No one group has all the expertise needed to create a perfect cloud environment – it needs expertise in application behaviour, data centre design, network and machine virtualization, wide area networking and so much more. Getting this all working together calls for collaboration, and the CloudEthernet Forum is the way to do it, says CEF President, James Walker
Sometimes society needs to pause, waiting for one single word or symbol that encapsulates its fundamental need, before moving on. Like a seed crystal dropped into a super-saturated solution, the word “cloud” has become the rallying cry for a range of “as a service” business models now spreading like wildfire. And yet the basic idea – that it makes economic sense to invest heavily in central resources and save money on cheaper access to those resources – has been around since the days of the mainframe computer.
The personal computer almost destroyed that model, as people discovered that they really liked holding their own resources, but it re-emerged with client-server and the savings made possible by allowing a “thinner client”. While the rise of the web revived the idea of centralisation, with a truly thin client accessing services from the Internet, early moves in this direction gathered little momentum. This was partly because Internet access in the 1990s was still too slow, but also because people still cherished the autonomy of having all their assets in their own PC.
What really shifted this caution was the arrival of the smartphone: a new type of thin client appeared that seemed to hold the whole world in its Internet grasp. People did not have to shift perspective and embrace the SaaS model, they just found they were already using it, and the word of this new aeon was “cloud”. The result has been a surge in cloud uptake that took even its strongest advocates by surprise.
The signs are everywhere, as massive new datacentres are springing up in the coldest places: Dell’Oro Group predicts that within five years more than 75% of Ethernet ports will be sold into data centres, with similar predictions for compute and storage gear from Gartner and Forrester. So the total worldwide market for cloud infrastructure and services is expected to grow to $206B in 2016, and the cloud will be the hub for most business investments well into the next decade.
The early adopters are those who accept this total virtualisation process and are quite happy to shift it to other platforms. But, as we move towards a mass cloud market, the industry is beginning to reach people still wedded to the merits of autonomy. These include a sense of independence with more palpable SLAs, of security (or at least more manageable risk), control over data integrity in the face of increasing legislation and so on.
This means that the industry will soon be facing a much steeper sales incline – and this is just when it can least afford to slip. If the cloud fails now, it could send the whole market tumbling back down the slope.
The bad news is that the cracks in the cloud structure have already started to show. The good news is that this has been recognised in time and the industry has launched the CloudEthernet Forum and is already rallying to tackle fundamental issues and ensure a reliable, scalable and secure cloud for the coming generation.
A more detailed analysis of the challenges and suggested steps to their resolution is available in the CEF white paper The Benefits and Challenges Ahead for Cloud Operators . There are, however, two main factors that need first to be understood to provide context for the technical challenges.
The first is scale. It is understood that the market is rapidly expanding, even more rapidly than expected – but this is a familiar challenge in the IT world with lots of new users coming on line. What is different is the explosion in virtual machines that is unbounded by the physical limitations usually imposed by the requirement to install hardware. In a virtualised environment every VM is equivalent to a new location added to the network and, even in a low-density datacentre we could be speaking of many tens of thousands of such “locations”. Already we hear of new giant datacentres hosting over a million VMs: string a few of these together and we will very soon be addressing tens of millions of new network locations.
Ethernet has, quite rightly so far, proved itself as the optimal technology for these datacentres, but it is worth remembering that it is based on a concept designed in the 1970s to string a few computers in the Palo Alto research centre together so they could share a printer. It has developed over 3 decades by adding switches to extend the service from tens to many thousands of locations. This is a natural evolution in response to growing demand. But the coming VM explosion is way beyond natural, and today’s switch designs simply don’t have the memory to hold tables for tens of millions of locations. And a move to create new generation “super-switches” would go against the basic economics that makes Ethernet so suitable.
Doesn’t SDN point the way to a solution – keeping the switches simple and centralising this massive routing burden onto the network controller? It’s an attractive idea and may well be a part of the solution, but it is not really what SDN is fundamentally about. The real attraction of SDN is to use central control as a basis to deliver smart new functionality and flexibility to the overall network by virtualising it and creating a more nimble communications infrastructure. Forcing an additional massive “heavy lifting” administrative burden onto the controller in this way shifts the emphasis from software-defined towards software-relieved – reducing what could have been a breakthrough into a sticking plaster solution. NFV, similarly, may have a role to play, but its immediate effect would be to increase the number of functions running on VMs.
If we are to find new ways to streamline the process, reducing the grunt work rather than moving it all to the control layer, then it will need a fundamental rethink: it will need a cloud Ethernet.
The second big issue centres on collaboration: the problems are different when you begin linking remote datacentres. Yes, it also increases scale, but the real challenge is bringing together mature disciplines with already established boundaries: the people who build data centres and design applications are not WAN experts, just as telcos have much to learn about the needs of applications and data centre architecture.
An enterprise cloud solution typically brings together at least four major players in addition to Network Equipment Manufacturers: datacentre experts, WAN service providers, cloud service providers, usually some exchange provider like Equinix, Telx or CoreSite who may be hosting ten thousand logically discrete tenants in a single datacentre. These are big worlds needing to find common ground or a connecting bridge. If that does not happen, then any failure in cloud delivery will widen the rift as each discipline starts blaming the others for any system failure.
Collaboration is the key. Before the cloud’s Ethernet foundations start to show its cracks, we need the whole industry to work together to reinforce those foundations. There are already giant players in this game: in 2012 AWS, Google and Microsoft accounted for 40% of all the Ethernet ports shipped worldwide. While that gives some idea of their massive investment, the total being less than 50% also tells us that not one of these giants is yet big enough to dominate the scene and dictate its own cloud connectivity ‘standards’ for global usage. So standards need to be created before the market fragments.
Taking a familiar example: the outstanding success of Carrier Ethernet happened because vendors collaborated to create and certify global standards in the name of MEF – rather than battling each other to see whose technology could take the lead. The users could buy certified services and equipment without having to waste time choosing technologies, the service providers and vendors made faster sales, and world business gained by the acceleration of high performance, lower cost WAN services brought about by Carrier Ethernet.
A similar level of collaboration by cloud stakeholders is needed now. The CEF is gathering expertise in application behaviour, datacentre design, security, network and machine virtualization, wide area networking and so much more. Those who join are collaborating to build a firm foundation for tomorrow’s cloud – a cloud Ethernet meeting the needs of scalability, determinism, availability at the speed of VMs being made and torn down. Those who stand aside may find themselves delivering services on a creaking platform, pointing the finger of blame at everyone but themselves.
How robotic technology will disrupt the manufacturing industry
By Marga Hoek, author of The Trillion Dollar Shift
Robotics technology has the potential to disrupt industries across all sectors – but its impact on the manufacturing industry will be transformative. Not only can robots increase productivity, efficiency and profit margins but adopting this tech for good will be a key way for the manufacturing industry to transition to a more sustainable future.
Driving productivity & efficiency
Manufacturing processes are faster, more efficient, and more cost-effective when humans and robots work together. Studies show that idle time is reduced by 85% when people work collaboratively with a human-aware robot, rather than in an all-human team. Modern robotic automation is key to reshaping production processes to become more efficient and reliable. They deliver significant benefits for companies and investment is often recouped within just 18 months.
Robots in manufacturing can allow businesses to monitor the production lines from anywhere and pinpoint issues quickly, allowing for production to continue smoothly and efficiently, ensuring companies surpass consumers’ expectations of supply chain speed and reliability. Intelligent industrial service robots are an upcoming industrial tool that will amplify manufacturing capabilities and allow businesses to safely operate faster, in places humans could never go, and with cognitive and physical capabilities not yet imagined.
Transitioning to a sustainable future
Robots are a vital way to reduce pollution and emissions from manufacturing operations. For starters, they reduce our reliance on larger vehicles and machines that are harmful to the planet. Robots’ ability to be extremely accurate and minimize errors is also hugely important in sustainability efforts to reduce waste. Robots also aid businesses in their energy-saving process because they do not require as much energy to operate as humans do. Where humans need facilities with sufficient lighting and heat, robots can work under cold and dark conditions. This drastically reduces the amount of energy used in the manufacturing production process. It is estimated that for every 1C reduced in factory heat levels, there is a potential saving of up to 8%. In addition, up to 20% of energy savings can be reached if the plant turns off any unnecessary lighting.
Case Study: GE
Tech giant GE is a brilliant example of how robotics technology can both boost the bottom line and sustainability.
GE is at the forefront of robotics manufacturing technology. Their value proposition is tightly tied to productivity in field service and manufacturing and offers potential cost savings within operations. While delivering industrial-grade service robotic systems that enable automation, productivity and safety for GE and its customers, the company works closely with GE business units, GE customers and strategic partners across the globe to envision, shape and build intelligent robotic technologies from idea to commercialization.
GE’s recent $125 million investment project at its Decatur refrigerator plant boosted production capacity, added new “smart” technology and increased the site’s workforce. This includes auto guided vehicles, or AGVs, that move materials through the assembly process and more than 50 robots that perform heavy lifting operations and repetitive tasks.
The expansion project, announced in June 2018, allowed GE Appliances to increase production to meet growing demand for its freezer-refrigerators, which are top-rated in the industry for both quality and reliability. The expansion created 255 jobs, bringing total employment at the plant to 1,300. The project boosts production capacity by 25 % and ensures early compliance with 2022 refrigerant changes, making the Alabama plant a super site for GE. GE Appliances said Industry 4.0 technology additions at the Decatur facility include data visualization, 3-D scanning, rapid prototyping and other smart automation that provides the operations team with real-time data to make better and faster decisions.
Achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
Utilizing robotics technology within the manufacturing industry can help to meet the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for a healthier planet, to be met by 2030:
SDG 3 – Good Health & Wellbeing: Collaborating with people, service robots work with shoulder-to-shoulder and over long distances, to fulfil dull, dirty and dangerous work.
SDG 8 – Decent Work & Economic Growth: Presenting new growth opportunities for businesses and creating new jobs at manufacturing plants
SDG 9 – Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure: Manufacturing value proposition of robotics ties tightly to productivity and brings potential cost savings into those operations.
SDG 12 – Responsible Production & Consumption: Providing a new and rich data source for companies to produce products responsibly
Marga Hoek is a global thought-leader on sustainable business, international speaker and the author of The Trillion Dollar Shift, a new book revealing the business opportunities provided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The Trillion Dollar Shift is published by Routledge, in hardback and e-book. For more information go to www.margahoek.com
RPA, the software robots that finance and banking professionals need to hear about.
By Rory Gray, Vice President of Sales at leading software automation firm, UiPath, explains what role Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can play in improving the efficiency of finance and banking departments.
Pre-coronavirus, the finance and banking industries were already facing a myriad of challenges. Now, this myriad is quickly becoming ever more complicated. There is increasing pressure to react to declining business health, be flexible to changing customer behaviour and to adapt to evolving workforce dynamics.
Unfortunately, for these teams, improving agility is easier said than done. Many processes involve legacy systems, paper-based documents and unstructured data. These processes are time-consuming and mundane, leaving finance and banking professionals hard-pressed to fit in client-centric and strategic work.
Take processing invoices. The way it’s done hasn’t changed for years in many organisations. It often involves a member or members of the finance team receiving the invoice by mail or email, approving it manually, printing, signing and submitting it to Accounts Payable. An AP Clerk then has to pick it up, read it, verify the approvals, extract the data and input it into to the accounting package. This all takes time and costs money. What’s more, it’s dull and prone to errors. People don’t want to spend their days doing it.
Imagine if processes such as invoicing, but also loan processing, credit card disputes and many more, could be automated. Finance and banking teams would spend much less time copying, pasting and printing and could refocus on business health and transformation.
RPA is the key to finding more time in the day
Robotic Process Automation or RPA, is software that can work just like a human. It can use AI capabilities to read and interpret data from both physical and digital documents. It can extract the necessary information and it can transfer this to multiple IT applications. It’s a software robot – or digital assistant.
For finance and banking professionals, RPA could help them break free from the time constraints caused by inefficient and complex legacy operations by passing rule-based repetitive tasks to software robots. This saves time and money – and allows people to focus on the tasks that can make a difference to the business.
RPA can help carry the burden of compliance
With data extracted, processed and formatted by software robots, employees will also no longer have to carry the full and heavy burden of compliance.
However accurate we aim to be, the reality is that processing data is always open to mistakes. This is exacerbated by ever shifting market regulations. Software robots, however, are programmed by finance and banking professionals to strictly follow the same steps every time and thus do not fall victim to the same blunders as all humans inevitably do.
Of course, many regulatory compliance functions will often need to involve some human validation or decision making. While the robots work around the clock without fatigue to complete tasks, professionals can still intervene if there is an inaccuracy that requires the personal touch or a loop in the workflow where a decision is needed. Therefore, time-consuming compliance tasks can be passed to software robots, but humans ultimately remain in control.
This in turn provides better risk management and compliance, higher accuracy, better cycle times and improved throughput.
RPA in practice
This may all sound very futuristic, but in practice, many firms are already using RPA to free up employee time, improve compliance and save money.
For example, a leading smart infrastructure solutions firm we work with has created a software robot affectionately named Archie, which has taken over the responsibility for processing all invoices.
Pre-Covid, the 400,000 invoices received by the firm each year were dealt with manually. With Archie this is now fully automated freeing up on average 11 minutes per invoice of time which employees can now use to focus on value-adding activities. It also means that no employee needs to come into the office to process the invoice, nor does any paper need to be passed around the team. Thus helping to keep the workforce safe.
With all this extra time, finance and banking departments can focus on adapting to and thriving in the current crisis. Moving away from data processing and towards advisory roles where they can best use their strategic skills.
Consequently, businesses will benefit during the pandemic and beyond and employees could see their roles shifting away from the mundane and towards tasks that keep them on their toes. A rare win-win in a difficult time.
WeWALK joins Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility Programme Using artificial intelligence to change the lives of the visually impaired
WeWALK, the smart cane designed for people who are blind or with low vision which is now in use across 37 markets, has joined Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility programme to accelerate WeWALK’s capability by developing and validating a human behaviour model for visually impaired users and creating a Voice Assistant designed for the visually impaired, providing the right mobility information when needed and allowing for even greater control of the WeWALK mobility experience.
Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility $25 million 5-year programme is aimed at harnessing the power of AI to amplify human capability for the more than one billion people around the world with disabilities. Through grants, technology, and AI expertise, the program aims to accelerate the development of accessible and intelligent AI solutions and build on recent advancements in Microsoft Cognitive Services to help developers create intelligent apps that can see, hear, speak, understand and interpret people’s needs.
WeWALK’s new Voice Assistant will be released later in 2020 and will have immediate usability benefits, improving the user’s confidence as they mobilise. The assistant will be built on clearly derived requirements and natural usage patterns and the challenge that WeWALK is seeking to overcome is to make the assistant truly ‘smart’ and dynamic, where it will effectively categorize and deliver on the user’s commands in a host of different environments.
WeWALK’s human behaviour model is due for release in 2021 and is of significant importance as currently there are no accurate models for how a person who is blind moves and how their mobility holistically evolves, especially after receiving orientation and mobility training. As a result, healthcare, government, and mobility trainers cannot effectively track how a person who is blind mobilizes and whether or not intervention has had benefit. By using WeWALK’s built-in IMU (inertial measurement unit) sensors, including the gyroscope, accelerometer, and compass, as well as data collected from a connected smartphone, the model can be implemented and expanded organically through daily usage. The first stage will be rigorous data collection and user testing, followed by data manipulation and classification to ensure that optimum reliability and system usability can be achieved.
Commenting upon WeWALK’s entry into the program Jean Marc Feghali, R&D Lead at WeWALK. “By working on these two objectives, WeWALK can set the standard for visually impaired mobility for both the individual user and the organisations that support them. We are now rigorously collecting mobility data with novel experimentation, validating our work by continuously engaging our users to ensure an exceptional product powered by Microsoft’s best. Being a part of the Microsoft family truly excites us, bringing us closer to mobility trainers, researchers, and the global visually impaired community.”
Mary Bellard, principal innovation architect lead at Microsoft adds “At Microsoft, we believe AI solutions built thoughtfully by and with the disability community have incredible potential to offer meaningful independence in people’s daily lives. That’s why we’re thrilled to support WeWALK on this important assistive tool that stands to empower the millions of people around the world who use a white cane.”
With the power of Microsoft AI, WeWALK’s impact will be wide-reaching explains Kürşat Ceylan, WeWALK’s co-founder & CPO “As a blind person from birth, I know that it is very important to get the right habits of using a cane from a young age. It is amazing to see how WeWALK can enhance this aspect of our lives with high tech, making training and orientation more effective. I believe that the smart cane will be a symbol for the fully independent journey people who are blind or with low vision.”
Selected as one of the best inventions of 2019 by TIME Magazine, WeWALK is a member of YGA Ventures, which is an ecosystem of impact entrepreneurs. The team envisions WeWALK as a platform for continuous and collaborative development, putting it at the forefront of cutting-edge assistive technologies. This is exemplified through WeWALK’s collaboration with Microsoft, where WeWALK participated in Microsoft’s 2019 AI for Good in the UK.
The WeWALK smart cane is currently available on the market and can be purchased on the company website www.wewalk.io. The free WeWALK mobile app which provides various features such as VIP friendly navigation and public transport tracking capabilities is also available for immediate download on both iOS and Android devices.
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