Microsoft launches a drag-and-drop machine learning tool

Posted by on 2 May, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Microsoft today announced three new services that all aim to simplify the process of machine learning. These range from a new interface for a tool that completely automates the process of creating models, to a new no-code visual interface for building, training and deploying models, all the way to hosted Jupyter-style notebooks for advanced users.

Getting started with machine learning is hard. Even to run the most basic of experiments takes a good amount of expertise. All of these new tools greatly simplify this process by hiding away the code or giving those who want to write their own code a pre-configured platform for doing so.

The new interface for Azure’s automated machine learning tool makes creating a model as easy as importing a data set and then telling the service which value to predict. Users don’t need to write a single line of code, while in the backend, this updated version now supports a number of new algorithms and optimizations that should result in more accurate models. While most of this is automated, Microsoft stresses that the service provides “complete transparency into algorithms, so developers and data scientists can manually override and control the process.”

For those who want a bit more control from the get-go, Microsoft also today launched into preview a visual interface for its Azure Machine Learning service that will allow developers to build, train and deploy machine learning models without having to touch any code.

This tool, the Azure Machine Learning visual interface, looks suspiciously like the existing Azure ML Studio, Microsoft’s first stab at building a visual machine learning tool. Indeed, the two services look identical. The company never really pushed this service, though, and almost seemed to have forgotten about it despite the fact that it always seemed like a really useful tool for getting started with machine learning.

Microsoft says this new version combines the best of Azure ML Studio with the Azure Machine Learning service. In practice, this means that while the interface is almost identical, the Azure Machine Learning visual interface extends what was possible with ML Studio by running on top of the Azure Machine Learning service and adding that services’ security, deployment and life cycle management capabilities.

The service provides an easy interface for cleaning up your data, training models with the help of different algorithms, evaluating them and, finally, putting them into production.

While these first two services clearly target novices, the new hosted notebooks in Azure Machine Learning are clearly geared toward the more experienced machine learning practitioner. The notebooks come pre-packaged with support for the Azure Machine Learning Python SDK and run in what the company describes as a “secure, enterprise-ready environment.” While using these notebooks isn’t trivial either, this new feature allows developers to quickly get started without the hassle of setting up a new development environment with all the necessary cloud resources.

Posted Under: Tech News
Microsoft launches a fully managed blockchain service

Posted by on 2 May, 2019

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Microsoft didn’t rush to bring blockchain technology to its Azure cloud computing platform, but over the course of the last year, it started to pick up the pace with the launch of its blockchain development kit and the Azure Blockchain Workbench. Today, ahead of its Build developer conference, it is going a step further by launching Azure Blockchain Services, a fully managed service that allows for the formation, management and governance of consortium blockchain networks.

We’re not talking cryptocurrencies here, though. This is an enterprise service that is meant to help businesses build applications on top of blockchain technology. It is integrated with Azure Active Directory and offers tools for adding new members, setting permissions and monitoring network health and activity.

The first support ledger is J.P. Morgan’s Quorum. “Because it’s built on the popular Ethereum protocol, which has the world’s largest blockchain developer community, Quorum is a natural choice,” Azure CTO Mark Russinovich writes in today’s announcement. “It integrates with a rich set of open-source tools while also supporting confidential transactions—something our enterprise customers require.” To launch this integration, Microsoft partnered closely with J.P. Morgan.

The managed service is only one part of this package, though. Microsoft also today launched an extension to Visual Studio Code to help developers create smart contracts. The extension allows Visual Studio Code users to create and compiled Etherium smart contracts and deploy them other on the public chain or on a consortium network in Azure Blockchain Service. The code is then managed by Azure DevOps.

Building applications for these smart contracts is also going to get easier thanks to integrations with Logic Apps and Flow, Microsoft’s two workflow integration services, as well as Azure Functions for event-driven development.

Microsoft, of course, isn’t the first of the big companies to get into this game. IBM, especially, made a big push for blockchain adoption in recent years and AWS, too, is now getting into the game after mostly ignoring this technology before. Indeed, AWS opened up its own managed blockchain service only two days ago.

Posted Under: Tech News
Microsoft announces the $3,500 HoloLens 2 Development Edition

Posted by on 2 May, 2019

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As part of its rather odd Thursday afternoon pre-Build news dump, Microsoft today announced the HoloLens 2 Development Edition. The company announced the much-improved HoloLens 2 at MWC Barcelona earlier this year, but it’s not shipping to developers yet. Currently, the best release date we have is “later this year.” The Development Edition will launch alongside the regular HoloLens 2.

The Development Edition, which will retail for $3,500 to own outright or on a $99 per month installment plan, doesn’t feature any special hardware. Instead, it comes with $500 in Azure credits and three-month trials of Unity Pro and the Unity PiXYZ plugin for bringing engineering renderings into Unity.

To get the Development Edition, potential buyers have to join the Microsoft Mixed Reality Developer Program and those who already pre-ordered the standard edition will be able to change their order later this year.

As far as HoloLens news goes, that’s all a bit underwhelming. Anybody can get free Azure credits, after all (though usually only $200) and free trials of Unity Pro are also readily available (though typically limited to 30 days).

Oddly, the regular HoloLens 2 was also supposed to cost $3,500. It’s unclear if the regular edition will now be somewhat cheaper, cost the same but come without the credits or really why Microsoft is doing this at all. Turning this into a special “Development Edition” feels more like a marketing gimmick than anything else, as well as an attempt to bring some of the futuristic glamour of the HoloLens visor to today’s announcements.

The folks at Unity are clearly excited, though. “Pairing HoloLens 2 with Unity’s real-time 3D development platform enables businesses to accelerate innovation, create immersive experiences, and engage with industrial customers in more interactive ways,” says Tim McDonough, GM of Industrial at Unity, in today’s announcement. “The addition of Unity Pro and PiXYZ Plugin to HoloLens 2 Development Edition gives businesses the immediate ability to create real-time 2D, 3D, VR, and AR interactive experiences while allowing for the importing and preparation of design data to create real-time experiences.”

Microsoft also today noted that Unreal Engine 4 support for HoloLens 2 will become available by the end of May.

Posted Under: Tech News
Microsoft brings Azure SQL Database to the edge (and Arm)

Posted by on 2 May, 2019

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Microsoft today announced an interesting update to its database lineup with the preview of Azure SQL Database Edge, a new tool that brings the same database engine that powers Azure SQL Database in the cloud to edge computing devices, including, for the first time, Arm-based machines.

Azure SQL Edge, Azure corporate vice president Julia White writes in today’s announcement, “brings to the edge the same performant, secure and easy to manage SQL engine that our customers love in Azure SQL Database and SQL Server.”

The new service, which will also run on x64-based devices and edge gateways, promises to bring low-latency analytics to edge devices as it allows users to work with streaming data and time-series data, combined with the built-in machine learning capabilities of Azure SQL Database. Like its larger brethren, Azure SQL Database Edge will also support graph data and comes with the same security and encryption features that can, for example, protect the data at rest and in motion, something that’s especially important for an edge device.

As White rightly notes, this also ensures that developers only have to write an application once and then deploy it to platforms that feature Azure SQL Database, good old SQL Server on premises and this new edge version.

SQL Database Edge can run in both connected and fully disconnected fashion, something that’s also important for many use cases where connectivity isn’t always a given, yet where users need the kind of data analytics capabilities to keep their businesses (or drilling platforms, or cruise ships) running.

Posted Under: Tech News
Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

Posted by on 2 May, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.

Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.

“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.

That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Posted Under: Tech News
Couchbase’s mobile database gets built-in ML and enhanced synchronization features

Posted by on 2 May, 2019

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Couchbase, the company behind the eponymous NoSQL database, announced a major update to its mobile database today that brings some machine learning smarts, as well as improved synchronization features and enhanced stats and logging support to the software.

“We’ve led the innovation and data management at the edge since the release of our mobile database five years ago,” Couchbase’s VP of Engineering Wayne Carter told me. “And we’re excited that others are doing that now. We feel that it’s very, very important for businesses to be able to utilize these emerging technologies that do sit on the edge to drive their businesses forward, and both making their employees more effective and their customer experience better.”

The latter part is what drove a lot of today’s updates, Carter noted. He also believes that the database is the right place to do some machine learning. So with this release, the company is adding predictive queries to its mobile database. This new API allows mobile apps to take pre-trained machine learning models and run predictive queries against the data that is stored locally. This would allow a retailer to create a tool that can use a phone’s camera to figure out what part a customer is looking for.

To support these predictive queries, Couchbase mobile is also getting support for predictive indexes. “Predictive indexes allow you to create an index on prediction, enabling correlation of real-time predictions with application data in milliseconds,” Carter said. In many ways, that’s also the unique value proposition for bringing machine learning into the database. “What you really need to do is you need to utilize the unique values of a database to be able to deliver the answer to those real-time questions within milliseconds,” explained Carter.

The other major new feature in this release is delta synchronization, which allows businesses to push far smaller updates to the databases on their employees mobile devices. That’s because they only have to receive the information that changed instead of a full updated database. Carter says this was a highly requested feature but until now, the company always had to prioritize work on other components of Couchbase.

This is an especially useful feature for the company’s retail customers, a vertical where it has been quite successful. These users need to keep their catalogs up to data and quite a few of them supply their employees with mobile devices to help shoppers. Rumor has it that Apple, too, is a Couchbase user.

The update also includes a few new features that will be more of interest to operators, including advanced stats reporting and enhanced logging support.

 

Posted Under: Tech News
InCountry raises $7M to help multinationals store private data in countries of origin

Posted by on 2 May, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

The last few years have seen a rapid expansion of national regulations that, in the name of data protection, govern how and where organizations like healthcare and insurance companies, financial services companies and others store residents’ personal data that is used and collected through their services.

But keeping abreast of and following those rules has proven to be a minefield for companies. Now, a startup is coming out of stealth with a new product to to help.

InCountry, which provides “data residency-as-a-service” to businesses and other organizations, is launching with $7 million in funding and its first product: Profile, which focuses on user profile and registration information in 50 countries on six continents. There will be more products launched covering payment, transaction and health data later in the year, co-founder and CEO Peter Yared said in an interview.

The funding — a seed round — is coming from Caffeinated Capital , Felicis Ventures, Ridge Ventures, Bloomberg Beta, Charles River Ventures, Global Founders Capital.

InCountry is founded and led by Yared, a repeat entrepreneur who most recently co-founded and eventually sold the “micro-app” startup Sapho, which was acquired by Citrix. Other companies he’s sold startups to include VMWare, Sun, and Oracle, and he was also once the CIO of CBS Interactive. 

Yared told me in an interview that he has actually been self-funding, running and quietly accruing customers for InCountry for two years. He decided to raise this seed round — a number of investors in this list are repeat backers of his ventures — to start revving up the engines. (One of those ‘revs’ is an interesting talent hire. Today the company is also announcing Alex Castro as chief product officer. Castro was an early employee working on Amazon Web Services and Mircosoft’s move into CRM, and also worked on autonomous at Uber.)

If you have never heard of the term “data residency-as-a-service”, that might be because it’s something that has been coined by Yared himself to describe the function of his startup.

InCountry is part tech provider, part consultancy.

On the tech side, it provides the technical aspects of providing personal data storage in a specific national border for companies that might otherwise run other aspects of their services from other locations. That includes SDKs that link to a variety of data centers and cloud service providers that allow new countries to be added in under 10 minutes; two types of encryption on the data to make sure that it remains secure; and managed services for its biggest clients. (InCountry is not disclosing any client names right now, except for video-editing company Revl.)

On the consultancy side, it has an in-house team of researchers and partnerships with law firms to continually update its policies and ensure that customers remain compliant with any changes. InCountry says that to provide further assurance to customers, it provides insurance of up to three times the value of a customer’s spend.

InCountry’s aim is twofold: first, to solve the many pain points that a company or other organization has to go through when considering how to comply with data hosting regulations; and second, to make sure that by making it easy, companies actually do what’s required of them.

As Yared describes it, the process for becoming data compliant can be painful, but his startup is applying an economy of scale, since the process is essentially one that everyone will have to follow:

“They have to figure out what the requirements are, find the facility, audit the facility, which includes making sure it’s not owned by the state, make sure the network is properly segregated, develop the right software layer to manage the data, hire program managers, network operations people and more,” he said. And for those handling this themselves, cloud service providers will typically cover a smaller footprint of regions, 17 at most for the biggest. “We take care of all that, and add on more as we need to.”

The problem is that because the process is so painful, many companies often flout the requirements, which isn’t good for its customers, nor for the companies themselves, which run the risk of getting fined.

“It’s universally acknowledged that the way data is stored and handled by most companies and handled is not meeting the average requirements of citizens rights,” Yared said. “That’s why we now have GDPR, and will see more GDPR-like regulations get rolled out.”

One thing that InCountry is not touching is data such as messages between users and other kinds of personal files — data that has been the subject of sometimes very controversial data regulations. Its limit are the pieces of personal information about users — bank details, health information, social security numbers, and so on — that are part and parcel of what we provide to companies in the course of interacting with them online.

“In early outreach, we have had people as for private data storage, but we would be ethically uncomfortable with that,” Yared said. “We want to be in the business of helping people who have regulated data, by storing that in a compliant manner that is more helpful, and more fruitful to users.”

The aim will be to add more services over time covering ever more countries, to keep in line with the growing trend among regulators to put more data residency laws in place.

“We’re witnessing more countries signing in data laws each week, and we’re only going to see those numbers increase,” said Sundeep Peechu, Managing Director at Felicis Ventures, in a statement. “We’re excited to be leading the round and reinvesting in Peter as he launches his seventh company. He recognized the problem early on and started working on a solution nearly two years ago that goes beyond regional data centers and patchwork in-house DIY solutions.”

Posted Under: Tech News
Oculus announces a VR subscription service for enterprises

Posted by on 30 April, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Oculus is getting serious about monetizing VR for enterprise.

The company has previously sold specific business versions of the headsets, but now they’re adding a pricey annual device-management subscription.

Oculus Go for business starts at $599 (64 GB) and the enterprise Oculus Quest starts at $999 (128 GB). These fees include the first year of enterprise device management and support, which goes for $180 per year per device.

Here’s what that fee gets you:

This includes a dedicated software suite offering device setup and management tools, enterprise-grade service and support, and a new user experience customized for business use cases.

The new Oculus for Business launches in the fall.

Posted Under: Tech News
Facebook Messenger will get desktop apps, co-watching, emoji status

Posted by on 30 April, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

To win chat, Facebook Messenger must be as accessible as SMS, yet more entertaining than Snapchat. Today, Messenger pushes on both fronts with a series of announcements at Facebook’s F8 conference. Those include that it will launch Mac and PC desktop apps, a faster and smaller mobile app, simultaneous video co-watching and a revamped Friends tab, where friends can use an emoji to tell you what they’re up to or down for.

Facebook is also beefing up its tools for the 40 million active businesses and 300,000 businesses on Messenger, up from 200,000 businesses a year ago. Merchants will be able to let users book appointments at salons and masseuses, collect information with new lead generation chatbot templates and provide customer service to verified customers through authenticated m.me links. Facebook hopes this will boost the app beyond the 20 billion messages sent between people and businesses each month, which is up 10X from December 2017.

“We believe you can build practically any utility on top of messaging,” says Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky. But he stresses that “All of the engineering behind it is has been redone” to make it more reliable, and to comply with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s directive to unite the backends of Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct. “Of course, if we didn’t have to do all that, we’d be able to invest more in utilities. But we feel that utilities will be less functional if we don’t do that work. They need to go hand-in-hand together. Utilities will be more powerful, more functional and more desired if built on top of a system that’s interoperable and end-to-end encrypted.”

Here’s a look at the major Messenger announcements and why they’re important:

Messenger Desktop – A stripped-down version of Messenger focused on chat, audio and video calls will debut later this year. Chudnovsky says it will remove the need to juggle and resize browser tabs by giving you an always-accessible version of Messenger that can replace some of the unofficial knock-offs. Especially as Messenger focuses more on businesses, giving them a dedicated desktop interface could convince them to invest more in lead generation and customer service through Messenger.

Facebook Messenger’s upcoming desktop app

Project Lightspeed – Messenger is reengineering its app to cut 70 mb off its download size so people with low-storage phones don’t have to delete as many photos to install it. In testing, the app can cold start in merely 1.3 seconds, which Chudnovsky says is just 25 percent of where Messenger and many other apps are today. While Facebook already offers Messenger Light for the developing world, making the main app faster for everyone else could help Messenger swoop in and steal users from the status quo of SMS. The Lightspeed update will roll out later this year.

Video Co-Watching – TechCrunch reported in November that Messenger was building a Facebook Watch Party-style experience that would let users pick videos to watch at the same time as a friend, with reaction cams of their faces shown below the video. Now in testing before rolling out later this year, users can pick any Facebook video, invite one or multiple friends and laugh together. Unique capabilities like this could make Messenger more entertaining between utilitarian chat threads and appeal to a younger audience Facebook is at risk of losing.

Watch Videos Together on Messenger

Business Tools – After a rough start to its chatbot program a few years ago, where bots couldn’t figure out users’ open-ended responses, Chudnovsky says the platform is now picking up steam with 300,000 developers on board. One option that’s worked especially well is lead-generation templates, which teach bots to ask people standardized questions to collect contact info or business intent, so Messenger is adding more of those templates with completion reminders and seamless hand-off to a live agent.

To let users interact with appointment-based businesses through a platform they’re already familiar with, Messenger launched a beta program for barbers, dentists and more that will soon open to let any business handle appointment booking through the app. And with new authenticated m.me links, a business can take a logged-in user on their website and pass them to Messenger while still knowing their order history and other info. Getting more businesses hooked on Messenger customer service could be very lucrative down the line.

Appointment booking on Messenger

Close Friends and Emoji Status – Perhaps the most interesting update to Messenger, though, is its upcoming effort to help you make offline plans. Messenger is in the early stages of rebuilding its Friends tab into “Close Friends,” which will host big previews of friends’ Stories, photos shared in your chats, and let people overlay an emoji on their profile pic to show friends what they’re doing. We first reported this “Your Emoji” status update feature was being built a year ago, but it quietly cropped up in the video for Messenger Close Friends. This iteration lets you add an emoji like a home, barbell, low battery or beer mug, plus a short text description, to let friends know you’re back from work, at the gym, might not respond or are interested in getting a drink. These will show up atop the Close Friends tab as well as on location-sharing maps and more once this eventually rolls out.

Messenger’s upcoming Close Friends tab with Your Emoji status

Facebook Messenger is the best poised app to solve the loneliness problem. We often end up by ourselves because we’re not sure which of our friends are free to hang out, and we’re embarrassed to look desperate by constantly reaching out. But with emoji status, Messenger users could quietly signal their intentions without seeming needy. This “what are you doing offline” feature could be a whole social network of its own, as apps like Down To Lunch have tried. But with 1.3 billion users and built-in chat, Messenger has the ubiquity and utility to turn a hope into a hangout.

Click below to check out all of TechCrunch’s Facebook conference coverage from today:

Posted Under: Tech News
Docker looks to partners and packages to ease container implementation

Posted by on 30 April, 2019

This post was originally published on this site

Docker appears to be searching for ways to simplify the core value proposition of the company — creating, deploying and managing containers. While most would agree it has revolutionized software development, like many technology solutions, it takes a certain level of expertise and staffing to pull off. At DockerCon, the company’s customer conference taking place this week in San Francisco, Docker announced several ways it could help customers with the tough parts of implementing a containerized solution.

For starters, the company announced a beta of Docker Enterprise 3.0 this morning. That update is all about making life simpler for developers. As companies move to containerized environments, it’s a challenge for all but the largest organizations like Google, Amazon and Facebook, all of whom have massive resource requirements and correspondingly large engineering teams.

Most companies don’t have that luxury though, and Docker recognizes if it wants to bring containerization to a larger number of customers, it has to create packages and programs that make it easier to implement.

Docker Enterprise 3.0 is a step toward providing a solution that lets developers concentrate on the development aspects, while working with templates and other tools to simplify the deployment and management side of things.

The company sees customers struggling with implementation and how to configure and build a containerized workflow, so it is working with systems integrators to help smooth out the difficult parts. Today, the company announced Docker Enterprise as a Service, with the goal of helping companies through the process of setting up and managing a containerized environment, using the Docker stack and adjacent tooling like Kubernetes.

The service provider will take care of operational details like managing upgrades, rolling out patches, doing backups and undertaking capacity planning — all of those operational tasks that require a high level of knowledge around enterprise container stacks.

Capgemini will be the first go-to-market partner. “Capgemini has a combination of automation, technology tools, as well as services on the back end that can manage the installation, provisioning and management of the enterprise platform itself in cases where customers don’t want to do that, and they want to pay someone to do that for them,” Scott Johnston, chief product officer at Docker told TechCrunch.

The company has released tools in the past to help customers move legacy applications into containers without a lot of fuss. Today, the company announced a solution bundle called Accelerate Greenfield, a set of tools designed to help customers get up and running as container-first development companies.

“This is for those organizations that may be a little further along. They’ve gone all-in on containers committing to taking a container-first approach to new application development,” Johnston explained. He says this could be cloud native microservices or even a LAMP stack application, but the point is that they want to put everything in containers on a container platform.

Accelerate Greenfield is designed to do that. “They get the benefits where they know that from the developer to the production end point, it’s secure. They have a single way to define it all the way through the life cycle. They can make sure that it’s moving quickly, and they have that portability built into the container format, so they can deploy [wherever they wish],” he said.

These programs and products are all about providing a level of hand-holding, either by playing a direct consultative role, working with a systems integrator or providing a set of tools and technologies to walk the customer through the containerization life cycle. Whether they provide a sufficient level of help that customers require is something we will learn over time as these programs mature.

Posted Under: Tech News
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