Microsoft open-sources a crucial algorithm behind its Bing Search services

Microsoft today announced that it has open-sourced a key piece of what makes its Bing search services able to quickly return search results to its users. By making this technology open, the company hopes that developers will be able to build similar experiences for their users in other domains where users search through vast data troves, including in retail, though in this age of abundant data, chances are developers will find plenty of other enterprise and consumer use cases, too.

The piece of software the company open-sourced today is a library Microsoft developed to make better use of all the data it collected and AI models it built for Bing .

“Only a few years ago, web search was simple. Users typed a few words and waded through pages of results,” the company notes in today’s announcement. “Today, those same users may instead snap a picture on a phone and drop it into a search box or use an intelligent assistant to ask a question without physically touching a device at all. They may also type a question and expect an actual reply, not a list of pages with likely answers.”

With the Space Partition Tree and Graph (SPTAG) algorithm that is at the core of the open-sourced Python library, Microsoft is able to search through billions of pieces of information in milliseconds.

Vector search itself isn’t a new idea, of course. What Microsoft has done, though, is apply this concept to working with deep learning models. First, the team takes a pre-trained model and encodes that data into vectors, where every vector represents a word or pixel. Using the new SPTAG library, it then generates a vector index. As queries come in, the deep learning model translates that text or image into a vector and the library finds the most related vectors in that index.

“With Bing search, the vectorizing effort has extended to over 150 billion pieces of data indexed by the search engine to bring improvement over traditional keyword matching,” Microsoft says. “These include single words, characters, web page snippets, full queries and other media. Once a user searches, Bing can scan the indexed vectors and deliver the best match.”

The library is now available under the MIT license and provides all of the tools to build and search these distributed vector indexes. You can find more details about how to get started with using this library — as well as application samples — here.

Salesforce releases myTrailhead, a customizable training platform

Salesforce has been using the notion of trailblazers as a learning metaphor for several years, since it created a platform to teach customers Salesforce skills called Trailhead. Today, the company announced the availability of myTrailhead, a similar platform that enables company to create branded, fully-customizable training materials based on the Trailhead approach.

It’s worth noting that the company originally announced this idea at Dreamforce in November, 2017, and after testing it on 13 pilot customers (including itself) for the last year is making the product generally available today.

While Trailhead is all about teaching Salesforce skills, myTrailhead is about building on that approach to teach whatever other skills a company might find desirable with its own culture, style, branding and methodologies.

It builds on the whole Trailhead theme of blazing a learning trail, providing a gamified approach to self-paced training, where users are quizzed throughout to reinforce the lessons, awarded badges for successfully completing modules and given titles like Ranger for successfully completing a certain number of courses.

By gamifying the approach, Salesforce hopes people will have friendly competition within companies, but it also sees these skills as adding value to an employee’s resume. If a manager is looking for an in-house hire, they can search by skills in myTrailhead and find candidates who match their requirements. Additionally, employees who participate in training can potentially advance their careers with the their enhanced skill sets.

While you can continue to teach Salesforce skills in myTrailhead, it’s really focused on the customization and what companies can add on top of the Salesforce materials to make the platform their own. Salesforce envisions companies using the platform for new employee onboarding, sales enablement or customer service training, but if a company is ambitious, it could use this as a broader training tool.

There is an analytics component in myTrailhead, so management can track when employees complete required training modules, understand how well they are doing as they move through a learning track or recognize when employees have updated their skill sets.

The idea is to build on the Trailhead platform idea to provide companies with a methodology for creating a digital approach learning, which Salesforce sees as an essential ingredient of becoming a modern company. The product is available immediately.

AWS and Microsoft reap most of the benefits of expanding cloud market

While it appears that overall economic activity could be slowing down, one area that continues to soar is the cloud business. Just this week, Amazon and Microsoft reported their cloud numbers as part of their overall earnings reports.

While Microsoft’s cloud growth was flat from the previous quarter, it still grew a healthy 76 percent to $9.4 billion, or a $37.6 billion run rate. Meanwhile AWS, Amazon’s cloud division, grew 46 percent to $7.4 billion, or a $29.6 billion run rate. That’s up from $5.11 billion a year ago. As always, it’s important to remember that it isn’t necessarily an apples to apples comparison, as each company counts what they call cloud revenue a little differently, but it gives you a sense of where this market is going.

Both businesses also face the law of large numbers in terms of growth; that is, the bigger you get, the harder it is to keep growing at a substantial rate. The two companies are doing quite well, though, considering how mature their offerings are.

Last year Synergy Research reported the overall cloud market worldwide grew 32 percent to $250 billion. In Synergy’s last report on cloud market share in October, it had Amazon well in the lead, with around 35 percent and Microsoft around 15 percent. A Canalys report from the same time period had AWS with 32 percent and Microsoft with 17 percent, so close you could call it a tie for statistical purposes.

Alibaba just reported earnings was up 84 percent, but only have a small worldwide market share. IBM, which bought Red Hat for $34 billion last year hoping to grab a bigger piece of the hybrid cloud market, reported cloud revenue was up only 12 percent for 2018 in its earnings report last week, which seems pretty paltry compared to the rest of the market. It’s worth noting that the Red Hat sale won’t close until later this year. Google will be reporting at the beginning of next week, but has not been breaking out cloud revenue recently. It will be interesting to see if that changes.

Most experts agree that we are just beginning to scratch the surface of cloud adoption and that the vast majority of workloads are still locked in private data centers around the world. That means even if there is a broader economic downturn in the future, the cloud could be somewhat insulated because companies are already in the process of moving parts of their businesses to the cloud.

As these companies grow, it requires increasing numbers of data centers to deal with all this new business, and a Canalys report found that Microsoft and Amazon have been busy in this regard. Amazon currently has 60 cloud locations worldwide, with another 12 under construction. Canalys reports that the company’s CapEx spending (which includes non-data center spend) reached $26 billion, up a modest 7 percent. Meanwhile Microsoft, which is chasing AWS, had much more aggressive infrastructure spending, with expenditures up 64 percent to $14 billion.

You can expect that unless something drastic happens, the market pie will continue to expand, but the numbers probably won’t change dramatically as these two market leaders have hardened their market positions and it will become increasingly difficult for competitors to catch them.

AWS launches WorkLink to make accessing mobile intranet sites and web apps easier

If your company uses a VPN and/or a mobile device management service to give you access to its intranet and internal web apps, then you know how annoying those are. AWS today launched a new product, Amazon WorkLink,  that promises to make this process significantly easier.

WorkLink is a fully managed service that, for $5 per month and user, allows IT admins to give employees one-click access to internal sites, no matter whether they run on AWS or not.

After installing WorkLink on their phones, employees can then simply use their favorite browser to surf to an internal website (other solutions often force users to use a sub-par proprietary browser). WorkLink the goes to work, securely requests that site and — and that’s the smart part here — a secure WorkLink container converts the site into an interactive vector graphic and sends it back to the phone. Nothing is stored or cached on the phone and AWS says WorkLink knows nothing about personal device activity either. That also means when a device is lost or stolen, there’s no need to try to wipe it remotely because there’s simply no company data on it.

IT can either use a VPN to connect from an AWS Virtual Private Cloud to on-premise servers or use AWS Direct Connect to bypass a VPN solution. The service works with all SAML 2.0 identity providers (which is the majority of identity services used in the enterprise, including the likes of Okta and Ping Identity) and as a fully managed service, it handles scaling and updates in the background.

“When talking with customers, all of them expressed frustration that their workers don’t have an easy and secure way to access internal content, which means that their employees either waste time or don’t bother trying to access content that would make them more productive,” says Peter Hill, Vice President of Productivity Applications at AWS, in today’s announcement. “With Amazon WorkLink, we’re enabling greater workplace productivity for those outside the corporate firewall in a way that IT administrators and security teams are happy with and employees are willing to use.”

WorkLink will work with both Android and iOS, but for the time being, only the iOS app (iOS 12+) is available. For now, it also only works with Safar, with Chrome support coming in the next few weeks. The service is also only available in Europe and North America for now, with additional regions coming later this year.

For the time being, AWS’s cloud archrivals Google and Microsoft don’t offer any services that are quite comparable with WorkLink. Google offers its Cloud Identity-Aware Proxy as a VPN alternative and as part of its BeyondCorp program, though that has a very different focus, while Microsoft offers a number of more traditional mobile device management solutions.

Salesforce keeps rolling with another banner year in 2018

The good times kept on rolling this year for Salesforce with all of the requisite ingredients of a highly successful cloud company — the steady revenue growth, the expanding product set and the splashy acquisitions. The company also opened the doors of its shiny new headquarters, Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, a testament to its sheer economic power in the city.

Salesforce, which set a revenue goal of $10 billion a few years ago is already on its way to $20 billion. Yet Salesforce is also proof you can be ruthlessly good at what you do, while trying to do the right thing as an organization.

Make no mistake, Marc Benioff and Keith Block, the company’s co-CEOs, want to make obscene amounts of money, going so far as to tell a group of analysts earlier this year that their goal by 2034 is to be a $60 billion company. Salesforce just wants to do it with a hint of compassion as it rakes in those big bucks and keeps well-heeled competitors like Microsoft, Oracle and SAP at bay.

A look at the numbers

In the end, a publicly traded company like Salesforce is going to be judged by how much money it makes, and Salesforce it turns out is pretty good at this, as it showed once again this year. The company grew every quarter by over 24 percent YoY and ended up the year with $12.53 billion in revenue. Based on its last quarter of $3.39 billion, the company finished the year on a $13.56 billion run rate.

This compares with $9.92 billion in total revenue for 2017 with a closing run rate of $10.72 billion.

Even with this steady growth trajectory, it might be some time before it hits the $5 billion-a-quarter mark and checks off the $20 billion goal. Keep in mind that it took the company three years to get from $1.51 billion in Q12016 to $3.1 billion in Q12019.

As for the stock market, it has been highly volatile this year, but Salesforce is still up. Starting the year at $102.41, it was sitting at $124.06 as of publication, after peaking on October 1 at $159.86. The market has been on a wild ride since then and cloud stocks have taken a big hit, warranted or not. On one particularly bad day last month, Salesforce had its worst day since 2016 losing 8.7 percent in value,

Spending big

When you make a lot of money you can afford to spend generously, and the company invested some of those big bucks when it bought Mulesoft for $6.5 billion in March, making it the most expensive acquisition it has ever made. With Mulesoft, the company had a missing link between data sitting on-prem in private data centers and Salesforce data in the cloud.

Mulesoft helps customers build access to data wherever it lives via APIs. That includes legacy data sitting in ancient data repositories. As Salesforce turns its eyes toward artificial intelligence and machine learning, it requires oodles of data and Mulesoft was worth opening up the wallet to provide the company with that kind of access to a variety of enterprise data.

Salesforce 2018 acquisitions. Chart: Crunchbase.

But Mulesoft wasn’t the only thing Salesforce bought this year. It made five acquisitions in all. The other significant one came in July when it scooped up Dataorama for a cool $800 million, giving it a market intelligence platform.

What could be on board for 2019? If Salesforce sticks to its recent pattern of spending big one year, then regrouping the next, 2019 could be a slower one for acquisitions. Consider that it bought just one company last year after buying a dozen in 2016.

One other way to keep revenue rolling in comes from high-profile partnerships. In the past, Salesforce has partnered with Microsoft and Google, and this year it announced that it was teaming up with Apple. Salesforce also announced another high-profile arrangement with AWS to share data between the two platforms more easily. The hope with these types of cross pollination is that the companies can both increase their business. For Salesforce, that means using these partnerships as a platform to move the revenue needle faster.

Compassionate capitalism

Even while his company has made big bucks, Benioff has been preaching compassionate capitalism using Twitter and the media as his soap box.

He went on record throughout this year supporting Prop C, a referendum question designed to help battle San Francisco’s massive homeless problem by taxing companies with greater than $50 million in revenue — companies like Salesforce. Benioff was a vocal proponent of the idea, and it won. He did not find kindred spirits among some of his fellow San Francisco tech CEOs, openly debating Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Twitter.

Speaking about Prop C in an interview with Kara Swisher of Recode in November, Benioff talked in lofty terms about why he believed in the measure even though it would cost his company money.

“You’ve got to really be mindful and think about what it is that you want your company to be for and what you’re doing with your business and here at Salesforce, that’s very important to us,” he told Swisher in the interview.

He also talked about how employees at other tech companies were driving their CEOs to change their tune around social issues, including supporting Prop C, but Benioff had to deal with his own internal insurrection this year when 650 employees signed a petition asking him to rethink Salesforce’s contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in light of the current administration’s border policies. Benioff defended the contract, stating that that Salesforce tools were being used internally at CBP for staff recruiting and communication and not to enforce border policy.

Regardless, Salesforce has never lost its focus on meeting lofty revenue goals, and as we approach the new year, there is no reason to think that will change. The company will continue to look for new ways to expand markets and keep their revenue moving ever closer to that $20 billion goal, even as it continues to meld its unique form of compassion and capitalism.

Dropbox expands Paper into planning tool with timelines

Dropbox has been building out Paper, its document-driven collaboration tool since it was first announced in 2015, slowly but surely layering on more functionality. Today, it added a timeline feature, pushing beyond collaboration into a light-weight project planning tool.

Dropbox has been hearing that customers really need a way to plan with Paper that was lacking. “That pain—the pain of coordinating all those moving pieces—is one we’re taking on today with our new timelines feature in Dropbox Paper,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the new feature.

As you would expect with such a tool, it enables you to build a timeline with milestones, but being built into Paper, you can assign team members to each milestone and add notes with additional information including links to related documents.

You can also embed a To-do lists for the person assigned to a task right in the timeline to help them complete the given task, giving a single point of access for all the people assigned to a project

Gif: Dropbox

“Features like to-dos, @mentions, and due dates give team members easy ways to coordinate projects with each other. Timelines take these capabilities one step further, letting any team member create a clean visual representation of what’s happening when—and who’s responsible,” Dropbox wrote in the blog post announcement.

Dropbox has recognized it cannot live as simply a content storage tool. It needs to expand beyond that into collaboration and coordination around that content, and that’s what Dropbox Paper has been about. By adding timelines, the company is looking to expand that capability even further.

Alan Lepofsky, who covers the “future of work” for Constellation Research sees Paper as part of the changing face of collaboration tools. “I refer to the new breed of content creation tools as digital canvases. These apps simplify the user experience of integrating content from multiple sources. They are evolving the word-processor paradigm,” Lepofsky told TechCrunch.

It’s probably not going to replace a project manager’s full-blown planning tools any time soon, but it at least the potential to be a useful adjunct for the Paper arsenal to allow customers to continue to find ways to extract value from the content they store in Dropbox.

Celonis brings intelligent process automation software to cloud

Celonis has been helping companies analyze and improve their internal processes using machine learning. Today the company announced it was providing that same solution as a cloud service with a few nifty improvements you won’t find on prem.

The new approach, called Celonis Intelligent Business Cloud, allows customers to analyze a workflow, find inefficiencies and offer improvements very quickly. Companies typically follow a workflow that has developed over time and very rarely think about why it developed the way it did, or how to fix it. If they do, it usually involves bringing in consultants to help. Celonis puts software and machine learning to bear on the problem.

Co-founder and CEO Alexander Rinke says that his company deals with massive volumes of data and moving all of that to the cloud makes sense. “With Intelligent Business Cloud, we will unlock that [on prem data], bring it to the cloud in a very efficient infrastructure and provide much more value on top of it,” he told TechCrunch.

The idea is to speed up the whole ingestion process, allowing a company to see the inefficiencies in their business processes very quickly. Rinke says it starts with ingesting data from sources such as Salesforce or SAP and then creating a visual view of the process flow. There may be hundreds of variants from the main process workflow, but you can see which ones would give you the most value to change, based on the number of times the variation occurs.

Screenshot: Celonis

By packaging the Celonis tools as a cloud service, they are reducing the complexity of running and managing it. They are also introducing an app store with over 300 pre-packaged options for popular products like Salesforce and ServiceNow and popular process like order to cash. This should also help get customers up and running much more quickly.

New Celonis App Store. Screenshot: Celonis

The cloud service also includes an Action Engine, which Rinke describes as a big step toward moving Celonis from being purely analytical to operational. “Action Engine focuses on changing and improving processes. It gives workers concrete info on what to do next. For example in process analysis, it would notice on time delivery isn’t great because order to cash is to slow. It helps accelerate changes in system configuration,” he explained.

Celonis Action Engine. Screenshot: Celonis

The new cloud service is available today. Celonis was founded in 2011. It has raised over $77 million. The most recent round was a $50 million Series B on a valuation over $1 billion.

With Mulesoft in fold, Salesforce gains access to data wherever it lives

When Salesforce bought Mulesoft last spring for the tidy sum of $6.5 billion, it looked like money well spent for the CRM giant. After all, it was providing a bridge between the cloud and the on-prem data center and that was a huge missing link for a company with big ambitions like Salesforce.

When you want to rule the enterprise, you can’t be limited by where data lives and you need to be able to share information across disparate systems. Partly that’s a simple story of enterprise integration, but on another level it’s purely about data. Salesforce introduced its intelligence layer, dubbed Einstein, at Dreamforce in 2016.

With Mulesoft in the fold, it’s got access to data cross systems wherever it lives, in the cloud or on-prem. Data is the is the fuel of artificial intelligence, and Salesforce has been trying desperately to get more data for Einstein since its inception.

It lost out on LinkedIn to Microsoft, which flexed its financial muscles and reeled in the business social network for $26.5 billion a couple of years ago. It’s undoubtedly a rich source of data that the company longed for. Next, it set its sights on Twitter (although Twitter was ultimately never sold, of course). After board and stockholder concerns, the company walked away.

Each of these forays was all about the data, and frustrated, Salesforce went back to the drawing board. While Mulesoft did not supply the direct cache of data that a social network would have, it did provide a neat way for them to get at backend data sources, the very type of data that matters most to its enterprise customers.

Today, they have extended that notion beyond pure data access to a graph. You can probably see where this is going. The idea of a graph, the connections between say a buyer and the things they tend to buy or a person on a social network and people they tend to interact with can be extended even to the network/API level and that is precisely the story that Salesforce is trying to tell this week at the Dreamforce customer conference in San Francisco.

Visualizing connections in a data integration network in Mulesoft. Screenshot: Salesforce/Mulesoft

Maureen Fleming, program vice president for integration and process automation research at IDC says that it is imperative that organizations view data as a strategic asset and act accordingly. “Very few companies are getting all the value from their data as they should be, as it is locked up in various applications and systems that aren’t designed to talk to each other. Companies who are truly digitally capable will be able to connect these disparate data sources, pull critical business-level data from these connections, and make informed business decisions in a way that delivers competitive advantage,” Fleming explained in a statement.

Configuring data connections on Mulesoft Anypoint Platform. Gif: Salesforce/Mulesoft

It’s hard to underestimate the value of this type of data is to Salesforce, which has already put Mulesoft to work internally to help build the new Customer 360 product announced today. It can point to how it’s providing this very type of data integration to which Fleming is referring on its own product set.

Bret Taylor, president and chief product officer at Salesforce, says that for his company all of this is ultimately about enhancing the customer experience. You need to be able to stitch together these different computing environments and data silos to make that happen.

“In the short term, [customer] infrastructure is often fragmented. They often have some legacy applications on premise, they’ll have some cloud applications like Salesforce, but some infrastructure in on Amazon or Google and Azure, and to actually transform the customer experience, they need to bring all this data together. And so it’s a really a unique time for integration technologies, like Mulesoft because it enables you to create a seamless customer experience, no matter where that
data lives, and that means you don’t need to wait for infrastructure to be perfect before you can transform your customer experience.”

Salesforce wants to end customer service frustration with Customer 360

How many times have you called into a company, answered a bunch of preliminary questions about the purpose of your call, then found that those answers didn’t make their way to the CSR who ultimately took your call.

This usually is because System A can’t talk to System B and it’s frustrating for the caller, who is already angry about having to repeat the same information again. Salesforce wants to help bring an end to that problem with their new Customer 360 product announced today at Dreamforce, the company’s customer conference taking place this week in San Francisco.

What’s interesting about Customer 360 from a product development perspective is that Salesforce took the technology from the $6.5 billion Mulesoft acquisition, and didn’t just turn that into a product, it also used the same technology internally to pull the various pieces together into a more unified view of the Salesforce product family. This should in theory allow the customer service representative talking to you on the phone to get the total picture of your interactions with the company, thereby reducing that need to repeat yourself because the information wasn’t passed on.

Screenshot: Salesforce

The idea here is to bring all of the different products — sales, service, community, commerce and marketing — into a single unified view of the customer. And they allow you to do this with actually writing any code, according to the company.

Adding a data source to Customer 360 Gif: Salesforce

This allows anyone who interacts with the customer to see the whole picture, a process that has eluded many companies and upset many customers. The customer record in Salesforce CRM is only part of the story, as is the marketing pitches and the ecommerce records. It all comes together to tell a story about that customer, but if the data is often trapped in silos, nobody can see that. That’s what Customer 360 is supposed to solve.

While Bret Taylor, Salesforce’s president and chief product officer says there were ways to make this happen before in Salesforce, they have never offered a product that does so in such a direct way. He says that the big brands like Apple, Amazon and Google have changed expectations in terms of how we presume to be treated when we connect with a brand. Customer 360 is focused on helping companies achieve that expectation level.

“Now, when people don’t get that experience, where the company that you’re interacting with doesn’t know who you are, it’s gone from a pleasant experience to an expectation, and that’s what we hear time and time again from our customers. And that’s why we’re so focused on integration, that single view of the customer is the ultimate value proposition of these experiences,” Taylor explained.

This product is aimed at the Salesforce admins who have been responsible in the past for configuring and customizing Salesforce products for the unique needs of each department or overall organization. They can configure the Customer 360 to pull data from Salesforce and other products too.

Customer 360 is being piloted in North America right now and should GA some time next year.

Chef launches deeper integration with Microsoft Azure

DevOps automation service Chef today announced a number of new integrations with Microsoft Azure. The news, which was announced at the Microsoft Ignite conference in Orlando, Florida, focuses on helping enterprises bring their legacy applications to Azure and ranges from the public preview of Chef Automate Managed Service for Azure to the integration of Chef’s InSpec compliance product with Microsoft’s cloud platform.

With Chef Automate as a managed service on Azure, which provides ops teams with a single tool for managing and monitoring their compliance and infrastructure configurations, developers can now easily deploy and manage Chef Automate and the Chef Server from the Azure Portal. It’s a fully managed service and the company promises that businesses can get started with using it in as little as thirty minutes (though I’d take those numbers with a grain of salt).

When those configurations need to change, Chef users on Azure can also now use the Chef Workstation with Azure Cloud Shell, Azure’s command line interface. Workstation is one of Chef’s newest products and focuses on making ad-hoc configuration changes, no matter whether the node is managed by Chef or not.

And to remain in compliance, Chef is also launching an integration of its InSpec security and compliance tools with Azure. InSpec works hand in hand with Microsoft’s new Azure Policy Guest Configuration (who comes up with these names?) and allows users to automatically audit all of their applications on Azure.

“Chef gives companies the tools they need to confidently migrate to Microsoft Azure so users don’t just move their problems when migrating to the cloud, but have an understanding of the state of their assets before the migration occurs,” said Corey Scobie, the senior vice president of products and engineering at Chef, in today’s announcement. “Being able to detect and correct configuration and security issues to ensure success after migrations gives our customers the power to migrate at the right pace for their organization.”

more Microsoft Ignite 2018 coverage