All posts by Nicole Kobie

Barts Health NHS Trust shifts to cloud with Capgemini

Nicole Kobie

21 Jan, 2020

Barts Health NHS Trust has turned to Capgemini to help modernise its ICT estate using the cloud.

The three-year agreement will see Capgemini work across all five hospitals in the Trust, rolling out end-to-end cloud services across sites in Central and East London. One of the largest in the country, the Trust manages hospitals in Mile End, Whipps Cross, and Newham, as well as the Royal London and St Bartholomew’s hospitals.

The aim is to modernise the Trust’s existing estate, shifting away from legacy systems in favour of cloud technologies. That includes the assessment and migration of mission-critical workloads to different cloud providers, as well as wider management tools and security systems, Capgemini said.

“As the largest NHS Trust, and one of the pioneers in taking a step towards modernising its IT infrastructure through migrating the services to the cloud, the Trust will benefit from a more secure, scalable and agile operating environment that is more cost effective than current legacy IT infrastructure,” said Matt Howell, head of Public Sector at Capgemini in the UK.

The move is part of wider plans to modernise Barts’ technology to benefit patients and staff, said Sarah Jensen, CIO of Barts Health Trust. “With their existing experience in providing cloud hosting services and digital transformation solutions to the NHS, we are excited about the journey we have started together and are confident our partnership will continue to add value in our ever-challenging environment which ultimately leads to better care for patients.”

The deal follows last year’s efforts to build a Cloud Solutions Framework to make it easier to find suppliers for NHS and other public-sector organisations; Capgemini UK is one of the suppliers listed in the framework. The framework has four different lots — covering everything from consultancy to end-to-end cloud — with a handful of suppliers in each.

“The result is a specialist pool of 24 leading suppliers, which provide the greatest expertise and value-for-money to the public sector,” said Phil Davies, procurement director at NHS Shared Business Services, at the time.

Exploited Internet Explorer flaw won’t be patched until next month

Nicole Kobie

20 Jan, 2020

Microsoft has warned that millions of people still using the Internet Explorer browser could be at risk from a zero-day flaw that is actively being exploited by hackers.

The flaw, which is in a scripting engine of the browser, makes use of memory corruption to execute code. “An attacker who successfully exploited the vulnerability could gain the same user rights as the current user,” Microsoft noted in its security guidance. “If the current user is logged on with administrative user rights, an attacker who successfully exploited the vulnerability could take control of an affected system.”

That could let attackers install programs, access data, or create new accounts, the company noted.

“One way in which the vulnerability could be exploited is via a web-based attack, where users could be lured into visiting a boobytrapped webpage – perhaps via a malicious link in an email,” security and industry analyst Graham Cluley noted in a blog post.

Cluley added that the flaw appeared to be related to a similar vulnerability in Mozilla Firefox spotted earlier this month. The discovery of both flaws was attributed to Qihoo 360, with the security firm tweeting last week as it reported the Firefox flaw that there was also an IE version.

Microsoft said it was aware of “limited targeted attacks” using the vulnerability. Microsoft said it was working on a fix, and suggested it would come with the next Patch Tuesday, which is due out on 11 February.

While users will have to wait for a patch, Microsoft noted that anyone running IE on various versions of Windows Server may be protected by default settings called Enhanced Security Configuration. Microsoft also suggested a workaround for other users, which involves restricting access to JScript.dll, though that will have to be undone when the update is issued.

“Blocking access to this library can prevent exploitation of this and similar vulnerabilities that may be present in this old technology,” notes guidance by the CERT coordination centre at Carnegie Mellon. “When Internet Explorer is used to browse the modern web, jscript9.dll is used by default.”

The best mitigation is to switch to a modern browser, with Microsoft referring to IE as a “compatibility solution” for older apps rather than a browser to push out widely to staff. However, according to Net Applications’ Market Share figures, 7.4% of web users are still on IE — two percentage points more than Microsoft’s Edge, which was first released in 2015.

Cloud hardware sales slide, but still dominates wider IT market

Nicole Kobie

16 Jan, 2020

Sales of hardware for cloud infrastructure slid slightly over the past year as part of overall weaker sales in IT, according to IDC, but they still exceeded spending on non-cloud infrastructure for the second time ever.

The analyst firm said cloud IT infrastructure spending declined for the second quarter in a row in the third quarter of 2019, down 1.8% from the same period last year.

While public cloud infrastructure declined 3.7% on the year, that segment is still worth $11.9 billion in quarterly sales. And while sales for public cloud dropped versus the same period last year, they were up by 24% from the quarter before.

“As the overall segment is generally trending up, it tends to be more volatile quarterly as a significant part of the public cloud IT segment is represented by a few hyperscale service providers,” IDC reported, adding that public cloud makes up most of the spending.

With such volatile quarterly figures, it’s easier to look at the market on an annual basis, and IDC noted public cloud IT infrastructure had stable growth since the analyst firm began tracking the segment. “In [the third quarter of 2019], vendor revenues from private cloud environments increased 3.2% year over year, reaching nearly $5 billion. IDC expects spending in this segment to grow 7.2% year over year in 2019 to $21.4 billion,” the company predicted.

IDC splits infrastructure into three areas: ethernet switches, compute platforms, and storage. While compute will remain the largest segment for cloud infrastructure spending, it’s expected to see growth of just 3% in 2019, while storage will be flat. The Ethernet switches segment is predicted to climb 11% on the year.

IDC said that the IT infrastructure industry was reaching the point where cloud will outstrip spending on traditional, non-cloud systems. Up until this last quarter, cloud spending topped non-cloud only once, back in the third quarter of 2018. In the last quarter, cloud hardware spending topped 53%.

“However, for the full year 2019, spending on cloud IT infrastructure is expected to stay just below the 50% mark at 49.8%,” IDC added. “This year is expected to become the tipping point with spending on cloud IT infrastructure staying in the 50+% range.”

IDC forecasts traditional infrastructure will make up 42% of sales by 2023, down from 52% in 2018. That’s in part due to spending on traditional environments declining, with IDC predicting it to fall by 5.3% over 2019.

“This share loss and the growing share of cloud environments in overall spending on IT infrastructure is common across all regions,” added IDC. “While the industry overall is moving toward greater use of cloud, there are certain types of workloads and business practices, and sometimes end user inertia, which keep demand for traditional dedicated IT infrastructure afloat.”

The future of business banking now

Nicole Kobie

15 Jan, 2020

Forget walking down the high street to queue at your bank branch to set up an account, make a deposit or do any other basics of business banking. Thanks to the rise of mobile and online banking, such tasks can be done with a few taps on a smartphone between meetings. But the future of business banking isn’t just digital – it’s about integrated services and linking up with third-party software to make your finances as streamlined as possible. 

That’s the idea behind open banking, which is a set of regulations that lets your financial data be shared, opening up the way for new services and apps. Indeed, it’s helped spark the rise of so-called “challenger” banks, which are normally digital only, each with intuitive apps, near-instant account setup and handy features such as instant notifications and automated roundups for saving pots. But as compelling as they are, the likes of Monzo, Revolut and N26 started their push into the world of finance via consumer accounts for individuals, leaving small businesses behind.

That’s no longer the case. Starling has signed 60,000 businesses (and is approaching a million consumer users), Tide passed the 100,000 mark last summer and Monzo’s business accounts are set to arrive any day now. However, traditional banks have also caught on and don’t want to lose their lucrative business clients to newcomers, unveiling their own take on the challenger bank idea with the like of Bó from RBS – think big brewers releasing their take on a craft beer. Whichever you choose, it means same-day account setup, easy-to-use apps, and integrated accounting and other software tools. 

SMBs long ignored

It’s high time banks paid better attention to SMBs. According to analyst firm EY, SMBs account for £1.9 trillion in turnover annually and make up 99% of private companies in the UK. But a survey from Adaptive Lab suggested SMBs feel undervalued by larger banks, with too high costs for not enough specialised services. No wonder then that British startup Starling decided early on to target SMBs. “We recognised it was an underserved segment of the market, where the incumbent banks dominate and where there hadn’t been much innovation,” says Alex Frean, head of corporate affairs at Starling. “We thought there was a real customer need out there.”

Oliver Prill, CEO of business challenger bank Tide, adds that his fintech startup started because the co-founders had previously gone through the difficulty of setting up a business bank account themselves. “It didn’t work smoothly,” he says. “The biggest motivation for switchers at the moment is the huge annoyance they have had with the big five banks… they’ve really had it with their bank.”

Why have incumbent banks failed to offer such services? “We come from a history of monolithic universal banks, where small business is one segment among many others without much mindset to look at it any differently,” Prill says. “We fundamentally believe that these are very different industries,” he continues, suggesting that one bank may not be able to serve consumers, corporations, sole traders and SMBs very well, let alone those operating across different industries. 

All this means that business banking is ripe for disruption – and the disruptors are at the gate. They’re helped by the rise of digital in SMBs and API-led fintechs, open banking regulations prising data out of incumbents, and also the Alternative Remedies Package, which means there’s money sloshing around to help boost fintech startups. And, so far at least, it appears to be working. 

Making the move

That said, despite the increasing options, a June 2019 survey from Accenture suggests a mere 15% of SMB customers intend to switch their bank in the next year, with only 25% saying they would be willing to move to a digital-only service. 

There are two types of customer that challenger banks need to convince: those starting new businesses and those switching from an existing company to a different financial provider. For Tide, about 70% of its customers are new-to-market, and 30% are switching. To win over the first tranche, challenger banks need better awareness, admits Prill. He says Tide opens 12% of all new business current accounts, but its own in-house research suggests there’s only brand awareness among 17% of new companies – that’s why Tide ads are plastered all over London at the moment. “For the new-to market, a bank has to be fast… and have a good reputation,” he says. “But you need to be aware of the bank in the first place.” Frean agrees, noting that the lack of high street banks means creating awareness is a challenge. “We have to go and find customers and make them aware of us,” she says.

And then there are switchers, those annoyed at their current banks. It’s not easy to switch, but open banking is making it easier. For consumers, trying out Monzo or Starling is easy: sign up for an account, order a card, install the app, and you can see if it’s a system you like without having your salary paid in or transferring over all your direct debits. It’s more difficult for businesses to try out a new bank fully, as switching everything over takes time and, therefore, money; you would have to be sure of a new service before taking the plunge.

To help, Tide wants to set up a system for trial switching, in which all your figures, transactions and so on are pulled into the Tide account as a data feed, with your existing account staying the same. That lets companies try a bank effortlessly without much risk. “The trial switching overcomes friction, but you need to have a real reason to switch,” Prill says. 

Worth the switch?

Alongside attractive apps with whizzy features, challenger banks are trying to convince SMBs to make the switch by helping with or even taking over admin such as payroll and accounting, either offering such services or software themselves or via a third-party provider. “It’s really around saving small businesses time,” explains Prill. “We look at the space not as business banking, but as everything a business owner would consider admin and finance.” Indeed, Tide sees itself not as a bank, but instead as a platform, letting others build products that SMBs can embed into their banking processes. “We want to be the operating system for an SMB, but not the application layer,” Prill says. 

And that’s where open banking and third-party partnerships come in. Rather than export transactions and then import them into your software of choice, tools such as Xero and FreeAgent are integrated into the app. When the right tool isn’t available, Tide builds one; so far, it’s created built-in systems for invoices as well as credit. Take invoicing, for example: an SMB needs to create, send and chase that invoice, noting when it’s paid and pushing the relevant information into an accounting system. “Across these different product sets – invoicing, credit, payments, accounting – is a connectivity chain that we orchestrate, we make it highly usable,” says Prill. 

Starling’s equivalent is the Marketplace. This is the epitome of the open banking idea, a digital library of services and tools that Starling customers can easily integrate with their account, from receipt tracking to lines of credit, as well as leading accountancy software Xero and FreeAgent. “They can immediately pull your files from your Starling account and populate your accountancy files,” Frean says. “We’re adding to the Marketplace all the time.” Of course, some of the key features aren’t high-tech. Starling and Tide offer cash deposits via the Post Office, with Frean noting that it’s one of Starling’s most popular features.

What’s next? 

Prill predicts the banking market will fragment even further, particularly for businesses. Rather than choose the best of few options from five or so big banks, we’re already seeing more competition from the likes of Tide, Starling and the rest. “In the long term, there will be many different models to suit different customer needs,” he says. “We think this is a sign of a healthy market, that there is not a monolithic culture but offering true choice.”

Such banks will become less about your finances, and more about all aspects of your company – that’s Tide’s idea with the “OS for SMBs” concept. Right now, invoices and accounting are built into challenger business accounts, but within the next several months, Tide plans to also offer company formations. “The data we collect to set you up with a bank account… we might as well set up the company for you,” Prill says. “We could register your domain and website for you too.

“I think we’ll continue to see traditional banking providers lose share,” Prill adds, promising more richness of services, as well as more variety – and that’s where artificial intelligence (AI) could come in, he suggests, with machine learning used to find and suggest the best services for your business from a multitude. So many features and services that small-to-medium sized businesses need help choosing between them? That’s a nice change from which of the five boring banks will stash your money.

Firefox Voice trial begins in beta

Nicole Kobie

14 Jan, 2020

Mozilla’s trial of voice technology in the Firefox browser has kicked off, letting users speak to search, open or close tabs, and more.

The idea was announced at the end of last year as part of Mozilla’s Firefox Voice Campaign, but the beta extension has now been made available to install for those who have signed up, notes Ghacks.

“Firefox Voice is an experiment from Mozilla that lets you browse and get more done with your voice – faster than ever,” the developer said on the campaign’s website, where you can sign up for the trial.

“We are looking for fearless early adopters who are willing to test the new add-on and give us feedback before the major public release.”

Firefox Voice uses Google’s Cloud Speech Service, the report adds, but Google doesn’t record the results. The extension asks for a wide range of data, including all your websites, bookmarks and tabs, but that’s partially because it uses voice to access those areas of the browser.

Once installed, the extension lets users click the microphone icon or enter a shortcut key to trigger the system. Then you can speak to close a tab, find a page, and run a search, as well as copy and paste, read text, and pause videos.

The extension remains a beta, and you do need to register to get access.

Amazon hopes to halt Microsoft’s work on Pentagon JEDI contract

Nicole Kobie

14 Jan, 2020

Microsoft is set to start work on a controversial $10 billion cloud contract with the US military on 11 February, but not if Amazon has its way.

Last year, the Pentagon awarded the $10 billion contract for the Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure (JEDI) to Microsoft, tasking it with replacing ageing computers with a cloud network.

By the time the contract was awarded, Amazon Web Services (AWS) was the only other supplier in the race for the work and seen as a front runner by some, saying at the time it was “surprised” to lose the deal. Reports in a book suggested that may well have happened because President Donald Trump told the Pentagon leadership to “screw Amazon” as part of a spat with the company’s CEO Jeff Bezos. Weeks later, Amazon said it would appeal the decision in court.

As part of the ongoing dispute, Amazon filed a court document yesterday revealing it will seek a preliminary injunction that will “prevent the issuance of substantive task orders under the contract”, the filing says.

The three parties — the US government, Amazon and Microsoft — have already agreed on an expedited schedule for the court to consider the preliminary injunction, because the cloud system is considered important to national security, according to a report in Federal News Network. Amazon will file the formal request for an injunction by 24 January, with the other parties given a week to respond; the court should rule by the 11 February, when work is supposed to begin.

One objection could simply be that Amazon has filed the injunction request too late to stop work, raising questions of why the company didn’t make the request sooner in the case, which started at the end of November.

“The United States and Microsoft note that, in agreeing to the above schedule for briefing of AWS’s intended motion for temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction, they expressly reserve their right to object to the timeliness of AWS’s proposed motion,” the filing notes.

The filing also shows the US government “does not intend to file an answer to AWS’s complaint”. That’s reportedly common in bid protest cases, and means the government won’t give much detail about why it handed the contract to Microsoft.

The Department of Defense has rejected Amazon’s claims and the reports that Trump pressured staff to choose Microsoft over Amazon, and said the contract decision was made without bias or external influence.

GCHQ warns against Windows 7 for email, banking

Nicole Kobie

13 Jan, 2020

Windows 7 should not be used for sensitive tasks, such as banking or email, after the decade-old software hits end of life tomorrow, the British government’s security service has warned.

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the public-facing arm of GCHQ, issued the warning ahead of Microsoft ending extended support for the ten-year-old operating system on 14 January, meaning Windows 7 will no longer get any security updates and that flaws will go unpatched and left open for hackers. Businesses will still be able able to pay to get security updates for the next three years.

“The NCSC would encourage people to upgrade devices currently running Windows 7, allowing them to continue receiving software updates which help protect their devices,” an NCSC spokesperson told The Telegraph.

“We would urge those using the software after the deadline to replace unsupported devices as soon as possible, to move sensitive data to a supported device and not to use them for tasks like accessing bank and other sensitive accounts,” the spokesperson added. “They should also consider accessing email from a different device.”

The NCSC noted that criminals started targeting Windows XP immediately after extended support ended in 2015, though Microsoft has issued a handful of emergency patches for serious vulnerabilities despite officially ending support.

As of the end of 2019, Windows 7 was still used on 27% of desktops and laptops globally, according to Net Applications’ Market Share, while 55% were on the most recent version, Windows 10. Indeed, a tiny slice, just over 2%, remain on Windows XP.

That includes consumer devices around the world, but Kaspersky warned last year that as many as half of small businesses still use older operating systems, such as Windows 7, despite the significant security risk. That’s partially down to cost and dependence on apps unsupported on newer systems, but also down to habit, the security firm said. This is despite a number of high-profile attacks such as WannaCry, which targeted Windows 7 machines.

For those who prefer to plan ahead, Microsoft has already announced that it will end support for Windows 10 in 2025.

Google adds partners to real-time translation tools

Nicole Kobie

8 Jan, 2020

Google is bringing its real-time translation tools to businesses via Volara and Sonifi. 

Google Assistant’s interpreter mode already translates conversations in 29 different languages in real-time on supported smartphones and smart displays, but Google is now working with the two systems integrator partners to make it easier for businesses to make use of the system. 

The system uses a Google Nest Hub smart display, showing the translations on the screen and speaking them aloud. Volara and Sonifi will help rollout the technology, and offer consulting, training and technical support to customers. 

The aim is to offer instant translations for hotel desks, airports and other places where language challenges occur. Google suggested it was already in use at terminal four at JFK airport in New York, in airport lounges in Los Angeles, at Caesars casinos in Las Vegas, and even used by aid organisations Mercy Corps and Human Rights First. 

Lilian Rincon, Senior Director of Product Management for Google Assistant, explained in a blog post that interpreter mode has been used at JFK airport’s terminal four to help travelers get help finding luggage pickup, navigating the terminal, locating shops, and more, while staff are using the system to communicate more easily with passengers. “Of all customers in T4, 65% are international travelers, many of whom are visiting the US for the first time,” she said. “Flying can be very stressful for passengers, especially when struggling to understand the native language.”

Alongside the systems integrator partnerships for translation, Google announced new features for Google Assistant, including support for scheduled actions — meaning you can finally use Google Home to programme smart home devices for a specific time. 

Announced at CES, Scheduled Actions are one of several new features in Google Assistant, which the company said is now used by half a billion people globally, with support for more brands being added. 

Scheduled Actions means you’ll be able to choose an on/off time for compatible smart home gadgets. “For example, you can say, ‘Hey Google, run the coffee maker at 6 am’,” explained Manuel Bronstein, vice president of product for Google Assistant, in a blog post.

Bronstein added that it’ll now be easier to setup smart home devices using Google Assistant. “When you set up your smart device through the manufacturer’s app, you’ll receive a notification on your Android phone or see a ‘suggestion button’ when you open up the Google Home app that will prompt you to connect the device with your Assistant,” he said. “You’ll then be able to easily complete set-up in just a few taps without needing to re-enter your account credentials.”

Alongside the smart-home features, Google at CES also demonstrated Assistant reading aloud long-form content, such as news articles or short stories. “Unlike traditional screen readers, this experience is built on new voice datasets to create more expressive and more natural sounding voices, so it’s easier to listen for a longer period of time,” said Bronstein. Google is working on automatically translating such documents into different languages, as well as highlighting text as its read aloud.

Google also unveiled tools to share notes with the rest of your household, showing messages on smart displays without anyone needing to sign in — essentially, a digital post-it note — as well as new speed dials to more easily make calls. Both features will arrive later this year.

Facebook apps dominated this decade’s mobile market

Nicole Kobie

18 Dec, 2019

The most downloaded apps of the last decade have been revealed – and the top four are all now owned by Facebook.

According to the analysts at App Annie, the most downloaded apps globally from 2010 until now are Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram. WhatsApp was bought by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion, while Instagram was bought in 2012 for $1 billion.

“Looking at the most downloaded apps of the decade, Facebook has dominated the mobile space representing the four most downloaded apps of the decade with Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram,” said App Annie market insight manager Adithya Venkatraman in a blog post. “Communication and social media apps are consumer favorites, accounting for seven of the top 10 apps by downloads this decade.”

The figures may add fuel to the fire for regulators, amid calls to break up Facebook’s dominance in the market — or at least stop it hoovering up more rival apps. Indeed, Facebook is being investigated by US authorities over antitrust concerns, with reports suggesting the Federal Trade Commission could use an injunction to block the company from moving forward with plans to more closely link its various messaging apps, as such code sharing would make it difficult to break up the company in the future, should it be deemed necessary by regulators.

The Facebook apps were followed in the rankings by Snapchat, Skype and TikTok. The latter was one of two apps in the top ten, along with the UC Browser by Alibaba, that were released by Chinese companies instead of American ones. TikTok’s inclusion in the list is particularly impressive given that it was only released in 2016.

While Facebook has the most downloads, it doesn’t necessarily make the most money in the mobile market. According to App Annie, the top apps by consumer spend over the last decade were Netflix, Tinder and Pandora. Still, Facebook has increased its revenue from mobile which now makes up 94% of the company’s advertising revenue, according to the company’s third-quarter results. That’s a far cry from 2012, just after the company went public, when investors worried about the company’s inability to make money from mobile users.

While Facebook has found success with advertising on Instagram, it’s still looking for ways to earn revenue from WhatsApp, in particular by charging businesses that use the app to contact customers.

Facebook aside, the App Annie stats highlighted that the past decade has been all about mobile, and that looks set to continue. “This decade has been a time of remarkable growth for the mobile economy,” added Venkatraman. “With a 5% increase in downloads, and 15% growth in consumer spend… year-over-year in 2019 this looks set to continue in 2020.”

Intel spends $2bn on Habana Labs in AI data centre push

Nicole Kobie

17 Dec, 2019

Intel is pushing further into artificial intelligence (AI) with the $2 billion (£1.5bn) acquisition of Habana Labs, an Israeli developer of deep-learning hardware.

In 2016, Intel bought Habana Labs competitor Nervana for $400 million, shortly afterwards scooping up computer-vision chip startup Movidius. In 2015, Intel bought reprogrammable chip maker Altera in 2015 for $16 billion. As of 2017, Intel said it had invested more than $1 billion in AI companies.

And it’s starting to pay off, as last month Intel launched a pair of chips designed specifically for artificial intelligence in cloud environments, focused on training and inference using Nervana technology, as well as a computer-vision processing unit.

Habana Labs builds AI accelerators, which are a type of processor designed specifically for AI applications, such as machine learning or computer vision — they’re what a GPU is for graphics, but for AI.

Habana will remain independent from Intel with the current management team remaining in place, and continue to be based out of Israel.

The acquisition isn’t a surprise; Intel had previously invested in the company via its Intel Capital division. “We have been fortunate to get to know and collaborate with Intel given its investment in Habana, and we’re thrilled to be officially joining the team,” said David Dahan, CEO of Habana.

Habana Labs has two processor lines for cloud computing: the Gaudi and the Goya. The former is a processor designed for training AI systems. It’s not yet available, but company data claims it beats Nvidia’s equivalent on industry benchmarks, offers a 4x increase in throughput versus GPU-based systems, and Intel says the technology is already being trialled by some hyperscale customers.

The latter, the Goya, was released last year, and specialises in AI inference, when a trained system uses what it already knows about the world to make decisions, predictions, or otherwise analyse data, making them useful for the Internet of Things, for example.

“This acquisition advances our AI strategy, which is to provide customers with solutions to fit every performance need – from the intelligent edge to the data center,” says Navin Shenoy, executive vice president and general manager of the Data Platforms Group at Intel, in a statement. “More specifically, Habana turbo-charges our AI offerings for the data center with a high-performance training processor family and a standards-based programming environment to address evolving AI workloads.”