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Report on Alexa-enabled devices puts spotlight on voice commerce

Will voice commerce catch on? It hasn’t yet, according to a new report by The Information, but experts said that won’t slow the growth of voice computing.

According to the report, which cites two people briefed on Amazon’s internal figures, only about 2% of the people who own Alexa-enabled devices — mainly Amazon’s Echo line of speakers — have made a purchase with their voices so far in 2018. Of the people who did buy something using Alexa voice shopping, about 90% didn’t try it again, the report states.

An Amazon spokesperson disputed the figures presented in The Information, but previous reports also conveyed less-than-stellar numbers when it comes to consumers using smart speaker devices for voice commerce. The Information’s numbers also jibe with a report released last fall by technology consulting firm Activate that found the majority of smart speaker owners use their devices for relatively simple functions like playing music, getting the weather or setting alarms. In fact, shopping wasn’t even on the list of things users said they do with their devices.

Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK ResearchZeus Kerravala

“I’m not surprised,” said Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research. “I think voice has a lot of potential; I just think there’s a lot of trust issues around it right now. It’s not dissimilar to what happened with online purchasing. A lot of people were cautious with that until they tried it a couple of times and they gained some confidence in it.”

Julie Ask, principal analyst at ForresterJulie Ask

Beyond that, using voice alone to shop is simply not practical, said Julie Ask, principal analyst at Forrester.

“It’s simply too hard [to purchase things via voice only] beyond replenishment of simple goods,” Ask said. “There are easier ways to buy. It’s hard to browse, you can’t see images and you can’t realistically listen to product descriptions — and who would want to.”

She added that although Amazon is number one in market share, retailers are wary of partnering with the company, which could also have played a role in the lackluster figures on shopping via Alexa-enabled devices.

Voice in the enterprise

Given all that, should the enterprise back off from pursuing voice computing? Not at all, said Werner Goertz, research director at Gartner. Just because “mom and pop” are not buying goods through Alexa-enabled devices today doesn’t say much about the value of the voice AI category as a whole — or about  consumer shopping habits going forward. Voice commerce will undoubtedly evolve, he said, and, in any case, people’s current disinclination to use Alexa-enabled devices for shopping shouldn’t dissuade CIOs from investing in voice computing.

Companies are definitely trying to reinvent brand experience and they’re doing that with smart speakers and with multimodal voice interactions as well.
Werner Goertzresearch director, Gartner

Goertz said there will be an organic growth in e-commerce capabilities and usage, with the hospitality industry, restaurants and chain stores already developing proofs of concepts and use cases that incorporate different transactions using voice AI technology.

An example Goertz gave was Amazon partnering with Marriott International to start bringing Amazon Echo smart speakers into hotels as part of the tech giant’s Alexa for Hospitality initiative. Hotel guests will be able to use the Alexa-enabled devices to order room service, call for more towels, order entertainment and more.

“Companies are definitely trying to reinvent brand experience and they’re doing that with smart speakers and with multimodal voice interactions as well,” Goertz said.

By multimodal voice interactions, Goertz means voice assistants with screens, like Amazon’s Echo Show. He said these kinds of devices lend themselves better to functions like voice commerce — and alleviate some of the issues with voice-only shopping raised by Forrester’s Ask.

Gartner analyst Ranjit Atwal agreed that multimodal voice devices using voice, video, chat and screens will eventually allow for more frequent and complex purchases — and a more integrated customer experience — but admits there’s still “a long way to go” for voice commerce.

As Kerravala said, “I think there will be a day when voice is the dominant interface … we just need to take baby steps in getting there.”

What’s the takeaway for CIOs, according to Ask?

“CIOs should use [voice technology] and pilot it, but in scenarios that make sense — easy information retrieval, control, et cetera,” she said. “Don’t stretch it beyond what it does easily.”

Black Hat 2018 survey: Cybersecurity staffing, budgets still lacking

Attendees for next week’s 2018 Black Hat USA conference said they are still facing significant challenges when it comes to cybersecurity staffing and budgets.

According to the 2018 Black Hat USA Attendee Survey, which was conducted in May with 315 infosec professionals, a majority of respondents said they don’t have “the staffing or budget to defend adequately against current and emerging threats.” Sixty-five percent of infosec professionals said they do not have enough qualified staff members to deal with potential threats; this is the fourth consecutive year, according to the study, that approximately two-thirds of respondents believed they had inadequate staff.

In addition, 66% of respondents said they do not possess enough skills and training to perform all of the job functions required of them by their organizations. The cybersecurity skills shortage was also the most frequently cited answer from respondents (34%) when asked for the primary reason for why enterprise security strategies fail.

“While the shortcomings of current security technology and potential vulnerabilities in emerging cloud services are new aspects of security’s current landscape, it is an old nemesis — staffing shortages — that continues to plague the data centers and minds of Black Hat Attendee Survey respondents,” the report states.

Another cybersecurity staffing issue reared its head in the survey: Nearly half the respondents (47%) said the lack of women and minority infosec professionals was a concern to them. The gender gap in the infosec industry has been cited as a major issue in recent research from other organizations such as ISACA.

While cybersecurity staffing continues to be a major obstacle, budgets are also a consistent pain point, according to the survey. Fifty-three percent of respondents said they do not have enough of a cybersecurity budget to defend their organizations against current threats. However, that number is an improvement from both 2016 and 2017, when 63% and 58% of respondents said they had inadequate budgets.

This year’s Black Hat conference has several Community track sessions that deal with cybersecurity staffing and related workforce issues, including a session on hiring and retaining female engineers. Other sessions will focus on negative influences on the cybersecurity workforce such as sexual harassment, addiction, depression, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Black Hat USA will take place Aug. 4-9 in Las Vegas.

OpenText-Salesforce integration gaining momentum

Australia is home to many deadly animals, said Sean Potter, senior consultant of group insurance at MLC Australia, and he ought to know. He traffics in life insurance data, helping connect the company’s enterprise content with agents, underwriters, adjusters and other employees via a Salesforce-OpenText integration.

Dangerous creatures native to Australia include seven of the world’s 10 most venomous snakes, Potter said, as well as crocodiles and sharks, which also inflict human casualties. But the deadliest animal is the wombat, a typically mellow, adorable, furry, herbivore marsupial.

“Basically, it’s a block of concrete on legs,” Potter said. “It has this really unnerving habit of walking in the middle of country roads. It’s a nocturnal beast … and cars crash into them.”

It’s actuarial data like this — as well as particulars on MLC’s 1.5 million customers — for which Potter’s team and consultants from Infosys had to find a new home when parent company National Australia Bank’s spun them off as an independent company and eventually sold 80% of MLC’s life insurance business to Japanese company Nippon Life.

MLC’s reboot with OpenText-Salesforce integration

The company started its IT reboot, which comprises 27 new technology platforms, in mid-2017.

For claims data and customer policy data, the IT team chose an OpenText-Salesforce integration built on OpenText Content Suite, on top of which sits OpenText Extended ECM Platform 16.2 middleware. It in turn connects to Salesforce via OpenText Extended ECM for Salesforce, a tool available on the Salesforce AppExchange.

We know it works, and we’ve got our first customers coming on the platform.
Sean Pottersenior consultant of group insurance, MLC Australia

“Basically the [OpenText] Extended ECM platform is the layer above the content suite that enables it to integrate with your leading applications,” said Ihsan Hall, founder of the consultancy Qellus. “So if [those] applications are SAP or Salesforce, you’re going to be using Extended ECM platform as your tool set to do those integrations.”

This piece of the overall MLC enterprise IT build was in its final six weeks of testing during mid-July, Potter said during a presentation at OpenText Enterprise World in Toronto.

“We know it works, and we’ve got our first customers coming on the platform,” he said.

Picking a mix of tools connecting several enterprise IT layers through to the Salesforce end-user interface part of the OpenText-Salesforce integration was a daunting task, Potter said. The whole project — starting from scratch for a 5,000-employee company — “is a massive undertaking for us, and I’d imagine, for any organization,” he said.

Wombat crossing sign.
Furry, docile wombats, ironically, are the source of many life- insurance claims Down Under, due to the car crashes they cause — according to MLC Australia, which recently rebooted its IT stack with an OpenText-Salesforce integration.

Data management: The biggest challenge

One particularly thorny content management issue was ID provisioning and data access controls, which MLC needed to set up and enforce. One example: Australia has stringent health data privacy regulations that dictate that agents aren’t privy to the same information that underwriters and adjusters might be.

The IT group needed to pick tools that were simple, flexible, scalable and also maintained and documented compliance for customers’ financial and medical data.

While old, familiar applications were popular choices among employees for the new enterprise IT tech stack, the company also wanted to employ some level of cloud integration, too. So they built a hybrid mix of cloud and on-premises IT tools, with the end goal of enabling customers to file claims quickly with a phone call.

After surveying its options, MLC decided to use an OpenText-Salesforce  integration built on bedrock OpenText content management, connecting customer data to the Salesforce front end via OpenText Extended ECM for Salesforce, a connector available on AppExchange.

Separately, MLC automates claims processing via ClaimVantage, another Salesforce AppExchange tool that taps into the customer data set. ClaimVantage was familiar to MLC employees, who had used it before.

How gamers with disabilities helped design the new Xbox Adaptive Controller’s elegantly accessible packaging

Romney said the experience has made him think about packaging differently.

“We have customers in our store every single day who buy product. I look at our laptop boxes and how they have to be opened. How many steps, how much packaging and how much of a barrier do each of those pieces become to someone with a mobility limitation?”

Romney thinks the Xbox Adaptive Controller packaging has the potential to set a new standard.

“I think it’s going to change how we look at things in the industry, in terms of how we make boxes. And I think it has to,” he said. “I think as a case study of inclusive design, the Xbox Adaptive Controller is going to make a brilliant example of how you do it, and how you include your audience and design with a population, rather than for a population.”

For Marshall and Weiser, the packaging project was challenging, time-consuming — and ultimately rewarding.

“It was a really powerful experience,” Marshall said. “I don’t think you realize, until you’re required to think differently, what you take for granted. As a designer, when you see things through a completely different lens, it’s paradigm-shifting.”

Said Weiser: “We put in a lot of extra time on it, but it was a pleasure to be able to work on this type of project. It’s great that we’re focused on this as a company.”

Discussions are underway about how Microsoft might use the learnings from the Xbox Adaptive Controller packaging. Marshall hopes the deceptively simple-looking box can serve as a springboard for future efforts.

“It’s certainly changing how we’re looking at packaging. We’re excited about moving forward from this point with a new lens and looking at what we can do,” he said.

“We’re really excited to take this journey on.”

SolarWinds: MSP Pulse can shed light on business transformation

SolarWinds MSP has launched a benchmarking tool that it said is designed to help managed service providers better understand the health of their businesses. The new offering from SolarWinds, MSP Pulse aims to improve channel partners’ business strategies while also providing insight into how they stack up against their competitors.

The move comes as MSPs look for better ways to measure their progress as they grapple with business transformation at their companies. As channel companies transition from hardware reselling to an as-a-service subscription model, many are finding that shifting gears has placed new responsibilities on their business. As a result MSPs are looking for more analysis and insights as they move to the managed services model.

To help them understand how their competitors are handling new market trends, SolarWinds MSP in collaboration with research firm The 2112 Group developed MSP Pulse, a free online survey that asks participants specific questions about their business. 

SolarWinds: MSP Pulse attracts nearly 500 survey takers

So far nearly 500 companies located in North America and Europe have taken the survey, answering a range of questions on such topics as 2017 revenue, 2018 projected revenue, location, types of managed services offered, and the number of dedicated salespeople on staff.

According to executives at SolarWinds MSP, answers to these questions are stored in a database and used to generate comparative analysis in a variety of areas, including sales, profitability and customer engagement.

Comparisons are also made between companies that are the same size, offer the same managed service offerings and operate in the same region.

“Many companies are in the dark on their own,” said Mike Cullen, vice president of customer experience and business strategy at SolarWinds MSP. “This tool gives them good information to balance themselves off of what other companies are doing in the market.”

Chart showing steps for achieving predictable revenue streams
The quest for predicable, as-a-service revenue is just one dimension of the MSP transition the SolarWinds MSP Pulse tool aims to address.

How it works

Many companies are in the dark on their own.
Mike Cullenvice president of customer experience and business strategy, SolarWinds MSP

At the end of the SolarWinds MSP Pulse survey, participants receive a customized report about how their companies’ performance compares with companies of similar size and type. The benchmarking process provides information on whether an MSP is on par, below average or above average with regard to its competitors across a number of categories, including monthly account attrition rate — also known as churn rate — and managed service revenue targets.

Channel partners may use their results to plan their managed services model transformation and are encouraged to take the survey on a quarterly basis to update their data and track their progress.

Cullen said many MSPs are wondering what their benchmark should look like. He said these companies need information on how many new customers should they acquire per month and how much of their companies’ business should be managed services as opposed to hardware.

He added executives at MSPs also want to know if MSPs in their region of the same size and the same revenue structure have the same number of employees.

Experts skeptical an AWS switch is coming

Industry experts said AWS has no need to build and sell a white box data center switch as reported last week but could help customers by developing a dedicated appliance for connecting a private data center with the public cloud provider.

The Information reported last Friday AWS was considering whether to design open switches for an AWS-centric hybrid cloud. The AWS switch would compete directly with Arista, Cisco and Juniper Networks and could be available within 18 months if AWS went through with the project. AWS has declined comment.

Industry observers said this week the report could be half right. AWS customers could use hardware dedicated to establishing a network connection to the service provider, but that device is unlikely to be an AWS switch.

“A white box switch in and of itself doesn’t help move workloads to the cloud, and AWS, as you know, is in the cloud business,” said Brad Casemore, an analyst at IDC.

What AWS customers could use isn’t an AWS switch, but hardware designed to connect a private cloud to the infrastructure-as-a-service provider, experts said. Currently, AWS’ software-based Direct Connect service for the corporate data center is “a little kludgy today and could use a little bit of work,” said an industry executive who requested his name not be used because he works with AWS.

“It’s such a fragile and crappy part of the Amazon cloud experience,” he said. “The Direct Connect appliance is a badly needed part of their portfolio.”

AWS could also use a device that provides a dedicated connection to a company’s remote office or campus network, said John Fruehe, an independent analyst.  “It would speed up application [service] delivery greatly.”

Indeed, Microsoft recently introduced the Azure Virtual WAN service, which connects the Azure cloud with software-defined WAN systems that serve remote offices and campuses. The systems manage traffic through multiple network links, including broadband, MPLS and LTE.

Connectors to AWS, Google, Microsoft clouds

For the last couple of years, AWS and its rivals Google and Microsoft have been working with partners on technology to ease the difficulty of connecting to their respective services.

In October 2016, AWS and VMware launched an alliance to develop the VMware Cloud on AWS. The platform would essentially duplicate on AWS a private cloud built with VMware software. As a result, customers of the vendors could use a single set of tools to manage and move workloads between both environments.

A year later, Google announced it had partnered with Cisco to connect Kubernetes containers running on Google Cloud with Cisco’s hyper-converged infrastructure, called HyperFlex. Cisco would also provide management tools and security for the hybrid cloud system.

Microsoft, on the other hand, offers a hybrid cloud platform called the Azure Stack. The software runs on third-party hardware and shares its code, APIs and management portal with Microsoft’s Azure public cloud to create a common cloud-computing platform. Microsoft hardware partners for Azure Stack include Cisco, Dell EMC and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

New Elastifile CEO intensifies startup’s cloud focus

New Elastifile CEO Erwan Menard said he plans to intensify the startup’s focus on scale-out, enterprise-grade file storage for the public cloud, as he tries to fuel the company’s growth phase.

The stronger public cloud emphasis will mean changes to the product strategy that Elastifile initially laid out when emerging from stealth in April 2017. For instance, Elastifile designed its distributed file system to run on flash storage. But, Menard said, Elastifile’s software will be available with spinning HDDs and SSDs in public clouds, although on-premises deployments will continue to require flash.

Prior to joining Elastifile, Menard was president and COO at object storage vendor Scality. He previously held the same positions at DataDirect Networks, a storage vendor that caters to high-performance computing. Menard also served as vice president and general manager of Hewlett-Packard’s communications and media solutions business unit and in various leadership roles at Alcatel-Lucent.

The newly appointed Elastifile CEO recently replaced founder Amir Aharoni, who remains with the startup as chairman. Aharoni was unable to relocate from Israel to the United States, “where we want the growth to be led from,” Menard said as part of this Q&A. Elastifile’s sales and marketing office is located in Santa Clara, Calif., and its research and development arm is in Herzliya, Israel.

What are your primary areas of focus for the next year and beyond?

Erwan Menard: We were born upon the idea that file storage is here to stay, because a number of workloads in enterprises rely on it, and that file storage should be addressed in a software-defined manner designed for flash. That was the initial DNA of the company, from a product point of view.

Elastifile CEO Erwan MenardErwan Menard

Now, if we look at the market, we’re observing a growing demand for enterprise-class file storage in the cloud. If you look at the data that’s going into public clouds, there’s either very cold data for archival or disaster recovery purposes, or there’s hot data in very small quantities for workloads that are compute-centric. But there is a huge piece missing, which is all the data residing on NAS in the data center. Why aren’t those data and associated workloads in the cloud yet? Because there’s no decent enterprise-grade file storage service in public clouds.

At Elastifile, we spent four years developing a modern-age, software-defined file system for flash. And we’re taking that intellectual property and focusing on adding a strong, enterprise-grade file system to Amazon and Google and Azure. It’s two clicks on Google Launcher, which is their marketplace. We automatically provision a scale-out file system. We definitely aim at doing the same thing on the other clouds if customers choose Azure and Amazon. This is going to happen in the next few months.

Elastifile has a flash requirement with on-premises deployments. Is flash a requirement in the public cloud?

Menard: We designed for flash, because silicon is taking over infrastructure. But you can effectively run it on classic disk. In Google terminology, you can run on so-called PDs, [or] persistent disks, which are groups of SSDs at Google Cloud. Or, you can run it on standard PDs, [or] standard persistent disks, which are effectively classic HDDs. We run on both.

The good thing about designing for flash is that we’re able to provide significantly better performance than other solutions out there in the cloud. For example, we are able to provide much better performance than Amazon Elastic File [System] storage. I want to think that’s because we designed for the flash era.

Does the ability to run on HDDs extend to on-premises Elastifile deployments?

Menard: No. The on-prem deployment option is to run on bare-metal SSDs.

What significant features are in the Elastifile 2.7 release?

Menard: We are updating the [Google] Launcher experience. That experience is going to be significantly simpler in the way you install. The people who are touching our products in the data center are typically storage admins. In the cloud, sometimes it’s an application developer who happens to need storage, or someone who is even less technical. And the first impression people have with the product is extremely important in their decision to adopt it or not.

Also part of the package is what we call CloudConnect. It’s a tool that allows you to migrate your data from any NAS in your data center to any cloud. When people are absolutely convinced about the benefits of running stuff in the cloud, they often struggle with moving the data to the cloud. Most of the tools on the market tend to go from one certain type of NAS to one certain type of cloud destination. We’ve done a tool to go from any to any, and that tool is part of the subscription to our product.

Can users buy CloudConnect as a separate product?

Menard: No. Our goal isn’t to become a data-mover company. Our goal is to facilitate adoption of the cloud. The Elastifile software is available as a subscription. And, as part of that, you get CloudConnect.

Can we expect more partnerships, such as Elastifile’s OEM deal with Dell EMC signed last year? Do customers want to pick their own hardware and take a do-it-yourself approach, or do they prefer to buy your storage software bundled with hardware?

Menard: I think people want to buy software only, because that unlocks the value chain and allows them to commoditize the hardware and separate software and hardware from a procurement point of view. I think there’s a market for software only in the data center — do it yourself — that is for sophisticated organizations who decided to continue developing their data center for whatever strategic or regulatory reasons.

That being said, I think the overall trend is effectively slightly different. At the whole market level, the trend is to go to the cloud. The data center is less and less an area where you want to experiment with complicated things. If anything, you want to consume very simple offerings.

So, I think those two trends coexist — sometimes in the same enterprise account. Frankly, our focus is on the cloud, because this is the next frontier. We’re much more involved in conversations around lifting and shifting stuff to the cloud.

Do people want to move everything to the cloud, or do you think the hybrid model will win out?

Menard: I’m not comfortable with the word ‘hybrid,’ because I’m not sure people are clear on what it means. If hybrid means I have a full stack — application, infrastructure — that’s delivering a certain business outcome in the data center, and I want to replicate that in the cloud, that scenario does exist.

We have a customer in common with Google, called eSilicon. They are doing chipset design. They’ve augmented the capacity of their data center on a per-project basis. They don’t size for the peak. They size for a lower load. And they run the peak activities in the cloud. They did it with us because they didn’t need to modify their application at all when running it in the cloud. That’s a bursting scenario. I run peak activities in the cloud and continue running baseline activities in the data center.

Another scenario we see happening is people who are lifting and shifting an entire workload to the cloud. And that creates a period of time where both workloads are in the data center and in the cloud — the target being to run everything in the cloud. If we want to call that hybrid, then hybrid does exist.

Do you think you may have customers that run your software only in the cloud?

Menard: Absolutely. Four years ago, when we were all focusing on the software-defined data center, we were all undersizing the speed at which workloads could move to the cloud.

Is that why you plan to focus less on OEM partnerships and more on getting your software to work better with more clouds?

Menard: Absolutely.

Are customers moving their applications to the public cloud? Or, are they just moving their data and leaving the applications running on premises?

Menard: I think the only case where it makes sense to move the data without the application is when you’re looking at archiving or disaster recovery. The object stores of public clouds do a great job at that. When you talk about hot data, having an application running in the data center and tapping into a data pool in the cloud may look great on a slide, but I don’t think it makes economic sense.

Which vendors do you go up against in competitive scenarios?

Menard: In the cloud right now, the de facto standard — but it’s a fairly low one — is Amazon EFS [Elastic File System]. Another option is, of course, the status quo: using the same vendor you’ve been using for decades in the data center and trying to make that work in the cloud. We’ve seen announcements by the likes of NetApp in that regard. While it’s probably a good defensive play, it’s very hard with products designed many years ago for the data center to truly take advantage of the cloud. It’s going to come with a level of complexity and cost that’s probably not viable in the long run.

Ribbon Communications boosts UCaaS portfolio with Edgewater buy

Ribbon Communications said it will acquire network edge orchestration provider Edgewater Networks for $110 million to expand its unified communications portfolio and enter the software-defined WAN market.

The acquisition offers Ribbon Communications, based in Westford, Mass., the opportunity to expand its service offerings, especially for its UC-as-a-service (UCaaS) provider partners, according to Irwin Lazar, analyst at Nemertes Research, based in Mokena, Ill.

“The Edgewater portfolio brings in a wide range of edge devices that enables UCaaS providers to monitor performance quality for voice and video services,” he said. Edgewater Networks, based in San Jose, Calif., has more than 635,000 actively deployed edge devices and more than 20 million connected endpoints, according to Ribbon.

Edgewater Networks provides service assurance, security and analytics tools for unified communications and software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) through a hybrid cloud or edge model. Its customers include communications service providers, managed services providers, and small and midsize enterprises.

Managing UC performance at remote offices

With the acquisition, Ribbon Communications will expand its UC portfolio with end-to-end service assurance and analytics for its Kandy UCaaS offering, as well as voice and data intelligence capabilities in its Ribbon Protect UC security offering.

Ribbon’s UCaaS offering is based on its Kandy embedded communications platform, and it uses Kandy’s APIs to provide voice, video and contact center capabilities. Ribbon Protect UC provides end-to-end security of the communications network to mitigate threats, such as toll fraud and telephony denial-of-service attacks.

The combined portfolio of Ribbon and Edgewater will expand Ribbon’s Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams offerings. Edgewater Networks’ services have been used in a number of Skype of Business deployments as remote survivable gateways, Lazar said.

“Blending the two companies provides a broader range of devices for both enterprises and service providers to manage UC performance at remote offices,” he said.

The combined portfolio helps Ribbon Communications toward its goal of expanding its global reach and entering new markets. Acquiring Edgewater Networks gives Ribbon entry to the SD-WAN market, Patrick Joggerst, chief marketing officer and executive vice president of business development at Ribbon, wrote in a blog post. Edgewater’s SD-WAN offering targets small and midsize organizations, but the acquisition will allow Edgewater to target larger enterprises and expand outside North America, he said.

The acquisition comes nearly eight months after real-time communications provider Genband and session border controller and UC security provider Sonus merged and rebranded under the Ribbon Communications name. The Edgewater acquisition is expected to close in the third quarter and highlights the ongoing vendor consolidation swirling around the UC market.

Industry vet Lewis reveals plan to save Violin flash storage

Mark Lewis said when he became CEO of Violin Systems a few months back, a friend asked, “Why are you joining Violin?”

The friend knew Violin’s history. Lewis was replacing ailing Ebrahim Abbasi as CEO, taking over a company that had been through several chapters already — including Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Violin emerged from bankruptcy in 2017 when private equity firm Quantum Partners put up $25 million to satisfy Violin’s outstanding debt and fund restructuring.

Lewis first joined Violin as a consultant to Abbasi, following the demise of Lewis’ venture capital-backed Formation Data Systems. Formation Data couldn’t get its software-defined storage product to market fast enough to satisfy investors. When Abbasi stepped down for medical reasons, Lewis took over as Violin’s CEO.

“We are effectively a startup,” Lewis said of Violin.

Violin went from a startup in 2009 to a public company in 2013, fueled by early success as a flash storage pioneer. But the rest of the storage field jumped into all-flash and both startups and established vendors surpassed Violin sales.

Lewis’ experience as a storage executive goes back to 1990, when he became general manager of Digital Equipment Corp.’s storage OEM business. He followed with executive positions at Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and EMC before founding Formation in 2013.

Lewis has recruited other industry veterans to Violin. Rick Ruskin is the senior vice president of worldwide field operations, after occupying a similar post at Kaminario. Gary Lyng, vice president of product management and marketing, previously worked for SanDisk, and his resume includes stops at EMC, NetApp, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Veritas.

We spoke with Lewis about why he joined Violin and his strategy for plotting its comeback.

Given Violin’s ups and downs, how challenging has it been to maintain the confidence of existing customers and win new Violin flash storage accounts?

Mark Lewis, CEO of Violin SystemsMark Lewis

Mark Lewis: I had a sales friend tell me ‘Congrats on [joining] Violin, but why are you joining Violin?’ Everybody has seen the press about the bankruptcy and thinks things here must be terrible. Clearly some bad execution happened to drive us there, but that all helped to battle-harden the technology. I’m excited by the potential we have.

One of the things that impressed me most when I got here was the incredible IP [intellectual property] Violin has. The IP was in great shape, but we didn’t have a lot of process. Cuts had been made to the sales team. We had no growth engine because we had no marketing and sales. Now that we have private equity funding, we have rebuilt a channel partner-oriented sales team. We’re rebuilding relationships with existing customers, and we already have 20 new logo opportunities [for new customers] this quarter.

We still have a lot of large installs. About 150 companies of the Fortune 500 currently use Violin to run their most mission-critical applications. Now that we’re back to being privately owned, we can leverage our IP assets and installed base to re-establish ourselves on a deeper footing. We’re not doing cloud tiering. We’re not doing object stores. We’re not even doing file storage. We’re sticking with block storage, Fibre Channel, iSCSI Ethernet and our approach of selling only through the channel. We think Violin flash becomes a complement that can coexist within your environment.

Why didn’t Formation Data Systems survive, and how will those lessons help you in leading Violin and succeeding with Violin Flash Storage?

Lewis: They are two products in completely different markets. At Formation, I advocated for a certain portion of the market to move to software-defined storage for midperformance or bulk storage. It’s a valid market, but what we learned at Formation is that there isn’t a lot that’s broken in the classic storage market. People in storage tend to be conservative. I believe software-defined storage ultimately will be successful, but it won’t happen quickly. It will be a multidecade transition.

The core weakness of the original Violin flash storage technology was that it was built as very fast storage hardware, with no software. That made it a struggle for enterprises to adopt it. It was a hard lesson to learn. Obviously the company struggled for a long time getting that right.

The good news is we’ve now got a platform. We have battle-tested software capabilities that we’re building on, and we will evolve to using more off-the-shelf commodity hardware, like NVMe [nonvolatile memory express], and continue to move to more of a software setup. But being in the enterprise, we aren’t trying to be an all software-defined storage. To address the super-high-performance environments, you have to integrate hardware and software to work tightly together. Loose coupling works fine, but we want to beat everybody on performance. We’re always going to have a close tie to hardware.

What’s your strategy to help Violin avoid the pitfalls that sidetracked it before?

One of the things that will make us successful is improving our focus on ultra-high-performance workloads. People categorize the market now [as] … all-flash arrays, but that’s really not a market.
Mark LewisCEO, Violin Systems

Lewis: One of the things that will make us successful is improving our focus on ultra-high-performance workloads. People categorize the market now in the general term of all-flash arrays, but that’s really not a market. It’s something that can be counted, but all-flash arrays don’t make up a buying choice in any particular way. We believe there’s a lot more depth to it than that.

The total addressable market for all-flash arrays last year was about $8 billion. Violin isn’t even a drop in that bucket. We’re effectively a startup. Violin is known for incredible IP around performance. We’re focusing just on the segment of the market that needs extreme storage performance. We’re not going after the generic market to compete with Pure Storage, NetApp, Dell EMC or others. We’d be very happy to carve up a billion dollars of the high-performance portion of the market.

Are investors asking about when you’ll be in the black? Do you have a projected timeline for turning a profit with the Violin Flash Storage platform?

Lewis: We’re taking a conservative, cash-oriented approach. We aren’t going to focus on profitability now, but on generating positive cash flow. That has to come first as a way to sustain the business. I believe we’re about two years away from being able to do that. But we won’t have to be a billion-dollar company to have positive cash flow. Thankfully, we have IP that keeps our costs and margins in good shape, and we’re able to exploit flash for performance pretty cost effectively.

Other vendors are trying to play a game of replace an old disk array with flash. It’s a big market, but the negative is a race to the bottom on cost. We’re attacking the market from the top down and have a lot of runway to [achieve] profitable growth, without worrying about cannibalization.

What is Violin’s roadmap for supporting NVMe flash?

Lewis: We will release NVMe over Fabrics [products] this year. The front-end NVMe [support] is important to our customers and will give us improved performance, even above what we can deliver now.

On the device side, it’s a different story. We never used SAS or SATA drives. We created our own controller chip that’s actually faster than NVMe today. Because of our hardware-software integration, we’re working with the NVMe device suppliers to add the software hooks that we need to make NVMe fast enough to go in our Violin systems. We want to embrace that commodity hardware, but we need software improvements to do it. NVMe, as it is now, is actually too slow for us. We have to help NVMe device makers to get caught up with us.

For storage class memory, we’re investigating 3D XPoint and other RAM technologies. Our strategy is to give our customers the option to use those technologies as soon as they become commercially viable.

Meltdown and Spectre malware discovered in the wild

Chip makers have said they’ve seen no evidence the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities have been exploited to steal customer data, but those days of relative comfort may be coming to an end.

Researchers at AV-TEST, an independent organization that tests antimalware and security software, announced this week they had discovered 139 samples of malware that “appear to be related to recently reported CPU vulnerabilities.” While the good news is that most of the malware samples appear to be based on previously published proof-of-concepts from security researchers, the bad news is that AV-TEST’s latest findings show the number of unique samples has risen sharply in recent weeks.  

The organization had previously reported the discovery of 77 unique samples of Meltdown and Spectre malware on January 17. At that time, AV-TEST said via Twitter that all identified samples were “original or modified PoC code” and that the majority of the samples were for Spectre rather than Meltdown. AV-TEST posted another update on Jan. 23 showing the unique malware samples had risen to 119.

After analyzing most of those samples, Fortinet’s FortiGuard Labs published a report Tuesday saying it was “concerned” about the potential of Meltdown and Spectre malware attacking users and enterprises.

“FortiGuard Labs has analyzed all of the publicly available samples, representing about 83 percent of all the samples that have been collected [by AV-TEST], and determined that they were all based on proof of concept code,” the research team wrote. “The other 17 percent may have not been shared publicly because they were either under NDA or were unavailable for reasons unknown to us.”

Fortinet also released several antivirus signatures to help users defend against the Meltdown and Spectre malware samples. But detecting other exploits related to these chip vulnerabilities could prove extremely difficult. While Intel and AMD have said there is no evidence the flaws have been exploited in the wild, the researchers who discovered the chip vulnerabilities say it’s “probably not” possible for organizations or users to tell whether Meltdown and Spectre have been used against them.

“The exploitation does not leave any traces in traditional log files,” according to an FAQ on the Meltdown and Spectre research site.

Defending against possible Meltdown and Spectre malware has been further complicated by patch issues. Intel recently announced it was pulling its microcode updates for the chip vulnerabilities because of reboot problems on systems running Intel’s Broadwell and Haswell processors. Microsoft later issued an out-of-band patch that disabled Intel’s update for variant 2 of the Spectre vulnerability, which involves branch target injection.