AI cloudops is coming, whether you like it or not

As someone who’s worked with AI for the last 30 years (yes, it was a thing 30 years ago), I’ve often thought of its capabilities were overrated and used for the wrong things in many cases. Now that it’s cheap thanks to cloud computing, and much more effective thanks to the pace of innovation, AI as a solution is coming up again, including the use in cloud operations.

The idea is to replace people with AI to be both proactive and reactive to cloud operational issues such as outages, resource governance, security attacks, and performance. Cloudops involves largely repeatable problems, right?

There are of course some upsides and some downsides to this. Moreover, although the use of AI in cloud operations maybe a foregone conclusion, there will still be a learning curve that is required. As long as you understand that and know what to expect in terms of ROI for both the short term and long term, I’m okay with anything that that makes cloud operations more effective.

So, let’s look at the pros and cons.

The pros of AI for cloudops

The pros are that you can have a 7/24/365 monitoring and management program on the cheap. If you believe operational staff is expensive, try hiring them for shift work. AI-based monitoring and management systems never sleep, never take time off, and never ask for a raise. Once they are up and running, they cost almost nothing beyond their license fees and infrastructure costs. And they are self-learning at the same time; in other words, the more they run, the better that they get at the job.

Another pro is that these systems get smarter every day and share a common brain. People get smarter with experience as well, but they don’t do a good job sharing their experiences with others. People also retire and quit, with the knowledge and experience walking out the door with them.

The cons of AI for cloudops

One con is that the cost of rolling out these systems is high, even in the cloud. Vendors that have married AI and operational tools are going to charge a premium to get them up and running and in production. While the prices are all over the place, count on paying 50 percent more than for traditional tools, including consulting services for the first year or so to get the tools learning correctly.

Another con is that operations people don’t seem to like them no matter how well they perform. The number of passive-aggressive actions that I’ve seen over the years from people pushing back on AI-enabled operations tools has been huge.

They view this technology as not to be trusted, plus the fact that AI some day may displace their jobs does not make things better. Organizations that implement these tools need to have change agents, plus an understanding about the human factors with this technology.

Is the future AI-enabled cloud-operations tools? I don’t see how it won’t be. The pros will get better, and the cons will begin to diminish, like any other rollout of new technology. Hopefully, our new AI operations overlords will have mercy on us in a few years.

The Very Mathematical History of a Perfect Color Combination

A couple of years ago, I fell in love with a color scheme: off-white text accented with a buttery yellow-orange and a neutral blue against a deep gray, the “color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” to borrow a phrase from Neuromancer author William Gibson. The colors were part of a theme called “Solarized Dark” for the popular MacOS code editor TextMate. To be honest, I didn’t think much of Solarized at first. But I soon found that I couldn’t work with any other color scheme. Staring at screens all day can make you particular about fonts and colors.

It turns out I’m not alone. I’m not a coder by trade, but I like to use code editors for writing and organizing notes. While hunting for tools after switching from a Mac to Windows, I started to see Solarized Dark and its sibling Solarized Light, which uses the same 16-color palette, practically everywhere I looked. It’s hard to say how many programmers use it. The design is free and open source, so there’s no tally of purchases. It’s available for every major code editor, and many other programming tools. Microsoft even bundled it with its popular code editor VS Code. Solarized has a loyal following.

“If I bring up a terminal window that doesn’t have Solarized, I feel out of place, I don’t feel at home,” says Zachery Bir, a Richmond, Virginia, programmer and artist who has been using Solarized since shortly after it was released in 2011. Bir likes Solarized so much he uses it as the color scheme for his computer-generated art. “I didn’t trust myself to come up with a palette that was balanced and looked good both in a dark and light medium,” he says.

The Solarized color scheme is no accident. It reflects the obsessive attention to detail of its creator, Ethan Schoonover. “I didn’t release it until I was 1,000 percent sure I loved all the colors and they were all dialed in mathematically,” Schoonover says. “I had multiple monitors, some were color calibrated, others were deliberately messed up. Sometimes I showed my wife, who thought I was a little nuts.”

Too Much Contrast

Schoonover was working as a designer and programmer in Seattle when he started work on Solarized in 2010. He’d recently switched operating systems was disappointed in the color schemes available for the tools he used. Many applications offered only a simple white-on-black scheme that harkens back to old-school text-based computer terminals. But Schoonover found these throwback color schemes much harsher than the retro displays they tried to emulate. That’s because the backgrounds displayed on old 1980s monitors weren’t truly black, Schoonover says. “They had less contrast.” Today’s LCD’s, on the other hand, are capable of displaying much darker, and much brighter, colors.

The optimal amount of contrast for text on a screen is controversial; many people prefer high-contrast themes. But contrast wasn’t Schoonover’s only concern. He found most low-contrast color schemes lacking as well. Even the best-designed themes tended to use at least one color that appeared distractingly brighter than others. That’s because the apparent brightness of a color varies depending on its background. In other words, a specific shade of blue will appear more or less bright, depending on the surrounding colors.

This phenomenon, known as the Helmholtz–Kohlrausch effect, is particularly aggravating for programmers because coding tools use color to distinguish different parts of code. In the code for a web page in a typical text editor using the Solarized Dark theme, for example, web links appear in green; the syntax for formatting, such as adding italics, is blue, and comments that developers write for themselves are gray. Ideally, the colors should help tell these elements apart, but no single element should stand out more than others.

Schoonover set out to find a set of colors that would not only look good together, but have the same apparent brightness. That task was made more difficult because he wanted to use the same palette in both a light and a dark theme. Hence the need for all the monitors and testing.

Examples of the Solarized Dark (left) and Solarized Light (right) themes displaying HTML code in the code editor Vim.

Ethan Schoonover

Ethan Schoonover

Schoonover talks a lot about the mathematical nature of his color selections, but he picked the starting colors, a blue and a yellow, for very personal reasons. The blue reminds him of his long standing thalassophobia, the fear of very deep water. And though he says he doesn’t otherwise experience synesthesia—such as hearing colors or tasting words—the yellow invokes tastes and smells he associates with his childhood. “My parents are artists, I’m comfortable picking things for obscure reasons,” he says.

With those starting points, Schoonover sought out other colors that provided just enough—but not too much—contrast between elements, and that maintained the same level of contrast in the light and dark versions. The result is a palette of just 16 colors that retain the same relationships even when inverted. “I suppose it’s a little like composing music with only a limited number of notes,” Schoonover says. “There can be something sparse and beautiful about it.”

An Open Source Program Takes Off

Schoonover released Solarized for free in April 2011 on GitHub, a code hosting platform and collaboration service. He says he never intended to commercialize it. “It would kill something special about it, taint it,” he says. “I believe in open source software, I believe in giving something special to the world that anyone can use.”

Although he’d tested the color scheme in a variety of applications, Schoonover initially only released themes for a few tools he used in his own work, like the code editor Vim and the text-based email client Mutt. He announced the release of Solarized on the Vim mailing list; soon after, the project hit the front page of the online community Hacker News. It was an immediate hit with programmers, who soon went to work adapting it to other programming tools beyond those Schoonover initially supported. In 2013, Solarized Dark appeared on the monitors of developers in a Facebook commercial—watch for those dark rectangles on the screens and notice the faintly colored lines that cross them.

Solarized is slowly starting to find its way into applications for non-geeks. Ulysses, a writing application for MacOS, includes Solarized themes as an option. The color scheme was used for many of the graphics in the video game N++ in 2014. The note-taking app MicroPad even advertises Solarized as a feature on its website. “Solarized Dark for MicroPad is especially useful for late-night studying, which I do more often than I would like to admit,” says MicroPad creator Nick Webster, a computer science student at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.

But it still hasn’t really crossed over to the mainstream as a color scheme for, say, a major web application or software suite. “When Apple introduced dark mode for MacOS, I thought it was cool,” says Bir, the Virginia programmer and artist. “But I wish it was Solarized.”

With more applications, like Google Chrome, Facebook Messenger, and Slack, releasing dark mode themes, though, Solarized just might have its day in the sun.


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Micron sees memory chip recovery coming later in year, shares rise

(Reuters) – U.S. chipmaker Micron Technology Inc on Wednesday said it sees a recovery in the memory chip market coming and reported a quarterly profit that beat estimates as cost controls helped offset falling demand and prices, sending its shares up nearly 5 percent.

The logo of U.S. memory chip maker MicronTechnology is pictured at their booth at an industrial fair in Frankfurt, Germany, July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Micron makes NAND storage chips that are used in phones and internet servers as well as DRAM chips that help computer processors communicate with those storage chips.

The company beat revenue expectations for the fiscal second quarter ended Feb. 28. Although it gave a forecast for its fiscal third quarter that was below Wall Street’s expectations, Micron said demand is likely to begin growing again by its fourth quarter.

The results come against the backdrop of a glut in the global semiconductor industry triggered by waning demand for smartphones and spotty purchasing patterns by cloud-computing vendors, which hurt chipmakers such as Intel Corp earlier this year.

Meantime, Micron trimmed its spending plans and said it had idled some factory lines to bring its chip output in line with lower demand, helping keep profits flowing and a share buyback plan on track.

For its fiscal second quarter, Micron generated nearly $1 billion in free cash flow and a profit of $1.71 per share, excluding items. That was down from $2.82 a year earlier but above Wall Street expectations of $1.67, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

“Certainly Micron has not been in a situation before where it’s been able to deliver such healthy profitability and cash flow in an adverse industry environment,” Chief Executive Sanjay Mehrotra said in an interview with Reuters.

Kinngai Chan, an analyst with Summit Insights Group, said investors were focusing on the outlook for a recovery in the second half of the calendar year, with the fiscal third quarter forecast representing “the bottom for Micron’s near-term sales and gross margin.”

The Boise, Idaho-based company said on Wednesday it expects revenue between $4.6 billion and $5 billion for its fiscal third quarter, falling short of analyst expectations of $5.3 billion according to IBES data from Refinitiv. The company cut planned capital expenditures for the 2019 fiscal year to $9 billion, Micron executives said, down from a previous forecast of between $9 billion and $9.5 billion.

Revenue fell to $5.84 billion from $7.35 billion, beating expectations of $5.3 billion.

The company said it bought back 21 million shares of its common stock for $702 million during the quarter as part of its $10 billion share buyback program, leaving a net cash position of $2.99 billion.

Reporting by Sayanti Chakraborty in Bengaluru and Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; editing by Sriraj Kalluvila and Leslie Adler

A Cab’s-Eye View of How Peloton’s Trucks ‘Talk’ to Each Other

Techno-optimist prognosticators will tell you that driverless trucks are just around the corner. They will also gently tell you—always gently—that yes, truck driving, a job that nearly 3.7 million Americans perform today, is perhaps on the brink of extinction. At the very least, on the brink of uncomfortable change.

A startup called Peloton Technology sees the future a bit differently. Based in Mountain View, California, the eight-year-old company has a plan to broadly commercialize a partially automated truck technology called platooning. It would still depend on drivers sitting in front of a steering wheel, but it would be more fuel efficient and, hopefully, safer than truck-based transportation today.

The company employs 10 professional truck drivers to help refine its tech, and I’m about to meet two of them out on Peloton’s test track in California’s Central Valley. Michael Perkins is tall, thin, and has been driving very big trucks for about 20 years. Jake Gregory is shorter and picked up truck driving in college, before taking a detour to the FBI.

We hit the highway first, because the rain has suddenly cleared. (Here’s an unfortunate reality about Peloton’s driver assistance tech: It doesn’t work great in the rain. Or snow. It’s a safety issue. More on that later.) Out on Interstate 5, Perkins’ long, white semitrailer cruises along in front of me. I’m on board the second, identical truck behind it, with Gregory behind the wheel. A small screen mounted on Gregory’s dashboard shows a camera view of what’s happening in front of Perkins’ rig. It’s like their trucks are connected. Which, in fact, they are about to be.

Peloton

Perkins radios in that he’s ready to go; Gregory says he is too. Inside the two truck cabs, each driver hits a button. Three ascending tones—la, la, la—means Peloton’s automated system has authorized the trucks to platoon on this stretch of highway. A dedicated short range communications (DSRC) connection is now established between the two vehicles. It’s like Wi-Fi but faster and easier to secure. Now, whatever the front truck does, the back truck will near-simultaneously “know”—and react accordingly.

Then Gregory speeds up, pulling his truck up so it’s tailgating about 70 feet from the leader. Sounds risky! But right now, the two trucks are platooning. Ours is on a kind of hopped-up cruise control, which means Gregory’s feet aren’t actually controlling the brakes or accelerator. At the same time, Gregory maintains control of his steering wheel. If Perkins were to brake hard, Gregory’s truck would too, faster than a human could. The robots have taken over. Kind of? Not really? More like, they’re collaborating, with some human oversight.

Peloton’s name, a reference to bicycle racing, helps explain how this platooning works. Just as the riders in the peloton, or main group of racing cyclists, preserve energy by drafting off of those around them, the following trucks in the truck platoon reduce their aerodynamic drag by drafting off the ones in front. The lead truck, meanwhile, get a little push. This saves fuel, according to Peloton—up to 10 percent for the following car and 4.5 percent for the first one, depending on the road and weather conditions and the following distance. It might also prevent crashes, since this tech has much faster reaction times (about 30 milliseconds) than puny humans (about 1 to 1.5 seconds).

Other companies in Europe, China, Japan, and Singapore are seriously experimenting with truck platooning. The American military has hosted platooning demonstrations. Just this week, the US Department of Transportation gave out $1.5 million in grants to universities studying the tech. And Peloton has tested in a bunch of US states: Arizona, California, Michigan, Florida, and Texas, where Peloton has immediate plans to run the majority of its routes.

Right now, the company says it does have paying customers, though it won’t reveal their names until later this year. According to Josh Switkes, the company’s CEO, some pair of US truck drivers are running a route while platooning on a Peloton-enabled truck every day.

And testing continues, on the software in its office, on its test track, and on actual highways, where it confirms the technology’s reliability. “The highway or field is not for testing,” Switkes says. “The goal of testing is to find failures, and you don’t want those failures to be on public roads.” In a report released today, the company lays out this approach to safety for regulators and interested industry parties alike. It borrows more from automotive processes than Silicon Valley–style software ones, amounting to something like easy does it.

It turns out, the linking-up move Perkins and Gregory just performed on the 5 is one of the most safety-critical parts of truck platooning, Switkes says. The moment when the following truck has to move faster than the one in front of it is the most dangerous part.

To make sure drivers like Perkins and Gregory don’t crash into each other, or anyone else, Peloton needs to make sure that the platooning drivers know how the tech works. (Right now, the company’s driver training process takes about half a day.) It also needs to understand exactly how heavy the trucks are when they start platooning, how their brakes are working, and how their tires function. For this reason, the company says, it has carved out partnerships with its suppliers, which means its trucks are built from the ground up with platooning in mind.

This is also why Peloton doesn’t platoon in the rain right now, or in the snow: The company can’t yet gauge exactly how tires deteriorate over time, which means it can’t quite predict how they’ll react in a hard-braking situation. Worn tires might slide in the moisture, leading to a domino chain of truck crashes. So no platooning in the Midwest in the winter, or anywhere during a rainy spring. “On certain routes, it’s a significant limitation,” says Switkes. “But we’re erring on the side of safety.”

And if that seems a little dull, Switkes would tell you that’s the point. His favorite word is “pragmatic,” and he doesn’t believe driverless trucks will prowl the highways any time soon. The technology is too complicated, he argues, and developers will have to go through years of safety testing before they’re ready for the roads—and before the public feels safe riding in their own bitty cars around 50,000-pound robot trucks. So Peloton is going all in on making human-based driving both safer and more efficient. With a bit of tech boost.

Not all manufacturers agree: In January, Daimler announced it would stop its platooning development to focus on autonomous trucking. Tests showed that “fuel savings, even in perfect platooning conditions, are less than expected,” the German company wrote in a press release. “At least for U.S. long-distance applications, analysis currently shows no business case for customers driving platoons with new, highly aerodynamic trucks.”

Platooning advocates disagree, but even the most supportive believe finding a market for this trucker assistance isn’t simple. Steven Shladover is researcher with the California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology program at UC Berkeley. He has studied platooning for two decades, and points out that the truck industry would need to execute a fair bit of choreography to pull off platooning. Fleet operators would have to coordinate deliveries, matching up trucks heading in the same direction at the same time. “Does the truck industry see enough of a benefit in platooning to fit it into their operational strategies?” he says.

While everyone in trucking waits to find out, Perkins and Gregory head back to Peloton’s test track and proceed to show off a few, freakier moves: some hard braking, some driving side-by-side to prove that the trucks can still “talk” to each other in that position. At one point, another company employee in a white Toyota Tundra cuts into the 55-foot space between the two trucks, and they smoothly part to make room for him. Maybe platooning will improve life for truckers—too bad it can’t fix the problem of everyday reckless drivers, too.


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Google to prompt Android users to choose preferred browsers to allay EU concerns

FILE PHOTO: A 3D printed Android mascot Bugdroid is seen in front of a Google logo in this illustration taken July 9, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Alphabet’s Google will prompt Android users to choose their preferred browsers and search apps, a senior Google executive said on Tuesday, as the company seeks to allay EU antitrust concerns and ward off fresh sanctions.

The European Commission last year handed Google a record 4.34 billion euro ($4.9 billion) fine for using the market power of its mobile software to block rivals in areas such as internet browsing.

By pre-installing its Chrome browser and Google search app on Android devices, Google had an unfair advantage over its rivals, EU enforcers said.

Google will now try to ensure that Android users are aware of browsers and search engines other than its own services, Kent Walker, senior vice-president of global affairs, said in a blog.

“In the coming months, via the Play Store, we’ll start asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use,” he wrote without providing details.

The company, which introduced a licensing fee for device makers to access its app marketplace after the EU sanction, does not plan to scrap the charge.

Google could be fined up to 5 percent of Alphabet’s average daily worldwide turnover if it fails to comply with the EU order to stop anti-competitive practices.

Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by David Goodman

New Apple TV Ad on Privacy Hits Facebook and Google Where It Hurts—Without Mentioning Them

Apple is taking another swipe at its fellow tech giants for their privacy policies, this time in a new commercial that touts Apple’s stated focus on protecting user privacy. Without naming the likes of Google, Amazon, and Facebook, the TV ad invokes what many consider to be their lax privacy stances.

“If privacy matters in your life, it should matter to the phone your life is on,” the ad says, jumping among a few dozen images of people wanting privacy, including slamming doors, hushed diner conversations, windows locking, padlocks clicking shut, and one visitor to the men’s restroom nervously seeking out the most private urinal.

Under CEO Tim Cook, Apple has promoted its efforts to protect user privacy on its devices. Unlike Facebook, Google and, increasingly, Amazon, Apple doesn’t rely much on advertising revenue, making money instead from sales of devices and service subscriptions.

At times, Apple has gone to great lengths to protect user privacy. The company, for example, has built most of its A.I. technology on Apple devices themselves, rather than storing personal data in the cloud, as most tech giants do. That decision has led some to argue that Apple is lagging Google and Facebook in the race to develop A.I. products.

But Apple has had its own privacy lapses, including a security flaw in its FaceTime app (which the company fixed last month) that potentially allowed people to listen in on users’ conversations. So far, though, the company has escaped the brunt of criticism that Facebook in particular has received for how it has managed and secured the personal data of its users. Facebook has been attempting to retool its products to focus more on privacy.

Cook has publicly slammed his tech rivals’ privacy policies several times. Last June, he chided them for not using humans to filter out fake news. A few months later, Cook called out the “data-industrial complex” that has “weaponized” personal data. And in January, he wrote a piece in Time calling for a federal privacy law. “It’s time to stand up for the right to privacy—yours, mine, all of ours,” Cook wrote.

The 45-second commercial began airing on U.S. television on Thursday, including during broadcasts of the highly rated National Collegiate Athletic Association’s March basketball tournament.

PagerDuty Joins A Flurry Of Silicon Valley Companies Planning To Go Public This Year

POWERFUL WOMEN

<figcaption><fbs-accordion><p class="color-body light-text">Jennifer Tejada, chief executive officer of PagerDuty Inc., speaks during the Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference in Dana Point, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. The conference brings together leading women in business, government,<small>© 2017 Bloomberg Finance LP</small></p></fbs-accordion></figcaption></figure><p>PagerDuty took the next step forward to a planned IPO, joining a windfall of startups expected to go public this year. But the cloud-based software company’s debut will be an exception among the tech IPO wave—it’s one of the few enterprise companies run by a woman, CEO Jennifer Tejada.</p><p>Founded in 2009, San Francisco-based PagerDuty acts as a watchdog for technical issues. The operations management software identifies problems in real time and directs engineers to the root of the problem, an alert system that’s attracted 10,800 customers in 90 countries. </p><p>In 2018, PagerDuty scored <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexkonrad/2018/09/06/pagerduty-funding-billion-dollar-valuation/#75d370a3411d" target="_blank" class="color-accent">unicorn status</a> after a $90 million round led by T. Rowe Price Associates and Wellington Management. Its first nine months of revenue last year rose 48% from the period to $84 million. However, the company took a $34.5 million loss during that time,up $4.7 million from 2017. It didn’t reveal data on the full year. </p><p>The company’s institutional investors own more than half of its shares, including early investor, Andreessen Horowitz, which owns the largest share of the company at 18.4%, followed by Accel and Bessemer Venture Partners. PagerDuty’s cofounders, Baskar Puvanathasan, Andrew Miklas and Alex Solomon, each hold 7.1%. </p><p>PagerDuty landed a spot in the top 50 on the <a href="https://www.forbes.com/companies/pagerduty/?list=cloud100/#1bbb3f5d361d" target="_blank" class="color-accent">Forbes Cloud 100</a> list in 2017, just a year after Tejada took over as CEO. "It was a neat brand, even though it’s a small company," Tejada <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexkonrad/2016/07/21/pagerduty-names-jennifer-tejada-as-ceo/#1727d02363ee" target="_blank" class="color-accent">told Forbes back in July 2016</a>. Tejada owns over four million shares of the company. </p>

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POWERFUL WOMEN

Jennifer Tejada, chief executive officer of PagerDuty Inc., speaks during the Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference in Dana Point, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. The conference brings together leading women in business, government,© 2017 Bloomberg Finance LP

PagerDuty took the next step forward to a planned IPO, joining a windfall of startups expected to go public this year. But the cloud-based software company’s debut will be an exception among the tech IPO wave—it’s one of the few enterprise companies run by a woman, CEO Jennifer Tejada.

Founded in 2009, San Francisco-based PagerDuty acts as a watchdog for technical issues. The operations management software identifies problems in real time and directs engineers to the root of the problem, an alert system that’s attracted 10,800 customers in 90 countries.

In 2018, PagerDuty scored unicorn status after a $90 million round led by T. Rowe Price Associates and Wellington Management. Its first nine months of revenue last year rose 48% from the period to $84 million. However, the company took a $34.5 million loss during that time,up $4.7 million from 2017. It didn’t reveal data on the full year.

The company’s institutional investors own more than half of its shares, including early investor, Andreessen Horowitz, which owns the largest share of the company at 18.4%, followed by Accel and Bessemer Venture Partners. PagerDuty’s cofounders, Baskar Puvanathasan, Andrew Miklas and Alex Solomon, each hold 7.1%.

PagerDuty landed a spot in the top 50 on the Forbes Cloud 100 list in 2017, just a year after Tejada took over as CEO. “It was a neat brand, even though it’s a small company,” Tejada told Forbes back in July 2016. Tejada owns over four million shares of the company.