Sep 232015

“We’re early in the marathon but making good progress”, opened Godfrey Sullivan, the CEO of Splunk, as he opened the company’s annual conference in Las Vegas today.

Helping businesses understand their data has proved lucrative for Splunk with the analytics company seeing a 46% increase in year on year revenue to $148 million for the last quarter with the organisation narrowing its losses over the same period.

As with all tech conferences, the focus in the opening keynote is on new product announcements. For Splunk, the main release is its latest enterprise version of Splunk Enterprise 6.3 billed as delivering faster results, better analytics and tying into the masses of machine data being collected from the Internet of Things.

Machine data as a cornerstone

That IoT data is a key part of Sullivan’s strategy of “making machine data more accessible usable and valuable to everyone.” The company also highlights their alliances with IoT data consolidator services such as Xively and Octoblu.

Security is another focus of Splunk with the launch of  Splunk User Behavior Analytics (UBA) that analyses usage patterns on networks to identify risky or suspicious activity and a version upgrade of their their Enterprise Security.

The original business of Splunk was to monitor server log files and that IT focus remains with their new IT Service Intelligence (ITSI), an improved IT monitoring and analytics service.

Sullivan’s key message was that IT departments can be offering ‘operational intelligence’ as they gather and analyse data from all aspects of a business. “IT departments have to earn a seat at the table”, as Splunk’s CTO Snehal Antani says and providing rich data analytics, in his view, enable this.

Surprising a bank

Antani cited one of his previous clients, a bank which would ordinarily would deal with ten million dollars of deposits a day so an alarm had been set for when less than half of that had been received by midday.

One day that alarm sounded, and the IT department assumed there was a problem with the bank’s systems. After checking, they found everything was running normally so flagged deposits were unusually low to senior management.

It turned out to be a competitor had launched a successful campaign to open new accounts which had caught the bank by surprise. “The CMO acted as if he’d been hacked,” Antani recalls.

Antani’s anecdote illustrates how business data is no longer just the concern of the IT department and a small group of geeky business analysts, with real time information every part of an organisation can improve its performance.

For Splunk, using data to improve all aspects of business its key message to the market and one it hopes to drive its business forward although it’s highly unlikely they’ll achieve Antani’s hopes of “making IT sexy again.” That would take much more than a marathon.

Paul travelled to the Splunk.conf in Las Vegas as a guest of Splunk


Sep 232015

Last month I wrote a piece for Business Spectator on how competition in the Australian cloud accounting market was hotting up with the re-entry of Intuit and Sage.

One of the divides between vendors was whether online accounting services scale globally with one group – including MYOB and Reckon – saying that deploying services in different jurisdictions added complexity while others believed a global product was necessary to achieve scale.

The most obvious member of the global scale camp was Xero, the company that has pioneered the growth of cloud accounting software. Two years ago we interviewed the company’s founder Rod Drury about his ambitions for the company and the direction of the cloud accounting market.

For Xero though, growing globally isn’t easy. While its most successful market has been in Australia, that country has many similarities with Xero’s native New Zealand and the company has found the UK and US markets tougher.

Renewing Xero’s US push

To deal with a much bigger and diverse market, the company appointed Russ Fujioka, a veteran of Dell, Abode and the various venture capital companies, to lead its revamped operations in the United States and Decoding the New Economy caught up with Russ recently at Xero’s San Francisco office.

For Fujioka, the key to growth in the United States market is the small business sector with the US recording nearly half a million new business registrations across the nation each year.

“You see the M in ‘SMB’? We don’t want to be playing to that market,” says Fujioka in emphasising the Xero’s focus on the small business sector.

Fujioka also sees opportunity in what he calls the ‘pre-accounting’ sector, the roughly 18 million self employed contractors and freelancers who don’t need a full fledged accounting service but need access to basic bookkeeping, invoicing and expense tracking.

Dealing with diversity

While the 28 million US small businesses represent a huge opportunity to Xero, the market also presents challenges with, unlike the New Zealand, Australian and UK markets, hundreds of banks and thousands of different state and local tax regimes.

To deal with the complexity of local tax and employment rules, Xero announced a partnership with Avalara to provide the data feeds for calculating sales taxes and payroll obligations, something that is essential to Xero’s business plans, “payroll is fundamental to our offerings.” Fujioka says.

Also fundamental are accountants and book-keepers where co-opting them as sellers of the service has been part of Xero’s success in Australia and New Zealand with Fujioka seeing a fifty-fifty split between those businesses signing up directly and those going through advisers.

The changing accounting industry

Like the rest of the world, the accounting profession is going through major changes as much of the transactional work becomes automated, Fujioka sees this as an opportunity for companies like Xero to add value to the industry and help individual firms become more akin to system integrators and technology advisers to their clients.

The ultimate aim for Fujioka is to make Xero the site, or app, that every small business starts and ends their day with, “we really want to be that single pane of glass for small business – you start your day with us, you end your day with us and during the day you check your status on your Apple Watch.”

For Xero, the key to global success is cracking the US market. The challenge for them is to capture a new generation of business owners and accountants.

Paul travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Salesforce and Splunk

Sep 182015

“Why does Microsoft exist?” Asked the company’s founder Satya Nadella at the Dreamforce 2015 conference.

Nadella has asked this question before and his answer at the San Francisco event was that Microsoft exists to empower people through technology, something that Bill Gates and Paul Allen envisaged in the mid 1970s when they founded new startup.

To show how he sees Microsoft’s position in the modern workplace, Nadella gave a not completely flawless demonstration of Microsoft’s integration with Salesforce.

The products Nadella pushed were Windows Phone and Windows 10, which he claims to be part of a major change in businesses with data transforming the way we work.

Interestingly, he framed the Windows 10 IoT strategy around endpoint security. While there are millions of vulnerable devices, it’s not clear shipping them with Microsoft’s firmware will resolve the problem.

“What’s the big technology shift? It’s how we use the data.” Nadella proclaimed in laying out how he sees a data culture transforming the places we work.

A Grand Pivot

Microsoft itself is dealing with a cultural transformation with the company shifting across to cloud based subscription services. “The thing that it’s done for us is it’s not a one-for-one move. It’s not like we’re just moving Exchange on premise to Exchange as a Service, it changes the value proposition for the customers.”

Nadella sees those cloud services as an opportunity to sell more products – and add more value – to customers, particularly small businesses.

The CEO’s role

A business’ success relies upon its culture and Nadella sees the role of the CEO as being about curating that culture, “I always ask what it is that defines us.”

Part of that culture is about becoming customer focused which involves thinking outside of one company’s products or silos, “how is our industry going to succeed? It’s going to succeed if we can add value our customers. Our customers are going to make choices that aren’t homogenous.”

Those varied choices are what’s driving Microsoft’s current push into alliances.  “If we are going to realise the power of technology, then these partnerships will amplify that,” says Nadella.

While there were nuggets of truth in Nadella’s presentation, there was also a lot of truisms and somewhat meaningless slogans. While Microsoft’s push onto the cloud and into alliances that were once considered unholy might be genuine, it’s hard not to think there’s still a lot of marketing speak wrapped around it.

Sep 172015

One of the world’s biggest tech events – if not the biggest of the vendor shows – is Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual spectacular that this this year attracted a 150,000 attendees to San Francisco’s Moscone Center.

Every year sees the company – which now holds the title of the world’s fourth biggest software company – and its CEO, Marc Benioff, defining the direction of the company in the face of a rapidly changing market. Despite being a pioneer in cloud computing, the company is as vulnerable to disruption as anyone else in a rapidly changing marketplace.

This year, the focus is on analytics and automation along with a strong leaning towards the Internet of Things and app development on the Lightning platform they announced last year.

With the Thunder platform, Salesforce is offering a service that allows businesses to connect devices onto their platform where users can build up rules based business automation. One notable part of this is the integration with Microsoft Office 365, another example of Microsoft’s reaching out to previously hostile companies.

For Automation, Salesforce is building upon its RelateIQ acquisition from last year, now branded as SalesforceIQ. The company says “Relationship Intelligence technology that utilizes advanced data science to analyze company relationships and drive actions.”

The Wave analytics service, which was also announced at last year’s Dreamforce, is a key part of the the business automation and IoT services in providing the insights into the data being collected. In many respect, Wave is going to be the glue that holds most of the products being announced this year.

Complementing the Wave, Thunder and SalesforceIQ products is the Lightning platform, again announced last year, that allows users to use the company’s AppCloud to quickly build business applications.

For Salesforce, the direction being laid out from this Dreamforce conference is in making helping customers deal with the masses of data coming into the enterprise. As Tod Neilsen, the company’s Executive Vice President of the App Cloud says, “we’re look at making the data usuable for spreadsheet users.”

As businesses struggle to manage and understand the masses of data flowing into their organisations, this may well be a powerful selling point for Salesforce.

Paul travelled to Dreamforce 2015 in San Francisco as a guest of Salesforce

Sep 032015
even the biggest businesses can die if they don't understand the world around them

“From the EMC boardroom you can see the carnage of the mini computer industry – Wang, DEC, Data General – you can see their buildings from the headquarters,” said VMWare’s CEO Pat Gelsinger during an interview this morning.

Gelsinger’s point is well made, those companies were victims of the last major computing shift which saw the minicomputer fall out of favour and be replaced with workgroup servers largely running Windows.

For VMWare, those Windows based servers were the basis of their successful virtualization product and the company was one of the winners of the shift to Personal Computers.

Shifting to the cloud

Now a shift to the cloud, something that Gelsinger sees as a bigger and more fundamental change than the one that dispatched companies like Wang, DEC and Data General to the deadpool in the 1990s, threatens to do the same to the companies that did well in the PC era.

That shift is seeing VMWare repositioning their business to their “unified hybrid cloud”, Dell shifting away from being primarily a PC manufacturer and Microsoft rethinking its entire existence. All of these companies are deeply threatened by IT’s move to the cloud and mobile services.

Watching for unicorpses

It isn’t just today’s incumbents that are threatened by shifting markets, a few of the current crop of today’s billion dollar unicorns will almost certainly become ‘unicorpses’ warns Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair.

That some of today’s seemingly untouchable tech startups may also join venerable older companies in the history books may surprise some but the risks are high, the shifts are great and the successful business strategies are not always obvious early in a technology shift.

One clear point is that size is no barrier to eventual failure, as we see with once untouchable giants winding up after technology and markets move against them it’s only the fast moving and flexible thinking that will survive.

Sep 022015

“It’s no longer the big beating the small, it’s the fast beating the slow,” says Eric Pearson, CIO of the InterContinental Hotels Group.

Pearson was quoted by VMWare CEO Pat Gelsinger in his five imperatives for digital business keynote at the VMWorld 2015 conference being held in San Francisco this week.

The five are an interpretation of the trends in a radically changing business environment where the barriers to entry have fallen dramatically, industries are globalised and the time to market for new products has collapsed.

Put together, Gelsinger believes established businesses have to be more nimble as market and industry forces are going to punish those who are too slow to adapt.

Elephants must learn to dance

Gelsinger’s initial point is the world of business is now asymmetric – incumbents have everything to lose in the face of new businesses where upstarts have nothing to lose.

Part of that asymmetry comes from the world of shared resources, which gives startups and smaller businesses access to tools that were once only available to large organisations.

An obvious example of this are the cloud computing services that is concentrating VMWare’s minds, however another good example of how shared resources will change industries is the self driving car where Gelsinger cites vehicle utilisation will go from 4% to 71%.

Gelsinger points out using a car on a pay for use basis will change the structure of our cities which in turn changes the economics of living in suburbia and the business models built around it.

Standardising the cloud

Cloud computing is at the end of its formative, experimental phase and entering into a professional era where different types of services are going to have to work together.

“We have the private cloud which is focused on IT as we know it today, pulling out costs, slow and complex applications but also has powerful governance and does what I need it to do while meeting compliance purposes,” said Gelsinger. “On the the other side we have the public cloud which is fast and is able to scale effectively but has weak governance.”

In a perverse way, it’s Edward Snowden’s revelations that are driving many businesses to maintain their own private cloud networks due to concerns about foreign powers tapping their information flows and the sovereignty of data.

The consequence of a range of different cloud environments mean they are all going to have to get along with open standards becoming more important as businesses ‘mix and match’ their requirements.

Meeting the security challenge

As the Snowden affair shows, IT Security is difficult, complex and messy and becomes more so as workers start using their mobile devices and data is pushed around the cloud.

Gelsinger sees the online security sector as being the one of the biggest opportunities for startups and one of the fastest growing costs for business, “the only thing growing faster than the spend on security is the cost of security breaches.”

While Gelisinger’s focus is on VMWare’s security proposition, the security mindset is going to have be adopted by all business people. As the Target and Ashley Madison breaches have shown, the damage that can be done by a security lapse can be crippling and is a tangible business risk that senior managements and boards need to be across.

Proactive technology

Artificial intelligence has been through a thirty year gestation and Gelsinger told of his early days as a computer engineer working on AI projects in the late 1980s. Those early days of AI were a failure as the results as the time didn’t live up to the hype.

Gelsinger sees this as the next wave of computing as it moves from being reactive to proactive as systems become able to anticipate actions based on the data they are seeing.

While this has major ramifications for the computer industry, it also promises to change management and the role of many professions.

“This is going to change human experiences,” says Gelsinger however there will be challenges as businesses strike a balance between creepy versus convenience and invasive versus valuable.

Welcome to the age of rattling the cage

Half of the firms on today’s Tech 100 list will be gone within 10 years, was the warning in Gelsinger’s final point and he focused on the need for businesses large and small to break out in order to stay relevant.

“Welcome to the age of rattling the cage,” stated Gelsinger. “A time when taking risk is the lowest risk.”

Paul travelled to VMWorld 2015 in San Francisco as a guest of VMWare

Sep 012015

“It isn’t easy to create apps for the real world,” is the opening line of this morning’s VM World conference in San Francisco.

That line encapsulates the challenge facing almost every company, not just tech companies like VMWare, in the face of shifting marketplaces and technologies.

One of the biggest business shifts is the move to mobile technologies. This isn’t just changing marketing and user experiences but also changing companies’ operations as staff increasingly use their own smartphones and tablets to work.

Managing a shifting market

That shift though is not simple, as ZD Net reports Facebook’s move to ‘mobile first’ was a tough path in the words of the company’s senior engineer Adam Wolff.

“I think everyone would say it was worth it, but it was extremely painful,” Wolff admitted, explaining each sub-team was building in their own ways because there was no one to crossover with necessary knowledge.

Facebook has probably been the most successful company is dealing with the mobile shift and their difficulties despite their massive resources show just how difficult it is for companies to change not just their technology, but their business processes and in many cases the entire mindset of the organisation.

Those pain points in transitioning between ways of doing business is where opportunities lie, for VMWare they are seeing IT departments struggling with the development and deployment of apps along with the security risks of staff bringing their own mobile devices.

Happy coincidences

For VMWare, this is a happy coincidence in that their main business of computer virtualisation is as much at risk from the shift to cloud computing and mobile applications as any other business. By offering the tools for companies to manage that shift, they can retain their place in the market.

The threat though is this space has many other contenders – not least Facebook itself with its open source React platform the company developed out of its experiences in developing its mobile product.

One of the strengths VMWare has is being an incumbent, which is why they are pushing their ‘hybrid cloud’ offerings where companies use both their own data centres along with the public cloud providers such as Amazon and Microsoft.

Stuck with sunk costs

For large corporates with huge sunk costs in their own infrastructure and those with security or operational reasons for keeping some of their functions in house that hybrid strategy makes sense as it’s unlikely any board or CIO is going to happily burn their existing systems and process down and go to a ‘pure cloud’ or mobile strategy.

While catering to that market is lucrative for the moment, the longer term risk is that the next wave of large corporations – and today’s high growth businesses – are pure cloud companies.

For the companies catering to the old ways of doing business, for the short term there’s profits to be made in the pain points from an evolving marketplace but in the long term it’s how well businesses are placed for the world the end of that transition that will guarantee their survival.

The process facing software companies like VMWin dealing with as business shifts is a challenge faced by almost all industries, the question is how to adapt to a very changed way of working.