All posts by Moderator

Azure’s availability zones are now generally available

No matter what cloud you build on, if you want to build something that’s highly available, you’re always going to opt to put your applications and data in at least two physically separated regions. Otherwise, if a region goes down, your app goes down, too. All of the big clouds also offer a concept called ‘availability zones’ in their regions to offer developers the option to host their applications in two separate data centers in the same zone for a bit of extra resilience. All big clouds, that is, except for Azure, which is only launching its availability zones feature into general availability today after first announcing a beta last September.

Ahead of today’s launch, Julia White, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Azure, told me that the company’s design philosophy behind its data center network was always about servicing commercial customers with the widest possible range of regions to allow them to be close to their customers and to comply with local data sovereignty and privacy laws. That’s one of the reasons why Azure today offers more regions than any of its competitors, with 38 generally available regions and 12 announced ones.

“Microsoft started its infrastructure approach focused on enterprise organizations and built lots of regions because of that,” White said. “We didn’t pick this regional approach because it’s easy or because it’s simple, but because we believe this is what our customers really want.”

Every availability zone has its own network connection and power backup, so if one zone in a region goes down, the others should remain unaffected. A regional disaster could shut down all of the zones in a single region, though, so most business will surely want to keep their data in at least one additional region.

Asana introduces Timeline, lays groundwork for AI-based monitoring as the “team brain” for productivity

When workflow management platform Asana announced a $75 million round of funding in January led by former Vice President Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management, the startup didn’t give much of an indication of what it planned to do with the money, or what it was that won over investors to a new $900 million valuation (a figure we’ve now confirmed with the company).

Now, Asana is taking off the wraps on the next phase of its strategy. This week, the company announced a new feature it’s calling Timeline — composite, visual, and interactive maps of the various projects assigned to different people within a team, giving the group a wider view of all the work that needs to be completed, and how the projects fit together, mapped out in a timeline format.

Timeline is a new premium product: Asana’s 35,000 paying customers will be able to access it for no extra charge. Those who are among Asana’s millions of free users will have to upgrade to the premium tier to access it.

The Timeline that Asana is making is intended to be used in scenarios like product launches, marketing campaigns and event planning, and it’s not a matter of a new piece of software where you have to duplicate work, but each project automatically becomes a new segment on a team’s Timeline. Viewing projects through the Timeline allows users to identify if different segments are overlapping and adjust them accordingly.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the Timeline, however, is that it’s the first instalment of a bigger strategy that Asana plans to tackle over the next year to supercharge and evolve its service, making it the go-to platform for helping keep you focused on work, when you’re at work.

While Asana started out as a place where people go to manage the progress of projects, its ambition going forward is to become a platform that, with a machine-learning engine at the back end, will aim to manage a team’s and a company’s wider productivity and workload, regardless of whether they are actively in the Asana app or not.

“The long term vision is to marry computer intelligence with human intelligence to run entire companies,” Asana co-founder Justin Rosenstein said in an interview. “This is the vision that got investors excited.”

The bigger product — the name has not been revealed — will include a number of different features. Some that Rosenstein has let me see in preview include the ability for people to have conversations about specific projects — think messaging channels but less dynamic and more contained. And it seems that Asana also has designs to move into the area of employee monitoring: it has been working on a widget of sorts that installs on your computer and watches you work, with the aim of making you more efficient.

“Asana becomes a team brain to keep everyone focused,” said Rosenstein.

Given that Asana’s two co-founders, Dustin Moskovitz and Rosenstein, previously had close ties to Facebook — Moskovitz as a co-founder and Rosenstein as its early engineering lead — you might wonder if Timeline and the rest of its new company productivity engine might be bringing more social elements to the table (or desk, as the case may be).

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Rosenstein may have to his credit the creation of the “like” button and other iconic parts of the world’s biggest social network, but he has in more recent times become a very outspoken critic of the distracting effects of services like Facebook’s. It’s part of a bigger trend hitting Silicon Valley, where a number of leading players have, in a wave of mea culpa, turned against some of the bigger innovations particularly in social media.

Some have even clubbed together to form a new organization called the Center for Humane Technology, whose motto is “Reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.” Rosenstein is an advisor, although when I tried to raise the issue of the backlash that has hit Facebook on multiple fronts, I got a flat response. “It’s not something I want to talk about right now,” he said. (That’s what keeping focussed is all about, I guess.)

Asana, essentially, has taken the belief that social can become counterproductive when you have to get something done, and applied it to the enterprise environment.

This is an interesting twist, given that one of the bigger themes in enterprise IT over the last several years has been how to turn business apps and software more “social” — tapping into some of the mechanics and popularity of social networking to encourage employees to collaborate and communicate more with each other even when (as is often the case) they are not in the same physical space.

But social working might not be for everyone, all the time. Slack, the wildly popular workplace chat platform that interconnects users with each other and just about every enterprise and business app, is notable for producing “a gazillion notifications”, in Rosenstein’s words, leading to distraction from actually getting things done.

“I’m not saying services like Slack can’t be useful,” he explained. (Slack is also an integration partner of Asana’s.) “But companies are realising that, to collaborate effectively, they need more than communication. They need content and work management. I think that Slack has a lot of useful purposes but I don’t know if all of it is good all the time.”

The “team brain” role that Asana envisions may be all about boosting productivity by learning about you and reducing distraction — you will get alerts, but you (and presumably the brain) prioritise which ones you get, if any at all — but interestingly it has kept another feature characteristic of a lot of social networking services: amassing data about your activities and using that to optimise engagement. As Rosenstein described it, Asana will soon be able to track what you are working on, and how you work on it, to figure out your working patterns.

The idea is that, by using machine learning algorithms, you can learn what a person does quickly, and what might take longer, to help plan that person’s tasks better, and ultimately make that person more productive. Eventually, the system will be able to suggest to you what you should be working on and when.

All of that might sound like music to managers’ ears, but for some, employee monitoring programs sound a little alarming for how closely they monitor your every move. Given the recent wave of attention that social media services have had for all the data they collect, it will be interesting to see how enterprise services like this get adopted and viewed. It’s also not at all clear how these sorts of programs will sit in respect of new directives like GDPR in Europe, which put into place a new set of rules for how any provider of an internet service needs to inform users of how their data is used, and any data collecting needs to have a clear business purpose.

Still, with a different aim in mind — helping you work better — the end could justify the means, not just for bosses, but for people who might feel overwhelmed with what is on their work plate every day. “When you come in in the morning, you might have a list [many things] to do today,” Rosenstein said. “We take over your desktop to show the one thing you need to do.” Checking your Instagram feed be damned.

IoT devices could be next customer data frontier

At the Adobe Summit this week in Las Vegas, the company introduced what could be the ultimate customer experience construct, a customer experience system of record that pulls in information, not just from Adobe tools, but wherever it lives. In many ways it marked a new period in the notion of customer experience management, putting it front and center of the marketing strategy.

Adobe was not alone, of course. Salesforce, with its three-headed monster, the sales, marketing and service clouds, was also thinking of a similar idea. In fact, they spent $6.5 billion dollars last week to buy MuleSoft to act as a data integration layer to access  customer information from across the enterprise software stack, whether on prem, in the cloud, or inside or outside of Salesforce. And they announced the Salesforce Integration Cloud this week to make use of their newest company.

As data collection takes center stage, we actually could be on the edge of yet another data revolution, one that could be more profound than even the web and mobile were before it. That is…the Internet of Things.

Here comes IoT

There are three main pieces to that IoT revolution at the moment from a consumer perspective. First of all, there is the smart speaker like the Amazon Echo or Google Home. These provide a way for humans to interact verbally with machines, a notion that is only now possible through the marriage of all this data, sheer (and cheap) compute power and the AI algorithms that fuel all of it.

Next, we have the idea of a connected car, one separate from the self-driving car. Much like the smart speaker, humans can interact with the car, to find directions and recommendations and that leaves a data trail in its wake. Finally we, have sensors like iBeacons sitting in stores, providing retailers with a world of information about a customer’s journey through the store — what they like or don’t like, what they pick up, what they try on and so forth.

There are very likely a host of other categories too, and all of this information is data that needs to be processed and understood just like any other signals coming from customers, but it also has unique characteristics around the volume and velocity of this data — it is truly big data with all of the issues inherent in processing that amount of data.

The means it needs to be ingested, digested and incorporated into that central customer record-keeping system to drive the content and experiences you need to create to keep your customers happy — or so the marketing software companies tell us, at least. (We also need to consider the privacy implications of such a record, but that is the subject for another article.)

Building a better relationship

Regardless of the vendor, all of this is about understanding the customer better to provide a central data gathering system with the hope of giving people exactly what they want. We are no longer a generic mass of consumers. We are instead individuals with different needs, desires and requirements, and the best way to please us they say, is to understand us so well, that the brand can deliver the perfect experience at exactly the right moment.

Photo: Ron Miller

That involves listening to the digital signals we give off without even thinking about it. We carry mobile, connected computers in our pockets and they send out a variety of information about our whereabouts and what we are doing. Social media acts as a broadcast system that brands can tap into to better understand us (or so the story goes).

Part of what Adobe, Salesforce and others can deliver is a way to gather that information, pull it together into his uber record keeping system and apply a level of machine and learning and intelligence to help further the brand’s ultimate goals of serving a customer of one and delivering an efficient (and perhaps even pleasurable) experience.

Getting on board

At an Adobe Summit session this week on IoT (which I moderated), the audience was polled a couple of times. In one show of hands, they were asked how many owned a smart speaker and about three quarters indicated they owned at least one, but when asked how many were developing applications for these same devices only a handful of hands went up. This was in a room full of marketers, mind you.

Photo: Ron Miller

That suggests that there is a disconnect between usage and tools to take advantage of them. The same could be said for the other IoT data sources, the car and sensor tech, or any other connected consumer device. Just as we created a set of tools to capture and understand the data coming from mobile apps and the web, we need to create the same thing for all of these IoT sources.

That means coming up with creative ways to take advantage of another interaction (and data collection) point. This is an entirely new frontier with all of the opportunity involved in that, and that suggests startups and established companies alike need to be thinking about solutions to help companies do just that.

10 Friday AM Reads

My 3 day weekend morning train reads: • Are you ready? This is all the data Facebook and Google have on you (The Guardian) see also How a data mining giant got me wrong (Reuters) • Smart Beta Institute Warns Against Smart Beta (Institutional Investor) • Big box stores are dying. What do we do with all the bodies? (Popular Science) • Europe’s Booming,…

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