All posts by Bobby Hellard

Zoom admits meetings don’t use end-to-end encryption


Bobby Hellard

1 Apr, 2020

Video conferencing app Zoom does not use end-to-end encryption, according to reports, despite specifically stating that it does on its website.

Though Zoom offers users the option to “enable an end-to-end (E2E) encrypted meeting,” and provides a green padlock that claims “Zoom is using an end to end encrypted connection,” the company this week admitted that offers no such thing.

A spokesperson for the company told The Intercept that, despite its claims, it was “currently not possible” to enable end-to-end encryption for its video meetings.

Instead, the spokesperson revealed, the service uses Transport Layer Security (TLS) which encrypts data between user’s meetings and Zoom’s servers. End-to-end refers to data encrypted between calls, blocking out third parties – which includes the service provider. As a result, the company can see and use the data for things like targeted ads. 

“When we use the phrase ‘End to End’ in our other literature, it is in reference to the connection being encrypted from Zoom end point to Zoom end point,” the spokesperson added.

Like a number of video conferencing services, Zoom is currently benefiting from the coronavirus lockdown. Its usage in the US is reportedly three times as much as Microsoft Teams, which is fairly impressive for an app that was almost unheard of this time last year. 

Given the rapid rise of Zoom, Microsoft recently singled out the service in a partner video, suggesting that it’s a threat to its business model as it can be used in tandem with rivals like Slack and Google’s G Suite, unlike Teams.

Part of Zoom’s appeal to organisations is its simplicity and the fact it can be used for free, albeit without any premium features, which lets businesses try it out before forking out any money.
 
“Video conferencing is a fantastic necessity in times like these but it is vitally important to understand the security and privacy concerns that go in parallel with this increasingly popular form of communication,” said Jake Moore, a cyber security specialist for ESET.
 
“For social and light business meetings they are fine as long as users realise what data is being shared by Zoom to third parties. I certainly wouldn’t recommend using free software for sensitive or private meetings.”

On Tuesday, Boris Johnson tweeted a picture of his cabinet’s “first digital meeting” and, comically, left the ID number visible. This security blunder will not have gone down well with the Ministery of Defence, which has reportedly banned Zoom due to security concerns. 

Zoom told The Intercept that it only collects user data to improve the service and that it never allows its employees to access specific content in meetings and doesn’t sell any kind of user data. However, the company did confirm that it could hand over data from meetings if it was compelled to for legal proceedings. 

Oracle cloud courses are free during coronavirus lockdown


Bobby Hellard

31 Mar, 2020

Oracle has announced it’s offering free access to its online learning content and cloud certifications while swathes of workers are in coronavirus lockdown. 

The aim is to help IT professionals gain highly sought after skills while the coronavirus pandemic enforces remote or reduced working, according to Oracle.

The courses and certifications cover Oracle Cloud Infrastructure and Oracle Autonomous Database and will be available until 15 May. There are seven learning paths that users can access with an Oracle Single-Sign-On account, which is also free.

Oracle users, developers, technical professionals, architects, students and professors will have access to more than 50 hours of online training and six certification exams, according to Raghu Viswanathan, the VP of education products and delivery at Oracle University.

“As our customers adapt to a rapidly evolving digital landscape, Oracle is stepping up its efforts to help build critical technical cloud skills they need to ramp up innovation,” Viswanathan said in a statement.

“We believe that certifications help professionals develop in-demand skills, shorten turnaround times for customer projects, enhance their expertise and advance their careers while improving their overall job performance.”

The free access will include an extensive library of materials for Oracle’s Cloud Infrastructure and Autonomous Database, as well as content on topics like machine learning, data science and multi-cloud environments, which includes integrations with Microsoft Azure.

With these courses, the company is also going to offer access to high-quality video content, experts and recorded demos of hands-on labs, all of which will be available anywhere and anytime. This will include machine learning translations for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish speaking countries.

Like Oracle, a number of tech companies have offered some services for free while the coronavirus outback drastically changes the way we live and work. Companies like Microsoft, which has offered Teams as a free service to the NHS and RingVPN, which has made the first 90 days of its service free of charge.

Azure services up 775% as Microsoft scrambles to add more capacity


Bobby Hellard

30 Mar, 2020

Microsoft’s cloud services have seen a 775% spike in usage in areas where social distancing measures and lockdowns have been enforced.

Azure services such as Microsoft Teams, Windows Virtual Desktop and Power BI have all seen increases of users in March as more and more have been forced to work from home or stay indoors.

The company recently announced it would prioritise capacity provisions for critical health and safety organisations to ensure the relevant remote workers can stay up and running during the coronavirus pandemic. However, with demand for cloud services surging in lockdown areas, the company has said it will “expedite” the creation of new capacity.

“We’re implementing a few temporary restrictions designed to balance the best possible experience for all of our customers,” the company wrote on its blog. “We have placed limits on free offers to prioritise capacity for existing customers.

“We are expediting the addition of significant new capacity that will be available in the weeks ahead. Concurrently, we monitor support requests and, if needed, encourage customers to consider alternative regions or alternative resource types, depending on their timeline and requirements. If the implementation of these efforts to alleviate demand is not sufficient, customers may experience intermittent deployment-related issues.”

So far, the only issue with Azure has been a two-hour outage for Microsoft Teams in Europe. The service went down on the first Monday of remote working as it saw a spike in usage.

Later it was revealed that Teams had seen 12 million more users in March, taking the number of daily active users to 44 million. Windows Virtual Desktop also trebled in usage and Microsoft’s business analytics service, Power BI, saw a 42% increase in just one week.

In addition, Microsoft also said its been in regular contact with ISPs around the world and is actively working with them to “argument” capacity as needed.

“We’ve been in discussions with several ISPs that are taking measures to reduce bandwidth from video sources in order to enable their networks to be performant during the workday,” the company said.

Slack to work with Microsoft on Teams integration


Bobby Hellard

27 Mar, 2020

Slack’s CEO Stewart Butterfield has revealed the comms platform is working on a call integration with its fierce rival Microsoft Teams.

The plan was announced during an investor webcast with RBC analyst Alex Zukin on Thursday.

Butterfield’s view is that the number of users for both services will dramatically grow over the next five years and it’s pointless fighting over what they have now. Teams has the edge currently, largely due to it coming bundled into Office 365, but Slack has become a popular choice for companies that use multiple cloud-based communication platforms.

The two companies have recently reported spikes in daily active users during the current COVID-19 pandemic, with Teams reporting 12 million more since the start of March.

“There are a lot of people who use both, and we’re working on a Teams integration for calling features,” Butterfield said. “I’m pretty sure that in 18 to 24 months time when we look back, that more people use Teams is not going to be relevant to us as a company.”

“95% of people who are going to be using this stuff five years from now have not started, so there is no point fighting over the relatively small percentage of customers we have.”

Slack has often been used in tandem with other services, particularly video calling software such as Google Hangouts and Zoom. Recently, Microsoft singled Zoom out as a potential business threat because of this.

However, Butterfield’s comments suggest a less feisty competition from the two companies. Since Teams was launched the two have traded blows over user numbers, features and even marketing strategies.

In November, Slack accused Microsoft of copying its Adverts, referring to the company as a “boomer”. A few months prior, Microsoft banned its employee from using Slack, suggesting it was “not secure”.

Google bins Chrome 82 development amid coronavirus delays


Bobby Hellard

23 Mar, 2020

Google has cancelled development of version 82 of Chrome and will instead skip ahead to Chrome 83.

Chrome 81, which was due for release on 17 March, is currently still in a beta channel and will stay there until 83 is ready to be promoted.

On Friday, the tech giant announced it had paused all work on new Chrome and Chrome OS releases as work schedules were delayed by the outbreak of COVID-19. On Monday, Jason Kersey, the director of technical program management at Google, announced that the schedule for 82 had to be dropped altogether to maintain stability.

“This is an update on our earlier decision to pause our branch and release schedule,” he wrote in a Chrome discussion group for developers. “As we adapt our future milestone schedules to the current change in schedule, we have decided to skip the M82 release to ensure we keep users safe and focus all efforts on maintaining stability.”

As a result, Chrome 82 is effectively dead, as Google will not be pushing its release to developers. It will no longer be tested or merged into branches or even be placed in beta. Instead, all efforts will go to moving the development channel onto Chrome 83.

Kersey added that there will be a further update later in the week with more information about future changes, which could be a regular update as the coronavirus continues to cause disruption.

Similar disruption has been felt at Microsoft, which has also paused the release of new versions of its Edge browser to remain consistent with Chrome. Version 81 was due to be released to developers on Tuesday, but that has also been paused due to COVID-19.

Both Google and Microsoft have had to force staff to work remotely, which may have limited their abilities to respond to bugs in new versions.

Google has said that security updates have been unaffected by the disruption and will still go through for Chrome OS as planned.

Microsoft Teams surpasses 44 million users after remote working surge


Bobby Hellard

20 Mar, 2020

Microsoft Teams gained 12 million users in just one week following a surge of remote working to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The communications platform reported 44 million users as of 18 March, up from 32 million on 11 March.

The figures came as the conferencing service celebrated its third birthday, but also just a few days after it suffered a two-hour outage – likely linked to the sudden influx of users.

Microsoft’s corporate VP for 365, Jared Spataro, said that the service had seen an “unprecedented” spike in usage in just seven days. He also suggested that the numbers might not drop when the coronavirus pandemic is under control.

“It’s very clear that enabling remote work is more important than ever, and that it will continue to have lasting value beyond the COVID-19 outbreak,” Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s corporate VP for 365 wrote in a blog post. “We are committed to building the tools that help organisations, teams, and individuals stay productive and connected even when they need to work apart.”

For its third birthday, Microsoft added some new features to Teams. The first is a function that uses AI to reduce background noise – which will certainly be welcome following the government’s decision to close all schools. There is also a button allows users to read messages while offline and a ‘raise hand’ feature to help get their questions across during busy video meetings.

Although Teams is now far ahead of the competition, a leaked Microsoft partner video suggested the company is keen to thwart rival video conferencing service Zoom. An alleged internal company video, posted to Twitter on Thursday, suggests Microsoft sees Zoom as an ’emerging threat’ to Teams as it is often used by businesses in tandem with Google’s G Suite and fierce rival Slack.

This week, Slack also unveiled a host of new functions and reported a spike in users due to the coronavirus. The smaller platform saw over 7,000 new users in just 47 days, according to TechCrunch. For context, it only recorded 5,000 new users in its last quarter report.

Slack simplifies its platform


Bobby Hellard

18 Mar, 2020

Slack has made a host of changes to its platform easier to navigate, with new customisable functions for sidebars and shortcuts.

The first, most notable change, is in the navigation bar, which has a function to search between recent conversations without the need for too much input. This comes with easier ways to see information with mentions, reactions to your messages, files, people and apps all in the one place, ready for reference.

Inside the bar is a new compose button, oddly similar to what you would have in an email. This is a more convenient way to draft messages before choosing whether to send to the relevant person or channel, according to Slack. If you stop midway through, a draft will be saved for you – which, again, sound very much like email. Another change will deal with all those Slack channels that become a bit of a headache. Currently, these are displayed as a single long list that can become unwieldy for the many users who have a lot of vital channels that need regular check-ins. To simplify this, the platform is adding customisable sections that are collapsable.

The feature, which is restricted to paid plans, will allow users to organise those messy channels, direct messages and apps into sections within the sidebar. Channels can be dragged and dropped, ordered into sections and organised any way you like and the sections can be named with emojis too.

The many tools available on Slack will also be easier to discover and use without the need to switch between windows and tabs. This will be via new shortcuts in the shape of a lightning bolt icon next to the message input field. The example above is called ‘Simple Poll’. In the coming weeks, more apps will be made available through these shortcuts.

Rollout of the updates begins today and will continue “over the next several weeks”, the company said, with updates to the mobile versions of the app coming at an unspecified future date. 

Microsoft Teams goes down at start of mass remote working


Bobby Hellard

16 Mar, 2020

Microsoft Teams went down across Europe for two hours on Monday, causing mass frustration for the many remote workers now increasingly dependent on the service.

Users experienced issues signing into the service and also trouble sending messages. 

Although Microsoft managed to fix the problem within two hours, the timing could not be worse as millions of people across the country began remote working amind the outbreak of COVID-19

As users from various European countries began reporting issues, Microsoft tweeted that it was looking into the problem.

“We’re investigating messaging-related functionality problems within Microsoft Teams. Please refer to TM206544 in your admin centre for further details,” the company said. 

This is the second major outage to hit Microsoft in as many years after Office 365 went offline in 2018. There is a suggestion that Monday’s faults could be due to more people using the services as businesses encourage workers to stay home.

Just a week ago, Microsoft offered a six-month free trial for Teams, according to Businesses Insider, to help those soon to be self-isolating. Google has also offered up parts of its remote working services in a bid to work around the coronavirus outbreak. 

Microsoft’s outage is a poor start to what could be a big opportunity for cloud computing.

With mass remote working and many business events going “virtual”, video linkups, VR and other similar technologies will become a crucial element of everyday life. 

Outages and service disruptions are common occurrences with new technologies, but as the world begins what looks like a prolonged period of self-isolation, it’s these kinds of services that will keep many industries ticking along.

Add to that, the need for us all to stay connected to one another during a pandemic and Microsoft Team’s and services like it have suddenly become vital. 

 

G Suite hits two billion users as remote working surges


Bobby Hellard

13 Mar, 2020

Google’s G Suite service, which includes Gmails, Google Docs, Hangouts and more, surpassed two billion monthly active users at the end of last year, according to its general manager.

Javier Soltero, who is also the vice president of G Suite, made the announcement to Axios on Wednesday.

He declined to give a detailed breakdown of the numbers, according to Axios, so there is little information on what products are used most or how many pay for the service compared with free users.

G Suite has long been seen as the challenger to Microsoft’s Office services, and Soltero knows both extremely well having left the latter for Google last year.

But with many companies around the world either entering a period of remote working or are well into self-isolation, Google’s suite of productivity services is already raking in healthy numbers.

“That’s a staggering number… These products have incredible reach,” he said. “Changing the way people work is something we are uniquely positioned to do.”

At the start of the month, Google announced parts of its enterprise service would be free, for a limited time, to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on businesses entering periods of mass remote working. This mainly focused on Hangouts Meet, its video conferencing service.

Likewise, Microsoft is offering a free six-month trial for Teams, according to Business Insider, which was originally just for schools and businesses in China, but has now been expanded globally – this will also come with an update that lifts the restrictions on the number of users per team.

According to Vox, Team’s saw a 500% increase for meetings, calls and conference usage in China towards the end of January, with those numbers to be likely mirrored in Europe in the coming weeks and, possibly, months.

Pentagon requests time to reconsider Microsoft JEDI bid


Bobby Hellard

13 Mar, 2020

The US Department of Defence (DoD) has requested permission to reconsider parts of its decision to award its $10 billion cloud migration contract to Microsoft, court filings have revealed.

These concern parts of Microsoft’s bid that detail price scenarios and online marketplaces which have been deemed not “technically feasible” by the US Federal Court of Claims.

Work on the Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure (JEDI) project was halted in February after AWS launched a legal appeal that the evaluation of the bidding process was flawed; the tech firm also suggested it was subject to unfair political influence.

Federal Claims Judge Patricia Cambell-Smith, who ordered the suspension of Microsoft’s work on JEDI, said that AWS was “likely to succeed” in its legal challenge as the DoD had improperly evaluated a Microsoft storage price scenario.

Now lawyers for the US government have asked for “120 days to reconsider certain aspects of the challenged agency decision”, according to court filings made late on Thursday.

“DoD does not intend to conduct discussions with offerors or to accept proposal revisions with respect to any aspect of the solicitation other than price scenario,” the filing said, according to Reuters.

There are no exact details on what the issue is with the pricing proposed by Microsoft but the company feels it is an easy problem to solve. A spokesman said in a statement to Bloomberg that it supports the decision to reconsider a small number of factors “as it is likely the fastest way to resolve all issues and quickly provide the needed modern technology to people across our armed forces”.

Political influence, namely from President Donald Trump, is also a significant part of AWS’ legal challenge, but as yet, the courts have not mentioned any action on that element of the case.

“We are pleased that the DoD has acknowledged ‘substantial and legitimate’ issues that affected the JEDI award decision, and that corrective action is necessary,” a spokesman for AWS said to Reuters.