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Sony Semiconductor Solutions and Microsoft partner to create smart camera solutions for enterprise customers – Stories

Companies collaborate to make video analytics solutions more accessible in order to drive better business outcomes

TOKYO — May 19, 2020 — Sony Semiconductor Solutions (Sony) and Microsoft Corp. (Microsoft) today announced they are partnering to create solutions that make AI-powered smart cameras and video analytics easier to access and deploy for their mutual customers.

Sony logoAs a result of the partnership, the companies will embed Microsoft Azure AI capabilities on Sony’s intelligent vision sensor IMX500, which extracts useful information out of images in smart cameras and other devices. Sony will also create a smart camera managed app powered by Azure IoT and Cognitive Services that complements the IMX500 sensor and expands the range and capability of video analytics opportunities for enterprise customers. The combination of these two solutions will bring together Sony’s cutting-edge imaging & sensing technologies, including the unique functionality of high-speed edge AI processing, with Microsoft’s cloud expertise and AI platform to uncover new video analytics opportunities for customers and partners across a variety of industries.

“By linking Sony’s innovative imaging and sensing technology with Microsoft’s excellent cloud AI services, we will deliver a powerful and convenient platform to the smart camera market. Through this platform, we hope to support the creativity of our partners and contribute to overcoming challenges in various industries,” said Terushi Shimizu, Representative Director and President, Sony Semiconductor Solutions Corporation.

“Video analytics and smart cameras can drive better business insights and outcomes across a wide range of scenarios for businesses,” said Takeshi Numoto, corporate vice president and commercial chief marketing officer at Microsoft. “Through this partnership, we’re combining Microsoft’s expertise in providing trusted, enterprise-grade AI and analytics solutions with Sony’s established leadership in the imaging sensors market to help uncover new opportunities for our mutual customers and partners.”

Video analytics has emerged as a way for enterprise customers across industries to uncover new revenue opportunities, streamline operations and solve challenges. For example, retailers can use smart cameras to detect when to refill products on a shelf or to better understand the optimal number of available open checkout counters according to the queue length. Additionally, a manufacturer might use a smart camera to identify hazards on its manufacturing floor in real time before injuries occur. Traditionally, however, such applications — which rely on gathering data distributed among many smart cameras across different sites like stores, warehouses and distribution centers — struggle to optimize the allocation of compute resources, resulting in cost or power consumption increases.

To address these challenges, Sony and Microsoft will partner to simplify access to computer vision solutions by embedding Azure AI technology from Microsoft into Sony’s intelligent vision sensor IMX500 as well as enabling partners to embed their own AI models. This integration will result in smarter, more advanced cameras for use in enterprise scenarios as well as a more efficient allocation of resources between the edge and the cloud to drive cost and power consumption efficiencies.

Sony’s smart camera managed app powered by Azure is targeted toward independent software vendors (ISVs) specializing in computer vision and video analytics solutions, as well as smart camera original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) aspiring to add value to their hardware offerings. The app will complement the IMX500 sensor and will serve as the foundation on which ISVs and OEMs can train AI models to create their own customer- and industry-specific video analytics and computer vision solutions that address enterprise customer demands. The app will simplify key workflows and take reasonable security measures designed to protect data privacy and security, allowing ISVs to spend less time on routine, low-value integration and provisioning work and more time on creating unique solutions to meet customers’ demands. It will also enable enterprise customers to more easily find, train and deploy AI models for video analytics scenarios.

As part of the partnership, Microsoft and Sony will also work together to facilitate hands-on co-innovation with partners and enterprise customers in the areas of computer vision and video analytics as part of Microsoft’s AI & IoT Insider Labs program. Microsoft’s AI & IoT Insider Labs offer access and facilities to help build, develop, prototype and test customer solutions, working in partnership with Microsoft experts and other solution providers like Sony. The companies will begin working with select customers within these co-innovation centers later this year.

About Microsoft

Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) enables digital transformation for the era of an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge. Its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

About Sony Semiconductor Solutions

Sony Semiconductor Solutions Corporation is the global leader in image sensors. We strive to provide advanced imaging technologies that bring greater convenience and joy to people’s lives. In addition, we also work to develop and bring to market new kinds of sensing technologies with the aim of offering various solutions that will take the visual and recognition capabilities of both human and machines to greater heights. For more information, please visit: https://www.sony-semicon.co.jp/e/

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Microsoft

Microsoft Media Relations, WE Communications for Microsoft, (425) 638-7777, [email protected]

Sony

Sony Corporate Communications, [email protected]

 

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Author: Microsoft News Center

FedEx and Microsoft join forces to transform commerce – Stories

Companies to collaborate to reinvent the end-to-end commerce experience globally; FedEx Surround announced today as first solution

MEMPHIS, Tenn., and REDMOND, Wash. — May 18, 2020 — FedEx Corp. (NYSE: FDX) and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) on Monday announced a new multiyear collaboration to help transform commerce by combining the global digital and logistics network of FedEx with the power of Microsoft’s intelligent cloud. Together, FedEx and Microsoft aim to create opportunities for their customers through multiple joint offerings powered by Azure and Dynamics 365 that will use data and analytics solutions to reinvent the most critical aspects of the commerce experience and enable businesses to better compete in today’s increasingly digital landscape.

“FedEx has been reimagining the supply chain since our first day of operation, and we are taking it to a new level with today’s announcement,” said Frederick W. Smith, chairman and CEO, FedEx. “Together with Microsoft, we will combine the immense power of technology with the vast scale of our infrastructure to help revolutionize commerce and create a network for what’s next for our customers.”

This new strategic alliance represents a long-term commitment between the companies to fuel innovation, collaborate on product development and share subject-matter expertise. Today, FedEx networks link more than 99% of the world’s gross domestic product across 220 countries and territories, and Microsoft Azure is trusted by more than 95% of Fortune 500 companies. By combining the breadth and scale of the FedEx network and the Microsoft cloud, businesses will have an unprecedented level of control and insight into the global movement of goods.

“Now more than ever, organizations are counting on an efficient and capable supply chain to remain competitive and open for business,” said Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft.  “Together with FedEx, we will apply the power of Azure, Dynamics 365 and their AI capabilities to this urgent need, building new commerce experiences that transform logistics for our mutual customers around the world.”

Announcing FedEx Surround — driving digital illumination of the physical world

FedEx Surround, the first solution resulting from the FedEx and Microsoft collaboration, allows any business to enhance visibility into its supply chain by leveraging data to provide near-real-time analytics into shipment tracking, which will drive more precise logistics and inventory management. While most carriers are reactive to global logistics dynamics with limited visibility options built into a package’s journey, FedEx Surround will provide near-real-time insights — down to the granular level of ZIP code, for example — to shine a digital light on the progress and movement of physical inventory.

The benefits offered by FedEx Surround will extend to any business with a supply chain and particularly those that depend on highly time-sensitive deliveries. For example, a hospital may urgently need a package to help save a life, or a part may need rapid transport to a manufacturing facility to avoid an operational shutdown. In each instance, the near-real-time data insights provided by FedEx Surround offer a significant advantage to not only the organizations using the platform but also the people they serve.

FedEx Surround can also collect multiple data points gathered through the enhanced scanning and proprietary IoT technology of FedEx and analyze them using Microsoft’s broad suite of AI, machine learning and analytics solutions. This will provide participating businesses with not only enhanced visibility of a package’s location during its journey, but also knowledge of global commerce conditions and external challenges in near-real-time, such as severe weather or natural disasters, mechanical delays, clearance issues, and incorrect addresses. This unprecedented level of data-driven insight will give FedEx Surround customers the opportunity to intervene early and act to avoid logistical slowdowns before they occur to reduce friction and costs. And with every package that ships, FedEx Surround will analyze past trends to identify future opportunities for streamlined shipping, creating a stronger and more resilient commercial ecosystem.

Information regarding FedEx Surround availability will be shared beginning this summer, and customer access will be rolled out in the months ahead.

FedEx and Microsoft expect to announce additional solutions as part of their collaboration in the coming months, which will leverage even more Microsoft technologies, including Dynamics 365. This includes reimagining commerce experiences for businesses to offer consumers more integrated ways to shop, and faster and more efficient deliveries.

Those interested in more details, including visual assets, should visit www.fedex.com/transform.

About FedEx Corp.

FedEx Corp. (NYSE: FDX) provides customers and businesses worldwide with a broad portfolio of transportation, e-commerce and business services. With annual revenues of $70 billion, the company offers integrated business solutions through operating companies competing collectively and managed collaboratively, under the respected FedEx brand. Consistently ranked among the world’s most admired and trusted employers, FedEx inspires its more than 475,000 team members to remain focused on safety, the highest ethical and professional standards and the needs of their customers and communities. To learn more about how FedEx connects people and possibilities around the world, please visit about.fedex.com.

About Microsoft

Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) enables digital transformation for the era of an intelligent cloud and an intelligent edge. Its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

For more information, press only:

Microsoft Media Relations, WE Communications for Microsoft, (425) 638-7777, [email protected]

FedEx Media Relations, (901) 434-8100, [email protected]

Note to editors: For more information, news and perspectives from Microsoft, please visit the Microsoft News Center at http://news.microsoft.com. Web links, telephone numbers and titles were correct at time of publication, but may have changed. For additional assistance, journalists and analysts may contact Microsoft’s Rapid Response Team or other appropriate contacts listed at https://news.microsoft.com/microsoft-public-relations-contacts.

Forward-Looking Statements

Certain statements in this press release may be considered forward-looking statements, such as statements relating to FedEx and Microsoft managements’ views with respect to future events and financial performance. Forward-looking statements include those preceded by, followed by or that include the words “will,” “may,” “could,” “would,” “should,” “believes,” “expects,” “anticipates,” “plans,” “estimates,” “targets,” “projects,” “intends” or similar expressions. Such forward-looking statements are subject to risks, uncertainties and other factors which could cause actual results to differ materially from historical experience or from future results expressed or implied by such forward-looking statements. Potential risks and uncertainties include, but are not limited to, the rate of future e-commerce growth and our ability to successfully compete in the e-commerce market, our ability to successfully introduce e-commerce solutions in the expected time frame, customer acceptance of the FedEx Surround platform and other factors which can be found in FedEx Corp.’s and Microsoft’s respective press releases and filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Any forward-looking statement speaks only as of the date on which it is made. FedEx and Microsoft do not undertake or assume any obligation to update or revise any forward-looking statement, whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise.

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Author: Microsoft News Center

Companies bolster endpoint data protection for remote work

With more people working from home due to the coronavirus, some companies have had to adjust how they handle backup and business continuity.

The spread of COVID-19, which is the disease caused by the new coronavirus, created a unique challenge for data protection experts. Instead of threatening data or applications, this disaster directly affects personnel. Because of social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, many employees must work remotely. Not all businesses’ IT infrastructure can easily accommodate this shift.

In recent months, MDL AutoMation, based out of Roswell, Ga., has been testing a business continuity plan for when its employees can no longer come to work. This includes Carbonite software installed on all laptops, Dell DDPE encryption and Absolute DDS for asset tracking and security. This level of endpoint data protection is largely unnecessary when everyone works in the office, but MDL AutoMation manager of infrastructure Eric Gutmann said they may not have that option for long.

“We will be able to continue functioning as a company with all our employees working remotely as if they were in the office,” Gutmann said.

MDL is a software company that sells car tracking capabilities to car dealerships. It has a client base of about 250 dealerships and manages 1.4 TB of data gathered from IoT devices.

Gutmann said he has VPN and remote desktop protocol (RDP) ready, and the switch to remote working and enhanced endpoint data protection is meant to be temporary. He is prepared to implement it for two months.

No going back

Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting, said it’s highly unlikely that any business that implements endpoint data protection will want to go back. Endpoint data protection is a separate investment from workstation data protection and involves extra security measures such as geolocation and remote wiping. Businesses that do not already have this will need to invest time and money into such a system, and will likely want to keep it after making that investment.

Many businesses may already be in a good position to support remote work. Staimer said organizations that use virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) do not have to worry about backing up laptops, and less data-intensive businesses can have everyone work off of the cloud. Bandwidth is also much more abundant now, eliminating what used to be a roadblock to remote work.

With SaaS-based applications such as Microsoft Office 365 and Google Docs and cloud-based storage such as OneDrive and Dropbox, teleworking isn’t complicated to implement. The difficulty, according to Steven Hill, senior analyst at 451 Research, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence, comes from making sure everything on the cloud is just as protected as anything on premises.

Unlike endpoint data protection, using the cloud is more about locking down storage being used than protecting multiple devices. Whether it’s Dropbox, OneDrive or a private cloud NAS, an administrator only has to worry about protecting and securing that one management point. Aside from native tools, third-party vendors such as Backblaze and CloudAlly can provide data protection for these storage environments.

“Rather than storing business information locally, you could dictate that everything goes to and comes from the cloud,” Hill said.

Staimer said the pandemic will make many businesses realize they don’t need all of their workers in a single location. While some organizations won’t treat the coronavirus seriously enough to implement any of these systems, Staimer expects that for many, it will be the impetus to do what they should’ve been doing.

Coronavirus is going to change the way we work — permanently.
Marc StaimerPresident, Dragon Slayer Consulting

“Coronavirus is going to change the way we work — permanently,” Staimer said.

For some businesses, the biggest challenge will be accommodating workers who cannot perform their jobs from home. They may include partners or customers, as well as a company’s employees.

KCF Technologies, based in State College, Penn., which manufactures industrial diagnostic equipment, is already invested in endpoint data protection. Myron Semack, chief infrastructure architect at KCF, said the company is cloud-centric and many of its workers can work from anywhere.

However, the business would still be impacted if it or its customers go into lockdown because of the coronavirus. Not only would KCF be unable to produce its sensor products, but any installation or project work in the field would have to be suspended. This isn’t anything IT can fix.

“Our manufacturing line employees cannot work from home, unfortunately. If they were forced to stay home, our ability to build or ship product would be impacted,” Semack said.

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Workspot VDI key to engineering firm’s pandemic planning

Like many companies, Southland Industries is working to accelerate its virtualization plans in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The mechanical engineering firm, which is based in Garden Grove, Calif., and has seven main offices across the U.S., has been using the Workspot Workstation Cloud virtual desktop service. Combined with Microsoft Azure Cloud, Workspot’s service enables engineers to build design-intensive work at home and enables Southland to keep pace as technology advances. When COVID-19 emerged, the company was transitioning users in the mid-Atlantic states to virtual desktops.

Israel Sumano, senior director of infrastructure at Southland Industries, recently spoke about making the move to virtual desktops and the challenges posed by the current public health crisis.

How did your relationship with Workspot first begin?

Israel SumanoIsrael Sumano

Israel Sumano: We were replicating about 50 terabytes across 17 different locations in the U.S. real-time, with real-time file launches. It became unsustainable. So over the last five years, I’ve tested VDI solutions — Citrix, [VMware] Horizon, other hosted solutions, different types of hardware. We never felt the performance was there for our users.

When Workspot came to us, I liked it because we were able to deploy within a week. We tested it on on-prem hardware, we tested it on different cloud providers, but it wasn’t until we had Workspot on [Microsoft] Azure that we were comfortable with the solution.

For us to build our own GPU-enabled VDI systems [needed for computing-intensive design work], we probably would have spent about $4 million, and they would have been obsolete in about six years. By doing it with Microsoft, we were able to deploy the machines and ensure they will be there and upgradeable. If a new GPU comes out, we can upgrade to the new GPU and it won’t be much cost to us to migrate.

How has your experience in deploying Workspot been so far? What challenges have you met?

Sumano: It was a battle trying to rip the PCs from engineers’ hands. They had a lot of workstations [and] they really did not want to give them up. We did the first 125 between October 2017 and February 2018. … That pushed back the rest of the company by about a year and a half. We didn’t get started again until about October of 2019. By that time, everyone had settled in, and they all agreed it was the best thing we’ve ever done and we should push forward. That’s coming from the bottom up, so management is very comfortable now doing the rest of the company.

How did you convince workers that the virtualization service was worthwhile?

Sumano: They were convinced when they went home and were able to work, or when they were in a hotel room and they were able to work. When they were at a soccer match for their kids, and something came up that needed attention right away, they pulled out their iPads and were able … to manipulate [designs] or check something out. That’s when it kicked in.

In the past, when they went to a job site, [working] was a really bad experience. We invested a lot of money into job sites to do replication [there].

[With Workspot,] they were able to pick up their laptops, go to the job site and work just like they were at the office.

The novel coronavirus has forced companies to adopt work-at-home policies. What is Southland’s situation?

Sumano: We have offices in Union City [California], which is Marin County, and they were ordered to stay in place, so everyone was sent home there. We just got notice that Orange County will be sent home. Our Las Vegas offices have also been sent home.

Our job sites are still running, but having this solution has really changed the ability for these engineers to go home and work. Obviously, there’s nothing we can do about the shops — we need to have people on-hand at the shop, [as] we’re not fully automated at that level.

On the construction site, we need guys to install [what Southland has designed]. Those are considered critical by the county. They’re allowed to continue work at the job sites, but everybody from the offices has been set home, and they’re working from home.

We hadn’t done the transition for the mid-Atlantic division to Workspot. We were planning on finishing that in the next 10 weeks. We are now in a rush and plan on finishing it by next Friday. We’re planning on moving 100 engineers to Workspot, so they’re able to go home.

How has it been, trying to bring many workers online quickly?

Sumano: I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve implemented large virtual-desktop and large Citrix environments in the past. It’s always been a year to a year-and-a-half endeavor.

We are rushing it for the mid-Atlantic. We’d like to take about 10 weeks to do it — to consolidate servers and reduce footprint. We’re skipping all those processes right now and just enacting [virtualization] on Azure, bringing up all the systems as-is and then putting everyone onto those desktops.

Has the new remote-work situation been a strain on your company’s infrastructure?

Sumano: The amount of people using it is exactly the same. We haven’t heard any issues about internet congestion — that’s always a possibility with more and more people working from home. It’s such a small footprint, the back-and-forth chatter between Workspot and your desktop, that it shouldn’t be affected much.

What’s your level of confidence going forward, given that this may be a protracted situation?

Sumano: We’re very confident. We planned on being 100% Azure-based by December 2020. We’re well on track for doing that, except for, with what’s happening right now, there was a bit of a scramble to get people who didn’t have laptops [some] laptops. There’s a lot of boots on the ground to get people able to work from home.

Most of our data is already on Azure, so it’s a very sustainable model going forward, unless there’s a hiccup on the internet.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Coronavirus: VPN hardware becomes a chokepoint for remote workers

VPN hardware has become a bottleneck for companies with a high number of workers staying home to avoid spreading the coronavirus, networking vendors reported.

Many companies have VPN concentrators or gateways with insufficient licensing or capacity to accommodate the unexpected demand, executives said. As a result, some businesses have had to scramble to provide network access to the high number of remote workers. Many of those employees live in cities that have closed schools and asked people to stay home.

“It seems to be at the enterprise gateway that we see issues,” Angelique Medina, director of product marketing at network monitoring company ThousandEyes, said. 

Competitor Kentik saw similar problems with VPNs used by the corporate customers of internet service providers and telcos, said Avi Freedman, CEO of Kentik. About half of the vendor’s customers are service providers with enterprise subscribers.

Kentik found that the high number of remote workers is overtaxing the typical 1 Gb link that connects the concentrator or the gateway to the corporate network. A gateway can include a router and firewall.

“It’s not a lot of traffic by internet standards, but it is by some of the corporate architectures that are in place,” Freedman said.

Freedman and Medina said companies would likely look at cloud-based VPN gateways as a faster way to offload traffic than buying, configuring and installing more hardware. However, Freedman pointed out that the cloud might not be an option for highly regulated companies or organizations with strict compliance policies.

“Draining internet traffic, looking at cloud solutions are absolutely in the top three, along with upgrading the infrastructure that you have,” Freedman said.

Cisco customers up VPN licensing

The use of VPNs has risen considerably since schools and businesses have closed in states that include California, New York, Illinois, Ohio and Maryland. Verizon reported this week a 34% increase in VPN use since last week and a 20% rise in web traffic.

In an email, Cisco security CTO Bret Hartman said customers are upgrading their VPN licenses to cover more simultaneous users. Also, just in the last seven days, trial requests for Cisco’s AnyConnect VPN software has reached 40% of the total for last year. Meanwhile, the number of authentication requests made to VPNs through Cisco’s multi-factor authentication software Duo has increased 100% over the previous week, Hartman said.

Despite the increase in internet activity, Verizon and AT&T have not reported significant network problems. Both companies were closely monitoring usage in areas where the coronavirus outbreak is most severe.

“We will work with and prioritize network demand in assisting many U.S. hospitals, first responders and government agencies, as needed,” Verizon said in a statement.

Verizon reported in a recent Security Exchange Commission filing that it planned to increase capital spending from between $17 billion and $18 billion to $17.5 billion to $18.5 billion in 2020. The additional money was to “accelerate Verizon’s transition to 5G and help support the economy during this period of disruption.”

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AI in e-commerce helps product sales

Over the last few years, e-commerce companies have made buying and selling items online easier by using AI. EBay, one of the largest e-commerce companies in the world, uses computer vision, natural language processing, machine learning and deep learning to help users.

EBay has invested heavily in developing and deploying AI capabilities. While it doesn’t necessarily do anything unique — competitors including Wayfair and Amazon have developed similar AI in e-commerce tools — what it does appears to benefit sellers and buyers on its platform, which differs markedly from its biggest competitors in being auction-driven and oriented primarily toward sellers.

EBay provides several tools for images, including a search by image function and photo cleanup.

Image recognition

Using the mobile eBay application, buyers and sellers can take a photo of an object, which, using computer vision and deep learning, eBay matches with similar images on its platform. The feature has been available since 2017, and has since been improved as more images have been uploaded for the machine learning algorithms to train on.  

Comparable features are available on a number of other platforms, including Google and Amazon. These platforms also have object recognition, enabling users to take a photo of something and see comparable items.

By also considering product descriptions as well, the search function optimizes accuracy. Sellers are able to get automatic pricing recommendations, although that wasn’t always so.

EBay screenshot
EBay uses AI to automatically identify images and to do image cleanup

“Historically we did a really bad job with [pricing models],” said Scot Hamilton, vice president of engineering.

EBay has a lot of unique inventory, Hamilton explained, making it difficult to find true peers to benchmark against for some objects.

Looking at characterizes such as the images, price range, descriptors and titles of the listed object, and by comparing it to similar objects, among other things, eBay attempts to automatically determine a relative price for an object.

The suggested price is generally slightly lower than the market average to keep inventory moving, Hamilton said. Casual and hobby sellers adopt the suggested price point around 80% of the time, he said.

AI in e-commerce

The platform also boasts an image cleanup capability for sellers. The feature, still in beta, takes an image and tries to automatically separate the featured object from visual clutter in the background.  

“Search engines these days require, in many cases, a white, clean background on photos,” said Harry Temkin, vice president of seller experience.

Sellers, he continued, “often take pictures in very interesting places,” like on the stairs, in a kitchen or in a garage.

The beta feature crops the featured item automatically from the photo. Now, manual input is still required in many cases, with users having to swipe around the edges of an object. However, the feature is getting sharper, Temkin said.

It is software that is continuously learning.
Harry TemkinVice president of seller experience, eBay

“It is software that is continuously learning,” he said. The more photos that go through it, the better it will work.

Besides its image features, eBay provides home-grown automatic translation, enabling buyers and sellers in different countries to see listings in their own languages.

The translation happens behind the scenes, Hamilton said, with users not necessarily realizing it’s even happening.

According to Hamilton, eBay’s model is 5% or 6% more accurate than off-the-shelf products.

“Being a global platform … not everyone speaks English,” Temkin said. “Being able to use machine translation to convert an English listing into a German listing or a Spanish listing or a French listing is useful.”

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8 new ways to empower Firstline Workers and transform the way they work with Microsoft 365

Companies at the forefront of digital transformation recognize how critical it is to enable all of their people with the right technology and tools. That’s why, in industries like retail, hospitality, and manufacturing, there’s a movement underway to digitally empower the Firstline Workforce—the more than 2 billion people worldwide who work in service- or task-oriented roles.

With Microsoft 365, the world’s productivity cloud, we’re in a unique position to help companies of all sizes and across all industries provide their employees the tools and expertise they need to do their best work, without sacrificing the security of their organization or customers’ data. Giving Firstline Workers the tools they need requires companies to address unique user experience, security and compliance, and IT management.

Microsoft 365 for Firstline Workers

Microsoft 365 combines intuitive best-in-class productivity apps with intelligent cloud services to empower your Firstline Workforce.

Learn more

It’s inspiring to see how industry leaders, like IKEA and Mattress Firm, are driving higher levels of employee engagement and enhancing the customer experience by putting tools like Microsoft Teams into the hands of their Firstline Workforce. IKEA is connecting everyone in the organization with familiar features like chat and video calls and digitizing firstline processes such as shift management to save time and cost.

This video was created by Microsoft, with the agreement of Ingka Group.

Mattress Firm is empowering Firstline Workers with real-time access to the information, resources, and expertise they need to delight customers and provide a better shopping experience.

Ahead of next week’s National Retail Federation (NRF) tradeshow, we are excited to introduce new capabilities for Firstline Workers coming to Microsoft 365. Here’s a look at what’s coming soon:

New tools that make it easier for Firstline Workers to communicate and manage tasks

  1. Walkie Talkie in Teams—This new push-to-talk experience enables clear, instant, and secure voice communication over the cloud, turning employee- or company-owned smartphones and tablets into a walkie-talkie. This functionality, built natively into Teams, reduces the number of devices employees must carry, and lowers costs for IT. Unlike analog devices with unsecure networks, customers no longer have to worry about crosstalk or eavesdropping from outsiders. And since Walkie Talkie functions over Wi-Fi or cellular data, this capability can be used across geographic locations. Walkie Talkie will be available in private preview in Teams in the first half of this year.

Image displaying the intuitive push-to-talk experience to connect team members in Microsoft Teams. Three phones are displayed at various stages in connecting a manager to her team of cashiers.

Intuitive push-to-talk experience to connect team members across departments and locations.

  1. Tasks targeting, publishing, and reportingWith Tasks in Teams, now customers can drive consistent execution of store operations at scale across all of an organization’s locations. Corporate and regional leadership can send task lists targeted to the relevant locations, such as specific retail stores, and track their progress through automatic real-time reports. Managers have tools to easily direct activities within their stores, and Firstline Workers have a simple prioritized list available via their personal or company-issued device showing them exactly what to do next. Tasks targeting, publishing, and reporting is coming to Teams in the first half of this year.

Image of tasks being assigned to teams in Microsoft Teams.

Corporate headquarters can target, assign, and track tasks across locations. Firstline Workers can view tasks assigned to them and across the store.

  1. Workforce management integrations—Customers using leading third-party workforce management systems—such as Kronos and JDA—for scheduling and time and attendance can now start integrating directly with Shifts via Shifts Graph APIs and SDK. Supported scenarios include management of shifts, schedules, schedule groups, swap requests, time off requests, and open shift requests. The JDA connector for Shifts is open sourced and available on GitHub. The Kronos connector for Shifts will also be available on GitHub later this quarter.

Enhanced identity and access management features that make it easier for IT pros to keep Firstline Workers productive and secure

  1. SMS sign-in—With SMS sign-in, Firstline Workers are able to sign in to their Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) account using one-time SMS codes—reducing the need to remember usernames and passwords for all their Microsoft 365 and custom applications. Once enrolled, the user is prompted to enter their phone number, which generates an SMS text with a one-time password. SMS sign-in is a single sign-on (SSO) experience, enabling Firstline Workers to seamlessly access all the apps they are authorized to use. This new sign-in method can be enabled for select groups and configured at the user level in the My Staff portal—helping to reduce the burden on IT.

Image of one-time SMS codes being used to sign in to a device. Three phones display a code received and used by a Firstline Worker.

One-time SMS codes on mobile devices to streamline the sign-in experience for Firstline Workers.

  1. Shared device sign-out—Many Firstline Workers use a single tablet or mobile device that is shared between shifts. This can pose unique security challenges to the organization when different employees who have access to different types of data use the same device over the course of a day. With shared device sign-out, Firstline Workers will be able to log out of all their Microsoft 365 and custom applications and browser sessions with one click at the end of their shift—preventing their data as well as any access to customer data from being accessible to the next user of that device.

Image of shared device sign-out used on a shared Android device used as a scanning tool.

With one click, Firstline Workers can sign out of a shared Android device and log out of all applications and browser sessions to prevent sensitive data being shared with another device user.

  1. Off-shift access controls for Teams app—IT administrators can now configure Teams to limit employee access to the app on their personal device outside of working hours. This feature helps ensure employees are not involuntarily working while not on shift and helps employers to comply with labor regulations. This feature will begin rolling out to customers this quarter.

Image of off shift being used in Microsoft Teams. Three phones display various messages from the new feature.

Display a message and/or disable access to Teams app when Firstline Workers are off shift.

  1. Delegated user management—Firstline Managers can approve password resets and enable employees to use their phone numbers for SMS sign-in, all via a single customizable portal enabled by IT for Firstline Managers. Delegated user management can give Firstline Managers access to the My Staff portal, so they can unblock staff issues—reducing the burden of identity management on IT, and keeping employees connected to the apps they need on the job.

Image of the My Stage portal accessed from a tablet.

Through the My Staff portal, delegated user management enables a Firstline Manager to manage their team’s credentials and assist with password resets.

  1. Inbound provisioning from SAP SuccessFactors to Azure AD—Azure AD’s user provisioning service now integrates with SAP SuccessFactors, making it easier than ever to onboard and manage Firstline Workers’ identities at scale, across any application using Azure AD. This feature—in public preview—builds upon the ability to provision users to Azure AD from Workday, another popular human capital management (HCM) system, already generally available. Integrating with these systems of record helps IT to scale Firstline Workers’ onboarding and productivity from day one.

Image of Azure AD's user provisioning service integrated with SAP SuccessFactors and Workday used to check status on a laptop.

With Azure AD’s user provisioning service now integrated with SAP SuccessFactors, as well as Workday, it’s easier than ever to onboard Firstline Workers user identities at scale. Shown here, you can start the provisioning cycle and use the progress bar and provisioning logs to track the provisioning process.

All of these capabilities are expected to roll out in the first half of this year except where noted.

Empowering Firstline Workers to gain a competitive advantage

New research in partnership with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services highlights the untapped potential of Firstline Workers in retail.

Learn more

Looking ahead

This is just the next step in our journey to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. We aim to build tools and experiences for the modern workplace and for workers at all levels of the organization. We’ll continue to develop and bring to market purpose-built Firstline Worker capabilities and experiences in partnership with our customers and industry leaders. And we’ll continue to innovate and build features that simplify work, bring people together, and help organizations big and small achieve more. Come see us next week at NRF 2020 in booth #4501.

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Author: Microsoft News Center

Differentiation key for BI startups when attracting investors

BI startups, like all companies when they’re getting started, need money to get off the ground.

BI startups need to show that they have a good idea, and are not simply repackaging analytics software platforms already on the market. They need to show that they can build a strong product, and that their founders have the expertise to build and sustain something commercially viable.

And with that, they need to attract investors to fund the company in the years it takes between the time an idea forms and a company becomes financially solvent.

Vanessa Larco is a partner at New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm with over $20 billion assets under management. NEA was an early investor in companies such as Tableau and Salesforce when they were tech startups, and, among many other types of companies, continues to invest in BI startups. Recently, NEA was part of an investment round in Sisu, a startup BI vendor founded in 2018 and based in San Francisco.

Vanessa LarcoVanessa Larco

Larco, meanwhile, has an extensive background in computer science, and before joining NEA was director of product management at Box. Prior to that, she worked in the gaming industry, leading the speech recognition experience team at Xbox Kinnect v1. She leads deals investing in tech companies, including BI startups, and participates in others led by colleagues.

Larco recently took time to answer questions about investing in BI startups.

In Part I of a two-part Q&A, she discusses what she looks for in a BI startup and what she loved about Sisu. In Part II, Larco talks about the process of investing in BI startups, including the warning signs that arise that may keep her from investing.

When you’re considering investing in BI startups, what are some of the characteristics you want to see in a vendor that tell you it might make a good investment?

Vanessa Larco: I think every partner has their own journey when trying to figure out where to invest. For me, I draw a lot on my experience having been a product manager. When I think about what the challenges were that I had or that my team had in building, launching, supporting, maintaining products and then when you see a solution — whether it’s in data or any other vertical — that makes sense and you can say, ‘Wow, if this had existed when I was doing things it would have made my life easier, my team’s life easier,’ it’s something that resonates right off the bat.

I think every partner has their own journey when trying to figure out where to invest. For me, I draw a lot on my experience having been a product manager.
Vanessa LarcoPartner, NEA

You then validate it against actual teams that are still building things and ask them if this would be helpful, and that validates the real need for it.

In the case of Sisu, what stood out about them and led NEA to decide it was a company worth betting on?

Larco: Every process, as much as we like it to be standardized, turns out to be its own unique snowflake, and in the case of Sisu, Pete Sonsini led the deal team and I joined the deal team, meaning I helped him evaluate the opportunity and spent time with the team. I am super excited about Sisu. I ran it by some of my portfolio companies, particularly the ones who [complain that] board meetings take forever because they show a bunch of data and people ask, ‘Well why did this happen, why did that happen?’ And to get those answers it takes at least week. So when I saw the Sisu value proposition I wondered if this will solve that problem.

Even back when I led a product team in the past and we would present to CEOs, we’d show numbers going up and down and they’d ask, ‘Well, why did that happen?’ We’d have to get back to them. It’s just super painful when you know they’re going to ask you why, and that is what takes forever. Sometimes you spend all that time trying to figure out why, and then nothing comes of it, so when I saw the Sisu value proposition I thought that if this actually works it could be game changing.

What happened after you saw Sisu’s value proposition?

Larco: I took it to a good friend at a portfolio company to kick the tires, and they were like, ‘Yes. Yes, this awesome. Thank you so much.’ They said their data person would be so happy they wouldn’t be bogged down answering some very simple questions and doing the manual work to answer why, so from that perspective it was super exciting.

Once NEA invests in BI startups, how much influence does it want going forward — does it seek a spot on the board of directors, leave the company alone or something in between?

Larco: Each case in venture is different. It’s not a high-volume type of industry — we’re not doing hundreds of deals a year — so each deal is very unique and each financing round is unique. But in general, the earlier in the company’s lifecycle you invest in, the founders want you on their board because they want the attention and support, the advice, the feedback, the connection. VCs, in most cases, have been on many boards and seen a lot of stories play out, and you have a lot of connections to potential customers, and so to be able to understand what a company’s needs are as they change is really valuable. Most of the time, both parties want a seat on the board.

But if it’s super, super early and someone else leads the financing round and you’re just participating, someone else takes the board seat. Or if it’s the late stages then the board is already pretty filled out and it has less unknowns than in the early formation years, in those cases you may not take a seat on the board. If an investor is acquiring a significant amount of equity and you’re between 15 and 30 percent, they will typically take a board seat. Anything less than that, it may not make a ton of sense to take a board seat — there’s a limit to how many board seats we can take.

Besides Sisu, who are some startups in the BI/analytics space NEA has recently invested in?

Larco: My colleague Julia Schottenstein led the investment in Metabase, which is in the data space in the open-source project world. I was on the deal team and attended the board meetings for a company called OmniSci. The real value proposition there is they do some really cool geospatial [analysis], and it’s lightning fast. If you need data and need to visualize it across any type of map, I haven’t seen anything like it. From my gaming and advertising days that would have been a massive help. It’s a category that historically if you were investors in Tableau and other data companies that have done really well — it’s a category NEA has performed really well in in the past. It’s a massive category for IT spends, so it’s an area we actively invest in year over year.

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Google cloud network tools check links, firewalls, packet loss

Google has introduced several network monitoring tools to help companies pinpoint problems that could impact applications running on the Google Cloud Platform.

Google launched this week the first four modules of an online console called the Network Intelligence Center. The components for monitoring a Google cloud network include a network topology map, connectivity tests, a performance dashboard, and firewall metrics and insights. The first two are in beta, and the rest are in alpha, which means they are still in the early stages of development.

Here’s a brief overview of each module, based on a Google blog post:

— Google is providing Google Cloud Platform (GCP) subscribers with a graphical view of their network topology. The visualization shows how traffic is flowing between private data centers, load balancers, and applications running on computing environments within GCP. Companies can drill down on each element of the topology map to verify policies or identify and troubleshoot problems. They can also review changes in the network over the last six weeks.

— The testing module lets companies diagnose problems with network connections within GCP or from GCP to an IP address in a private data center or another cloud provider. Along with checking links, companies can test the impact of network configuration changes to reduce the chance of an outage.

–The performance dashboard provides a current view of packet loss and latency between applications running on virtual machines. Google said the tool would help IT teams determine quickly whether a packet problem is in the network or an app.

–The firewall metrics component offers a view of rules that govern the security software. The module is designed to help companies optimize the use of firewalls in a Google cloud network.

Getting access to the performance dashboard and firewall metrics requires a GCP subscriber to sign up as an alpha customer. Google will incorporate the tools into the Network Intelligence Center once they reach the beta level.

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Employee activism, from composting to protests, is an HR issue

Similar to many software companies, CyberArk Software Ltd. has policies and and practices that appeal to people with skills in high demand. They include a social responsibility policy and catered lunches. The information security software firm also has something else that appeals to younger employees — an employee activism effort that brought about some real change.

Lex Register, an associate in corporate development and strategy at CyberArk, was hired in 2018. Soon after, he saw gaps in the firm’s environmental sustainability practices. The firm wasn’t, for instance, collecting food scraps for composting.

“If you’ve never composted before, the idea of leaving left out food in your office can be sort of a sticky subject,” Register said, who has a strong interest in environmental issues.

Register approached his managers at CyberArk’s U.S. headquarters in Newton, Mass., about improving its environmental sustainability. He had some specific ideas and wanted to put together an employee team to work on it. Management gave it approval and a budget.

Register helped organize a “green team,” which now makes up about 25% of its Newton office staff of 200. The firm’s global workforce is about 1,200.

CyberArk’s green team has four subgroups: transportation, energy, community and “green” habits in the office. It also has a management steering committee. Collectively, these efforts undertake a variety of actions such as volunteering on projects in the community, improving enviornmental practices in the office and working on bigger issues, such as installing electric vehicle charging stations for the office building.

When I think about the companies I want to work for, I really want to have pride in everything they do.
Lex RegisterAssociate in corporate development and strategy, CyberArk Software

“When I think about the companies I want to work for, I really want to have pride in everything they do,” Register said. 

Junior employees lead the effort

The green team subgroups are headed by junior employees, according to Register, who is 28.

“It’s a way for a lot of our junior employees who don’t necessarily have responsibility for managing people to sort of step up,” Register said. They “can run some of their own projects and show some leadership capabilities.”

Employee activism has become an increasingly public issue in the last 12 months. In May, for instance, thousands of Amazon employees signed a letter pressing the firm for action. In September, thousands walked out as part of the Global Climate Strike.

“This walkout is either a result of employees not feeling heard,” said Henry Albrecht, CEO at Limeade Inc., or employees feeling heard but fundamentally disagreeing with their leaders. Limeade makes employee experience systems. “The first problem has a simple fix: listen to employees, regularly, intentionally and with empathy,” he said. 

Some companies, such as Ford Motor Co., are using HR tools to listen to their employees and get more frequent feedback. In an interview with SearchHRSoftware, a Ford HR official said recently this kind of feedback encouraged the firm to join California in seeking emission standards that are stricter than those sought by President Trump’s administration.   

But employee activism that leads to public protest doesn’t tell the full employee activism story.

Interest in green teams rising

The Green Business Bureau provides education, assessment tools and processes that firms can use to measure their sustainability practices. In the past nine months, Bill Zujewski, CMO at the bureau, said it’s been hearing more about the formation of sustainability committees at firms. The employees leading the efforts are “almost always someone who’s a few years out of school,” he said.

HR managers, responding to “employee-driven” green initiatives, are often the ones Zujewski hears from.

Maggie Okponobi, funding coordination manager at School Specialty Inc, is one of the Green Business Bureau’s clients. Her employer is an educational services and products firm based in Greenville, Wisc. Her job is to help schools secure federal and state grants.

Okponobi is in an MBA program that has an emphasis on sustainability. As a final project, she proposed bringing a green certification to her company. The assessments evaluate a firm’s sustainability activities against best environmental practices.

Okponobi explained what she wanted to do to one of the executives. She got support and began her research, starting with an investigation of certification programs. She decided on Green Business Bureau assessments, as did CyberArk.

Company managers at School Speciality had been taking ad-hoc steps all along to improve sustainability. Efforts included installing LED lighting, and reducing paper useage by using both sides for printing and recycling, Okponobi said.

Okponobi collected data about the environmental practices for certification. The firm discovered it was eligible for gold level certification, one step below the highest level, platinum. 

The results were brought to an executive group, which included members from HR as well as marketing. Executives saw value in the ranking, and Okponobi believes it will help with recruiting efforts, especially with younger candidates. The company plans to create a green team to coordinate the sustainability efforts.

HR benefits from sustainability

Sustainability may help with retention, especially with younger workers, Okponobi said. “It gives them something exciting, positive to do in their workplace, and a goal to work toward,” she said.

Some employees are coming to workplaces with training on sustainability issues. One group that provides that kind of training is Manomet Inc., a 50-year-old science-based non-profit in Plymouth, Mass.

“We can’t make the progress that we need on climate change and other issues without the for-profit sector,” said Lora Babb, program manager of sustainable economies at Manomet.

Lora BabbLora Babb

The nonprofit takes about 20 undergrad college students each year, usually enrolled in majors that often have a sustainability component, and gives them “real world skills” to meet with businesses and conduct assessments. The training enables future employees to “make changes from the inside,” and understand practical, applied sustainability, Babb said.

This is not strictly an environmental assessment. The students also ask businesses about economic and social issues, including a workforce assessment that considers employee benefits, engagement and talent development, Babb said. 

A business with a strong environmental mission is “going to be far less effective at carrying out that mission if you are having constant workforce challenges,” Babb said.

And the results of such efforts can have an effect on culture. CyberArk’s employees have embraced composting, Register said. The company hired a firm that picks up food scraps about twice a week, processes them and makes compost — what master gardeners often refer to as black gold — available for employees to use in their home gardens. 

The results make employee composting efforts “very tangible for them,” Register said. 

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