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Red Hat Linux Upgrade Pushes New Security, Automation Tools

Red Hat on Tuesday announced the availability of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.4 beta.

RHEL 7.4 includes new security and compliance features and streamlined automation, along with tools for improved systems administration.

This latest upgrade comes nearly three years into the series 7 lifecycle. It continues to provide enterprises with a rich and stable foundation for both existing applications and a new generation of workloads and solutions.

“RHEL 7.4 enables data centers to continue running mission-critical stuff. We rarely see the particular features any more. We just take the technology for granted,” said Steve Almy, principal product manager for RHEL at Red Hat.

The security aims to eliminate users’ fear of breaches and the pain that follows, dealing with at-scale deployments, he told LinuxInsider.

“The fear is that something bad will happen on the security side. The challenge is management at scale. This feature addresses both of those items for customers,’ Almy said.

Worry-Free Disk Encryption

Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.4 Beta introduces Network Bound Disk Encryption. This feature is designed to reduce significantly the management burden of disk encryption at scale.

Disk encryption is a critical issue involving password security when you are deploying on a data center and have to reboot a server, and people have to re-enter passwords to access disks, Almy explained. That is often a big issue when staffers have encrypted laptops.

“As a result, people rarely encrypt because then they can’t decrypt,” he said. “This feature allows those disks to be encrypted and then decrypted by a key only on the local network.”

The feature uses two upstream packages called “Clevis” and “Tang,” which allow a server to be set up on the local network, which can transfer the decryption key without human intervention on the local network only. The data on removable devices is not decryptable once disconnected from the network.

What’s Inside

Enhancements to OpenSSL HTTP/2.0 further enhances the security bolstering. It enables the implementation in OpenSSL of several new Transport Layer Security protocol features, such as Application-Layer Protocol Negotiation.

Updated audit capabilities make it easier for administrators to filter the events logged by the audit system. Admins can gather more information from critical events and interpret large numbers of records.

Management and automation features focus on solutions for complex IT environments that span bare metal to cloud deployments. One such solution added to RHEL 7.4 is automation via Ansible Tower.

Also, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.4 Beta helps to simplify system configuration through the inclusion of Red Hat Enterprise Linux System Roles for RHEL-specific supported content that relies on Ansible automation. This simplifies the management and maintenance of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6-based and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7-based deployments via a single set of tools.

Ansible Config Built In

Red Hat acquired Ansible last fall. Ansible is the simple way to automate apps and IT infrastructure. Now a handful of subsystems are configurable through Ansible scripting — a big deal for some customers, according to Almy. This is a new feature introduced in version 7.4.

“Customers have been running Ansible at scale. Now they have a set of a fully RHEL-supported set of scripts to run,” Almy said.

More Features

The beta release makes it easier to maintain mission-critical applications with several new features to speed up triaging events and issues. Among the additions:

  • Enhancements to RAID Takeover to easily change the RAID configuration and characteristics of logical volumes on the fly.
  • Network Manager update to version 1.8 that extends route options for firewall and route-table setup. Other network enhancements include ACsec for L2 VPNs, improved DNS, DHCP configuration visibility, and dynamic configuration of ethernet interface options.
  • Co-Pilot (PCP) client tools support with the addition of client tools like pcp2influxdb, pcp-mpstat and pcp-pidstat to allow the export of performance metric values to influxdb, and retrospective analysis of mpstat and pidstat values. Additionally, new PCP Performance Metrics from several subsystems are available to a variety of Performance Co-Pilot analysis tools.

Caution Getting It

Enterprise customers with active RHEL subscriptions can download and preview Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.4 Beta via the Red Hat Customer Portal. It is easily accessible to customers who subscribe to the beta channel for easy direct access to updates.

The caveat is that RHEL does not support updates from beta to GA releases, Almy noted. So users can try out the beta version’s new features as a separate installation.

Otherwise, they will have to wait for a regular product upgrade when version 7.4 is fully released by the end of this summer, he said.

Trumps Fedora

Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a commercial Linux distro that delivers military-grade security with 99.9 percent uptime. A community-maintained Linux distro serves as a breeding ground for leading-edge features for RHEL.

“We and our customers find RHEL to be of great value. Fedora is a great product,” said Howard Green, vice president for marketing at Azul Systems.

“However, it is also a proving ground for advanced concepts and technologies, some of which make it into RHEL and some of which do not,” he told LinuxInsider.

Fedora is a great window into advanced thinking within the Red Hat and Linux community. However, it is not a “hardened, enterprise grade distro,” Green said.

Organizations with sufficient resources certainly will gain by uploading and previewing beta versions of major RHEL releases, he said, as it lets them verify compatibility as well as help identify bugs and glitches.

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software.
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Snap Stock Snaps Back – for the Moment

Snap shares appear to have rebounded from the plunge they took earlier this month, after the newly public company released a massive US$2.2 billion loss in the first quarter, but investors still are scratching their heads over the company’s prospects.

Snap Stock Snaps Back - for the Moment

Trading just over $20 at mid-day Tuesday, Snap looks to some like it has regained its early bloom. Others suspect that darker days are yet to come, as signs of robust growth have been lacking.

Snap’s revenue and subscriber growth figures missed consensus estimates in its first quarter, sending shares down to a low of $17.59.

Revenue rose sharply to $149.6 million in the quarter, compared with $38.8 million in the year-earlier period, but still fell short of consensus estimates of $158 million.

Investors also were spooked by slow growth in daily active users, which totaled 166 million in the quarter, compared with 122 million in the year-ago quarter, a 36 percent gain. DAUs increased by a slim 5 percent from the 4th quarter of 2016. A “DAU” is defined as a registered Snapchat user who opens the app at least once during a defined 24-hour period.

Average revenue per user rose 181 percent to 90 cents during the first quarter, compared with 32 cents a year earlier. ARPU was down 14 percent from fourth-quarter 2016 figures, when ARPU was $1.05.

Snap’s Progress

During the conference call with analysts, CEO Evan Spiegel said the company was pleased with Snap highlighted its gains in engagement during the quarter. Users created 3 billion Snaps daily, noted CEO Evan Spiegel.

The company made strong inroads with Android users, who comprised 30 percent of net additional users compared with 20 percent in the previous quarter.

Users spent an average of 30 minutes a day on Snapchat, according to Chief Strategy Officer Imran Khan, who pointed to a Nielsen report indicating that 45 percent of 18-34-year-olds interacted with Snapchat on any given day.

Although, most of Snap’s first-quarter losses were attributable to one-time stock compensation, analysts nevertheless remain concerned about the company’s user growth and engagement metrics.

Challenges Ahead

“The underlying numbers do present a mixed picture for Snap, highlighting some clear challenges,” Jack Kent, IHS Markit director, operators and mobile media, said following the company’s earnings report.

“The slowing user growth rate is an indication that Snap is already well penetrated among its main youth audience in core Western markets, and so will have to adapt to broaden its user base either internationally or in new demographic segments,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Even if Snap gains new user segments, they may not monetize as well as their existing base, Kent warned.

Snap’s stock plunge earlier this month reflects Wall Street’s reluctance to take the long view when it comes to tech stocks, observed Midia Research analyst Zach Fuller.

Growth metrics often define valuations over revenue, he noted.

The fact that they slowed in the face of Snapchat’s fierce competition with Facebook’s Instagram likely spooked investors, Fuller told the E-Commerce Times.

When Snapchat first came on the scene, it was not much different than a dot-com like Twitter, as compared to a viable entity like Facebook, suggested Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“They were popularity first, figure out revenue and profit later,” he recalled.

“That was the problem with the old dot-coms — no real business plan, just the idea for a free product, which exposes the firm to emulation by someone that can better monetize the effort, like Facebook,” Enderle told the E-Commerce Times. “Snapchat and Twitter are the poster children for this at the moment.”

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain’s New York Business and The New York Times.

Verizon Aims to Help Firms Get Up Close and Personal With Customers

Verizon Enterprise Solutions on Friday released Visual Interactive Calling, a software development kit and platform in the Verizon network designed to enable banks, retailers, airlines, travel and hospitality companies, and other firms to communicate visually with their customers.

Verizon Aims to Help Firms Get Up Close and Personal With Customers

“The sweet spot for this solution is enterprises that have deep mobile app penetration into their customer base, and those with complex interactions that users may need agent assistance with,” said Tom Smith, senior manager of customer experience innovation for Verizon.

Apps developed with this SDK will transition customers using a company’s self-service mobile app directly to a live agent.

This will maintain the security of the transaction and minimize the number of steps required. The customer’s confirmed identity and information about the reason for the call will be on the agent’s screen, and customers won’t have to log out of the mobile app and go through the process of connecting with a live agent over a standard interactive voice response system.

“This SDK is used to enhance the mobile app rather than replacing existing app development tools,” Smith told CRM Buyer. It “provides APIs and sample code that can be used by the app to interface with the Verizon platform and the enterprise.”

The Verizon platform performs authentication, translation, security and call control functions.

Visual Interactive Calling is immediately available to companies based in the United States.

Visual Interactive Calling’s Impact

Visual Interactive Calling will help companies better cater to customers’ increasingly mobile habits.

Consumers in the United States spent more than five hours a day on their devices, according to recent research.

“Our enterprise clients need to adapt to the communications preferences of their own customers,” Smith noted. “So many of our clients … have adopted a mobile-first service strategy, and legacy contact center solutions aren’t optimizing the mobile user experience.”

Verizon’s Visual Interactive Calling product “enables them to compete against the rise in enterprise adoption of cloud-based contact center providers — and in particular, Amazon’s new Connect solution,” said Cindy Zhou, a principal analyst at Constellation Research.

One of the primary reasons for enterprises switching contact center software providers is for “platform ease, pricing, and integration with their existing CRM technology,” she told CRM Buyer. “I didn’t see any reference to external CRM integration in [Verizon’s] announcement.

Businesses would want to use the SDK to develop their own apps instead of leveraging Apple’s FaceTime and Google’s Duo apps, which “don’t offer the queuing, routing and blending that’s needed for a best-practice call center,” said Holger Mueller, also a principal analyst at Constellation Research.

Blending “is key to have a high-value customer overtake lower-value customers in the queue,” he told CRM Buyer, “or getting the same agent to the same customer as last time.”

Not Your Daddy’s Visual IVR

Google received a patent for Visual IVR in 2005 from Nortel, which had submitted the design in 2000.

Visual IVR was seen as a blending of the mobile phone’s visual display with speech-enabled IVRs, as offered by DiaLogic and ChoiceView, and unveiled last year by Zappix.

“Verizon is certainly not the first in the space, as many CRM providers have introduced similar capabilities,” said Rebecca Wettemann, VP of research at Nucleus Research.

Further, Verizon is “seen as a telecoms provider, not a customer experience or CRM software provider,” she told CRM Buyer.

Visual Interactive Calling is “unlikely to drive new business,” Wettemann said, “as customers’ buying patterns and decision process in this space aren’t aligned with Verizon’s core expertise.”

However, “we don’t view [Visual Interactive Calling] as a visual IVR,” said Verizon’s Smith.

Visual IVR applications “typically start out with a phone call, and are designed with the IVR experience as a baseline,” he said, but Verizon “[looked] at the types of interactions that are escalated from mobile app self-service to contact center agents, and is working with enterprises and consumers to figure out how to optimize the experience.”

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology.
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Softbank Vision Fund Attracts $93B From Gulf States, Apple, Others

The Softbank Vision Fund on Saturday announced that it had closed its first major funding round raising more than US$93 billion in capital from the Gulf states, as well as tech stalwarts Apple, Qualcomm and others.

Softbank, which last fall launched the fund with backing from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, said it has received new commitments from the Mubadala Investment Fund from the United Arab Emirates.

The Softbank Vision Fund, which has targeted a $100 billion close within six months, also received commitment pledges from Foxconn and Sharp. Softbank increased its original commitment of $25 billion to $28 billion. Saudi Arabia has pledged to commit $45 billion to the fund.

Coincidentally, the announcement came while the Saudi Royal Family was hosting Donald Trump on his first overseas trip as U.S. president. During his visit, Trump announced a massive arms deal with the Saudis, and they agreed to make major investments in the U.S.

Softbank Chairman Masayoshi Son previously met with Trump during the presidential transition period, following the fund’s launch.

Softbank has adopted a long-term investment strategy, Son indicated, noting that solving many of the world’s current problems would require “patient long-term capital and strategic investment partners” with the resources to nurture that success.

Softbank has long made investments in transformative technologies and has supported disruptive entrepreneurs, he said.

The fund plans to take majority and minority stakes in public and private firms, ranging from startups with new technologies to established companies needing substantial funding for growth.

Fund Structure

The fund will be advised by wholly owned units of SBG, known collectively as “SB Investment Advisers,” and will be led by Rajeev Misra, who will serve as chief executive of SB Investment Advisers. Misra will play a critical role in all fund transactions, with support from a highly experienced international team. Offices will be located in London, San Carlos and Tokyo.

Nizar Al-Bassam and Dalinc Ariburnu of newly formed Centricus, which advised on structuring the fund and raising capital, will continue advising the fund.

The fund will have the right to buy certain investments already acquired by Softbank, including 24.99 percent of its holding in ARM, as well as investments in Guardant Health, Intelsat, Nvidia, One Web and SoFi.

The fund likely will be active across many sectors, including IoT, robotics, artificial intelligence, mobile, communications infrastructure and telecom, computational biology, cloud computing, consumer Internet and financial tech.

The fund will invest in various countries around the world and will not focus particularly on the U.S. or any other single country.

Demand for Capital

The Softbank Vision Fund announcement reflects the growing demand for capital needed to get new ideas off the ground, while at the same time, a lot of funding has been sitting on the sidelines, in pursuit of the right vehicle.

“There is a growing sense that the next information technology paradigm is overdue and being delayed due to a lack of capital,” remarked Michael Jude, a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

The Trump administration has signaled a willingness to work with businesses to accelerate technology, particularly if it helps grow U.S. employment, he told the E-Commerce Times.

Softbank is betting on its ability to “leverage a more friendly economic tax and political environment,” Jude said.

Large amounts of sovereign wealth and corporate cash have been bottled up over the last several years, observed Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

Both Apple and Qualcomm have set aside large cash reserves, he told the E-Commerce Times.

“This deal enables those companies to place large bets without having a huge direct impact on individual funding rounds,” Teich said.

Emerging services that have a physical component, particularly transportation, need to scale fast in order to be competitive, and hardware is still very difficult, he noted.

A company that wants to build a new chip requires a baseline of $100 million, Teich said. A firm that wants to build an IoT sensor platform has to build and deploy a lot of devices during the alpha and beta phases in order to get enough data to feed into deep learning analysis.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain’s New York Business and The New York Times.

Walmart Delivers E-Commerce Stunner

Walmart on Thursday reported soaring e-commerce growth during its fiscal first quarter, along with strong organic sales figures — results that suggest rival Amazon may have a fight on its hands.

Online sales grew a stunning 63 percent during the quarter, perhaps in response to the company’s newly introduced free two-day shipping and its upgraded mobile app.

“Inside the company, we can see that we’re moving faster to combine our digital and physical assets to make shopping more enjoyable and faster for customers, but we also see plenty of room to improve,” CEO Doug McMillon said during the company’s quarterly conference call. “We need to scale our e-commerce business further and see some additional strength in our store comps to deliver the results we know we’re capable of — so that’s what we’re focused on.”

Earnings rose to US$1.00 per share during the quarter, a 2 percent increase compared with year-ago earnings. Total revenue rose 1.4 percent to $117.5 billion, while on a constant currency basis revenue rose 2.5 percent to $118.8 billion.

Net sales in the U.S. rose 2.9 percent to $75.4 billion from $73.3 billion a year ago.

Walmart issued fiscal second-quarter guidance of $1.00 to $1.08 a share, excluding a 5 cents a share benefit from the sale of Suburbia, a Mexican apparel outlet.

Same store sales for the 13 weeks ended July 28 are expected to increase 1.5-2 percent for Walmart U.S. and 1-1.5 percent for Sam’s Club.

Walmart shares rose 3.2 percent to close at $77.54 a share on Thursday, the highest in two years. The stock hit a new high of $79.44 mid-day Friday.

Customer Focus

Walmart’s recent focus has been on improving the customer experience.

“I think it comes down to Walmart’s leadership,” said Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at RSR Research

The 63 percent surge in online sails is a “staggering” figure, she told the E-Commerce Times.

“I think McMillon has helped them put their focus on the customer and off of expense management,” Rosenblum said.

Walmart has an advantage over rival big box stores, in that Amazon is playing the same arena that Walmart played in, and the two retailers are directly competitive, noted Rob Gonzales vice president of business development at Salsify.

“When retailers have to close stores, it’s because they haven’t been able to create differentiated experiences,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Amazon is a very powerful rival, however. Amazon Prime membership has doubled in two years to 80 million members, and they spend $1,300 per year, on average, while non-Prime customers spend an average of $700 per year, based on data from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

In-Store Blend

Walmart made several big moves to challenge Amazon’s domination of the free shipping business it attracts through booming Prime membership. It also took steps to improve the in-store experience for customers who prefer to shop at Walmart’s brick-and-mortar locations.

The company earlier this year announced plans to offer free two-day shipping on more than 2 million items in its inventory. It also lowered the minimum purchase total for free shipping to customers’ homes from $50 to $35.

Walmart also enhanced several features in its mobile app to speed up the process of using its in-store pharmacies and money services desks. The updates meant customers using the app could use express lines for both departments. They also could check pharmacy prices and order refills electronically. Further, the updates allow prefilling of money transfers and other financial services.

The company last month moved to save “last mile” delivery costs by using its physical stores as fulfillment centers, offering discounts to customers on certain online-only items if they opted to pick them up at a store.

The discounts initially applied to about 10,000 items that normally are purchased online. However, it’s expected that more than 1 million items will be eligible for the discounts by next month.

Walmart is making strides with its online grocery business, which it operated in 670 locations at the end of the quarter, McMillon noted. The company plans to scale that segment to additional stores both in the U.S. and overseas.

Walmart also made several acquisitions, including Modcloth and Moosejaw, and it reportedly is in advanced talks to buy men’s retailer Bonobos for $300 million. These all follow the company’s $3.3 billion acquisition of last year. However, Walmart said it plans to grow its e-commerce business organically.

Overall, its online inventory is huge compared with year ago figures, McMillon said. More than 50 million items, including Walmart-only selections and those form third-party vendors, now are available for purchase from the site.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain’s New York Business and The New York Times.