facebook, however, insists it doesn’t watch or listen to audio or video calls, according to its privacy policy. 

The platform will also limit the information it asks non-users to provide to just their name, which will be shown to other guests.