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From: FUBHO7/22/2017 3:32:26 AM
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IBM Is Worst Performer on Dow as Cloud Services Unit Falters | Data Center Knowledge

Chairwoman and CEO of IBM Ginni Rometty speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit in 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE)by Bloomberg on July 21, 2017

Gerrit De Vynck (Bloomberg) — IBM fell the most in three months after reporting revenue that missed estimates, with sales in a key unit declining for the second consecutive period.

The quarterly results, released Tuesday after the close of trading, further extend Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty’s turnaround plan into its fifth year without significant progress. The company, once considered a bellwether for the tech industry, was the worst performer on the Dow Jones Industrial Average Wednesday.

Revenue in the technology services and cloud platforms segment dropped 5.1 percent from the same period a year earlier, even though executives had said in April that they expected key contracts to come through in the quarter. The unit is a marker for the strength of the company’s push into newer technologies. Total revenue fell to $19.3 billion, the 21st straight quarter of year-over-year declines.

The stock tumbled as much as 4.7 percent in intraday trading Wednesday in New York, the most since April, to $146.71. The shares have lost 7.2 percent this year through the close Tuesday, and have missed out on the technology stock rally that propelled companies like Inc. and Alphabet to records.

International Business Machines Corp. has been working since before Rometty took over in 2012 to steer the company toward services and software, and she has pushed it deeper into businesses such as artificial intelligence and the cloud. Still, legacy products like computers and operating system software have been a drag on overall growth. Some investors are getting tired of waiting for the turnaround to catch on. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. sold about a third of its investment in IBM during the first half of this year.

Several analysts cut their price targets on the company.

James Kisner, an analyst at Jefferies, said the “poor earnings quality aims to mask ongoing secular headwinds” in the software business and competitive pressures in services that may result in more investor disappointment. He rates the stock underperform and cut the price target to $125 from $154.

Better MarginsGross margins in the second quarter were 47.2 percent, slightly beating the average analyst estimate of 47 percent. That’s better than last quarter, when a surprise miss on margins sent the stock tumbling the most in a year.

“We will continue to see, on a sequential basis, margin improvement from the first half to second half,” Chief Financial Officer Martin Schroeter said in an interview.

Operating profit, excluding some items, was $2.97 a share, compared with the average analyst estimate of $2.74 a share. That measure got a boost from tax benefits, which added 18 cents to the per-share number, IBM said.

The company’s cognitive solutions segment, which houses much of the software and services in the newer businesses and includes the Watson artificial intelligence platform, has shown the most promise in recent periods, growing in each of the previous four quarters. Yet sales in the unit fell 2.5 percent in the second quarter.

AI CompetitionWatson, for which the company doesn’t specifically break out revenue, might never contribute a significant amount to the company, Jefferies’ Kisner said in a July 12 note.

Competition in the artificial intelligence market is heating up, with major investments from the world’s biggest technology companies, including Microsoft Corp., Alphabet Inc. and Inc. On top of that, hundreds of startups are jumping in.

“IBM appears outgunned in the ‘war’ for AI talent,” Kisner said. “In our base case, IBM barely re-coups its cost of capital from AI investments.”

The company’s total revenue fell 4.7 percent from the same period a year ago, and missed analysts’ average estimate for $19.5 billion.

Oppenheimer & Co. managing director Ittai Kidron said the results show IBM “isn’t out of the woods yet.”

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From: Glenn Petersen7/23/2017 3:32:31 PM
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The U.S. Government’s long road to adopting the cloud

By David Lumb
Increment Cloud
Issue 2 Summer 2017

On December 9th, 2010, U.S. Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra told his government peers that they would never work the same way again. Nearly two years after President Obama signed a pair of executive orders on his first day in office promising a new era of government transparency and disclosure, Kundra gave a presentation reinforcing a new “Cloud First” policy that sought to harness the increasingly powerful remote processing model to hew down bloat and increase efficiency. It pushed each agency to transition some services to the cloud within the year and authorized an exchange program to borrow Silicon Valley’s best talent.

This motion was one of the first unified, from-the-very-top motions encouraging all federal agencies to begin transitioning some of their services into cloud computing. Not that they were ready to jump on the cloud bandwagon and begin offloading their computation and data storage to commercial vendors: agencies large and small still had to take a long look at their needs to decide how to shift their infrastructure from in-house IT to external providers. Kundra’s vision was more aspirational than immediately instructive; many agencies are still in this process nearly seven years later.

“It was an early signal of the ultimate direction, but it was a little too early for the government to embrace. There was a pretty steep learning curve ahead for the federal government,” said Dr. Rick Holgate, analyst for Gartner and former Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “It was aspirational more than watershed because it didn’t necessarily make it easier for [the] federal government to move to the cloud.”

Government agencies had been contracting third party vendors for cloud computing services for years, but which was the first to do so might be lost to time—and semantics. What we know as cloud computing today has changed and evolved over the years, ever since vendors sold the first remote processing services to government agencies.

“The government’s been involved in clouds for eight years, but when you get beyond eight years or so, it becomes a whole taxonomy discussion about what cloud is,” said Shawn P. McCarthy, Research Director at analysis firm IDC.

Cloud computing is still a young field, but its terminology has somewhat solidified. The definition, as finalized in 2011 by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) after 15 prior versions, is “a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

Today, government agencies contract external vendors for cloud computing solutions for the same reasons enterprise clients do: to entrust critical systems to providers who will maintain, modernize, scale, and reliably keep them online. There are a few more hoops to jump through if a company wants to sell their service to a government agency—hoops which differ depending on whether the company is selling to the federal, state, or local levels. But, so long as they meet requirements and become authorized by single agencies or broad security baselines, any vendor can (theoretically) pitch their products to agencies, from single Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions to Platform as a Service (PaaS) offerings all the way up to selling Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) that agencies build entire systems on.

Government agencies contract external vendors for cloud computing solutions for the same reasons enterprise clients do: to entrust critical systems to providers who will maintain, modernize, scale, and reliably keep them online.
The potential for a cloud computing company to open up their business to the government market is enticing, but meeting the government’s safety guidelines can be a lengthy process. Is jumping through all these regulatory hoops worth it to businesses? Usually yes, McCarthy said, though qualifying to offer products— the coveted authority to operate (ATO)—doesn’t guarantee companies a single customer.

“A lot of people do it because, by going through the approval process and getting [General Services Administration] scheduled, you are listed as a serious player on the federal market. That said, government buyers look at price points and whether the product really meets their requirements—they could have tens to hundreds of boxes to check. They may never need the product you went and got approved,” said McCarthy. “On the flip side, if you have a wonderful solution, you have access to thousands of potential new clients. It’s not a magic bullet to get GSA scheduled, but for most people, we do recommend they jump through the hoops—but keep an open mind.”

Where cloud computing started is fodder for another piece, but one of the earliest vendors to start selling to the government was RightNow, founded by Greg Gianforte (yes, the same newly-elected Representative of Montana). By one of that company’s manager’s recollection, they started hosting clients’ computing needs on their own servers shortly after 2000, during some of the first nascent moments of cloud computing.

Then, at the tail end of 2002, Congress passed landmark legislation that codified digital security practices for government agencies’ IT setups. The E-Government Act of 2002 established the Office of Electronic Government under the Office of Management and Budget and the person heading it, its Federal Chief Information Officer of the United States. The first of these, Vivek Kundra, held the position for eight years.

The E-Government Act had other provisions, but most germane to cloud computing was the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 (FISMA), which requires each agency to develop its own Information Security protocols according to how much risk they deemed appropriate. Agencies, or the vendors they contracted to build their systems, had to ensure that their services were FISMA-compliant—or, more specifically, FIPS-compliant (Federal Information Processing Standard). NIST requirements 199 and 200 are two of the mandatory security standards that rolled out over the next few years. In short, these are the specific security requirements government bodies select according to their needs, with increasing levels of severity, that vendors must meet.

As defined, these were arbitrary requirements set up by each department for all of their IT systems—which, through most of the 2000s, was mostly done in on-premises data centers. But cloud services were gaining traction in the enterprise sphere. Nearly two years after Obama was inaugurated, the Office of Electronics in Government gave an official nudge to push agencies into the cloud computing game. In December 2010, Federal CIO Kundra presented the “25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal IT Management,” which set bold goals to reduce tech infrastructure bloat, which could partially be solved by migrating operations to the cloud. It challenged government bodies to cut or turnaround a third of their underperforming projects within 18 months and, under a new “Cloud First” mentality, shift at least one system to the cloud in the next year. Meanwhile, the plan proposed for the Office of Management and Budget to oversee cutting 800 federal data centers government-wide by 2015. Soon, the government had a bona-fide cloud computing strategy.

At the time, this was still somewhat early—a goal-setting aspiration rather than a comprehensive plan to organize existing activity. Agencies weren’t ready to immediately sign their operations over to a vendor: Logistically, there was plenty of work ahead to vet vendors, plan migration strategies, and prioritize which ones should make the jump first. By the next year, agencies had started following the IT Reform motion in their own backyards. The Department of Defense had closed eight data centers, with 44 total slated to sunset by the OMB’s target date in 2015. The DoD had also started its own program to invest in Silicon Valley’s solutions by introducing its IT Exchange Program, borrowing professionals for 3-month to year-long stints to learn industry best practices.

As 2011 came to a close, Kundra left his position as federal CIO, and his successor Steven VanRoekel introduced the second major security framework, the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), which operates under the General Services Administration (GSA). While agencies had set their own IT security assessment methodologies following FISMA’s loose guidance, FedRAMP outlined security protocols specifically for agencies engaging in cloud services.

FedRAMP mandates that agencies use NIST SP 800-53 as a set of guidelines, among other security controls, and these apply to any cloud service providers (CSPs) that want to sell services to agencies. Ergo, CSPs would now have to be “FedRAMP compliant,” which is an authorization that, once met and approved by the FedRAMP board, qualifies cloud products for theoretically any agency (rather than getting FISMA-authorized on an agency-by-agency basis). This was a huge leap, and only made possible because IT security is a universal concept. For the first time in government history, every agency had been made to abide by one set of security protocols.

CSPs aspiring for FedRAMP approval submit their products to a review board known as the Joint Authorization Board (JAB), which is made up of CIOs from the DHS, DoD, and the GSA, which examines every potential service. Given FedRAMP’s nominal personnel, it only authorizes 12-14 CSP services per year. But there is an alternative, which is occasionally faster: CSPs can have agencies themselves run through the same vetting process, and after approval by JAB, the service receives the same FedRAMP seal of approval. Often, this is quicker: about two-thirds of the 86 FedRAMP-approved services were authorized through agencies.

Those companies which have earned FedRAMP compliance have their products listed in an online catalogue, a site that also tracks which requests for authorization are still under review. Most notably, FedRAMP only applies to unclassified data: Agencies dealing with classified data, including those in the intelligence community, still retain their own secretive security protocols.

But the need for cloud services that traffic unclassified data is huge. The not-so-secret secret of government bodies’ cloud computing requirements is that they need many of the same things that commercial businesses do, and for the same reasons.

The not-so-secret secret of government bodies’ cloud computing requirements is that they need many of the same things that commercial businesses do, and for the same reasons.
“Agencies tend to prefer an enterprise solution when they can, when it makes sense,” said McCarthy.

Offloading responsibility to develop and maintain IT to a cloud computing provider has the same appeal to a government client as to an enterprise one: Flexible and custom solutions that can be scaled. But like commercial clients, there’s no singular “government cloud” that agencies work within, and each FedRAMP-compliant vendor offers very different solutions.

“It really is an ecosystem of providers that are different from last year or even two years ago and that provide different levels of cloud service,” said Bryna Dash, Director of Cloud Services at IBM.

Smaller, more agile providers have been selling cloud services to the government for years, but the larger hosting providers were some of the first to be officially welcomed into the FedRAMP pantheon. Around 2013, the nascent Amazon Web Services became the first of them to pass FedRAMP and NIST security regulations, McCarthy reckoned, and that sent a signal that moving to the cloud was worthwhile.

“When AWS became a robust, respected platform for government computing and nailed down its very stringent requirements, that sent a message to other agencies that cloud is here in a way that’s highly secure and tends to be cheaper,” said McCarthy. “Suddenly you have agencies with the most stringent security requirements you can imagine, and they’re suddenly getting what they need in AWS.”

The turning point: 2013

Amazon’s FedRAMP authorization was one of the main reasons analysts deem 2013 to be a real watershed year for government’s involvement in cloud computing. Shortly thereafter, Amazon’s product dedicated to the government cloud set up interactions with the federal intelligence community, and meeting their strict security requirements with a cloud product was an accomplishment.

Amazon barely beat Microsoft in the race to pass government regulations. Others followed, including IBM, which was officially cleared to sell cloud computing services to government bodies in November 2013. By the next year, they’d already opened the first of several data centers opened specifically for use by government agencies—dedicated data centers that were physically and proximally isolated from civilian or enterprise data being a potential requirement for some agencies.

The additional resources Amazon and Microsoft have invested into their government cloud offerings has likely given them an edge when competing for contracts: Back in early 2013, despite a competitive bid by IBM, who was offering a less-expensive solution, the CIA chose Amazon to build cloud infrastructure because Amazon’s bid offered a “superior technical solution.” In this sense, what Amazon and Microsoft can offer—what they can build for agency clientele due to their extensive investment—gives them an advantage. While the two are the dominant operators in the government cloud, they aren’t alone, owning nine of the 86 FedRAMP-approved offerings in the GSA catalogue. (You might wonder where Google is in all this: despite getting onboard with Federal CIO Kundra’s attempts to launch app marketplace back in 2009 and applying for FISMA approvals, Google’s portion of the government cloud computing market is a “distant third” according to Gartner analyst Holgate.)

As befits a cybersecurity landscape that continues to evolve, the government’s cloud computing vendor requirements are also changing. FISMA, for example, was amended in 2012 and updated/modernized in 2014. Whenever NIST updates SP 800-53, FedRAMP updates along with it. And security requirements haven’t just evolved—they’ve expanded. FedRAMP launched with Low and Moderate security category clearances, which require providers to satisfy 125 and 326 controls, respectively. The Department of Defense even has its own particular set of security controls that it started transitioning from its own security protocols to FedRAMP into a new authorization called FedRAMP Plus, which launched in the middle of 2016 (though the DoD, not JAB, still oversees these protocols).

A year ago, FedRAMP finally released its High security category requiring CSPs to satisfy 421 security controls, an authorization that finally permitted commercial vendors to agencies looking for particularly sensitive solutions. Unsurprisingly, Amazon, Microsoft and CSRA received approval to operate at the High level in June 2016, and remain the only three companies to offer products in the FedRAMP catalogue at such a level (though more are waiting in the FedRAMP review queue).

Regardless of the currently small number of providers and the extensive vetting for approval, the government cloud is growing. Total “cloud spend” was expected to reach $37.1 billion in 2016, according to an IDC estimate; by 2020, the analysis firm forecasts that spending on cloud services will almost equal budget expenditures on traditional IT.

This year’s forecast of government spending on cloud computing, however, was a shocking decrease from 2016. Initial estimates by IDC anticipate a 16 percent drop in budgeted expenditure for cloud solutions. McCarthy believes this is because new projects are already developed on the cloud, while the easier old things to transition to the cloud like email systems, storage, and websites have already been uploaded. The remaining systems are transitioned on a case-by-case basis. But he doesn’t believe this is necessarily an end to growth in government spending on the cloud.

“I consider that a temporary blip,” said McCarthy. “So, 16 percent budgeted less than last year—and in reality, probably less than that. Because the fiscal year ends in September, we won’t hear the real numbers until October or later.”

And then there are the cloud computing applications that haven’t been conceived yet.

“My perspective is that we’re still in the early phases of cloud adoption in general. The ability to take advantage of technologies that are forward-thinking, to take advantage of the cloud, plus the things we don’t know about that will emerge in two or three or five years—the long-term benefits of cloud adoption,” said Greg Souchack, IBM Federal Partner for Cloud and Managed Services.

Over the last few years, another concept has entered the government cloud conversation: open standards. It wasn’t always: After all, it’s easier to retain customers if your solution is proprietary and inflexible. But the tide has shifted in the last few years. Open standards proponents like those at IBM champion the practice as not just unshackling clients from dependency, but embracing the free flow of information.

“Point is, if they move to another cloud provider, they aren’t reinventing the wheel” said Lisa Meyer, Federal Communications Lead at IBM.

“If you build on one cloud provider, you should be able to move between cloud providers and different vendors, shift to where innovation is and, quite frankly, to the right price point,” agreed IBM’s Dash. “That maintains competition.”

But to get more competition, FedRAMP will need to move faster in approving requests. The small-staffed FedRAMP review board had typically taken 12 to 18 months to authorize a cloud service. With 67 CSPs still waiting in the review queue, FedRAMP isn’t ignoring its slow approval process. They’ve worked on (relatively) speeding up the process: In the last round, FedRAMP required all applicants to submit by December 30th, 2016, announced those who’d earned review in late February 2017, and expect to confirm the qualified in 4-5 months.

FedRAMP has also floated the idea of a new classification, FedRAMP Tailored, which would ease control requirements on a case-by-case basis for proposed systems that are deemed low-risk and cheap to implement: services like collaboration tools, project management, and open-source development. Once approved for consideration by the Joint Authorization Board, the low-risk services could be given an ATO in just over a month. Despite its low-risk classification, services approved for Tailored use are still granted FedRAMP’s pan-agency seal of approval, allowing the CSP to sell it to other government bodies.

Which is a good thing, since the government cloud’s appetite is increasing. 112 different agencies are currently using FedRAMP-compliant cloud services in a mix of PaaS, IaaS and SaaS products. But over 85 percent of the CSP products awaiting JAB review are SaaS, which will logically build on top of the IaaS and PaaS foundations that agencies have been building on for years.

Back in June, the White House held a technology summit to discuss modernizing the government’s technology—and ahead of it, the administration’s director of strategic initiatives Chris Liddell noted that only “three to four percent” of government operations are currently on the cloud. Liddell, the former chief financial officer at Microsoft, said that the White House’s goal for the summit was to cultivate a “government tech” industry in the private sector. Whether that nudges disparate companies into a coalesced niche more visible to the main cloud market, and to the public at large, is anyone’s guess.

David Lumb is a freelance journalist focusing on tech, culture, and gaming. In the years since graduating from UC Irvine, he’s written dozens of feature stories for Fast Company, Playboy, Engadget and Popular Mechanics. He lives in Brooklyn, New York and strives to find burritos that will meet his Southern California-grown standards.

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From: Glenn Petersen8/2/2017 9:24:50 PM
   of 1483
Inside Salesforce’s Quest to Bring Artificial Intelligence to Everyone

Author: Scott Rosenberg
l08.02.1707:00 am

Shubha Nabar, director of data science, at the Salesforce office in San Francisco.
Photography: Jason Henry. Photo direction: Michelle Le.

Optimus Prime—the software engine, not the Autobot overlord—was born in a basement under a West Elm furniture store on University Avenue in Palo Alto. Starting two years ago, a band of artificial-intelligence acolytes within Salesforce escaped the towering headquarters with the goal of crazily multiplying the impact of the machine learning models that increasingly shape our digital world—by automating the creation of those models. As shoppers checked out sofas above their heads, they built a system to do just that.

They named it after the Transformers leader because, as one participant recalls, “machine learning is all about transforming data.” Whether the marketing department thought better of it, or the rights weren’t available, the Transformers tie-in didn't make it far out of that basement. Instead, Salesforce licensed the name of a different world-transforming hero—and dubbed its AI program Einstein.

The pop culture myths the company has invoked for its AI effort—the robot leader; the iconic genius—represent the kind of protean powers the technology is predicted to attain by both its most ardent hypesters and its gloomiest critics. Salesforce stands firmly on the hype side of this divide—no one cheers louder, especially not in AI promotion. But the company’s actual AI program is more pragmatic than messianic or apocalyptic.

This past March, Salesforce flipped a switch and made a big chunk of Einstein available to all of its users. Of course it did. Salesforce has always specialized in putting advanced software into everyday businesses' hands by moving it from in-house servers to the cloud. The company’s original mantra was “no software.” Its customers wouldn’t have to purchase and install complex programs and then pay to maintain and upgrade them—Salesforce would take care of all that at its data centers in the cloud. That seems obvious now, but when Salesforce launched in 1999 it sounded as revolutionary as AI does to us today.

Jason Henry

Talkin’ revolution has been good for Salesforce. The firm now has 26,000 employees worldwide, and it has pasted its name on the city’s new tallest skyscraper. Its founder, Marc Benioff, is a philanthropist who has put his own name on hospitals and foundations. Despite all this, in its own world of B2B (business-to-business) software, Salesforce still holds onto its scrappy upstart self-image.

So naturally, when the AI trend took off, the people inside the company and the experts they recruited coalesced around an idealistic mission. The team set out to create “AI for everyone”—to make machine learning affordable for companies who’ve been priced out of the market for experts. They promised to “democratize” AI.

That sounds a bit risky! Can we trust the people with such awesome powers? (Cut to chorus of Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Nick Bostrom singing a funeral mass for humanity.) But what Salesforce has in mind isn’t all that subversive. Its Einstein isn’t the guy who overthrew centuries of orthodox physics and enabled the H-bomb; he’s just a cute brainiac who can answer all your questions. Salesforce’s populist slogan is simply about making a new generation of technology accessible to mere mortals. Other, bigger companies—Microsoft, Google, Amazon—may outgun Salesforce in sheer research muscle, but Salesforce promises to put a market advantage into its customers’ hands right now. That begins with the mundane business of ranking lists of sales leads.

“What do I work on next?”

Most of us ask that question many times every day. (And too many of us end up answering, “Check Facebook” or “See if Trump tweeted again!”) To-do apps and personal productivity systems offer some help, but often turn into extra work themselves. What if artificial intelligence answered the “next task” question for you?

That’s what the Salesforce AI team decided to offer as Einstein’s first broadly available, readymade tool. Today Salesforce offers all kinds of cloud-based services for customer service, ecommerce, marketing and more. But at its root, it’s a workaday CRM (customer relationship management) product that salespeople use to manage their leads. Prioritizing these opportunities can get complicated fast and takes up precious time. So the Einstein Intelligence module—a little add-on column at the far right of the basic Salesforce screen—will do it for you, ranking them based on, say, “most likely to close.” For marketers, who also make up a big chunk of Salesforce customers, it can take a big mailing list and sort individual recipients by the likelihood that they’ll open an email.

But wait, what qualifies this as artificial intelligence? Anyone can tell a spreadsheet to sort a list based on different factors. The machine learning difference is simple but profound: The program studies the history of the data and figures out for itself which factors best predict the future—and then it keeps adjusting its model based on new information over time. The more data, the subtler and more powerful the answers, which is why Einstein can work not only from columns of basic Salesforce data but also from information like sales email threads that it parses and images that it reads.

An Einstein character at the Salesforce office in San Francisco.
Jason Henry

Salesforce director of product marketing Ally Witherspoon uses the example of a solar-panel sales outfit using the machine learning tool to discover that a key factor in predicting a customer’s chances of saying “yes” is whether the house’s roof is pitched in a solar-friendly way. Further down the road, a different deep learning-style program could check satellite photos of different properties and automatically tag homes by roof geometry.

This roof info might start out as a major ingredient in how the machine learning program sorts its list—and, in one of Einstein’s nifty design flourishes, users can click to reveal which factors shaped each priority scoring. If users are going to trust the tool, that kind of transparency helps. But what happens when all the sales reps have learned to ignore the folks whose roofs are flat?

As Salesforce President of Technology Srini Tallapragada explains, “At a certain point, a column of data can become useless—it becomes a best practice, so it loses predictive value. The model has to keep changing.”

That is cool. It’s also pretty standard-issue machine learning tech for 2017. But to get it up and running at your company, you’d need to spend a ton of time and effort building a model that understands what’s important in your business, and then cleaning up your data to get good results. That’s the reason your bank, your insurance company, and your doctor aren’t all using AI already, explains Vitaly Gordon, who left LinkedIn in 2014 to become one of Salesforce's machine learning pioneers. Ironically, for a field predicated on the ideas of automating human work, “It’s an access to people problem,” Gordon says. These companies probably know more about you than Facebook or Google, but they can’t compete for the data scientists who know how to mine the mountains of information.

Vitaly Gordon, VP of data science and one of the earliest Salesforce AI engineers.
Jason Henry

Right now, the demand for these experts is like the run on internet routing gurus in the ’90s or SEO experts in the 2000s—even crazier than the Bay Area housing market. If you’re the likes of Facebook, Google, or Amazon, you can hire the field’s leading lights and put them to work optimizing algorithms and inventing new ways of serving billions of customers with more artificial intelligence. If you’re anyone else, you’re pretty much screwed. You’ll either pay a fortune to a giant consultancy to custom-build a machine learning system, or you’ll watch from the sidelines. What Salesforce is selling is the idea that if your business is in its hands, you’re going to get the benefit of AI without fighting for that talent to customize it for you. It all comes in the box—or would, if there were a box. (Our metaphors need to keep changing, too.)

Salesforce has 150,000 customers, most of whom have customized the system for their own needs and kinds of data. The Salesforce “multi-tenant” approach means that each company’s data is kept separately, and when a customer adds a custom data field, Salesforce doesn’t even know the nature of the information.

To bolt Einstein onto each of these businesses’ unique software configurations, Salesforce’s AI braintrust realized that it needed a new approach. “There aren’t enough data scientists in the world to build all the predictive models we need,” says John Ball, Salesforce Einstein’s general manager. Just as AT&T realized a century ago that if it stuck with manual operators, everyone in the US would end up sitting at a switchboard, Salesforce saw that automation was inevitable.

This is where Optimus Prime comes in. (Inside Salesforce, developers still use that name.) It’s the system that automates the creation of machine learning models for each Salesforce customer so that data scientists don’t have to spend weeks babysitting each new model as it is born and trained to deliver good answers. Optimus Prime is, in a sense, an AI that builds AIs—and a tool whose recursive nature is both beautiful and unsettling.

John Ball, general manager for Salesforce Einstein.
Jason Henry

“Normally a data scientist studying one problem might take several weeks to a month to come up with a good model for a problem,” explains Shubha Nabar, Salesforce’s director of data science. “With this automated layer, it takes just a couple of hours.”

Today, the fruits of Optimus Prime are chiefly available in neatly packaged features of the Salesforce cloud applications that customers can turn on by checking a box. Next, Salesforce plans to open up the technology by steps. First, users will be able to extend Einstein’s capabilities more widely to more of their customized data. Then, a point-and-click interface will let non-programmers build custom apps for users. “We want to allow an admin—not a data scientist, not even really a developer—to predict any field in any object,” Ball says. Even further down the line, Salesforce intends to expose more of the guts of its machine learning system for external developers to play with. At that point, it will be competing directly with all the AI heavyweights, like Google and Microsoft, to dominate the business market.

Salesforce recently released research that claims AI’s impact through CRM software alone will add over $1 trillion to GDPs around the globe and create 800,000 new jobs. The company has gone all-in on AI since it first announced Einstein in 2016. Benioff said then, “AI is the next platform—all future applications, all future capabilities for all companies will be built on AI.”

Benioff even told analysts on a quarterly earnings call that he uses Einstein at weekly executive meetings to forecast results and settle arguments: “I will literally turn to Einstein in the meeting and say, ‘OK, Einstein, you’ve heard all of this, now what do you think?’ And Einstein will give me the over and under on the quarter and show me where we’re strong and where we’re weak, and sometimes it will point out a specific executive, which it has done in the last three quarters, and say that this executive is somebody who needs specific attention.”

That may sound a little Big Brother-ish, but everyone I spoke with at Salesforce is careful to keep the AI talk friendly. Einstein isn’t after your job—it just wants to help you work smarter. Nonetheless, the AI universe is mined with vague fears about the future of work and questions about bias, privacy, and data integrity. As Salesforce expands its AI projects, it will inevitably tangle with them.

One of Salesforce’s advantages in attracting talent in the field is that, under Benioff’s command, the company has built a strong reputation for having a social conscience. It’s the anti-Uber. That was one of the factors that mattered to Richard Socher, an AI hotshot whose company, MetaMind, was acquired by Salesforce a year ago.

Socher, who now leads Salesforce’s research efforts, specializes in deep learning techniques that help software understand natural language and images. He teaches a wildly popular AI course at Stanford, and co-publishes papers with titles like “Pointer Sentinel Mixture Models” and “Your TL;DR by an AI: A Deep Reinforced Model for Abstractive Summarization.”

Richard Socher, who heads Salesforce AI research.
Jason Henry

With his unruly straw mop of hair, Socher still looks like the grad student he was not that long ago—and he has a youthful enthusiasm for testing the limits of what we think AI can handle.

“I want to be able to have more and more of a real conversation in the future with a system that clearly has tackled a diverse range of intelligent capabilities,” he says. For now, that means building learning routines that can “read” arbitrary paragraphs and then correctly answer questions about them, and exploring new methods of building AI systems that can do more than one thing at a time.

As the technology grows more powerful, Socher says, we can’t put off the conversations about its ethics. “AI is only as good as the data it gets,” he says. “If your data has certain suboptimal human biases in it, your AI will pick it up. And then you automate it, and it makes that same mistake hundreds of millions of times. You need to be very careful.”

Sales work can be painfully hard, and salespeople have to stay positive even when their work gets ugly and desperate. Salesforce has thrived for two decades by embracing that optimism. Where Google’s AI efforts are all about perfecting information access and Facebook’s aim to connect people more intelligently, Salesforce wants to make the world a better place by helping customers smarten up their work days.

At times, Salesforce’s portrait of a future powered by its AI sounds too good to be true. For a down-to-earth assessment of the company’s plans from an outsider, I turned to Pedro Domingos, an AI expert at the University of Washington and author of The Master Algorithm.

Domingos says Salesforce is “a bit of a latecomer” to the field and may find it harder than it expects to integrate AI fully at deeper levels of its products. But he thinks the company is on the right track: At this stage in AI’s evolution, there’s more to be gained from putting basic tools in more people’s hands than from squeezing an extra few percentages of efficiency from an algorithm.

Domingos also says that Salesforce’s relatively tardy entrance to AI—compared with, say, IBM or Google—shouldn’t necessarily hold it back. “They’re still a small player in this space. But other companies came from behind and got pretty far pretty quickly—look at Facebook. Just because you’re a late starter doesn’t mean that in a few years you can’t become a leader.”

Salesforce faces a crowded field in the fight to put AI tools to work on behalf of the warm-handshake crowd. Competitors include giants like Microsoft (with its LinkedIn Sales Navigator) and Oracle, as well as smaller rivals like SugarCRM and startups like Conversica (the latter of which uses AI to automate conversations with incoming sales leads). If Salesforce does succeed in moving to the front rank of today’s crazy corporate AI race, company insiders point to one advantage as its not-so-secret weapon: its well-tended warehouses of consistently labeled and organized customer data.

Those much-competed-for, highly paid data scientists everyone is trying to hire? They spend enormous amounts of time today “preparing data,” which means figuring out how to prep piles of information so that it can be digested by machine learning programs and produce good results. There is a whole lot of grooming and massaging of information that has to take place before most AI systems can even begin to start making predictions.

This represents an ironic breakdown in the ethos of automation that underlies AI. Too often today, Domingos points out, the IBMs and Accentures of the world are just throwing armies of experts at their customers’ problems. “What they do at the end of the day is, they actually have human labor do this stuff,” he says, “That makes money but is not scalable.”

But Salesforce customers have all already entered their data into a single software platform, even if many of them have added their own custom flourishes. “People put everything in there,” says Salesforce technology president Tallapragada. Salesforce doesn’t look at the content of its customers’ data, but it does know how a lot of it is organized. “The Salesforce advantage is the metadata. That lets us automate stuff,” says data science director Nabar.

For all the utopian dreams and Skynet nightmares that today’s advances in artificial intelligence provoke, the winners and losers in this transition will probably be determined by what computer scientists call “data hygiene.” In other words: No matter how smart our programs get in the AI future, tidiness still counts. Clean up after your work, and remember to wash your files before you leave.

Let others conquer Go and solve knotty theorems. Salesforce could achieve victory through neat power.

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From: Sam8/22/2017 2:25:24 PM
1 Recommendation   of 1483
Microsoft No Longer a PC Company with Deals Like Halliburton, Says Credit Suisse

Microsoft's "no longer your father's Microsoft," writes Michael Nemeroff Credit Suisse, citing deals such as today's win for Microsoft to be the cloud provider for Halliburton's oil and gas exploration and production efforts.

By Tiernan Ray
Aug. 22, 2017 12:10 p.m. ET

Shares of Microsoft ( MSFT) are up 88 cents, or 1.2%, at $73.03, after the company this morning announced a deal with oil and gas giant Halliburton ( HAL), in which Microsoft’s “Azure” cloud computing service will host the latter’s “iEnergy” service for exploration and production.

In response, Credit Suisse’s Michael Nemeroff reiterates an Outperform ratting on Microsoft shares, writing that the company is moving away from its “legacy tools and cyclical PC business."

Among details of the collaboration, Microsoft said it will "allow the companies to apply voice and image recognition, video processing and AR/Virtual Reality to create a digital representation of a physical asset using Microsoft’s HoloLens and Surface devices,” after gathering data from sensors placed on infrastructure.

continues at the link

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From: Glenn Petersen8/26/2017 8:58:33 PM
   of 1483
AI Is Taking Over the Cloud

Cloud storage company Box is using Google’s vision technology to make its service considerably smarter.

by Will Knight
MIT Technology Review
August 17, 2017

Box CEO Aaron Levie.

The cloud is getting smarter by the minute. In fact, it will soon know more about the photos you’ve uploaded than you do.

Cloud storage company Box announced today that it is adding computer-vision technology from Google to its platform. Users will be able to search through photos, images, and other documents using their visual components, instead of by file name or tag. “As more and more data goes into the cloud, we’re seeing they need more powerful ways to organize and understand their content,” says CEO Aaron Levie.

Computer-vision technology has improved remarkably over the past few years thanks to a machine-learning approach known as deep learning (see “ 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2013: Deep Learning”). A deep neural network—loosely inspired by the way neurons process and store information—can learn to recognize categories of objects, such as a “red sweater” or a “pickup truck.” Ongoing research, including work from Google’s researchers, is improving the ability of algorithms to describe what’s happening in images.

Box’s computer-vision feature could be a good way for companies to dip their toes into AI and machine learning. It removes the need to manually annotate thousands of images, and it will make it possible to search through older files in ways that might not have occurred to anyone during tagging. Levie says one company testing the technology is using it to search images for particular people.

The announcement is the latest sign that cloud computing is being reinvented through machine learning and artificial intelligence. AI is already the weapon of choice in the battle to dominate cloud computing, with companies that offer on-demand computing—Google, Amazon, and Microsoft among them—all increasingly touting added machine-learning features.

Fei-Fei Li, chief scientist of Google Cloud and a professor at Stanford University who specializes in computer vision and machine learning, said in a statement that the announcement shows how broadly available AI technology is becoming. “Ultimately it will democratize AI for more people and businesses,” Li said.

Levie says his company is looking at adding machine learning for other types of content. This could include audio and video, but also text, for which an algorithm could add semantic analysis, making it possible to search by the meaning of a document rather than specific keywords.

It’s also significant that Box is relying on computer vision from Google, rather than technology developed in-house. This reflects the fact that a few big players have come to dominate the more fundamental aspects of AI like computer vision, voice recognition, and natural-language processing. “If you think about the strength that Google has in image recognition, it would just be strategically unwise for us to try to compete with them,” Levie says. He says his company’s researchers are exploring ways of applying machine learning to the behavior of its customers. This process might reveal ways to optimize the Box service, or help identify tasks that could be ripe for automation, Levie says.

Google’s Cloud Vision API can recognize many thousands of everyday objects in images. However, some customers might need the ability to recognize and search through specific types of images, for example medical or architectural images. So Box’s researchers are exploring ways for customers to train their own vision systems if necessary.

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From: Glenn Petersen8/29/2017 10:02:57 AM
3 Recommendations   of 1483
More of an evolution than a complete disruption:

It's Time to Think Beyond Cloud Computing

Jeremy Hsu
08.23.1706:50 am

Fasten your harnesses, because the era of cloud computing’s giant data centers is about to be rear-ended by the age of self-driving cars. Here’s the problem: When a self-driving car has to make snap decisions, it needs answers fast. Even slight delays in updating road and weather conditions could mean longer travel times or dangerous errors. But those smart vehicles of the near-future don’t quite have the huge computing power to process the data necessary to avoid collisions, chat with nearby vehicles about optimizing traffic flow, and find the best routes that avoid gridlocked or washed-out roads. The logical source of that power lies in the massive server farms where hundreds of thousands of processors can churn out solutions. But that won’t work if the vehicles have to wait the 100 milliseconds or so it usually takes for information to travel each way to and from distant data centers. Cars, after all, move fast.

That problem from the frontier of technology is why many tech leaders foresee the need for a new “edge computing” network—one that turns the logic of today’s cloud inside out. Today the $247 billion cloud computing industry funnels everything through massive centralized data centers operated by giants like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. That’s been a smart model for scaling up web search and social networks, as well as streaming media to billions of users. But it’s not so smart for latency-intolerant applications like autonomous cars or mobile mixed reality.

“It’s a foregone conclusion that giant, centralized server farms that take up 19 city blocks of power are just not going to work everywhere,” says Zachary Smith, a double-bass player and Juilliard School graduate who is the CEO and cofounder of a New York City startup called Packet. Smith is among those who believe that the solution lies in seeding the landscape with smaller server outposts—those edge networks—that would widely distribute processing power in order to speed its results to client devices, like those cars, that can’t tolerate delay.

Packet’s scattered micro datacenters are nothing like the sprawling facilities operated by Amazon and Google, which can contain tens of thousands of servers and squat outside major cities in suburbs, small towns, or rural areas, thanks to their huge physical footprints and energy appetites. Packet’s centers often contain just a few server racks—but the company promises customers in major cities speedy access to raw computing power, with average delays of just 10 to 15 milliseconds (an improvement of roughly a factor of ten). That kind of speed is on the “must have” lists of companies and developers hoping to stream virtual reality and augmented reality experiences to smartphones, for example. Such experiences rely upon a neurological process—the vestibulo-ocular reflex—that coordinates eye and head movements. It occurs within seven milliseconds, and if your device takes 10 times that long to hear back from a server, forget about suspension of disbelief.

Immersive experiences are just the start of this new kind of need for speed. Everywhere you look, our autonomously driving, drone-clogged, robot-operated future needs to shave more milliseconds off its network-roundtrip clock. For smart vehicles alone, Toyota noted that the amount of data flowing between vehicles and cloud computing services is estimated to reach 10 exabytes per month by 2025.

Cloud computing giants haven’t ignored the lag problem. In May, Microsoft announced the testing of its new Azure IoT Edge service, intended to push some cloud computing functions onto developers’ own devices. Barely a month later, Amazon Web Services opened up general access to AWS Greengrass software that similarly extends some cloud-style services to devices running on local networks. Still, these services require customers to operate hardware on their own. Customers who are used to handing that whole business off to a cloud provider may view that as a backwards step.

US telecom companies are also seeing their build-out of new 5G networks—which should eventually support faster mobile data speeds—as a chance to cut down on lag time. As the service providers expand their networks of cell towers and base stations, they could seize the opportunity to add server power to the new locations. In July, AT&T announced plans to build a mobile edge computing network based on 5G, with the goal of reaching “single-digit millisecond latency.” Theoretically, data would only need to travel a few miles between customers and the nearest cell tower or central office, instead of hundreds of miles to reach a cloud data center.

“Our network consists of over 5,000 central offices, over 65,000 cell towers, and even several hundred thousand distribution points beyond that, reaching into all the neighborhoods we serve,” says Andre Fuetsch, CTO at AT&T. “All of a sudden, all those physical locations become candidates for compute.”

AT&T claims it has a head start on rival telecoms because of its “network virtualization initiative,” which includes the software capability to automatically juggle workloads and make good use of idle resources in the mobile network, according to Fuetsch. It’s similar to how big data centers use virtualization to spread out a customer’s data processing workload across multiple computer servers.

Meanwhile, companies such as Packet might be able to piggyback their own machines onto the new facilities, too. ”I think we’re at this time where a huge amount of investment is going into mobile networks over the next two to three years,” Packet’s Smith says. “So it’s a good time to say ‘Why not tack on some compute?’” (Packet’s own funding comes in part from the giant Japanese telecom and internet conglomerate Softbank, which invested $9.4 million in 2016.) In July 2017, Packet announced its expansion to Ashburn, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Seattle, along with new international locations in Frankfurt, Toronto, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Sydney.

Packet is far from the only startup making claims on the edge. Austin-based Vapor IO has already begun building its own micro data centers alongside existing cell towers. In June, the startup announced its “Project Volutus” initiative, which includes a partnership with Crown Castle, the largest US provider of shared wireless infrastructure (and a Vapor IO investor). That enables Vapor IO to take advantage of Crown Castle’s existing network of 40,000 cell towers and 60,000 miles of fiber optic lines in metropolitan areas. The startup has been developing automated software to remotely operate and monitor micro data centers to ensure that customers don’t experience interruptions in service if some computer servers go down, says Cole Crawford, Vapor IO’s founder and CEO.

Don’t look for the edge to shut down all those data centers in Oregon, North Carolina, and other rural outposts: Our era’s digital cathedrals are not vanishing anytime soon. Edge computing’s vision of having “thousands of small, regional and micro-regional data centers that are integrated into the last mile networks” is actually a “natural extension of today’s centralized cloud,” Crawford says. In fact, the cloud computing industry has extended its tentacles toward the edge with content delivery networks such as Akamai, Cloudflare, and Amazon CloudFront that already use “edge locations” to speed up delivery of music and video streaming.

Nonetheless, the remote computing industry stands on the cusp of a “back to the future” moment, according to Peter Levine, general partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. In a 2016 video presentation, Levine highlighted how the pre-2000 internet once relied upon a decentralized network of PCs and client servers. Next, the centralized network of the modern cloud computing industry really took off, starting around 2005. Now, demand for edge computing is pushing development of decentralized networks once again (even as the public cloud computing industry’s growth is expected to peak at 18 percent this year, before starting to taper off).

That kind of abstract shift is already showing up, unlocking experiences that could only exist with help from the edge. Hatch, a spinoff company from Angry Birds developer Rovio, has begun rolling out a subscription game streaming service that allows smartphone customers to instantly begin playing without waiting on downloads. The service offers low-latency multiplayer and social gaming features such as sharing gameplay via Twitch-style live-streaming. Hatch has been cagey about the technology it developed to slash the number of data-processing steps in streaming games, other than saying it eliminates the need for video compression and can do mobile game streaming at 60 frames per second. But when it came to figuring out how to transmit and receive all that data without latency wrecking the experience, Hatch teamed up with—guess who—Packet.

“We are one of the first consumer-facing use cases for edge computing,” says Juhani Honkala, founder and CEO of Hatch. “But I believe there will be other use cases that can benefit from low latency, such as AR/VR, self-driving cars, and robotics.”

Of course, most Hatch customers will not know or care about how those micro datacenters allow them to instantly play games with friends. The same blissful ignorance will likely surround most people who stream augmented-reality experiences on their smartphones while riding in self-driving cars 10 years from now. All of us will gradually come to expect new computer-driven experiences to be made available anywhere instantly—as if by magic. But in this case, magic is just another name for putting the right computer in the right place at the right time.

“There is so much more that people can do,” says Packet’s Smith, “than stare at their smartphones and wait for downloads to happen.” We want our computation now. And the edge is the way we’ll get it.

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To: Glenn Petersen who wrote (1397)8/29/2017 11:41:43 PM
From: Sam
   of 1483
Some fallout from Amazon's WFM takeover--

Target is plotting a big move away from AWS as Amazon takes over retail
  • Target is moving quickly to pull away from AWS through the rest of this year.
  • Microsoft, Google and Oracle are all pursuing the cloud business of big retailers.
  • AWS still has dominant market share.
Christina Farr | Ari Levy
Published 8 Hours Ago | Updated 5 Hours Ago

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To: Sam who wrote (1398)8/30/2017 6:42:29 AM
From: Glenn Petersen
1 Recommendation   of 1483
Amazon has a target on its back.

Another anti-Amazon alliance announced yesterday:

Google and VMware are teaming up with a $2.8 billion startup to get an edge in the cloud wars with Amazon

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From: FUBHO9/18/2017 9:27:21 PM
   of 1483

Using the new Web App for Containers capability, developers are able to

Pull container images from GitHub, Docker Hub or a private Azure Container Registry, and Web App for Containers will deploy the containerized app with your preferred dependencies to production in seconds. The platform automatically takes care of OS patching, capacity provisioning, and load balancing.

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From: FUBHO9/19/2017 4:39:13 PM
1 Recommendation   of 1483
IBM Launches Its Own Shippable Cloud Data Migration Device

Hardened storage device offers 120 TB and uses AES 256-bit encryption

One of the barriers for enterprises storing data in the cloud is data migration, a process that has traditionally been slow and costly, hindered by network limitations. IBM wants to remove this barrier for its customers with a new cloud migration solution designed for moving massive amounts of data to the cloud.

IBM Cloud Mass Data Migration is a shippable storage device, which offers 120 TB and uses AES 256-bit encryption. The device also uses RAID-6 to ensure data integrity, and is shock-proof. The device is a flat-rate, and includes overnight round-trip shipping.

The device is about the size of a suitcase, and has wheels so it can be easily moved around a data center, Michael Fork, distinguished engineer and director, cloud infrastructure, IBM Watson and cloud platform said. Fork said that the solution allows customers to migrate 120 TB in seven days.

“When you actually look at the networking aspects of this, for example if you were to transfer 120TB over a 100 Mbps internet connection, that would take 100 or more days,” he said.

Similar options on the market include the AWS Snowball Edge, which was launched last year and offers 100 TB of usable storage capacity. In June, Google introduced Transfer Appliance, which offers up to 480TB in 4U or 100TB in 2U of raw data capacity. In the chart below, Google broke down how long data transfer can take over different connections.

“Previously we supported two main transfer methods. One was an IBM solution called IBM Data Transfer service, and this allows you to ship us a USB hard drive or CD/DVD, and so you could migrate in up to 10 TBs of data pretty easily using that service,” Fork said. “The other solution IBM supports is through IBM Aspera, a network-based transfer.”

IBM Cloud Mass Data Migration is designed for any customer that has large amounts of data to migrate to IBM Cloud, Fork said, pointing to customers who move large SAP datasets or datasets for use with IBM Watson or other cognitive services.

“VMware customers are bringing to IBM Cloud large amounts of data, VMDKs, machine images, they need a fast and efficient way to move large amounts of those,” he said.

Beyond Lights-Out: Future Data Centers Will Be Human-Free
A new generation of data centers will be optimized for extreme efficiency, not for human access or comfort.
Critical Thinking, a weekly column on innovation in data center infrastructure. More about the column and the author here.

The idea of a “lights-out” data center is not new, but it is evolving. Operators such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise and AOL have been long-term proponents of remote monitoring and management to reduce, or entirely replace, the need for dedicated on-site staff. The most well-known current advocate is probably colocation provider EdgeConneX that has integrated a lights-out approach into the fabric of its business.

However, despite the efficiency benefits, lights-out, or “dark,” sites are still viewed with skepticism in some quarters; not having staff readily on-hand to deal with outages is deemed just too high-risk. Data center certification body Uptime Institute, for example, recommends that one to two qualified staff are needed on-site at all times to support the safe operation of a Tier III or IV facility.

But while lights-out may be a niche option now, developments in remote monitoring, analytics, AI, and robotics could eventually see it taken much further.

These technologies combined with the elimination of all concessions to human comfort will enable ever more efficient and available data centers, some experts argue. Technology analyst firm 451 Research recently coined the phrase “ Datacenter as a Machine” (subscription required) to define unstaffed facilities that are primarily designed, built, and operated as units of IT rather than buildings. “As data centers become more complex, with tighter software-controlled integration between components, they will increasingly be viewed as complex machines rather than real estate,” the analyst group argues.

A facility designed and optimized exclusively for IT, rather than human operators, could enjoy a range of advantages over more conventional sites:

Improved cooling efficiency: There is good evidence that facilities could be operated at higher temperatures and humidity without impacting the reliability and performance of IT equipment. Progressive operators have made efforts to move into the upper reaches of ASHRAE’s recommended, or even allowable, temperature ranges. But the approach isn’t more pervasive due in part to its impact on human comfort. IT equipment may be functional at 80F and up, but it’s not a pleasant working environment for staff. Other highly efficient forms of cooling could make things even more uncomfortable. For example, close-coupled cooling technologies, such as direct liquid immersion, capture more than 90 percent of the IT heat load in a dielectric fluid but make no concession for the human operator. For the technology to become widely deployed in conventional sites additional, inefficient, perimeter cooling would be required in some locations just to keep the operators cool.

Better capacity management: Everything from rack height to access-aisle width is designed to make it easier for staff to install and maintain equipment rather than to optimize for efficiency. But if this space requirement was eliminated, equipment (power and cooling permitting) could be fitted into a much smaller footprint with, for example, potentially much higher, robot-accessible racks.

Reduced downtime and improved safety: According to a 2016 study by the Ponemon Institute, human error was the second-highest cause (behind power chain failures) of data center downtime. Electrocution – via arc-flash or other causes – also remains a real and present threat without the correct safety precautions. Use of hypoxic fire suppression – lowering oxygen levels – also has benefits for fire safety but again makes for a difficult working environment. A facility that was essentially off-limits to all but periodic or emergency access by qualified specialists could reduce the potential for human error and minimize the risk of injury to inexperienced staff.

But if on-site staff were effectively designed out of facilities, who or what would replace them? The kind of pervasive remote monitoring platforms already used at lights-out sites -- such as EdgeConneX’s edgeOS -- would likely play an instrumental role. Emerging tools, such as data center management as a service (DMaaS), which is effectively cloud-based data center infrastructure management, or DCIM, software – could also enable suppliers to take remote control (including predictive maintenance) of specific equipment or even an entire site. Eventual integration with AI/machine learning could also lead to more IT and facilities tasks being automated and self-regulated. Robotics is also likely to play a greater role in future data center management. Indeed, if facilities are designed to optimize space, then so-called dexterous robots may be the only way to access some parts of the site.

But despite the potential, a number of impediments will need to be overcome before unstaffed data centers become widely adopted. The biggest of these is obviously the perception that such designs would introduce additional risk. As such, early adopters would probably be limited to companies that are already comfortable with some form of lights-out approach. Facilitating technologies, such as DMaaS, AI-driven DCIM, and advanced robotics, are also still very nascent.

But there are still good reasons to think that, in specific use cases, unstaffed sites will eventually become the norm. For example, new micro-data center form factors to support edge computing are expected to proliferate in the next five to ten years and are likely to be monitored remotely and only require periodic visits from specialist maintenance staff.

Ihe prognosis doesn’t necessarily have to be all bad for facilities staff. To be sure, there will be fewer in-house positions in the future, but specialist third-party facilities management services providers – capable of emergency or periodic visits -- could expand headcount to meet the expected growth in new colocation and cloud capacity.

Ironic as it may sound, the future looks rather bright for the next generation of lights-out data centers.

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