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Microsoft faces hurdles in selling Teams to first-line workers

Microsoft has launched a public relations campaign to convince businesses that its Teams collaboration app is suitable for use by so-called first-line workers. At stake is a significant expansion of Teams into the lives of workers ranging from retail associates to housekeepers to factory hands.

Success will depend on how well the tech giant develops more industry-specific features and recruits additional hardware partners. Both are needed to drive  Microsoft Teams into first-line segments of the workforce, industry analysts said.

“We should not be impressed by a press release,” said Michael Finneran, principal at dBrn Associates Inc. “And at this point what they have is a press release.”

The capabilities Microsoft is adding to Teams are nothing new, Finneran said. The same kinds of features are already available to first-line workers today from established technology vendors like Motorola Solutions and Spectralink, as well as from numerous startups with apps for specific industries.

What’s more, Microsoft has so far discussed first-line workers in broad terms. But nurses, field technicians, and workers on the floor of a manufacturing plant have very different technology needs. The company won’t be taken seriously by many potential customers until it demonstrates an understanding of their industry.

Microsoft will also need hardware partners. Retail sales associates and warehouse workers typically use shared mobile devices with unique features and strict access controls. But many of Microsoft’s features for first-line workers seem to require businesses to let employees use personal smartphones at work.

Microsoft has only just begun to build that hardware ecosystem. Samsung announced this month it would launch a smartphone for first-line workers that will come pre-integrated with a new walkie-talkie feature in Teams. The device, the Galaxy XCover Pro, will launch sometime in the first half of 2020.

Similarly, Microsoft is still in the early stages of rolling out many of the features for first-line workers that its marketing department has hyped in blogs and press releases. 

Some of the newest features won’t launch for months or longer — and when they do hit the market, they’ll only be available in preview. Technology released in preview mode is in the early stages of development. Large organizations often have policies against using software before it passes beta testing.

For example, a walkie-talkie feature in Teams that drew headlines earlier this month won’t be available until mid-2020. Even then, it will only ship to select users in a private preview. Several other device-related Teams features will launch in a public showing. Those capabilities include SMS sign-in, shared device sign-out and a portal for managing devices.

Nevertheless, Microsoft could succeed in getting first-line workers to use Teams in the long run, analysts said. The company has billions of dollars to spend and already has a foot in the door with most enterprises in the world.

“Microsoft can get there if they want to, but they ain’t getting there without really putting their nose to the grindstone,” Finneran said.

Microsoft said in a statement that it has already made progress in getting companies with first-line workers to use Teams. The businesses include plumbing supply firm Ferguson and retailers Ikea and Mattress Firm.

“These are just a few of the companies on the leading edge of involving the first-line workforce in digital transformation,” Microsoft said. It did not provide details on how those companies’ employees were using Teams.

Microsoft’s broad software portfolio will give the company a leg up. Beyond Teams, Microsoft can offer customers a productivity suite, a customer relationship management app and platforms for e-commerce and internet of things (IoT) projects.

“Microsoft is just able to bring more of the pieces to the solution than a lot of its competitors,” said Rob Arnold, analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

And Microsoft has a clear financial incentive to follow through on its rhetoric.

So-called knowledge workers — the kind of desk-based employees who use software like Microsoft Office — represent only 15% to 25% of the U.S. workforce. Worldwide, the percentage falls to 10% to 15%, according to calculations by PKE Consulting LLC.

The rest of the workforce comprises service workers, like bank tellers, nurses, UPS drivers, waiters and maids.

Those kinds of workers haven’t used collaboration apps like Teams in the past. But Microsoft could significantly increase its market footprint if it convinces them to use Teams in the future, said Raúl Castañón-Martinez, analyst at 451 Research.

“I think they are definitely very serious about going after that segment,” he said.

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SMBs grappling with digital transformation initiatives

Small and medium-sized businesses across the board have either recently launched or are in the process of launching digital transformation initiatives, but many are running up against obstacles.

The results of the inaugural Insight 2020 Technology Report: IT Trends for Midmarket and Small Business, a study based on input from more than 400 North American IT professionals at independent and emerging businesses, highlighted that dilemma. Insight Enterprises conducted the research.

Technology has become a corporate cornerstone, even for small businesses, according to the report. “Enterprises recognize that they need to embrace leading-edge technology in order to remain competitive,” said Joseph Clinton, central region sales director at Insight Enterprises.

Organizations expect that embracing digital transformation will positively impact their operations, the report said. The top three business areas that respondents said digital transformation initiatives would help improve are customer experience, cited by 43%; operational efficiency, 42%; and workforce productivity and collaboration, 42%.

Digital transformation challenges

Realizing the potential benefits of digital transformation has been vexing, however. Close to half of the study’s respondents, 49%, said integrating new technology with legacy systems is very or extremely challenging when dealing with IT service providers. “Many companies perform a lift and shift. They simply take their existing applications and port them to the cloud,” Clinton explained. “In those cases, they do not take advantage of any of the modernization features available in the new environment.”

Steps for digital transformation chart
Four essential steps to digital transformation

Funding also poses issues for these initiatives. The study found that 44% of respondents pointed to budget constraints as an inhibitor to embracing digital transformation.

Additionally, when attempting to equip their businesses with the latest technology, 45% of SMBs said understanding which new technologies to invest in is an area of concern. Many new systems are cloud-based, and cost is a key obstacle here, as well. Comparing cloud pricing to current expenditures is the most frequently cited barrier to migration, cited by 56% of SMB respondents.

Building a digital transformation framework

So, how can a company address its digital transformation challenges? “Businesses need a framework, a plan that aligns where they are today to where they want to be in the future,” Clinton said.

Businesses need a framework, a plan that aligns where they are today to where they want to be in the future.
Joseph ClintonCentral region sales director, Insight Enterprises

But in many cases, these organizations lack the technical depth to create the plan — a task that channel partners can help with. “There are a lot of potential pitfalls,” Clinton said. “Businesses need to get their applications and employees ready for the change. The bursting that cloud offers can be helpful, but it can also be expensive. In some cases, modern applications cost much more than legacy systems.”

As a result, corporations should not automatically assume the cloud offers them a better deployment model than legacy infrastructure. They need to create a methodology to see which workloads should move. Channel partners with deep cloud experience are in prime position to help them make the right call, Clinton said.

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World Childhood Foundation marks 20 years with focus on AI and child safety online – Microsoft on the Issues

World Childhood Foundation, launched in 1999 by Queen Silvia of Sweden, recently marked 20 years of child protection with a roundtable on leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to assist in tackling child sexual exploitation and abuse online.

The day-long event, held last month at the Royal Palace in Stockholm, brought together 60 AI experts, representatives from technology companies, child safety advocates, academics and others to explore new ways to combat the proliferation of child sexual exploitation and abuse imagery (CSEAI) online.

“How can we use AI as a catalyst for child safety online,” asked King Carl XVI Gustaf, who, along with Queen Silvia and other members of Sweden’s royal family, presided over the day’s discussions. “New approaches are needed, so we are bringing together some of the sharpest minds in AI and child protection to share knowledge and experiences.”

The event consisted of a series of presentations, panels and small-group discussions about raising awareness among the broader global population about the “epidemic” that is child sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as the misuse of technology to share illegal imagery and enable on-demand abuse of children tens of thousands of miles away. Experts shared experiences, ideas and data, including that reports of child sexual abuse videos to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) had risen 541% in 2018 compared to the prior year. Moreover, children of all ages and backgrounds are susceptible to sexual exploitation with more than 56% of the children in Interpol’s database identified as prepubescent. “Nothing surprises us anymore,” said one law enforcement official.

More, faster needed from all stakeholders

The roundtable concluded with a series of observations and recommendations from a variety of sectors, including law and public policy, technology, and victim advocacy, including that:

  • Governments need to take a more active role in addressing the issue. Indeed, no country or society is immune from child sexual abuse and the vile content that makes its way online. Experts acknowledged the work of some standouts governments like the U.K., Australia and others, but called for more globalization and harmonization
  • Children need to be acknowledged as rights-holders, including their right to privacy, and not just as “objects in need of protection”
  • Speed will continue to present a challenge with technological advancements moving at internet speed; academic research occupying a distant second position; and policy, law and regulation lagging significantly behind
  • Civil society needs to do more and, in particular, victims’ rights groups and other organizations must inject a sense of urgency into the dialogue, and
  • Hope must be offered by believing in the brilliance and power of the human and the machine working together to combat such deep-rooted societal ills

I had the privilege of attending and presenting details on the progress of the development of a new method to detect potential instances of child online grooming for sexual purposes. The technique is the result of a cross-industry hackathon that Microsoft hosted in November 2018. Engineers from Microsoft and three other companies continued to develop the process for 12 months following the hackathon, and we intend to make it freely available in 2020 to enable others to examine historical chat conversations for potential indicia of grooming. (Grooming for sexual purposes takes place when someone befriends a child with the intent of gaining the child’s trust for sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking.) For more about the technique being developed, see this post.

Queen Silvia builds on Vatican remarks

The week before the Stockholm roundtable, a number of attendees also participated in a conference in Rome, Promoting Digital Child Dignity: From Concept to Action. This event was sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Child Dignity Alliance and the government of the United Arab Emirates.

Queen Silvia was a featured speaker at the Rome conference, noting that when she founded World Childhood Foundation, she hoped she could use her voice to highlight the global problem of child sexual exploitation and abuse. She imagined that the foundation would soon close because it would no longer be needed, as the global scourge that is child sexual abuse would have been eliminated. “To speak about the unspeakable, and to give children back their right to a childhood,” she said. “(Yet,) 20 years later, here we are, with an ever-increasing number of children at risk of abuse and exploitation online.”

Along with several speakers that followed her in Rome, the queen called on all stakeholders to come together and do more: policymakers, technology companies, civil society and faith-based groups. “For the child who has suffered abuse; for the child who is at risk; for the child who carries guilt and shame – for this child, we have to speak with one voice and to act collectively.” (The Queen’s Rome remarks were distributed to participants of the Stockholm roundtable.)

A third landmark event on combating CSEAI will be held later this month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The African Union, the WePROTECT Global Alliance and the U.K. Government will sponsor the Global Summit to Tackle Online Child Sexual Exploitation on December 11 and 12.

Microsoft and the challenge of Online Child Sexual Exploitation  

This increased attention from several corners of the globe and from new and different stakeholder groups is both needed and encouraging. Additional strides will follow only when we embrace a whole-of-society approach and all stakeholders take part in this important fight.

Microsoft has been combating the spread of CSEAI online for nearly two decades. We first became aware of the magnitude of these online horrors in 2003 when a lead detective from the Toronto Police Department sent an email to our then CEO Bill Gates, asking for help using technology to track down purveyors of CSEAI and for assistance with the detective’s goal of rescuing child victims. Microsoft responded with a $1 million investment and the creation of a technology still in use today by some law enforcement agencies to share investigative information.

Our commitment to create technology to help fight CSEAI online continued with the invention of PhotoDNA, PhotoDNA Cloud Service and PhotoDNA for Video. Progress has been made over the last 20 years, but more needs to be done, including raising awareness, educating young people and the wider public, reporting illegal content to technology companies and hotlines, and continuing to create technologies and techniques to assist in online detection and reporting.

Learn more

To learn more about the World Childhood Foundation, visit the organization’s website. To learn what Microsoft is doing to tackle child sexual exploitation and abuse online, see this link, and to learn more about digital safety generally, go to www.microsoft.com/saferonline, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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Zoom Chat update takes vendor further beyond video

Zoom has launched a Zoom Chat update that demonstrates the video-conferencing vendor’s ambition to become a one-stop shop for business communications.

Zoom has made the Chat messaging app suitable for a broader range of collaboration scenarios. The more extensive capabilities bolster the product’s role in the vendor’s portfolio, which also includes the expanding cloud calling service, Zoom Phone.

The two products, combined with the vendor’s flagship video conferencing service, show that Zoom wants to become an all-in-one UC provider.

However, to reach its goal, Zoom still has to catch up with rivals. The updates to Zoom Chat unveiled this week underscore that the product remains far behind leading messaging apps with regards to features and integrations.

Zoom added support for reply threads and emoji reactions. The former is an essential tool for keeping messaging channels organized. The app also now gives users the ability to send notifications to everyone in a channel, and for admins to use channels to make announcements.

Users’ profiles are another new feature, showing each employee’s location, department and job title. Colleagues can link to those profiles by tagging their coworker in a message using “@.”

These are standard features that leading apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams have long supported. Nevertheless, by steadily adding features, Zoom is making its portfolio more attractive to businesses that want to buy communications services from a single vendor, analysts said.

Zoom is trying to get businesses to use more of its products by encouraging its video customers to adopt Zoom Phone. But more aggressively pushing Zoom Chat would bring the vendor into conflict with Slack, a close partner. That’s a scenario Zoom executives previously said they wanted to avoid.

“A Zoom Chat app, integrated with Phone and Meetings, makes a great deal of sense,” said Irwin Lazar, an analyst at Nemertes Research. “I think it will be interesting to see how aggressive Zoom is in the next year with adding features and integrations to its own chat app.”

Zoom is now a telephony service provider in six countries through Zoom Phone, with a beta service available in 11 additional locations. Outside of those countries, businesses can power Zoom Phone using third-party telephony services.

At Zoomtopia 2019, the vendor’s annual user conference in October, CEO Eric Yuan said Zoom Phone was raising Zoom Chat’s profile within the portfolio. 

“The more we focus on voice, we need chat,” Yuan said at the time. “As we sell more and more phone systems, I think chat will be key for us as well.”

Meanwhile, Zoom on Thursday delivered a better-than-expected earnings report for the quarter, bringing in $166 million in the three months ended Oct. 31. Valued at roughly $19 billion, Zoom now expects to generate revenue between $609 million and $610 million in the year.

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SageMaker Studio makes model building, monitoring easier

LAS VEGAS — AWS launched a host of new tools and capabilities for Amazon SageMaker, AWS’ cloud platform for creating and deploying machine learning models; drawing the most notice was Amazon SageMaker Studio, a web-based integrated development platform.

In addition to SageMaker Studio, the IDE for platform for building, using and monitoring machine learning models, the other new AWS products aim to make it easier for non-expert developers to create models and to make them more explainable.

During a keynote presentation at the AWS re:Invent 2019  conference here Tuesday, AWS CEO Andy Jassy described five other new SageMaker tools: Experiments, Model Monitor, Autopilot, Notebooks and Debugger.

“SageMaker Studio along with SageMaker Experiments, SageMaker Model Monitor, SageMaker Autopilot and Sagemaker Debugger collectively add lots more lifecycle capabilities for the full ML [machine learning] lifecycle and to support teams,” said Mike Gualtieri, an analyst at Forrester.

New tools

SageMaker Studio, Jassy claimed, is a “fully-integrated development environment for machine learning.” The new platform pulls together all of SageMaker’s capabilities, along with code, notebooks and datasets, into one environment. AWS intends the platform to simplify SageMaker, enabling users to create, deploy, monitor, debug and manage models in one environment.

Google and Microsoft have similar machine learning IDEs, Gualtieri noted, adding that Google plans for its IDE to be based on DataFusion, its cloud-native data integration service, and to be connected to other Google services.

SageMaker Notebooks aims to make it easier to create and manage open source Jupyter notebooks. With elastic compute, users can create one-click notebooks, Jassy said. The new tool also enables users to more easily adjust compute power for their notebooks and transfer the content of a notebook.

Meanwhile, SageMaker Experiments automatically captures input parameters, configuration and results of developers’ machine learning models to make it simpler for developers to track different iterations of models, according to AWS. Experiments keeps all that information in one place and introduces a search function to comb through current and past model iterations.

AWS CEO Andy Jassy talks about new Amazon SageMaker capabilitiesatre:Invent 2019
AWS CEO Andy Jassy talks about new Amazon SageMaker capabilities at re:Invent 2019

“It is a much, much easier way to find, search for and collect your experiments when building a model,” Jassy said.

As the name suggests, SageMaker Debugger enables users to debug and profile their models more effectively. The tool collects and monitors key metrics from popular frameworks, and provides real-time metrics about accuracy and performance, potentially giving developers deeper insights into their own models. It is designed to make models more explainable for non-data scientists.

SageMaker Model Monitor also tries to make models more explainable by helping developers detect and fix concept drift, which refers to the evolution of data and data relationships over time. Unless models are updated in near real time, concept drift can drastically skew the accuracy of their outputs. Model Monitor constantly scans the data and model outputs to detect concept drift, alerting developers when it detects it and helping them identify the cause.

Automating model building

With Amazon SageMaker Autopilot, developers can automatically build models without, according to Jassy, sacrificing explainability.

Autopilot is “AutoML with full control and visibility,” he asserted. AutoML essentially is the process of automating machine learning modeling and development tools.

The new Autopilot module automatically selects the correct algorithm based on the available data and use case and then trains 50 unique models. Those models are then ranked by accuracy.

“AutoML is the future of ML development. I predict that within two years, 90 percent of all ML models will be created using AutoML by data scientists, developers and business analysts,” Gualtieri said.

SageMaker Autopilot is a must-have for AWS.
Mike GualtieriAnalyst, Forrester

“SageMaker Autopilot is a must-have for AWS, but it probably will help” other vendors also, including such AWS competitors as DataRobot because the AWS move further legitimizes the automated machine learning approach, he continued.

Other AWS rivals, including Google Cloud Platform, Microsoft Azure, IBM, SAS, RapidMiner, Aible and H2O.ai, also have automated machine learning capabilities, Gualtieri noted.

However, according to Nick McQuire, vice president at advisory firm CCS Insight, some of the  new AWS capabilities are innovative.

“Studio is a great complement to the other products as the single pane of glass developers and data scientists need and its incorporation of the new features, especially Model Monitor and Debugger, are among the first in the market,” he said.

“Although AWS may appear late to the game with Studio, what they are showing is pretty unique, especially the positioning of the IDE as similar to traditional software development with … Experiments, Debugger and Model Monitor being integrated into Studio,” McQuire said. “These are big jumps in the SageMaker capability on what’s out there in the market.”

Google also recently released several new tools aimed at delivering explainable AI, plus a new product suite, Google Cloud Explainable AI.

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IBM Cloud Pak for Security aims to unify hybrid environments

IBM this week launched Cloud Pak for Security, which experts say represents a major strategy shift for Big Blue’s security business

The aim of IBM’s Cloud Pak for Security is to create a platform built on open-source technology that can connect security tools from multiple vendors and cloud platforms in order to help reduce vendor lock-in. IBM Cloud Paks are pre-integrated and containerized software running on Red Hat OpenShift, and previously IBM had five options for Cloud Paks — Applications, Data, Integration, Automation and Multicloud Management — which could be mixed and matched to meet enterprise needs.

Chris Meenan, director of offering management and strategy at IBM Security, told SearchSecurity that Cloud Pak for Security was designed to tackle two “big rock problems” for infosec teams. The first aim was to help customers get data insights through federated search of their existing data without having to move it to one place. Second was to help “orchestrate and take action across all of those systems” via built-in case management and automation. 

Meenan said IT staff will be able to take actions across a multi-cloud environment, including “quarantining users, blocking IP addresses, reimaging machines, restarting containers and forcing password resets.”

“Cloud Pak for Security is the first platform to take advantage of STIX-Shifter, an open-source technology pioneered by IBM that allows for unified search for threat data within and across various types of security tools, datasets and environments,” Meenan said. “Rather than running separate, manual searches for the same security data within each tool and environment you’re using, you can run a single query with Cloud Pak for Security to search across all security tools and data sources that are connected to the platform.” 

Meenan added that Cloud Pak for Security represented a shift in IBM Security strategy because of its focus on delivering “security solutions and outcomes without needing to own the data.”

“That’s probably the biggest shift — being able to deliver that to any cloud or on-premise the customer needs,” Meenan said. “Being able to deliver that without owning the data means organizations can deploy any different technology and it’s not a headwind. Now they don’t need to duplicate the data. That’s just additional overhead and introduces friction.”

One platform to connect them all

Meenan said IBM was “very deliberate” to keep data transfers minimal, so at first Cloud Pak for Security will only take in alerts from connected vendor tools and search results.

“As our Cloud Pak develops, we plan to introduce some capability to create alerts and potentially store data as well, but as with other Cloud Paks, the features will be optional,” Meenan said. “What’s really fundamental is we’ve designed a Cloud Pak to deliver applications and outcomes but you don’t have to bring the data and you don’t have to generate the alerts. Organizations have a SIEM in place, they’ve got an EDR in place, they’ve got all the right alerts and insights, what they’re really struggling with is connecting all that in a way that’s easily consumable.”

In order to create the connections to popular tools and platforms, IBM worked with clients and service providers. Meenan said some connectors were built by IBM and some vendors built their own connectors. At launch, Cloud Pak for Security will include integration for security tools from IBM, Carbon Black, Tenable, Elastic, McAfee, BigFix and Splunk, with integration for Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure clouds coming later in Q4 2019, according to IBM’s press release.

Ray Komar, vice president of technical alliances at Tenable, said that from an integration standpoint, Cloud Pak for Security “eliminates the need to build a unique connector to various tools, which means we can build a connector once and reuse it everywhere.”

“Organizations everywhere are reaping the benefits of cloud-first strategies but often struggle to ensure their dynamic environments are secure,” Komar told SearchSecurity. “With our IBM Cloud Pak integration, joint customers can now leverage vulnerability data from Tenable.io for holistic visibility into their cloud security posture.”

Jon Oltsik, senior principal analyst and fellow at Enterprise Strategy Group, based in Milford, Mass., told SearchSecurity that he likes this new strategy for IBM and called it “the right move.”

“IBM has a few strong products but other vendors have much greater market share in many areas. Just about every large security vendor offers something similar, but IBM can pivot off QRadar and Resilient and extend its footprint in its base. IBM gets this and wants to establish Cloud Pak for Security as the ‘brains’ behind security. To do so, it has to be able to fit nicely in a heterogeneous security architecture,” Oltsik said. “IBM can also access on-premises data, which is a bit of unique implementation. I think IBM had to do this as the industry is going this way.”

Martin Kuppinger, founder and principal analyst at KuppingerCole Analysts AG, based in Wiesbaden, Germany, said Cloud Pak for Security should be valuable for customers, specifically “larger organizations and MSSPs that have a variety of different security tools from different vendors in place.”

“This allows for better incident response processes and better analytics. Complex attacks today might span many systems, and analysis requires access to various types of security information. This is simplified, without adding yet another big data lake,” Kuppinger told SearchSecurity. “Obviously, Security Cloud Pak might be perceived competitive by incident response management vendors, but it is open to them and provides opportunities by building on the federated data. Furthermore, a challenge with federation is that the data sources must be up and running for accessing the data — but that can be handled well, specifically when it is only about analysis; it is not about real-time transactions here.”

The current and future IBM Security products

Meenan told SearchSecurity that Cloud Pak for Security would not have any special integration with IBM Security products, which would “have to stand on their own merits” in order to be chosen by customers. However, Meenan said new products in the future will leverage the connections enabled by the Cloud Pak.

“Now what this platform allows us to do is to deliver new security solutions that are naturally cross-cutting, that require solutions that can sit across an EDR, a SIEM, multiple clouds, and enable those,” Meenan said. “When we think about solutions for insider threat, business risk, fraud, they’re very cross-cutting use cases so anything that we create that cuts across and provides that end-to-end security, absolutely the Cloud Pak is laying the foundation for us — and our partners and our customers — to deliver that.”

Oltsik said IBM’s Security Cloud Pak has a “somewhat unique hybrid cloud architecture” but noted that it is “a bit late to market and early versions won’t have full functionality.”

“I believe that IBM delayed its release to align it with what it’s doing with Red Hat,” Oltsik said. “All that said, IBM has not missed the market, but it does need to be more aggressive to compete with the likes of Cisco, Check Point, FireEye, Fortinet, McAfee, Palo Alto, Symantec, Trend Micro and others with similar offerings.”

Kuppinger said that from an overall IBM Security perspective, this platform “is rather consequent.”

“IBM, with its combination of software, software services, and implementation/consultancy services, is targeted on such a strategy of integration,” Kuppinger wrote via email. “Not owning data definitely is a smart move. Good architecture should segregate data, identity, and applications/apps/services. This allows for reuse in modern, service-oriented architectures. Locking-in data always limits that reusability.”

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8×8 Video Meetings launches for free in challenge to Zoom

8×8 has launched a free version of its video conferencing app, hoping to lure businesses into subscribing to its cloud-based calling and contact center suite.

8×8 is challenging Zoom and LogMeIn in launching its first stand-alone video product. The move comes as those vendors have been seeking to penetrate 8×8’s primary market: business calling, also known as unified communications as a service (UCaaS).

Zoom has aggressively expanded its cloud-based business calling service over the past year while LogMeIn has pursued product consolidation. The company recently folded its flagship video conferencing platform, GoToMeeting, into a broader UCaaS offering called GoToConnect.

8×8 Video Meetings places no limit on how long meetings can last. In contrast, the free versions of Zoom and GoToMeeting cap meetings at 40 minutes. 8×8’s free version also provides toll-free dial-in options, which are usually a pay-by-the-minute add-on.

“This is certainly a compelling new entrant that will challenge Zoom and GoToMeeting’s freemium offerings,” said Mike Fasciani, analyst at Gartner.

Screenshot of 8x8 Video Meetings
8×8 Video Meetings uses WebRTC to enable browser-based meetings without downloads or plugins.

But only 50 people can meet at once on 8×8’s platform. That’s fewer than the 100-person limit of Zoom’s free version, although more than GoToMeeting’s three-person cap. (Zoom’s paid service can support 1,000 participants, while GoToMeeting’s premium tier can support 3,000.)

Users can access 8×8 Video Meetings without registering. However, signing up with an email address unlocks benefits such as calendar integration, team admin controls, and personalized virtual meeting rooms. In turn, 8×8 will try to convince users who register to become paying customers.

8×8 Video Meetings launched in September for businesses subscribed to the vendor’s X Series suite, which includes calling, messaging and contact center apps. 8×8 built the product using the open source software of Jitsi, which the vendor acquired from Atlassian last year.

Businesses get a couple of perks for using 8×8 Video Meetings as part of the X Series. For those customers, 8×8 Video Meetings includes a call-me feature for connecting to a meeting’s audio. Also, the video app integrates with third-party services, such as single sign-on software.

In the future, 8×8 might create a paid subscription tier for 8×8 Video Meetings. The offering could include advanced features like transcription and meeting room controls, said Eduardo Cocozza, a senior marketing director at 8×8.

Because it relies on WebRTC, 8×8 Video Meetings lets users conduct meetings in web browsers like Chrome and Firefox without downloads or plugins. But desktop and mobile apps are available for those who want them. Highfive, Cisco and BlueJeans have also enabled browser-based video conferencing in recent years.

8×8 is currently beta-testing meeting room software for connecting its video app to software-agnostic endpoints from vendors like Logitech and Poly. 8×8 is in the process of cementing partnerships with hardware vendors for preintegrated room kits, Cocozza said.

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Google releases TensorFlow Enterprise for enterprise users

Google Wednesday launched TensorFlow Enterprise, which promises long-term support for previous versions of TensorFlow on its Google Cloud Platform.

The new product, which also bundles together some existing Google Cloud products for training and deploying AI models, is intended to aid organizations running older versions of TensorFlow.

The product is also designed to help “customers who are working with previous versions of TensorFlow and also those where AI is their business,” said Craig Wiley, director of product management for Google Cloud’s AI Platform.

Open sourced by Google in 2015, TensorFlow is a machine learning (ML) and deep learning framework widely used in the AI industry. TensorFlow Enterprise, available on the Google Cloud Platform (GCP), provides security patches and select bug fixes for certain older versions of TensorFlow for up to three years.

Also, organizations using TensorFlow Enterprise will have access to “engineer-to-engineer assistance from both Google Cloud and TensorFlow teams at Google,” according to an Oct. 30 Google blog post introducing the product.

“Data scientists voraciously download the latest version of TensorFlow because of the steady pace of new, valuable features. They always want to use the latest and greatest,” Forrester Research analyst Mike Gualtieri said.

Yet, he continued, “new versions don’t always work as expected,” so the “”dive-right-in” approach of data scientists is often at conflict with an enterprise’s standards.

Google’s TensorFlow Enterprise support of prior versions back to three years will accelerate enterprise adoption.
Mike GualtieriAnalyst, Forrester Research

“That’s why Google’s TensorFlow Enterprise support of prior versions back to three years will accelerate enterprise adoption,” Gualtieri said. “Data scientists and ML engineers can experiment with the latest and greatest, while enterprise operations professionals can insist on versions that work will continue to be available.”

TensorFlow Enterprise comes bundled with Google Cloud’s Deep Learning VMs, which are preconfigured virtual machine environments for deep learning, as well as the beta version of Google Cloud’s Deep Learning Containers.

To be considered for the initial rollout of TensorFlow Enterprise, however, organizations must have spent $500,000 annually, or commit to spending $500,000 annually on Google Cloud’s Deep Learning VMs, Deep Learning Containers, or AI Platform Training and Prediction products, or some combination of those systems.

Over the past several months, Google has made progress in a campaign to offer more tools on its Google Cloud Platform to train, test, and deploy AI models. In April 2019, the tech giant unveiled the Google Cloud AI Platform, a unified AI development platform that combined a mix of new and rebranded AI development products. At the time, analysts saw the release as a move to attract more enterprise-level customers to Google Cloud.

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New small business ERP delivers SAP Business One alternative

Priority Software has launched Priority Zoom, a range of cloud ERP products to help small businesses streamline operational tasks such as financials, inventory, sales and customer relationships.

Priority Zoom has built-in business intelligence analytics, advanced reports and dashboards to track and manage each phase of the sales cycle. Users can create sales orders, manage invoices and billing, synchronize purchasing processes, and automatically generate ledger, transaction, financial and cash flow reports, customer lists, product and services catalogs and pricing.

Designed for smaller businesses, Priority Zoom is $50 per user for up to five users. That’s slightly lower than a limited user subscription to SAP’s Business One ERP software for small and midsize companies, which lists for $54 per user, per month. The Business One Professional user license lists at $94 per user, per month.

According to Priority Software, customers who migrate to the platform can convert their data from Priority Software’s on-premises accounting program AccountEdge, or from other accounting software such as QuickBooks.

Priority Zoom is in contrast of Priority ERP, which is Priority Software’s full ERP offering for tens of thousands of users that includes capabilities for finance, manufacturing, logistics, human resources, time and attendance, BI, project management, CRM and warehouse management. It also offers open APIs, a mobile application generator, web software development kit and machine learning business process management.

There are many advantages to adopting an ERP platform, according to Cindy Jutras, the president of Mint Jutras, an advisory firm that specializes in enterprise applications. For small businesses specifically, Jutras highlights the advantage of having “a single source of data and truth.”

“Most companies will simply point to the visibility, transparency and efficiency gained,” she said. “If it just gets them out of spreadsheet hell — passing data back and forth, the risk of error, the lack of auditability — they view it as worth it.”

Jutras said that as ERP platforms continue to change in scale and price, it has become easier for smaller businesses to take on the migration.

“Every single company would benefit, but very often SMBs feel they can’t afford it, and therefore they try to make do with something less than ERP — perhaps desktop applications combined with the ubiquitous spreadsheets, or perhaps just spreadsheets,” she said.

That approach made sense in the past when early ERP systems were rigid and inflexible, limited in functionality, hard to install and implement and even harder to use, but that’s changed, she said.

“Solutions now are far more flexible and technology-enabled, provide many more features and functions, are easier to install, easier to implement and easier to use,” Jutras said. “And SaaS-based [ERP apps] allow even the smallest companies to invest without an upfront capital expenditure.”

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Global cryptomining attacks use NSA exploits to earn Monero

A new threat group has launched cryptomining attacks around the globe and is using exploits from the National Security Agency to spread its malware.

The threat group, dubbed ‘Panda,’ was revealed this week in a new report from Cisco Talos. Christopher Evans and Dave Liebenberg, threat researcher and head of strategic intelligence, respectively, at Cisco Talos, wrote that although the group is “far from the most sophisticated” it has been very active and willing to “update their infrastructure and exploits on the fly as security researchers publicize indicators of compromises and proof of concepts.”

“Panda’s willingness to persistently exploit vulnerable web applications worldwide, their tools allowing them to traverse throughout networks, and their use of RATs, means that organizations worldwide are at risk of having their system resources misused for mining purposes or worse, such as exfiltration of valuable information,” Evans and Liebenberg wrote in a blog post. “Our threat traps show that Panda uses exploits previously used by Shadow Brokers and Mimikatz, an open-source credential-dumping program.”

The NSA exploits include EternalBlue, which attacks a vulnerability in Microsoft’s Server Message Block (SMB) protocol. The researchers first became aware of Panda’s cryptomining attacks in the summer of 2018 and told SearchSecurity that over the past year they’ve seen daily activity in the organization’s honeypots.

“We see them in several of our honeypots nearly every day, which tells me they’re targeting a large portion of the internet,” Evans said. “Our honeypots are deployed throughout the world, and I’ve never seen a geographic focus of their attacks in the data. The applications they target are widely deployed, and without patching are easy targets.”

Since January, the researchers saw Panda’s cryptomining attacks changing by targeting different vulnerabilities — first a ThinkPHP web framework issue, then an Oracle WebLogic flaw — and using new infrastructure both in March and again over the past month.

“They also frequently update their targeting, using a variety of exploits to target multiple vulnerabilities, and [are] quick to start exploiting known vulnerabilities shortly after public POCs become available, becoming a menace to anyone slow to patch,” the researchers wrote. “And, if a cryptocurrency miner is able to infect your system, that means another actor could use the same infection vector to deliver other malware.”

Liebenberg told SearchSecurity, “It appears that instead of employing good OpSec they focus on volume. That’s one reason why they’ll keep using old, burned infrastructure while still deploying new ones.” 

Evans and Liebenberg said in their research that the Panda group has made approximately 1,215 Monero (a cryptocurrency that emphasizes privacy), which equates to almost $100,000 today. One Monero is currently equal to $78, but the value of Monero has fluctuated — beginning the year around $50 and peaking over $110 in June.

The researchers have confirmed Panda cryptomining attacks against organizations in the banking, healthcare, transportation, telecommunications and IT services industries. Evans and Liebenberg also told SearchSecurity that the best way for organizations to detect if they have been attacked would be to “look for prolonged high system utilization, connections to mining pools using common mining ports (3333, 4444), watching for common malware persistence mechanisms, watching for DNS traffic to known mining pools and enabling the appropriate rules in your IDS.”

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