All posts by Moderator

Microsoft launches 2 new Azure regions in Australia

Microsoft continues its steady pace of opening up new data centers and launching new regions for its Azure cloud. Today, the company announced the launch of two new regions in Australia. To deliver these new regions, Azure Australia Central and Central 2, Microsoft entered a strategic partnership with Canberra Data Centers and unsurprisingly, the regions are located in the country’s capital territory around Canberra. These new central regions complement Microsoft’s existing data center presence in Australia, which previously focused on the business centers of Sydney and Melbourne.

Given the location in Canberra, it’s also no surprise that Microsoft is putting an emphasis on its readiness for handling government workloads on its platform. Throughout its announcement, the company also emphasizes that all of its Australia data centers are also the right choice for its customers in New Zealand.

Julia White, Microsoft corporate VP for Azure, told me last month that the company’s strategy around its data center expansion has always been about offering a lot of small regions to allow it to be close to its customers (and, in return, to allow its customers to be close to their own customers, too). “The big distinction is the number of regions we have. “White said. “Microsoft started its infrastructure approach focused on enterprise organizations and built lots of regions because of that. We didn’t pick this regional approach because it’s easy or because it’s simple, but because we believe this is what our customers really want.”

Azure currently consists of 50 available or announced regions. Over time, more of these will also feature numerous availability zones inside every region, though for now, this recently announced feature is only present in two regions.

Activist investors Elliott snag 10.3 percent stake in Commvault

Elliott Management, an investment firm long known for its activist streak, set it sights on Commvault today, purchasing a 10.3 percent stake and nominating four Elliott-friendly members to the company’s board of directors. It likely means that Elliott is ready to push the company to change direction and cut costs, if it sticks to its regular MO.

As an older public company founded in 1988 with a strong product, but weak stock performance, Commvault represents just the kind of company Elliott tends to target. In its letter outlining why it acquired its stake in Commvault, it presented a stark picture of a company in decline.

As just one small example, Elliott discussed the stock performance and it didn’t pull punches or mince words when it stated:

“Commvault’s strategy, operations, execution and leadership over the past eight years have failed to generate returns to shareholders, despite a leadership position in a growing market with a product set that customers like and competitors respect. Commvault’s underperformance has been so profound that an investor would have been better off buying the NASDAQ index instead of Commvault’s stock on 99% of trading days in the last eight years. …”

Ouch.

As it is wont to do, Elliott buys a stake and then forces its way onto the board of directors and this deal is no different where it will be adding 4 members:

“Given the long-term issues at the Company, we believe the Board would benefit from fresh perspectives, primarily in the area of operational execution, software go-to-market experience and current technology expertise. The level of required change at the Company is significant and requires a Board with new and relevant experiences to guide the Company’s turnaround. We have been involved in dozens of similar situations and have worked constructively with many companies to add top-tier, C-suite executives and experienced Board members to these companies. For Commvault, we are submitting a group of highly qualified director nominees with what we believe is the right experience to help guide the Company on its path forward.”

As some examples of that past experience it alluded to in the letter, Elliott bought a stake in EMC in 2014 and began to pressure the Board to sell its stake in VMware. The company turned back the attempt and eventually sold out to Dell for $67 billion, still giving Elliott a nice return on its one percent investment in the company, no doubt.

More recently, it bought a  6.5 percent stake in Akamai in December. At the next earnings call in February, the company announced it was laying off 400 employees, which accounted for almost 5 percent of the worldwide workforce. The layoffs are consistent with cost cutting that tends to happen when Elliott buys a stake in a company.

What happens next for Commvault is difficult to say, but investors obviously think there is going to be some movement as the stock is up over 11 percent as of this writing. Chances are they are onto something, and given Elliott’s track record they are probably right.

82Labs raises $8M to create a better hangover recovery drink

While taking some time off to travel before his next gig, Sisun Lee spent a lot of time in Korea — where he found himself drinking alcohol pretty much every night and then getting rolling the next morning, regardless of hangover status.

He also found that there were popular local herbal hangover drinks that everyone kept raving about. So he brought a bunch of them back to the U.S., handed them out to friends, and generally got interested in the drink as a thought experiment. After reaching out to scientists in academia about the herbal drinks and finding no one had really commercialized it into a product in the U.S. — and that there might actually be something behind the idea — he decided to start 82Labs and roll out the Morning Recovery drink. The startup has also raised $8 million in new financing from Altos Ventures, Slow Ventures, Strong Ventures and Thunder Road Capital.

“My friends would go to work the next day and they would swear by these hangover drinks with an herbal base,” Lee said. “In many ways that was almost when I was first inspired by it. That was at the back of my head. It turned out it was a massive market, it wasn’t one major brand — all the CPG companies had their own brand. It’s like the energy drink market. I did some research, and [people in academia] might be really passionate about something, and give you this conviction that this is the next big thing, but they wouldn’t commercialize it. They didn’t know how to get going.”

The drink is based on a flavonoid component of popular herbal medicines called DHM. The original concept for the drink was also based on research on DHM from USC, where Lee had gotten in touch with the scientists working on it to see if the idea was actually worth pursuing. That’s then bottled with other components like vitamins, electrolytes, milk thistle and some others which are known to have some detoxifying components. 82Labs initially launched in August, but at the time was literally handing out white powder in little bags — something Lee wasn’t particularly thrilled about. But as more and more interest came in after handing it out to area friends (and product managers) throughout the course of an unscientific experiment, they decided to roll with it and try to turn it into the kind of market you’d find abroad.

Lee and his friends decided to create a website to start sending it out for free for anyone who was interested in signing up. They made a few hundred bottles, gave it a flavor, and put a sign-up sheet online where they would ship it to you. Naturally, however, this is Silicon Valley, so the site ended up going viral and they got so many requests that they needed to figure out what to do next because larger bottling orders came in the tens of thousands. After some work figuring out how they could actually get it to market abiding by rules and regulations by the FDA, the team ended up making an Indiegogo campaign, which raised more than $250,000

“Because of our margins, every user we onboard is profit we generate,” Lee. “But we’ve had to learn a lot really quickly. The big thing for us last year was a big production mistake and we were always supply constrained every order. Sometimes we had compliance issues, quality issues, or mistakes on timeline. everything has been around putting out fires and making sure customers are happy, or giving them refunds December was the first month we had inventory and started to sell during holiday season when people are drinking a lot. We really never had time to think and go, “holy crap, what are we actually doing, what’s the goal here, what’s the mission here.”

Lee said that while Morning Recovery, which costs $30 for a six-pack of the 3.4-ounce drink, is their first drink they don’t want to just stop there. After all, getting a successful beverage to market — even if it turns out there’s plenty of work to do on the science side — requires getting into retail outlets and into the hands of consumers. But if that’s successful, that could easily build a brand and help the company start thinking about the next product that they should make. That direct-to-consumer approach has been increasingly popular amid the success of companies like Dollar Shave Club and others.

But that also means that 82Labs will likely face a lot of challenges, especially if it starts to get traction and larger companies start to take notice of it. Since the market is popular internationally — Lee says it’s a few hundred million dollars annually in countries like Korea — it wouldn’t take much for a consumer packaged goods company with beverage experience to try to produce something similar. So the goal will be to build up enough traction before that happens in order to continue growing.

“If big companies take notice, while they can’t make the exact same product as us, I’m sure they can figure something out,”  Lee said. “We have the advantage of a couple months — once we get to at a threshold in revenue companies will probably notice us. We thought we could keep growing slowly, but if any of these pharmaceutical companies or CPG companies do something, we’re gonna be crushed. Or, we thought we would raise money to front-load expansion purely on growth.”

Zuckerberg fires back at Tim Cook, opens up about fake news

Zuckerberg has been on a bit of a publicity tour following the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a generally tough year for the social media behemoth.

This morning, an interview with Zuck was published on Vox’s The Ezra Klein Show. In it, the Facebook CEO waded through some of the company’s most pressing issues, including how to deal with fake news and help support good journalism and how to deal with governing a community of 2 billion people. Zuck also clapped back at Tim Cook who has criticized Facebook’s model of generating revenue through advertising.

Fake News

On the problem of Fake News and transparency in the past:

It’s tough to be transparent when we don’t first have a full understanding of where the state of some of the systems are. In 2016, we were behind having an understanding and operational excellence on preventing things like misinformation, Russian interference. And you can bet that that’s a huge focus for us going forward.

On how Facebook is trying to serve up content, including news content, that is meaningful to users:

The way that this works today, broadly, is we have panels of hundreds or thousands of people who come in and we show them all the content that their friends and pages who they follow have shared. And we ask them to rank it, and basically say, “What were the most meaningful things that you wish were at the top of feed?” And then we try to design algorithms that just map to what people are actually telling us is meaningful to them. Not what they click on, not what is going to make us the most revenue, but what people actually find meaningful and valuable. So when we’re making shifts — like the broadly trusted shift — the reason why we’re doing that is because it actually maps to what people are telling us they want at a deep level.

Zuck was also asked about supporting news organizations, as some slice of Facebook’s revenue comes from users consuming news on the platform:

For the larger institutions, and maybe even some of the smaller ones as well, subscriptions are really a key point on this. I think a lot of these business models are moving towards a higher percentage of subscriptions, where the people who are getting the most value from you are contributing a disproportionate amount to the revenue. And there are certainly a lot of things that we can do on Facebook to help people, to help these news organizations, drive subscriptions. And that’s certainly been a lot of the work that we’ve done and we’ll continue doing.

He also addressed that subscriptions might not work for local news, which the CEO believes are equally important:

In local news, I think some of the solutions might be a little bit different. But I think it’s easy to lose track of how important this is. There’s been a lot of conversation about civic engagement changing, and I think people can lose sight of how closely tied that can be to local news. In a town with a strong local newspaper, people are much more informed, they’re much more likely to be civically active. On Facebook we’ve taken steps to show more local news to people. We’re also working with them specifically, creating funds to support them and working on both subscriptions and ads there should hopefully create a more thriving ecosystem.

In Reaction to Tim Cook

In an interview last week, the Apple CEO said that tech firms “are beyond” self-regulation. When asked what he would do if he was in Zuckerberg’s position, Cook said “I wouldn’t be in this situation.” The CEO has long held that an advertising model, in which companies use data around users to sell to brands, is not what Apple wants to become.

“They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it,” he said of Facebook and Google in 2015. “We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.”

Zuck was asked about Cook’s statements in the interview:

You know, I find that argument, that if you’re not paying that somehow we can’t care about you, to be extremely glib. And not at all aligned with the truth. The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay. And therefore, as with a lot of media, having an advertising-supported model is the only rational model that can support building this service to reach people.

That doesn’t mean that we’re not primarily focused on serving people. I think probably to the dissatisfaction of our sales team here, I make all of our decisions based on what’s going to matter to our community and focus much less on the advertising side of the business.

Zuck even took the opportunity to clap back at Cook a bit, saying we shouldn’t believe that companies trying to charge us more actually care about us.

But if you want to build a service which is not just serving rich people, then you need to have something that people can afford. I thought Jeff Bezos had an excellent saying on this in one of his Kindle launches a number of years back. He said, “There are companies that work hard to charge you more, and there are companies that work hard to charge you less.” And at Facebook, we are squarely in the camp of the companies that work hard to charge you less and provide a free service that everyone can use.

I don’t think at all that that means that we don’t care about people. To the contrary, I think it’s important that we don’t all get Stockholm Syndrome and let the companies that work hard to charge you more convince you that they actually care more about you. Because that sounds ridiculous to me.

The Government of Facebook

Vox’s founder and Editor-at-Large Ezra Klein brought up something Zuck said in an earlier interview, that Facebook was more like a government than a traditional company. Zuck explained that disputes over what content is admissible on Facebook has grown to a scale that requires a certain level of governance.

But I think it’s actually one of the most interesting philosophical questions that we face. With a community of more than 2 billion people, all around the world, in every different country, where there are wildly different social and cultural norms, it’s just not clear to me that us sitting in an office here in California are best placed to always determine what the policies should be for people all around the world. And I’ve been working on and thinking through, how can you set up a more democratic or community-oriented process that reflects the values of people around the world?

That’s one of the things that I really think we need to get right. Because I’m just not sure that the current state is a great one.

On how Facebook could prepare for its own overwhelming scale:

One is transparency. Right now, I don’t think we are transparent enough around the prevalence of different issues on the platform. We haven’t done a good job of publishing and being transparent about the prevalence of those kind of issues, and the work that we’re doing and the trends of how we’re driving those things down over time.

And on long-term goals for governance:

But over the long-term, what I’d really like to get to is an independent appeal. So maybe folks at Facebook make the first decision based on the community standards that are outlined, and then people can get a second opinion. You can imagine some sort of structure, almost like a Supreme Court, that is made up of independent folks who don’t work for Facebook, who ultimately make the final judgment call on what should be acceptable speech in a community that reflects the social norms and values of people all around the world.

You can read the full interview at Vox.com.

SiFive gets $50.6M to help companies get their custom chip designs out the door

With the race to next-generation silicon in full swing, the waterfall of venture money flowing into custom silicon startups is already showing an enormous amount of potential for some more flexible hardware for an increasingly changing technology landscape — and Naveed Sherwani hopes to tap that for everyone else.

That’s the premise of SiFive, a startup that’s designed to help entrepreneurs — or any company — come up with a custom designed chip for their needs. But rather than having to raise tens of millions of dollars from a venture firm or have a massive production system in place, SiFive’s goal is to help get that piece of silicon in the hands of the developer quickly so they can see if it actually works based off a set of basic hardware and IP offered, and then figure out when and how to move it into full-scale production. The company starts by offering templates and then allows them to make some modifications for what eventually ends up as a piece of RISC-V silicon that’s in their hands. SiFive today said it has raised $50.6 million in venture financing in a round led by Sutter Hill Ventures, Spark Capital, and Osage University Partners.

“The way we view it, is that we think we should not depend on people learning special languages and things of that nature to be able to modify the architecture and enhance the architecture,” Sherwani said. “What we believe is there could be a high-level interface, which is what we’re building, which will allow people to take existing cores, bring them into their design space, and then apply a configuration. Moving those configurations, you can modify the core, and then you can get the new modified core. That’s the approach we take, we don’t have to learn a special language or be an expert, it’s the way we present the core. We’d like to start with cores that are verified, and each of these modifications does not cause to become non-verifiable.”

SiFive is based on a design framework for silicon called RISC-V. You could consider it a kind of open source analog to designs by major chip fab firms, but the goal for RISC-V chips is to lean on the decades of experience since the original piece of silicon came out of Intel to develop something that is less messy while still getting the right tasks done. Sherwani says that RISC-V chips have more than 50 instruction sets while common chips will have more than 1,000. By nature, they aren’t at the kind of scale of an Intel, so the kinds of efficiencies those firms might have don’t exist. But SiFive hopes to serve a wide array of varying needs rather than mass-producing a single style of silicon.

There are two flows for developers looking to build out silicon using SiFive. First is the prototype flow, where developers will get a chance to spec out their silicon and figure out their specific needs. The goal there is to get something into the hands of the developer they can use to showcase their ideas or technology, and SiFive works with IP vendors and other supply chain partners — during this time, developers aren’t paying for IP. Once the case is proved out (and the startup has, perhaps, raised money based on that idea) they can switch to a production flow with SiFive where they will start paying for IP and services. There’s also a potential marketplace element as more and more people come up with novel ideas for operational cores.

“For any segment in the market there will be a few templates available,” Sherwani said. “We’ll have some tools and methodologies there, and among all the various templates are available show what would be the best for [that customer]. We also have an app store — we are expecting people who have designed cores who are willing to share it, because they don’t need it to be proprietary. If anyone uses that template, then whatever price they can put on it, they can make some money doing that. This whole idea of marketplaces will get more people excited.”

As there is an intense rush to develop new customized silicon, it may be that services like the ones offered by SiFive become more and more necessary. But there’s another element to the bet behind SiFive: making the chip itself less ambiguous and trying to remove black boxes. That doesn’t necessarily make it wildly more secure than the one next to it, but at the very least, it means when there is a major security flaw like Intel’s Spectre problems, there may be a bit more tolerance from the developer community because there are fewer black boxes.

“All these complications are there and unless you have all this expertise, you can’t do a chip,” Sherwani said. “Our vision is that we deliver the entire chip experience to that platform and people can be able to log in. They don’t need a team, any tools, they don’t need FPGAs because all those will be available on the web. As a result the cost goes down because it’s a shared economy, they’re sharing tools, and that is how we think dramatically you can do chips at much lower cost.”

While there is a lot of venture money flowing into the AI chip space — with many different interpretations of what that hardware looks like — Sherwani said the benefit of working with SiFive is to be able to rapidly adapt an idea to a changing algorithm. Developers have already proven out a lot of different tools and frameworks, but once a piece of silicon is in production it’s not easy to change on the fly. Should those best practices or algorithms change, developers will have an opportunity to reassess and redesign the chip as quickly as possible.

The idea of that custom silicon is going to be a big theme going forward as more and more use cases emerge that could be easier with a customized piece of hardware. Already there are startups like Mythic and SambaNova Systems, which have raised tens of millions of dollars and specialize in the rapid-fire calculations for typical AI processes. But this kind of technology is now showing up in devices ranging from an autonomous vehicle to a fridge, and each use case may carry different needs. Intel and other chip design firms probably can’t hit every niche, and the one-size-fits-all (or even something more modular like an FPGA from Intel) might not hit each sweet spot. That, in theory, is the hole that a company like SiFive could fill.