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At HR Technology Conference, Walmart says virtual reality works

LAS VEGAS — Learning technology appears to be heading for a major upgrade. Walmart is using virtual reality, or VR, to train its employees, and many other companies may soon do the same.

VR adoption is part of a larger tech shift in employee learning. For example, companies such as Wendy’s are using simulation or gamification to help employees learn about food preparation.

Deploying VR technology is expensive, with cost estimates ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to millions, attendees at the HR Technology Conference learned. But headset prices are declining rapidly, and libraries of VR training tools for dealing with common HR situations — such as how to fire an employee — may make this tool affordable to firms of all sizes.

For Walmart, a payoff of using virtual reality comes from higher job certification test scores. Meanwhile, Wendy’s has been using computer simulations to help employees learn their jobs. It is also adapting its training to the expectations of its workers, and its efforts have led to a turnover reduction. Based on presentations and interviews at the HR Technology Conference, users deploying these technologies are enthusiastic about them.

Walmart employees experience VR’s 3D

“It truly becomes an experience,” said Andy Trainor, senior director of Walmart Academies, in an interview about the impact of VR and augmented reality on training. It’s unlike a typical classroom lesson. “Employees actually feel like they experience it,” he said.

Walmart has adopted virtual reality for its training program.
Walmart’s training and virtual reality team, from left to right: Brock McKeel, senior director of digital operations at Walmart and Andy Trainor, senior director of Walmart Academies.

Walmart employees go to “academies” for training, testing and certification on certain processes, such as taking care of the store’s produce section, interacting with customers or preparing for Black Friday. As one person in a class wears the VR headset or goggles, what that person sees and experiences displays on a monitor for the class to follow.

Walmart has been using VR in training from startup STRIVR for just over a year. In classes using VR, Trainor said the company is seeing an increase in test scores as high as 15% over traditional methods of instruction. Trainor said his team members are convinced VR, with its ability to create 3D simulations, is here to stay as a training tool. 

“Life isn’t 2D,” said Brock McKeel, senior director of digital operations at Walmart. For problems ranging from customer service issues to emergency weather planning, “we want our associates to be the best prepared that we can get them to be.”

Walmart has also created a simulation-type game that helps employees understand store management. The company plans to soon release its simulation as an app for anyone to experience, Trainor said.

The old ways of training are broken

The need to do things differently in learning was a theme at the HR Technology Conference.

Life isn’t 2D.
Brock McKeelsenior director of digital operations at Walmart

The idea that employees will take time out of their day to watch a training video or read material that may not be connected to their task at hand is not effective, said David Mallon, a vice president and chief analyst at Bersin, Deloitte Consulting, based in Oakland, Calif.

The traditional methods of learning “have fallen apart,” Mallon said. Employees “want to engage with content on their terms, when they need it, where they need it and in ways that make more sense.”

Mallon’s point is something Wendy’s realized about its restaurant workers, who understand technology and have expectations about content, said Coley O’Brien, chief people officer at the restaurant chain. Employees want the content to be quick, they want the ability to swipe, and videos should be 30 seconds or less, he said.

“We really had to think about how we evolve our training approach and our content to really meet their expectations,” said O’Brien, who presented at the conference.

Wendy’s also created simulations that reproduce some of the time pressures faced with certain food-preparation processes. Employees must make choices in simulations, and mistakes are tracked. The company uses Cornerstone OnDemand’s platform.

Restaurants in which employees received a certain level of certification see higher sales of 1% to 2%, increases in customer satisfaction and a turnover reduction as high as 20%, O’Brien said.

AI, data analytics, recruiting tech among HR priorities, leaders say

LAS VEGAS — HR leaders at top national companies want tech that delivers insights and improves talent management. The top HR priorities included boosting candidate and employee experience through stellar technology. That was the message to vendors and attendees at the 2018 HR Technology Conference & Expo from a panel on what it takes to create top-notch HR. Improved recruiting platforms, AI, data analytics and user-driven learning platforms were all listed as important.

The HR chiefs from Accenture, BlackRock, Delta Air Lines, Johnson & Johnson and The Walt Disney Co., who appeared on a panel, discussed their technology priorities and interests. They weren’t picking and choosing vendors, and they made a point of avoiding mentioning any of the vendors at the conference.

But this group of global HR leaders had a clear idea of what they thought was important to conference attendees and vendors. It was a strategic, but pointed, overview of how they are using technology and what their firms want from it.

Stellar HR requires a candidate-focused recruiting system

Johnson & Johnson interviews a million people a year to hire 28,000 individuals. “So, how do you make sure that they [the candidates] have visibility [into] how they’re tracking through the process, like you would track a Domino’s pizza or a UPS or a FedEx package?” asked Peter Fasolo, executive vice president and chief human resources officer (CHRO) at Johnson & Johnson, based in New Brunswick, N.J.

At BlackRock, talent is an ongoing executive board-level discussion, said Matt Breitfelder, managing director and chief talent officer. The New York-based company is using technology to help improve the diversity of its hiring.

The firm wants diversity on its teams, so its employees are “challenging each other to think more clearly about what they’re seeing in markets,” Breitfelder said.

BlackRock is using tools in its hiring process to make sure it is “not just replicating an industry that has tended to have one way of thinking,” Breitfelder said. “We know it’s about teams, not about individual stars.”

Data analytics makes us more human

We democratized all of our learning.
Ellyn Shookchief leadership and human resource officer at Accenture

“Data analytics makes us more human, because our own data analytics shows there’s a lot of liberal arts majors who make great investors, which is very counterintuitive,” Breitfelder said. 

Delta Air Lines has begun using machine learning and AI technologies to help discover “good predictors of success” in its hiring, said Joanne Smith, the company’s executive vice president and CHRO. “That’s going to help us get smarter and smarter and smarter about hiring,” she said.

Learning and a focus on employee experience

Learning technology was also mentioned as a priority, and Accenture explained why that is. In response to the competition in the labor market, the firm decided to go big on training employees on entirely new skills.

“We democratized all of our learning,” said Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resource officer at Accenture, based in Dublin. Learning “is now in real time, on demand and available to our people anytime, anywhere, any device,” she said.

Some 300,000 of Accenture’s 450,000 employees have taken advantage of it in the last two years, which includes some “leading-edge technical areas that there would be no way we could have hired at that scale,” Shook said.

A common theme for the conference panel was the need for consumer-like HR technologies.

“Help me do what I’m doing. Help my employees be better at what we’re doing. But have a consumer mindset to it,” said Jayne Parker, senior executive vice president and CHRO of Disney.

New Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey uncovers lack of tech adoption data

LAS VEGAS — A new report emphasized that data-driven HR is a difficult goal to achieve. And it’s even more challenging because few companies track how much employees use — or don’t use — HR applications.

The numbers from the 21st annual Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey illustrated the gap: Fifty-two percent of respondents indicated that HR tech influences their business decisions, but less than a quarter of those people possess data on employee buy-in, as illustrated by HR tech adoption in their organization.

“You have to know how people use your tech,” said Stacey Harris, vice president of research and analytics at Sierra-Cedar, a tech consulting and managed services firm based in Alpharetta, Ga. “[Only] 10% of organizations are measuring HR technology adoption — how their technology is being used. That’s an issue.”

She presented the findings at the HR Technology Conference here this week. TechTarget, the publisher of SearchHRSoftware, is a media partner for the event.

Michael Krupa, senior director of digitization and business intelligence at networking giant Cisco, told Harris he is not surprised by the statistics. To measure adoption, a series of detailed steps is necessary, including documenting HR users, creating metrics based on those personas and then presenting the data in dashboards. Along the way, companies must also determine who monitors adoption data.

“You have to do all that,” Krupa said. “It’s hard.”

However, there is a statistical correlation between those who successfully track HR tech adoption and a 10% increase in favorable business outcomes, Harris said.

Methods to track employee buy-in and HR tech adoption

Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey respondents indicated lots of ways to ascertain adoption and use, including the following:

  • measuring mobile and desktop logins;
  • determining average transactions completed during a period of time;
  • running Google Analytics reports;
  • tracking employee self-service volume;
  • talking to employees; and
  • receiving vendor reports on activity.

[Only] 10% of organizations are measuring HR technology adoption — how their technology is being used.
Stacey Harrisvice president of research and analytics, Sierra-Cedar

Chatham Financial, a financial advisory and technology company based in Kennett Square, Pa., tracks logins and sends out satisfaction surveys to users, said Lindsay Evans, director of talent. Chatham’s approach is to think of employees as customers.

However, Evans — who appeared with Harris and Krupa — said it is not always a bad thing to find out employees don’t use an application.

“At my company, we use a time tracker, and people hate it,” she said. “I wish we hadn’t rolled it out. It’s not really saving us a lot of time.”

Data-driven HR raises data privacy concerns

The big picture of human capital management has changed within the last 15 years. Software from back then focused on processes, whereas HR professionals now use a company’s strategy, culture and data governance to evaluate technology, Harris said.

Stacey Harris, Michael Krupa and Lindsay Evans discuss data-driven HR needs.
Stacey Harris, Michael Krupa and Lindsay Evans speak at the HR Technology Conference.

“Data is at the center of your HR technology conversation,” she added.

Broadly, data governance describes steps to ensure the availability, integrity and security of digital information. “Data governance is important, because we need to know where data is stored, how people are using it and where it’s moving,” Krupa said.

With the emphasis on data-driven HR comes the need for cybersecurity and data privacy, and the Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey uncovered an interesting twist to those duties as it concerns HRIT professionals. HRIT and HRIS roles are the top choices to handle data privacy and content security, with 48% of organizations with all-cloud HR systems using HRIT in this way.

However, for 47% of companies with on-premises HR systems, IT departments deal with data privacy and content security, while only 18% use HRIT.

“In the cloud environment, [HRIT workers] are the people standing between you and data privacy,” Harris said, adding that this rise in prominence for cloud-based HR indicates HRIT professionals are becoming more strategic in their duties.

Closing thoughts on HR cloud, mobile and spending

Beyond results on HR technology adoption, the Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey looked at a wide swath of HR tech issues, including these tidbits:

  • Cloud adoption of HR management systems continues to rise, with 68% of companies heading in that direction, compared with on-premises installations — an increase of 14% from last year’s Sierra-Cedar report.
  • Mobile HR has been adopted by 51% of organizations. So, if your company doesn’t use this tech, it lags behind, Harris said. However, this statistic came with a warning, too, as only 25% of companies have a BYOD policy, which hints at data privacy risks, she said.
  • For 2018, 42% of organizations reported plans to increase HR system spending, which is a 10% increase over 2017. “There is no return on investment with HR technology … but there is a return on value,” Harris said. “But you only get more [value] if people are using it.”

Amazon, Intel, NBCUniversal spill buying secrets at HR Tech 2018

LAS VEGAS — Amazon’s talent acquisition organization has more than 3,500 people, including 2,000 recruiters, and is very interested in testing out new technology. That is probably welcome news to vendors here at HR Tech 2018. But Amazon and other big HR technology users warned against being dazzled by vendors’ products and recommended following a disciplined and tough evaluation process.

“I think it’s important to stay abreast with what’s happening in the market,” said Kelly Cartwright, the head of recruiting transformation at Amazon. “I’m really, really passionate about doing experiments and pilots and seeing whether or not something can work,” she said, speaking on a talent acquisition technology panel at HR Tech 2018.

It’s important to “block out time and take those [vendor] calls and listen to what those vendors have to say because one of them actually might have a solution for you that can be a game changer,” Cartwright said.

A warning about new HR tech

But Cartwright also had a clear warning for attendees at the HR Tech 2018. It won’t help to make the investment in a new technology until “you really clarify” what it is you want to use it for, she said.

What has to happen first in investigating HR trends and new technologies is to “start with a clear problem that you’re trying to solve for,” Cartwright said. She illustrated her point with example questions: Is the problem improving diversity in the pipeline? Or is it ensuring that there are enough potential candidates visiting your recruiting website?

Endorsing this approach was Gail Blum, manager of talent acquisition operations at NBCUniversal, who appeared with Cartwright on the panel.

Blum said NBCUniversal may not always have the budget for a particular new HR technology, but vendors increasingly are offering free pilots. Companies can choose to take a particular problem “and see if that new tool or vendor has the ability to solve that,” she said.

Attendees walk through the expo area at the 2018 HR Technology Conference
New HR tech is in abundance at the 2018 HR Technology Conference & Expo

New tech that doesn’t integrate is next to useless

Critical to any new HR technology is its ability to integrate with existing talent systems, such as an applicant tracking system, Blum said. She wants to know: Will the system have a separate log-in? “That’s always something that we ask upfront with all of these vendors.”

“If you are requiring everyone to have to go to two different systems the usage probably isn’t going to be great,” Blum said, who said that was their experience from some previous rollouts. If the systems don’t integrate, a new technology addition “isn’t really going to solve your problem in the end,” she said.      

There was no disagreement on this panel at HR Tech 2018 about the need to be rigorous with vendors to avoid being taken in by a shiny new technology.

We ask really invasive questions of the vendors.
Allyn Baileytalent acquisition capability adoption transformation leader, Intel

If Intel is going to partner with a talent vendor “it’s a long-term play,” said Allyn Bailey, talent acquisition capability adoption transformation leader at the chipmaker.

“We ask really invasive questions of the vendors,” Bailey said. “The vendors really hate it when we do it,” she said.

But Bailey said they will probe a vendor’s stability, their financing and whether they are positioning themselves to gather some big-name customers and then sell the business. “That freaks me out because my investment with that vendor is around that partnership to build a very customized solution to meet my needs,” she said. 

TechTarget, the publisher of SearchHRSoftware, is a media partner for HR Tech 2018.

New tech trends in HR: Josh Bersin predicts employee experience ‘war’

LAS VEGAS — Among fresh tech trends in HR, one that may garner the most interest is a new layer of software — which superstar analyst Josh Bersin called an employee experience platform — that will fit between core HR and talent management tools.

Bersin said he expects employee experience to become the next-generation employee portal — in other words, the go-to application for modern workers who need HR-based information. Vendors are lining up to address the need, he added.

“There is going to be a holy war for [what] system your employees use first,” said Bersin, an independent analyst who founded Bersin by Deloitte. Although his quote served as hyperbole, it nonetheless stuck with attendees here at the 2018 HR Technology Conference & Exposition.

“He hit home,” said Rita Reslow, senior director of global benefits at HR software vendor Kronos, based in Lowell, Mass. “We have all these systems, and we keep buying more.” But she wondered aloud when one product would tie her systems together for employees.

No vendor has achieved a true employee experience platform, Bersin told a room packed with 900 or so attendees at the conference on Tuesday. However, ServiceNow, PeopleDoc — which Ultimate Software acquired in July — and possibly IBM appear to have a head start, he added.

Tech trends in HR point to team successes

There is going to be a holy war for [what] system your employees use first.
Josh Bersinindependent analyst

Bersin, who plans to release an extensive report about 2019 tech trends in HR, said software development within the industry reflects a shift in management that steers away from employee engagement and company culture in favor of increased team performance.

Unless a recession hits, “I think the focus of the tech market for the next couple of years … is on performance, productivity and agility,” he said.

The shift to productivity will require future technology to simplify work life, said Cliff Howe, manager of enterprise applications at Cox Enterprises, a communications and media company in Atlanta. “Our employees are being inundated,” Howe said. “We don’t want to hit our employees with too much [technology].”

Bersin suggested that HR software buyers consider the following tips when evaluating new human capital management products:

  • Shop around for vendors that focus on your company’s particular market. For example, if your organization exhibits a compliance-based culture, find a vendor that mirrors that approach.
  • Evaluate the “personality of the vendor,” he said. As an example, determine if the vendor’s reps listen to your decision-makers and help them. If the answer is no, it may be time to drop that vendor from consideration.

AI auditing, real-time payrolls needed in future

In other upcoming tech trends in HR, Bersin pegged AI as a quickly growing field that smart HR departments will learn how to monitor and audit in the future. That notion was on the minds of many at the HR Technology Conference, for which TechTarget — the publisher of SearchHRSoftware — is a media partner.

AI innovation has increased rapidly in the last two years. Today, even small HR software vendors with three to five engineers can use technology from Google or IBM, combine it with open source options and scale a new product on the cloud quickly, Bersin said. HR professionals will need to adjust their skills in order to better understand why AI software makes its decisions, which is an area not fully grasped yet, he added.

Howe agreed AI has grown beyond wish-list status. “AI will be a requirement, rather than a shiny object,” he said.

Bersin also noted that software will need to reflect a possible switch to a continuous payroll model — perhaps as often as daily. Younger workers, some of whom might not have bank accounts, have increased their demands to be compensated in real time, and this request is not just for the gig economy, he said.

VMware HCX makes hybrid, multi-cloud more attainable

LAS VEGAS — VMware HCX attempts to drive migration to hybrid and multi-cloud architectures, but IT administrators are still hesitant to make the switch due to concerns around cost and complexity.

Before doing product evaluations and determining if VMware Hybrid Cloud Extension (HCX) is a good option for workload migration, admins must figure out if the cloud meets their current and future business needs. What is the organization trying to accomplish with its existing deployments?

For example, consider a near-end-of-support vSphere 5.5 environment: Is the goal to seamlessly migrate those workloads from the current environment to the cloud without an on-premises upgrade? Or, is successfully migrating hundreds of VMs or large amounts of storage the objective?

Determining the ultimate goal and whether a private cloud, hybrid cloud, public cloud or multi-cloud makes the most sense is a decision that admins must make on a case-by-case basis.

Cloud cost and complexity concerns

The ongoing fee associated with using cloud services is just one of the cost concerns, experts said in a session here at VMworld 2018. During the migration, admins have to worry about whether they’ll need to change IPs, the potential of running into compatibility issues, and the responsibility of ensuring business continuity and disaster recovery.

“Even after we meet all their requirements, we’ve seen in any organization all kinds of inertia about getting going,” said Allwyn Sequeira, senior vice president and general manager of hybrid cloud services at VMware. “People think they need to go buy high-bandwidth pipes to connect from on-prem to the cloud. People think they need to do an assessment of applications to see if this is an app that should be moved to the cloud.”

App dependencies and mapping are certainly important issues to consider. With more VMs, the environment is more complex; it’s easier to break something during migration.

Even when a certain vendor or product addresses their concerns, admins need buy-in from networking, security, compliance and governance teams before moving forward with the cloud.

The introduction of VMware HCX is the vendor’s attempt to remove some of the roadblocks keeping organizations from adopting hybrid and multi-cloud environments.

What is VMware HCX, and what are its use cases?

VMware HCX, also known as NSX Hybrid Connect, is a platform that enables admins to migrate VMs and applications between vSphere infrastructures with at least version 5.0 and newer and from on-premises environments to the cloud.

The top use cases of VMware HCX include consolidating and modernizing the data center, extending the data center to the cloud, and disaster recovery.

“HCX gives you freedom of choice,” said Nathan Thaler, director of cloud platforms at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. “You can move your workload into a cloud provider as long it works for you, and then you can move it out without any lock-in. We’ve moved certain VMs between multiple states and without any network downtime.”

Thaler did caution organizations to avoid using virtual hardware beyond the highest level of compatibility with the oldest cloud environment.

Disaster recovery to the cloud, while maybe not as front of mind as other popular use cases, is key in the event of a natural disaster.

“We wanted to be able to have resiliency whether it’s an East Coast event or a West Coast event,” said HCX customer Gary Goforth, senior systems engineer at ConnectWise Inc., a business management software provider based in Tampa, Fla.

VMware HCX-supported features include Encrypted vMotion, vSphere Replication and scheduled migrations. The functionality itself seems to be what admins are really looking for.

“We wanted a fairly simple, easy way to implement a cloud,” Goforth said. “We wanted to do it with minimal to no downtime and to handle a bulk migration of our virtual machines.”

In terms of the VMware HCX roadmap, the vendor is working on constructs to move workloads across different clouds, Sequeira said.

“It’s all about interconnecting data centers to each other,” he said. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, where you run is going to become less important than what services you need.”

VSAN hyper-converged users offer buying, implementing advice

LAS VEGAS — Today, VMware paints vSAN hyper-converged technology as a key piece of IT everywhere, from the data center to the cloud to the edge. But early vSAN customers remember when it was still a nascent concept and not fully proven.

As a customer panel at VMworld 2018, vSAN hyper-converged software users offered advice for buying and implementing what, in some cases, was still a suspect technology when they adopted it. The customers were split between using vSAN on integrated appliances, such as Dell EMC VxRail hardware, or buying on servers as vSAN Ready Nodes. Either way, they faced similar buying decisions and implementation challenges.

Here is some of the advice offered for going down the road of vSAN hyper-converged and hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) in general.

Start small and prove its value

Several of the vSAN hyper-converged customers said it was difficult to gain support originally for moving from a traditional three-tier architecture to HCI. It helped to start with a specific use case to prove the technology and then grow from there.

William Dufrin, IT manager of client virtualization engineering and architecture at General Motors, said the early case was virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

“In our environment, change is kind of rough,” Dufrin said. “We’re a large organization, and it could be difficult to make changes like vSAN instead of traditional storage.”

He said IT developers started using vSAN for VDI in 2014, “and in four years, we’ve seen a huge adoption rate inside the organization because of the values and the savings. It’s been stable, and performance has been phenomenal.”

Dufrin said General Motors now has around 10,000 virtual desktops running on a six-node cluster, with two fault domains for availability.

Mark Fournier, systems architect for the United States Senate Federal Credit Union in Alexandria, Va., said his bank started with vSAN Ready Nodes in remote branches. The HCI implementation came around the time USSFCU began virtualizing in 2014.

“Going to vSAN was a challenge against some of the traditional technology we had,” Fournier said. “Even though we were virtualizing, we were still siloing off storage, compute and networking. To get into what seems to be the future, we upgraded our branches using vSAN Remote Office Branch Office licensing. That allowed us to implement hyper-converged architecture in our branches for a lot less money than we expected.”

Fournier said the credit union put Ready Nodes on all-flash blade servers in three branches. He said a four-node all-flash implementation in one branch is so fast now that some of his organization’s developers want to move workloads to the branch.

“With the new PowerEdge M7000 from Dell, options for onboard storage are more flexible, and [it] allows us to bring vSAN out of the branches and into the data center now that management sees the benefit we get out of it,” Fournier said.

Think platform and relationships, and consider all options

The panelists said they did a lot of research before switching to HCI and picking a vendor. They evaluated products from leading HCI vendors, different offerings from the same vendor and compared HCI to traditional IT before making buying decisions.

Mariusz Nowak, director of infrastructure services at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., said cost played a large role — as is often the case with educational institutions.

“I was sick and tired of replacing entirely every traditional storage array every few years and begging for new money, hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “My boss, and everyone else, wasn’t happy to have to spend tons of money.”

Oakland University was a VMware customer since 2005, and Nowak said he looked at early versions of vSAN hyper-converged software, but felt it wasn’t ready for the university. After VMware added more enterprise features, such as stretch clusters, deduplication and encryption, Oakland installed the HCI software in 2017. It now has 12 vSAN hosts, with 400 guest virtual machines and 350 TB of storage on vSAN Ready Nodes running on Dell EMC PowerEdge servers.

I was sick and tired of replacing entirely every traditional storage array every few years and begging for new money, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Mariusz Nowakdirector of infrastructure services, Oakland University

“I choose Ready Nodes so I don’t have extra overhead,” Nowak said. “With VxRail, you have to pay more. With Ready Nodes, I can modify my hardware whenever I need, whether I need more capacity or more CPUs. Some HCI vendors will say, ‘This is the cookie-cutter node that you have to buy.’ We have more flexibility.”

Alex Rodriguez, VDI engineer at Rent-A-Center, based in Plano, Texas, said his company did a proof of concept (POC) with Dell EMC VxRail, Nutanix and SimpliVity — since acquired by Hewlett Packard Enterprise — when evaluating HCI in 2016. He said price and vendor relationships also figured in the final decision.

“When we did a POC, Nutanix won out,” he said. “But we saw a cost benefit with VxRail, and we decided to go in that direction because of our relationship with VMware. And each generation of this [vSAN] software has gotten a whole lot better. Performance is better and manageability is easy. You may find an application that’s better for one stack or another, but overall we think VxRail is a better platform.”

Divide and cluster

Several of the panelists suggested using clusters or stretch clusters with vSAN hyper-converged infrastructure to help separate workloads and provide availability.

Nowak said Oakland University installed 10 nodes in a stretched cluster across two campus data centers, with 10 Gigabit Ethernet uplinks to a witness site connecting them.

“For little cost, I have an active-active data center solution,” he said. “If we lost one data center, I could run almost my entire workload on another site, with no disruption. I can technically lose one site and shift my workload to another site.”

Rent-A-Center’s Rodriguez set up a four-node cluster with management applications and a 12-node cluster for VDI and other applications after installing Dell EMC VxRail appliances in 2016.

“We wanted to make sure we could manage our environment,” he said. “If we would’ve consolidated the management stack with the VDI stack and something happened, we would’ve lost control. Having segmentation gave us control.”

Dell EMC HCI and storage cloud plans on display at VMworld

LAS VEGAS — Dell EMC launched cloud-related enhancements to its storage and hyper-converged infrastructure products today at the start of VMworld 2018.

The Dell EMC HCI and storage product launch includes a new VxRail hyper-converged appliance, which uses VMware vSAN software. The vendor also added a cloud version of the Unity midrange unified storage array and cloud enhancements to the Data Domain data deduplication platform.

Dell EMC HCI key for multi-cloud approach?

Dell EMC is also promising synchronized releases between the VxRail and the VMware vSAN software that turns the PowerEdge into an HCI system – although it could take 30 days for the “synchronization.” Still, that’s an improvement over the six months or so it now takes for the latest vSAN release to make it to VxRail.

Whether you’re protecting data or storing data, the learning curve of your operating model — regardless of whether you’re on premises or off premises — should be zero.
Sam Grocottsenior vice president of marketing, ISG, Dell EMC

Like other vendors, Dell EMC considers its HCI a key building block for private and hybrid clouds. The ability to offer private clouds with public cloud functionality is becoming an underpinning of the multi-cloud strategies at some organizations.

Sam Grocott, senior vice president of marketing for the Dell EMC infrastructure solutions group, said the strong multi-cloud flavor of the VMworld product launches reflects conversations the vendor has with its customers.

“As we talk to customers, the conversation quickly turns to what we are doing in the cloud,” Grocott said. “Customers talk about how they’re evaluating multiple cloud vendors. The reality is, they aren’t just picking one cloud, they’re picking two or even three clouds in a lot of cases. Not all your eggs will be in one basket.”

Dell EMC isn’t the only storage vendor making its storage more cloud-friendly. Its main storage rival NetApp also offers its unified primary storage and backup options that run in the cloud, and many startups focus on cloud compatibility and multi-cloud management from the start.

Grocott said Dell’s overall multi-cloud strategy is to provide a consistent operating model experience on premises, as well as in private and public clouds. That strategy covers Dell EMC and VMware products. Dell EMC VxRail is among the products that tightly integrates VMware with the vendor’s storage.

“That’s what we think is going to differentiate us from any of the competition out there,” he said. “Whether you’re protecting data or storing data, the learning curve of your operating model — regardless of whether you’re on premises or off premises — should be zero.”

Stu Miniman, a principal analyst at IT research firm Wikibon, said Dell EMC is moving toward what Wikibon calls a True Private Cloud.

Wikibon’s 2018 True Private Cloud report predicts almost all enterprise IT will move to a hybrid cloud model dominated by SaaS and true private cloud. Wikibon defines true private cloud as completely integrating all aspects of a public cloud, including a single point of contact for purchase, support, maintenance and upgrades.

“The new version of the private cloud is, let’s start with the operating model I have in the public cloud, and that’s how I should be able to consume it, bill it and manage it,” Miniman said. “It’s about the software, it’s about the usability, it’s about the management layer. Step one is to modernize the platform; step two is to modernize the apps. It’s taken a couple of years to move along that spectrum.”

VMware Cloud on AWS ups its appeal to legacy shops

LAS VEGAS — Updates to VMware Cloud on AWS aim to ease hybrid cloud migrations and reduce costs, but the jury’s still out as to whether they will compel enterprises with more modern application needs.

VMware rolled out several enhancements to its hybrid cloud offering here at VMworld this week, most of which are designed to simplify the migration of on-premises workloads to VMware Cloud on AWS, as well as help users manage those workloads after the move.

“For VMware workloads, the service makes a lot of sense, and I think they’ll find a market for that,” said Gary Chen, analyst at IDC. “It’s going to be the new workloads that are more of a challenge.”

Expanded migration, availability options

For users that want to move legacy workloads to the public cloud, the latest version of VMware Cloud on AWS offers some help.

Hybrid Cloud Extension (HCX), a service in VMware Cloud on AWS that helps admins move large volumes of VMs into the public cloud, now supports scheduled migrations. Based on vSphere Replication, this capability lets users duplicate data into VMware Cloud on AWS, while workloads continue to run uninterrupted on premises. After data synchronizes across the two environments — which, according to VMware, could take days to weeks, depending on volume — admins can more granularly schedule and control the formal “switchover” from their on-premises data center to VMware Cloud on AWS. The switchover uses VMware’s vMotion technology.

“In the past, even though you could do a warm replication and warm migration, when you actually ‘flipped the switch’ there would be downtime,” Chen said. “This eliminates that.”

IDC analyst Gary Chen Gary Chen

Another update to VMware Cloud on AWS is NSX integration with AWS’ Direct Connect service, a move that further seeks to ease the migration process, and improve the performance of hybrid cloud networks.

VMware Cloud on AWS is also now available in five AWS regions, with the addition of Asia Pacific Sydney.

More options to manage costs, secure workloads

Users also can now specify the number of CPU cores to support workloads with per-core licensing models, such as those from Oracle and SAP, or for SQL Server. This reduces the risk that users will pay for more CPU cores than their applications actually need. They also can “pin” a workload to a specific host within a cluster — through a feature called VM-Host Affinity — to further support licensing requirements.

Added support for Amazon Elastic Block Store (EBS) gives enterprises more control over cloud costs for storage-intensive workloads, as they can independently scale storage capacity without also scaling compute. To do this, users can opt for an EC2 R5.metal instance type with support for EBS volumes. Available options are in increments of 5 TBs, with a range of 15 TBs to 35 TBs per host.

For VMware workloads, [VMware Cloud on AWS] makes a lot of sense. … It’s going to be the new workloads that are more of a challenge.
Gary Chenanalyst, IDC

VMware also has reduced the minimum number of required hosts to run production workloads from four to three. The move could make VMware Cloud on AWS more palatable for users who found the service cost-prohibitive, said Brian Kirsch, IT architect and instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College, and also a TechTarget contributor.

Other VMware on AWS updates include the ability to use NSX micro-segmentation to create more granular security policies for workloads, and integration with AWS Key Management Service (KMS) for data encryption and centralized management of encryption keys.

VMware Cloud on AWS adoption

VMware declined to cite specific adoption numbers for VMware Cloud on AWS. Adoption so far, however, has seemed largely experimental or proof of concepts, IDC’s Chen said. “It’s still fairly new to market, so I think a lot of people are still in research mode,” he said.

Kirsch agreed that most users appear to still be “dipping their toes” in the technology.

One of the biggest challenges for VMware is to attract organizations with more cloud-native applications to this particular service, Chen said. Other VMware offerings, such as VMware Managed Kubernetes (VKE) service, appeal to those with modern apps, while VMware Cloud on AWS is still largely geared toward legacy workloads.

“That’s something they’ll have to develop,” he said.

Infosec mental health support and awareness hits Black Hat 2018

LAS VEGAS — Rather than continue being reactive to social issues, Black Hat 2018 took steps to be more proactive in addressing and bringing awareness to the topic of infosec mental health.

The Black Hat conference set up a “self-care” lounge for attendees and included two complementary sessions covering the negative infosec mental health issues of depression and burnout and how the cybersecurity community can prove to be a source of aid for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

During “Mental Health Hacks: Fighting Burnout, Depression and Suicide in the Hacker Community,” speakers Christian Dameff, emergency medicine physician and clinical informatics fellow at the University of California, San Diego, and Jay Radcliffe, cybersecurity researcher at Boston Scientific, shared personal stories of depression and burnout, as well as ways to identify symptoms in oneself or in co-workers.

Radcliffe noted that the widely acknowledged skills gap could be a contributing factor of infosec mental health issues. 

“With global staffing shortages in information security, we’re seeing departments that should have 10 people work with five. And that increases stress,” said Radcliffe, adding that infosec workers can even have a “hero complex” that leads to taking on more work than is healthy.

Radcliffe said workers and employers should keep an eye out for common symptoms, including, “feeling cynical, no satisfaction from accomplishments, dreading going to work and no work-life balance.” He suggested options such as speaking to counselors, therapists and psychologists, and also being mindful that workers take vacations and managers ensure time off is encouraged.

In the talk, “Demystifying PTSD in the Cybersecurity Environment,” Joe Slowik, adversary hunter at Dragos Inc., expanded on those topics and talked about how working in the infosec community helped him deal with PTSD from his military service in Afghanistan.

Slowik was careful to point out that PTSD should not be confused with burnout, depression or other infosec mental health issues because, as he wrote via email, certain “solutions or mitigations that may be appropriate for one, [may not be for] others.”

“For example, it is likely advisable to tell someone to step away from work for a bit to combat burnout — but in the case of PTSD where an individual may gain empowerment or agency from doing work they love/are successful at, such a step may in fact be counterproductive (it is for me),” Slowik wrote. “Similarly, for depression, treatment may simply be a combination of taking time away, medication, and some degree of therapy, whereas successful treatment of PTSD requires more intensive interventions and likely must be ongoing and continuing to be effective. Combining all of these into the same category means very real mistakes can be made, which at best leave a situation unresolved, and at worst exacerbate it.”

Slowik added that being in the infosec community was “empowering” because it allowed him “to do well at doing good.”

Information security work has allowed me to reclaim a sense of agency by having direct, measurable, recognizable impact in meaningful affairs.
Joe Slowikadversary hunter, Dragos Inc.

“One of the more pernicious aspects of PTSD is a loss of agency deriving from a moment of helplessness when one’s life/integrity was placed in severe danger or risk — re-experiencing this event leaves one feeling worthless and helpless in the face of adversity,” Slowik wrote. “Information security work has allowed me to reclaim a sense of agency by having direct, measurable, recognizable impact in meaningful affairs, and at least for me has been instrumental in moving beyond past trauma.”

The talks showed two sides of the security community that don’t often get talked about: how the work can be both the cause of — and the remedy for — infosec mental health issues.

The attendance for the two talks was noticeably lower than for the more technical talks. It is unclear if this was due to poor marketing, unreasonable expectations for attendance, or the social stigmas surrounding mental health issues.

Slowik said he was grateful for those who attended and noted that the lower attendance could also be attributed to his talk being “the first scheduled talk the morning after Black Hat’s infamous parties.”

“Numbers are irrelevant, as conversations after the presentation made it clear this really reached members of the audience,” Slowik wrote. “My only hope is that this talk, along with other items from the Black Hat Community track, are made publicly available since so many good lessons and observations were made in this forum and these should be shared with the wider information security community.”