Paul Wallbank

Paul Wallbank is a speaker and writer charting how technology is changing society and business. Paul has four regular technology advice radio programs on ABC, a weekly column on the smartcompany.com.au website and has published seven books.

Dec 042016
 

As a business born out of a weekend hack  Sydney based GorillaStack is almost a classic tech tale.

“I was involved in a startup previously,” says GorillaStack’s CTO, Elliott Spira, recalling how the company was his co-founder Oliver Berger at the AWS Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas last week.

“We noticed we had spikes in our AWS spend, there was a big attribution issue and one day we said ‘how about we do a weekend project and try to spin something up that listens to our Cloudwatch metrics and tells us how much we’re spending at any time of the month.”

As the challenge was accepted, the team went to work. “We hacked away all weekend as we like to do, being nerds, and by the time the weekend was over we had the basic cost dashboard that told us how much we were spending each month.”

Adding more features

“The next weekend we decided to add another feature and we decided to add cost alerting where we’d get an email when we passed a certain threshold. That was really cool as we could budget and know when we were spending too much.”

“On the following weekend we started working on periodic alerts on how much we were spending over a set set time and from there the idea started to prosper, we thought ‘oh wow, we have a bit of a product going here. Let’s show some friends who also use AWS.’ From that feedback we found people wanted to keep the dashboards up and keep track of what was being spent.”

Today GorillaStack offers a service that allows companies to manage their AWS usage, something that can easily get expensive for organisations not closely watching what they are using. “What we try to do is make a cultural change where people become conscious of what is actually theirs in the cloud.” Elliott says. “We’re actually seeing that change.”

Living the culture

“In terms of that culture, we try to live that culture as well. We have private Slack channels with each of our customers so there’s a constant line of communication,” says Oliver. “Those Slack channels have proved to be an effective customer support and product development tool. “we’ve fostered quite a good community.”

With the initial hack being successful the company was formally founded in June 2015 and to date is bootstrapped, having not taken any investor’s money. “We want to get to a stage where we’re comfortable with the product,”says Oliver.

Currently the user base includes paid customers like Citrix, Bauer Media, Health Direct and the Australian Football League. “We have quite a good spread in terms of geography and mix of customers,” observer Oliver. “Right now the breadth suits us.”

Applying the freemium business model

Following the freemium model, the company also offers a free tier offering a single switch. “If you want anything more you move onto our paid tiers,” says Elliott.

To the question whether the company is looking at catering to other services such as Microsoft Azure or the Google Cloud, the dominance of AWS comes into play. “Right now we’re definitely sticking with the giant, we’re really looking at growing our capability so we do more and offer more to our existing customers,” says Elliott. “I think it’s really important to focus on delivering value to them and our business’ future,” Elliot says.

Looking to the immediate future, their focus is on extending their current customer offering. “We’ve a fair bit on our roadmap, we have a bit focus on chatops with a more in depth integration with Slack and Hipchat integration with our existing product,” says Elliott.

In talking to the Gorilla Stack founders, it’s striking just how the startup follows the classic tech model of a bootstrapped company that started by a bunch of hackers solving their own problem. How the business evolves will be fascinating to watch.

Paul travelled to AWS Re:Invent in Las Vegas as a guest of Amazon Web Services

Dec 032016
 

“Like all great ideas it was conceived over a beer and executed over coffee,” says John Bishop, the joint founder and co-CEO of Pet Rescue. “A couple of friends and I were sitting in a bar back in 2003 and we came up with the idea, had a look around and there was no-one doing it in Australia at the time.”

John was talking to Decoding the New Economy at last week’s AWS Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas where he some time to explain how Pet Rescue uses the web to connect prospective pet owners with rescue shelters.

“Basically we help people find rescue pets in need of adoption,” John explains. “We work with the vast number of rescue groups in Australia. By rescue groups I mean pounds, shelters, vet clinics and foster care networks. There’s about 950 of those in Pet Rescue at the moment.”

Rabbits, guinea pigs and rats

The system allows accredited animal rescue services to list the pets they have available for adoption, “primarily cats and dogs but also rabbits, guinea pigs, pigs, chickens, there’s even one rat we’ve rehomed,” John laughs.

John was working as an IT manager with a consulting business on the side in 2004 when the site launched. “We didn’t know if it would work but I had the idea in my head the whole time I was building it that if one pet found a home rather than being killed then it would be worthwhile.”

“From day one I designed Pet Rescue to be as hands off as possible, once the members had access to it they could upload their own photos and things like that. It wasn’t groundbreaking in 2003 but it wasn’t that common”

“One of the biggest problems we faced in those early days was many of the rescue groups didn’t have digital cameras. So we did a promotion with a bunch of Kodak digital cameras that had been donated to us and gave them to the groups.”

A problem of scale

The site was quickly a success but that came with issues, particularly when the site was mentioned in the press or had a lot of social media attention. “Eventually we hit problems as I had gave no thought of architecting a site that would scale.”

While that scaling process didn’t go without problems, the service now sits in the public cloud with AWS so the Pet Rescue team can get on with connecting pets with owners, and John expects to help rehouse four thousand pets by the end of the year.

“Our challenge at the moment is we have a weird supply and demand problem happening, we have half a million unique visitors a month and helping rehome about five to six thousand. Another challenge is we’re still working on an old model of handling enquiries about the pets.”

“Our goal is to get to the point where we rehome 200,000 pets a year. Right now we’re looking at 90,000. It’s a bit of a magic number because that’s the number of pets that are unnecessirly killed each year so if we can get to that two hundred thousand we can zero that out.”

Finding funding

The bigger task for Pet Rescue is to find funding with the organisation as John doesn’t believe paid registration for the rescue groups or users is the best thing for the site, “we want to have as few barriers as possible,” he says.

Currently the service earns some money from advertising with some corporate partnerships in the pipeline. “We need money, it costs a lot to keep the site up and costs a lot for development.”

While many startups and corporations talk about using tech for good, Pet Rescue’s and John Bishop’s mission of ending unnecessary deaths of unplaced pets is a genuine worthy cause. By making it easier for companion animals to be adopted by the right households shows what technology can do.

Paul travelled to Las Vegas and the Re:Invent conference as a guest of Amazon Web Services.

Dec 022016
 

One of the biggest impressions from the AWS Re:Invent conference is the company’s rapid innovation with the firm’s executives boasting how they have offered over a thousand features on their services this year.

That sort of rapid change requires a fairly tolerant attitude towards new ideas and risk, which was something AWS CEO Andy Jassy explained at the media briefing.

“In a lot of companies as they get bigger, the senior people walk into a room looking for ways to say ‘no’. Most large organisations are centrally organised as opposed to decentralised so it’s harder to do many things at once,” he observed.

“The senior people at Amazon are looking at ways to say ‘yes’. We don’t say ‘yes’ to every idea, we rigorously assess each on its merits, but we are problem solving and collaborating with the people proposing the idea so we say ‘yes’ a lot more often than others.”

“If you want to invent at a rapid rate and you want to push the envelope of innovation, you have to be unafraid to fail,” he continued. “We talk a lot inside the company that we’re working on several of our next big failures. Most of the things we do aren’t going to be failures but if you’re innovating enough there will be things that don’t work but that’s okay.”

While Amazon’s management should be lauded for that attitude, they are in a position of having tolerant investors who for the last twenty years haven’t been too fussed about the company’s profits. Leaders of companies with less indulgent shareholders probably can’t afford the same attitude towards risk.

There’s also the nature of the industry that AWS operates which is still in its early days, sectors that are far more mature or in declines – such as banking or media respectively – don’t have the luxury of saying ‘yes’ to as many ideas as possible.

Jassy’s view about encouraging ideas in the business is worth considering for all organisations though. With the world changing rapidly, having a workforce empowered to think about new ideas is critical for a business’ survival.

Dec 012016
 

As with every vendor conference, this year’s AWS Re:Invent convention in Las Vegas bombarded the audience with new product announcements and releases.

One of the interesting aspects for the Internet of Things was the announcement of Amazon Greengrass, a service that stores machine data on remote equipment which combines the company’s Lambda serverless computing and IoT services.

Further pushing Amazon’s move into the IoT space was CEO Andy Jassy’s announcement that chip makers such as Qualcomm and Intel will be building Lambda functions into their chipsets, further embedding AWS into the ecosystem.

Jassy also touted the company’s new Snowball Edge, a slimmed down version of their Snowball data transfer unit that also include some processing features, that is aimed at storing machine data at remote or moving locations such as ships, aircraft, farms or oil rigs.

That latter function ties into one of the key aspects about the Internet of Things – that most data doesn’t have to, or can’t, be transmitted over the internet. This is something companies like Cisco have focused on in their edge computing strategies.

With AWS dominating the cloud computing industry – Gartner estimates the company is ten times bigger than the next 14 companies combined – the worry for customers and regulators will be how much control the organisation has of the world’s data.

It’s hard though not to be impressed at the range of products the company has, and the speed they get them to market, the onus is on companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook to allocate the resources and talent to match AWS in the marketplace.

Nov 302016
 

What happens when drivers encounter autonomous vehicles on the highways?

Conventional wisdom is the roads will be carnage as logically thinking robots literally collide with irresponsible humans.

The Chief Executive of Mercedes-Benz America has a different take, it may be that humans quickly learn to bully safety conscious and law abiding autonomous vehicles on the road.

Speaking at a motoring conference in Las VegasDietmar Exler suggested the immediate future will see aggressive drivers taking advantage of driverless vehicles programmed to avoid collisions and risky situations.

This raises an interesting question – will autonomous vehicles actually make the roads less safe in the earlier days despite being safer themselves?

How humans interact with new technologies is never a certain thing, and the idea that people will bully robots is a delicious, and plausible idea. It does raise though some interesting possibilities as robots become common in our lives.

Nov 292016
 
38R Muni Bus at Union Square

Last Saturday the San Francisco Muni’s fare system came to a halt after hackers successfully penetrated the ticketing system.

Across the city’s stations, ticket machines were disabled and access gates were opened, resulting in free rides that many, including this writer, took advantage of.

While the Muni’s management are claiming public safety and customer information wasn’t compromised, it is a very public reminder of the weaknesses in the Internet of Things and smartcity technologies.

Given the complexity of smartcity technologies it’s inevitable that hackers and malicious actors will find their way into Internet facing networks. The range of vendors involved and the vast diversity of devices, old and new, in the systems guarantees there will always be weaknesses.

The great challenge for the Internet of Things industry and smartcity advocates is to secure these diverse systems. The stakes are high for the communities using these technology.

Nov 232016
 

Should we be rethinking how computers are designed? The co-founder and CEO of chip designer Nervana, Naveen Rao, believes so as artificial intelligence applications change the way systems work.

“A brain only uses 20 watts of power to do far more than a laptop,” observes Naveen Rao at a breakfast following Intel’s Artificial Intelligence Day in San Francisco last week.

“Presumably the brain is doing more computation than your laptop,” he continues. “What are we missing? Why is there such a big difference between what a computer can do and a brain can do. Let’s try to understand that and maybe what we learn can change how we design computers.”

A lifetime passion

Rao, whose company was acquired by Intel for over four hundred million dollars last August, was discussing the quest to make computers operate more like brains and less like adding machines.

For Rao this has been a lifetime passion, having graduated as an electrical engineer and spending most of his career designing computer chips at Sun Microsystems and various startups he quit his job to do a PhD in neuroscience, “after ten years, I wanted to return to my passion of trying to use biology to better understand computers.”

From that combination of study and experience Nervana was founded in 2014 and raised twenty million dollars from investors before being acquired by Intel.

Replicating the bird, not the feathers

The key part in creating a computer that acts more like a brain is to get the individual CPUs to be working together in a network similar to the mind’s neural paths, “look at a bird compared to a plane.” Rao says,” we don’t replicate the feathers, but we do the function.”

Doing this meant rethinking how processors are designed, “there are tried are true methods of chip architecture that we basically questioned.”

“We don’t need high levels of generality. We don’t need this to work on energy or weather simulations. We removed some of that baggage.”

Paring back the processor

So the Nervana team stripped down the individual processor and removed many functions, such as a cache, that are built into today’s advanced CPUs. Those lighter weight, and less power hungry, units can then be combined into neural networks more suited to artificial intelligence functions than today’s computers.

“Nvidea, this sort of fell into their laps,” observes Rao of Intel’s key competitor in the AI, graphics and gaming space. “It just so happens the graphics functions on their chips are suited to Artificial Intelligence applications.”

Without the more complex functions of modern CPUs, Rao and the Nervana team see the opportunity to build more flexible computers better suited to artificial intelligence applications.

Intel focuses on AI

That focus on AI has seen Intel branding its AI initiatives under the Nervana brand name as the iconic Silicon Valley company tries to move ahead with more nimble competitors like Qualcomm and NVidea.

For the computer industry, artificial intelligence promises to be the next major advance, something necessary if we are ever going to make sense of the masses of data being collected by smart devices and the reason why Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook are all making massive investments in the field.

Regardless of whether Intel and Nervana are successful in the AI marketplace, Rao sees the entire field of neural computing as a great opportunity. “It’s exciting, there’s lots of chances to innovate.”

Paul travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Intel