Should Dell have pursued a more aggressive debt-reduction move with VMware?

When Dell announced it was spinning out VMware yesterday, the move itself wasn’t surprising: there had been public speculation for some time. But Dell could have gone a number of ways in this deal, despite its choice to spin VMware out as a separate company with a constituent dividend instead of an outright sale.

The dividend route, which involves a payment to shareholders between $11.5 and $12 billion, has the advantage of being tax-free (or at least that’s what Dell hopes as it petitions the IRS). For Dell, which owns 81% of VMware, the dividend translates to somewhere between $9.3 and $9.7 billion in cash, which the company plans to use to pay down a portion of the huge debt it still holds from its $58 billion EMC purchase in 2016.

VMware was the crown jewel in that transaction, giving Dell an inroad to the cloud it had lacked prior to the deal. For context, VMware popularized the notion of the virtual machine, a concept that led to the development of cloud computing as we know it today. It has since expanded much more broadly beyond that, giving Dell a solid foothold in cloud native computing.

Dell hopes to have its cake and eat it too with this deal: it generates a large slug of cash to use for personal debt relief while securing a five-year commercial deal that should keep the two companies closely aligned. Dell CEO Michael Dell will remain chairman of the VMware board, which should help smooth the post-spinout relationship.

But could Dell have extracted more cash out of the deal?

Doing what’s best for everyone

Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategies, says that beyond the cash transaction, the deal provides a way for the companies to continue working closely together with the least amount of disruption.

“In the end, this move is more about maximizing the Dell and VMware stock price [in a way that] doesn’t impact customers, ISVs or the channel. Wall Street wasn’t valuing the two companies together nearly as [strongly] as I believe it will as separate entities,” Moorhead said.


By Ron Miller

Zoho launches new low code workflow automation product

Workflow automation has been one of the key trends this year so far, and Zoho, a company known for its suite of affordable business tools has joined the parade with a new low code workflow product called Qntrl (pronounced control).

Zoho’s Rodrigo Vaca, who is in charge of Qntrl’s marketing says that most of the solutions we’ve been seeing are built for larger enterprise customers. Zoho is aiming for the mid-market with a product that requires less technical expertise than traditional business process management tools.

“We enable customers to design their workflows visually without the need for any particular kind of prior knowledge of business process management notation or any kind of that esoteric modeling or discipline,” Vaca told me.

While Vaca says, Qntrl could require some technical help to connect a workflow to more complex backend systems like CRM or ERP, it allows a less technical end user to drag and drop the components and then get help to finish the rest.

“We certainly expect that when you need to connect to NetSuite or SAP you’re going to need a developer. If nothing else, the IT guys are going to ask questions, and they will need to provide access,” Vaca said.

He believes this product is putting this kind of tooling in reach of companies that may have been left out of workflow automation for the most part, or which have been using spreadsheets or other tools to create crude workflows. With Qntrl, you drag and drop components, and then select each component and configure what happens before, during and after each step.

What’s more, Qntrl provides a central place for processing and understanding what’s happening within each workflow at any given time, and who is responsible for completing it.

We’ve seen bigger companies like Microsoft, SAP, ServiceNow and others offering this type of functionality over the last year as low code workflow automation has taken center stage in business.

This has become a more pronounced need during the pandemic when so many workers could not be in the office. It made moving work in a more automated workflow more imperative, and we have seen companies moving to add more of this kind of functionality as a result.

Brent Leary, principal analyst at CRM Essentials, says that Zoho is attempting to remove some the complexity from this kind of tool.

“It handles the security pieces to make sure the right people have access to the data and processes used in the workflows in the background, so regular users can drag and drop to build their flows and processes without having to worry about that stuff,” Leary told me.

Zoho Qntrl is available starting today starting at just $7 per user month.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft goes all in on healthcare with $19.7B Nuance acquisition

When Microsoft announced it was acquiring Nuance Communications this morning for $19.7 billion, you could be excused for doing a Monday morning double take at the hefty price tag.

That’s surely a lot of money for a company on a $1.4 billion run rate, but Microsoft, which has already partnered with the speech-to-text market leader on several products over the last couple of years, saw a company firmly embedded in healthcare and it decided to go all in.

And $20 billion is certainly all in, even for a company the size of Microsoft. But 2020 forced us to change the way we do business from restaurants to retailers to doctors. In fact, the pandemic in particular changed the way we interact with our medical providers. We learned very quickly that you don’t have to drive to an office, wait in waiting room, then in an exam room, all to see the doctor for a few minutes.

Instead, we can get on the line, have a quick chat and be on our way. It won’t work for every condition of course — there will always be times the physician needs to see you — but for many meetings such as reviewing test results or for talk therapy, telehealth could suffice.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says that Nuance is at the center of this shift, especially with its use of cloud and artificial intelligence, and that’s why the company was willing to pay the amount it did to get it.

“AI is technology’s most important priority, and healthcare is its most urgent application. Together, with our partner ecosystem, we will put advanced AI solutions into the hands of professionals everywhere to drive better decision-making and create more meaningful connections, as we accelerate growth of Microsoft Cloud in Healthcare and Nuance,” Nadella said in a post announcing the deal.

Microsoft sees this deal doubling what was already a considerable total addressable market to nearly $500 billion. While TAMs always tend to run high, that is still a substantial number.

It also fits with Gartner data, which found that by 2022, 75% of healthcare organizations will have a formal cloud strategy in place. The AI component only adds to that number and Nuance brings 10,000 existing customers to Microsoft including some of the biggest healthcare organizations in the world.

Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, says the deal could provide Microsoft with a ton of health data to help feed the underlying machine learning models and make them more accurate over time.

“There is going be a ton of health data being captured by the interactions coming through telemedicine interactions, and this could create a whole new level of health intelligence,” Leary told me.

That of course could drive a lot of privacy concerns where health data is involved, and it will be up to Microsoft, which just experienced a major breach on its Exchange email server products last month, to assure the public that their sensitive health data is being protected.

Leary says that ensuring data privacy is going to be absolutely key to the success of the deal. “The potential this move has is pretty powerful, but it will only be realized if the data and insights that could come from it are protected and secure — not only protected from hackers but also from unethical use. Either could derail what could be a game changing move,” he said.

Microsoft also seemed to recognize that when it wrote, “Nuance and Microsoft will deepen their existing commitments to the extended partner ecosystem, as well as the highest standards of data privacy, security and compliance.”

We are clearly on the edge of a sea change when it comes to how we interact with our medical providers in the future. COVID pushed medicine deeper into the digital realm in 2020 out of simple necessity. It wasn’t safe to go into the office unless absolutely necessary.

The Nuance acquisition, which is expected to close some time later this year, could help Microsoft shift deeper into the market. It could even bring Teams into it as a meeting tool, but it’s all going to depend on the trust level people have with this approach, and it will be up to the company to make sure that both healthcare providers and the people they serve have that.


By Ron Miller

Immersion cooling to offset data centers’ massive power demands gains a big booster in Microsoft

LiquidStack does it. So does Submer. They’re both dropping servers carrying sensitive data into goop in an effort to save the planet. Now they’re joined by one of the biggest tech companies in the world in their efforts to improve the energy efficiency of data centers, because Microsoft is getting into the liquid-immersion cooling market.

Microsoft is using a liquid it developed in-house that’s engineered to boil at 122 degrees Fahrenheit (lower than the boiling point of water) to act as a heat sink, reducing the temperature inside the servers so they can operate at full power without any risks from overheating.

The vapor from the boiling fluid is converted back into a liquid through contact with a cooled condenser in the lid of the tank that stores the servers.

“We are the first cloud provider that is running two-phase immersion cooling in a production environment,” said Husam Alissa, a principal hardware engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development in Redmond, Washington, in a statement on the company’s internal blog. 

While that claim may be true, liquid cooling is a well-known approach to dealing with moving heat around to keep systems working. Cars use liquid cooling to keep their motors humming as they head out on the highway.

As technology companies confront the physical limits of Moore’s Law, the demand for faster, higher performance processors mean designing new architectures that can handle more power, the company wrote in a blog post. Power flowing through central processing units has increased from 150 watts to more than 300 watts per chip and the GPUs responsible for much of Bitcoin mining, artificial intelligence applications and high end graphics each consume more than 700 watts per chip.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft isn’t the first tech company to apply liquid cooling to data centers and the distinction that the company uses of being the first “cloud provider” is doing a lot of work. That’s because bitcoin mining operations have been using the tech for years. Indeed, LiquidStack was spun out from a bitcoin miner to commercialize its liquid immersion cooling tech and bring it to the masses.

“Air cooling is not enough”

More power flowing through the processors means hotter chips, which means the need for better cooling or the chips will malfunction.

“Air cooling is not enough,” said Christian Belady, vice president of Microsoft’s datacenter advanced development group in Redmond, in an interview for the company’s internal blog. “That’s what’s driving us to immersion cooling, where we can directly boil off the surfaces of the chip.”

For Belady, the use of liquid cooling technology brings the density and compression of Moore’s Law up to the datacenter level

The results, from an energy consumption perspective, are impressive. The company found that using two-phase immersion cooling reduced power consumption for a server by anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent (every little bit helps).

Microsoft investigated liquid immersion as a cooling solution for high performance computing applications such as AI. Among other things, the investigation revealed that two-phase immersion cooling reduced power consumption for any given server by 5% to 15%. 

Meanwhile, companies like Submer claim they reduce energy consumption by 50%, water use by 99%, and take up 85% less space.

For cloud computing companies, the ability to keep these servers up and running even during spikes in demand, when they’d consume even more power, adds flexibility and ensures uptime even when servers are overtaxed, according to Microsoft.

“[We] know that with Teams when you get to 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock, there is a huge spike because people are joining meetings at the same time,” Marcus Fontoura, a vice president on Microsoft’s Azure team, said on the company’s internal blog. “Immersion cooling gives us more flexibility to deal with these burst-y workloads.”

At this point, data centers are a critical component of the internet infrastructure that much of the world relies on for… well… pretty much every tech-enabled service. That reliance however has come at a significant environmental cost.

“Data centers power human advancement. Their role as a core infrastructure has become more apparent than ever and emerging technologies such as AI and IoT will continue to drive computing needs. However, the environmental footprint of the industry is growing at an alarming rate,” Alexander Danielsson, an investment manager at Norrsken VC noted last year when discussing that firm’s investment in Submer.

Solutions under the sea

If submerging servers in experimental liquids offers one potential solution to the problem — then sinking them in the ocean is another way that companies are trying to cool data centers without expending too much power.

Microsoft has already been operating an undersea data center for the past two years. The company actually trotted out the tech as part of a push from the tech company to aid in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine last year.

These pre-packed, shipping container-sized data centers can be spun up on demand and run deep under the ocean’s surface for sustainable, high-efficiency and powerful compute operations, the company said.

The liquid cooling project shares most similarity with Microsoft’s Project Natick, which is exploring the potential of underwater datacenters that are quick to deploy and can operate for years on the seabed sealed inside submarine-like tubes without any onsite maintenance by people. 

In those data centers nitrogen air replaces an engineered fluid and the servers are cooled with fans and a heat exchanger that pumps seawater through a sealed tube.

Startups are also staking claims to cool data centers out on the ocean (the seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake).

Nautilus Data Technologies, for instance, has raised over $100 million (according to Crunchbase) to develop data centers dotting the surface of Davey Jones’ Locker. The company is currently developing a data center project co-located with a sustainable energy project in a tributary near Stockton, Calif.

With the double-immersion cooling tech Microsoft is hoping to bring the benefits of ocean-cooling tech onto the shore. “We brought the sea to the servers rather than put the datacenter under the sea,” Microsoft’s Alissa said in a company statement.

Ioannis Manousakis, a principal software engineer with Azure (left), and Husam Alissa, a principal hardware engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development (right), walk past a container at a Microsoft datacenter where computer servers in a two-phase immersion cooling tank are processing workloads. Photo by Gene Twedt for Microsoft.


By Jonathan Shieber

Industry experts bullish on $500M KKR investment in Box, but stock market remains skeptical

When Box announced it was getting a $500 million investment from private equity firm KKR this morning, it was hard not to see it as a positive move for the company. It has been operating under the shadow of Starboard Value, and this influx of cash could give it a way forward independent of the activist investors.

Industry experts we spoke to were all optimistic about the deal, seeing it as a way for the company to regain control, while giving it a bushel of cash to make some moves. However, early returns from the stock market were not as upbeat as the stock price was plunging this morning.

Alan Pelz-Sharpe, principal analyst at Deep Analysis, a firm that follows the content management market closely, says that it’s a significant move for Box and opens up a path to expanding through acquisition.

“The KKR move is probably the most important strategic move Box has made since it IPO’d. KKR doesn’t just bring a lot of money to the deal, it gives Box the ability to shake off some naysayers and invest in further acquisitions,” Pelz-Sharpe told me, adding “Box is no longer a startup its a rapidly maturing company and organic growth will only take you so far. Inorganic growth is what will take Box to the next level.”

Dion Hinchcliffe, an analyst at Constellation Research, who covers the work from home trend and the digital workplace, sees it similarly, saying the investment allows the company to focus longer term again.

“Box very much needs to expand in new markets beyond its increasingly commoditized core business. The KKR investment will give them the opportunity to realize loftier ambitions long term so they can turn their established market presence into a growth story,” he said.

Pelz-Sharpe says that it also changes the power dynamic after a couple of years of having Starboard pushing the direction of the company.

“In short, as a public company there are investors who want a quick flip and others that want to grow this company substantially before an exit. This move with KKR potentially changes the dynamic at Box and may well put Aaron Levie back in the driver’s seat.”

Josh Stein, a partner at DFJ and early investor in Box, who was a long time board member, says that it shows that Box is moving in the right direction.

“I think it makes a ton of sense. Management has done a great job growing the business and taking it to profitability. With KKR’s new investment, you have two of the top technology investors in the world putting significant capital into going long on Box,” Stein said.

Perhaps Stein’s optimism is warranted. In its most recent earnings report from last month, the company announced revenue of $198.9 million, up 8% year-over-year with FY2021 revenue closing at $771 million up 11%. What’s more, the company is cash-flow positive, and has predicted an optimistic future outlook.

“As previously announced, Box is committed to achieving a revenue growth rate between 12-16%, with operating margins of between 23-27%, by fiscal 2024,” the company reiterated in a statement this morning.

Investors remains skeptical, however, with the company stock price getting hammered this morning. As of publication the share price was down over 9%. At this point, market investors may be waiting for the next earnings report to see if the company is headed in the right direction. For now, the $500 million certainly gives the company options, regardless of what Wall Street thinks in the short term.


By Ron Miller

KKR hands Box a $500M lifeline

Box announced this morning that private equity firm KKR is investing $500 million in the company, a move that could help the struggling cloud content management vendor get out from under pressure from activist investor Starboard Value.

The company plans to use the proceeds in what’s called a “dutch auction” style sale to buy back shares from certain investors for the price determined by the auction, an activity that should take place after the company announces its next earnings report in May. This would presumably involve buying out Starboard, which took a 7.5% stake in the company in 2019.

Last month Reuters reported that Starboard could be looking to take over a majority of the board seats when the company board meets in June. That could have set them up to take some action, most likely forcing a sale.

While it’s not clear what will happen now, it seems likely that with this cash, they will be able to stave off action from Starboard, and with KKR in the picture be able to take a longer term view. Box CEO Aaron Levie sees the move as a vote of confidence from KKR in Box’s approach.

“KKR is one of the world’s leading technology investors with a deep understanding of our market and a proven track record of partnering successfully with companies to create value and drive growth. With their support, we will be even better positioned to build on Box’s leadership in cloud content management as we continue to deliver value for our customers around the world,” Levie said in a statement.

Under the terms of the deal, John Park, Head of Americas Technology Private Equity at KKR, will be joining the Box board of directors. The company also announced that independent board member Bethany Mayer will be appointed chairman of the board, effective on May 1st.

Earlier this year, the company bought e-signature startup SignRequest, which could help open up a new set of workflows for the company as it tries to expand its market. With KKR’s backing, it’s not unreasonable to expect that Box, which is cash flow positive, could be taking additional steps to expand the platform in the future.

Box stock was down over 8% premarket, a signal that perhaps Wall Street isn’t thrilled with the announcement, but the cash influx should give Box some breathing room to reset and push forward.


By Ron Miller

Okta expands into privileged access management and identity governance reporting

Okta today announced it was expanding its platform into a couple of new areas. Up to this point, the company has been known for its identity access management product, giving companies the ability to sign onto multiple cloud products with a single sign on. Today, the company is moving into two new areas: privileged access and identity governance

Privileged access gives companies the ability to provide access on an as-needed basis to a limited number of people to key administrative services inside a company. This could be your database or your servers or any part of your technology stack that is highly sensitive and where you want to tightly control who can access these systems.

Okta CEO Todd McKinnon says that Okta has always been good at locking down the general user population access to cloud services like Salesforce, Office 365 and Gmail. What these cloud services have in common is you access them via a web interface.

Administrators access the speciality accounts using different protocols. “It’s something like secure shell, or you’re using a terminal on your computer to connect to a server in the cloud, or it’s a database connection where you’re actually logging in with a SQL connection, or you’re connecting to a container which is the Kubernetes protocol to actually manage the container,” McKinnon explained.

Privileged access offers a couple of key features including the ability to limit access to a given time window and to record a video of the session so there is an audit trail of exactly what happened while someone was accessing the system. McKinnon says that these features provide additional layers of protection for these sensitive accounts.

He says that it will be fairly trivial to carve out these accounts because Okta already has divided users into groups and can give these special privileges to only those people in the administrative access group. The challenge was figuring out how to get access to these other kinds of protocols.

The governance piece provides a way for security operations teams to run detailed reports and look for issues related to identity. “Governance provides exception reporting so you can give that to your auditors, and more importantly you can give that to your security team to make sure that you figure out what’s going on and why there is this deviation from your stated policy,” he said.

All of this when combined with the $6.5 billion acquisition of Auth0 last month is part of a larger plan by the company to be what McKinnon calls the identity cloud. He sees a market with several strategic clouds and he believes identity is going to be one of them.

“Because identity is so strategic for everything, it’s unlocking your customer, access, it’s unlocking your employee access, it’s keeping everything secure. And so this expansion, whether it’s customer identity with zero trust or whether it’s doing more on the workforce identity with not just access, but privileged access and identity governance. It’s about identity evolving in this primary cloud,” he said.

While both of these new products were announced today at the company’s virtual Oktane customer conference, they won’t be generally available until the first quarter of next year.


By Ron Miller

Google Cloud joins the FinOps Foundation

Google Cloud today announced that it is joining the FinOps Foundation as a Premier Member.

The FinOps Foundation is a relatively new open-source foundation, hosted by the Linux Foundation, that launched last year. It aims to bring together companies in the ‘cloud financial management’ space to establish best practices and standards. As the term implies, ‘cloud financial management,’ is about the tools and practices that help businesses manage and budget their cloud spend. There’s a reason, after all, that there are a number of successful startups that do nothing else but help businesses optimize their cloud spend (and ideally lower it).

Maybe it’s no surprise that the FinOps Foundation was born out of Cloudability’s quarterly Customer Advisory Board meetings. Until now, CloudHealth by VMware was the Foundation’s only Premiere Member among its vendor members. Other members include Cloudability, Densify, Kubecost and SoftwareOne. With Google Cloud, the Foundation has now signed up its first major cloud provider.

“FinOps best practices are essential for companies to monitor, analyze, and optimize cloud spend across tens to hundreds of projects that are critical to their business success,” said Yanbing Li, Vice President of Engineering and Product at Google Cloud. “More visibility, efficiency, and tools will enable our customers to improve their cloud deployments and drive greater business value. We are excited to join FinOps Foundation, and together with like-minded organizations, we will shepherd behavioral change throughout the industry.”

Google Cloud has already committed to sending members to some of the Foundation’s various Special Interest Groups (SIGs) and Working Groups to “help drive open source standards for cloud financial management.”

“The practitioners in the FinOps Foundation greatly benefit when market leaders like Google Cloud invest resources and align their product offerings to FinOps principles and standards,” said J.R. Storment, Executive Director of the FinOps Foundation. “We are thrilled to see Google Cloud increase its commitment to the FinOps Foundation, joining VMware as the 2nd of 3 dedicated Premier Member Technical Advisory Council seats.”


By Frederic Lardinois

Moveworks expands IT chatbot platform to encompass entire organization

When investors gave Moveworks a hefty $75 million Series B at the end of 2019, they were investing in a chatbot startup that to that point had been tuned to answer IT help question in an automated way. Today, the company announced it had used that money to expand the platform to encompass employee questions across all lines of business.

At the time of that funding, nobody could have anticipated a pandemic either, but throughout last year as companies moved to work from home, having an automated systems in place like Moveworks became even more crucial, says CEO and company co-founder Bhavin Shah.

“It was a tragic year on a variety of fronts, but what it did was it coalesced a lot of energy around people’s need for support, people’s need for speed and help,” Shah said. It helps that employees typically access the Moveworks chatbot inside collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, and people have been spending more time in these tools while working at home.

“We definitely saw a lot more interest in the market, and part of that was fueled by the large scale adoption of collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams by enterprises around the world,” he said.

The company is working with 100 large enterprise customers today, and those customers were looking for a more automated way for employees to ask questions about a variety of tooling from HR to finance and facilities management. While Shah says expanding the platform to move beyond IT into other parts of an organization had been on the roadmap, the pandemic definitely underscored the need to expand even more.

While the company spent its first several years tuning the underlying artificial intelligence technology for IT language, they had built it with expansion in mind. “We learned how to build a conversational system so that it can be dynamic and not be predicated on some person’s forethought around [what the question and answer will be] — that approach doesn’t scale. So there were a lot of things around dealing with all these enterprise resources and so forth that really prepared us to be an enterprise-wide partner,” Shah said.

The company also announced a new communications tool that enables companies to use the Moveworks bot to communicate directly with employees to get them to take some action. Shah says companies usually send out an email that for example, employees have to update their password. The bot tells you it’s time to do that and provides a link to walk you through the process. He says that beta testers have seen a 70% increase in responses using the bot to communicate about an action instead of email.

Shah recognizes that a technology that understands language is going to have a lot of cultural variances and nuances and that requires a diverse team to build a tool like this. He says that his HR team has a set of mandates to make sure they are interviewing people in under-represented roles to build a team that reflects the needs of the customer base and the world at large.

The company has been working with about a dozen customers over the last 9 months on the platform expansion, iterating with these customers to improve the quality of the responses, regardless of the type of question or which department it involves. Today, these tools are generally available.


By Ron Miller

Slack wants to be more than a text-based messaging platform

Last October as Slack was preparing for its virtual Frontiers conference, the company began thinking about different ways people could communicate on the platform. While it had built its name on being able to integrate a lot of services in a single place to alleviate the dreaded task-switching phenomenon, it has been largely text-based up until now.

More recently, Slack has started developing a few new features that could bring different ways of interacting to the platform. CEO Stewart Butterfield discussed them on Thursday with former TechCrunch reporter Josh Constine, now a SignalFire investor, in a Clubhouse interview.

The talk was about the future of work, and Slack believes these new ways of communicating could help employees better connect online as we shift to a hybrid work world — one which has been hastened by the pandemic over the last year. There is a general consensus that many companies will continue to work in a hybrid fashion, even when the pandemic is over.

For starters, Slack aims to add a way to communicate by video. But instead of trying to compete with Zoom or Microsoft Teams, Slack is envisioning an experience that’s more like Instagram Stories.

Think about the CEO sharing an important announcement with the company, or the kind of information that might have gone out in a company-wide email. Instead, you can skip the inbox and deliver the message directly by video. It’s taking a page from the consumer approach to social and trying to move it into the enterprise.

Writing in a company blog post earlier this week, Slack chief product officer Tamar Yehoshua was clear this was going to be an asynchronous approach, rather than a meeting kind of experience.

“To help with this, we are piloting ways to shift meetings toward an asynchronous video experience that feels native in Slack. It allows us to express nuance and enthusiasm without a meeting,” she wrote.

While it was at it, Slack decided to create a way of just chatting by voice. As Butterfield told Constine in his Clubhouse interview, this is essentially Clubhouse (or Twitter Spaces) being built for Slack.

Yeah, I’ve always believed the ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ thing, so we’re just building Clubhouse into Slack, essentially. Like that idea that you can drop in, the conversation’s happening whether you’re there or not, you can enter and leave when you want, as opposed to a call that starts and stops, is an amazing model for encouraging that spontaneity and that serendipity and conversations that only need to be three minutes, but the only option for you to schedule them is 30 minutes. So look out for Clubhouse built into Slack.

Again, it’s taking a consumer social idea and applying it to a business setting with the idea of finding other ways to keep you in Slack when you could be using other tools to achieve the same thing, whether it be Zoom meetings, email or your phone.

Butterfield also hinted hinted that another feature — asynchronous audio, allowing you to leave the equivalent of a voicemail — could be coming some time in the future. A Slack spokesperson confirmed that it was in the works, but wasn’t ready to share details yet.

It’s impossible to look at these features without thinking about them in the context of the $27 billion Salesforce acquisition of Slack at the end of last year. When you put them all together, you have this set of tools that let you communicate in whatever way makes the most sense to you.

When you combine that Slack Connect DM, a new feature to communicate outside the organization that was released this week to some controversy, as people wanted assurances that they could control spam and harassment, it takes the concept one step further — outside the organization itself.

As part of a larger entity like Salesforce, these tools could be useful across sales, service and even marketing as a way to communicate in a variety of ways inside and outside the organization. And they greatly expand the value prop of Slack as it becomes part of Salesforce sometime later this year.

While it began talking about the new audio and video features last fall, the company has been piloting them since the beginning of this year. So far Slack is not saying when the new features will be generally available.


By Ron Miller

No code, workflow, and RPA line up for their automation moment

We’ve seen a lot of trend lines moving throughout 2020 and into 2021 around automation, workflow, robotic process automation (RPA) and the movement to low-code and no-code application building. While all of these technologies can work on their own, they are deeply connected and we are starting to see some movement towards bringing them together.

While the definition of process automation is open to interpretation, and could include things like industrial automation, Statista estimates that the process automation market could be worth $74 billion in 2021. Those are numbers that are going to get the attention of both investors and enterprise software executives.

Just this week, Berlin-based Camunda announced a $98 million Series B to help act as a layer to orchestrate the flow of data between RPA bots, microservices and human employees. Meanwhile UIPath, the pure-play RPA startup that’s going to IPO any minute now, acquired Cloud Elements, giving it a way to move beyond RPA into API automation.

Not enough proof for you? How about ServiceNow announcing this week that it is buying Indian startup Intellibot to give it — you guessed it — RPA capabilities. That acquisition is part of a broader strategy by the company to move into full-scale workflow and automation, which it discussed just a couple of weeks ago.

Meanwhile at the end of last year, SAP bought a different Berlin process automation startup, Signavio, for $1.2 billion after announcing new automated workflow tools and an RPA tool at the beginning of December. Microsoft is in on it too, having acquired process automation startup Softmotive last May, which it then combined with its own automation tool PowerAutomate.

What we have here is a frothy mix of startups and large companies racing to provide a comprehensive spectrum of workflow automation tools to empower companies to spin up workflows quickly and move work involving both human and machine labor through an organization.

The result is hot startups getting prodigious funding, while other startups are exiting via acquisition to these larger companies looking to buy instead of build to gain a quick foothold in this market.

Cathy Tornbohm, Distinguished Research Vice President at Gartner, says part of the reason for the rapidly growing interest is that these companies have stayed on the sidelines up until now, but they see an opportunity and are using their checkbooks to play catch up.

“IBM, SAP, Pega, Appian, Microsoft, ServiceNow all bought into the RPA market because for years they didn’t focus on how data got into their systems when operating between organizations or without a human. [Instead] they focused more on what happens inside the client’s organization. The drive to be digitally more efficient necessitates optimizing data ingestion and data flows,” Tornbohm told me.

For all the bluster from the big vendors, they do not control the pure-play RPA market. In fact, Gartner found that the top three players in this space are UIPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism.

But Tornbohm says that, even as the traditional enterprise vendors try to push their way into the space, these pure-play companies are not sitting still. They are expanding beyond their RPA roots into the broader automation space, which could explain why UIPath came up from its pre-IPO quiet period to make the Cloud Elements announcement this week.

Dharmesh Thakker, managing partner at Battery Ventures, agrees with Tornbohm, saying that the shift to the cloud, accelerated by COVID-19, has led to an expansion of what RPA vendors are doing.

“RPA has traditionally focused on automation-UI flow and user steps, but we believe a full automation suite requires that ability to automate processes across the stack. For larger companies, we see their interest in the category as a way to take action on data within their systems. And for standalone RPA vendors, we see this as validation of the category and an invitation to expand their offerings to other pillars of automation,” Thakker said.

The activity we have seen across the automation and workflow space over the last year could be just the beginning of what Thakker and Tornbohm are describing, as companies of all sizes fight to become the automation stack of choice in the coming years.


By Ron Miller

Why Adam Selipsky was the logical choice to run AWS

When AWS CEO Andy Jassy announced in an email to employees yesterday that Tableau CEO Adam Selipsky was returning to run AWS, it was probably not the choice most considered. But to the industry watchers we spoke to over the last couple of days, it was a move that made absolute sense once you thought about it.

Gartner analyst Ed Anderson says that the cultural fit was probably too good for Jassy to pass up. Selipsky spent 11 years helping build the division. It was someone he knew well and had worked side by side with for over a decade. He could slide into the new role and be trusted to continue building the lucrative division.

Anderson says that even though the size and scope of AWS has changed dramatically since Selipsky left in 2016 when the company closed the year on $16 billion run rate, he says that the organization’s cultural dynamics haven’t changed all that much.

“Success in this role requires a deep understanding of the Amazon/AWS culture in addition to a vision for AWS’s future growth. Adam already knows the AWS culture from his previous time at AWS. Yes, AWS was a smaller business when he left, but the fundamental structure and strategy was in place and the culture hasn’t notably evolved since then,” Anderson told me.

Matt McIlwain, managing director at Madrona Venture Group says the experience Selipsky had after he left AWS will prove invaluable when he returns.

“Adam transformed Tableau from a desktop, licensed software company to a cloud, subscription software company that thrived. As the leader of AWS, Adam is returning to a culture he helped grow as the sales and marketing leader that brought AWS to prominence and broke through from startup customers to become the leading enterprise solution for public cloud,” he said.

Holger Mueller, an analyst with Constellation Research says that Selipsky’s business experience gave him the edge over other candidates. “His business acumen won out over [internal candidates] Matt Garmin and Peter DeSantis. Insight on how Salesforce works may be helpful and valued as well,” Mueller pointed out.

As for leaving Tableau and with it Salesforce, the company that purchased it for $15.7 billion in 2019, Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials believes that it was only a matter of time before some of these acquired company CEOs left to do other things. In fact, he’s surprised it didn’t happen sooner.

“Given Salesforce’s growing stable of top notch CEOs accumulated by way of a slew of high profile acquisitions, you really can’t expect them all to stay forever, and given Adam Selipsky’s tenure at AWS before becoming Tableau’s CEO, this move makes a whole lot of sense. Amazon brings back one of their own, and he is also a wildly successful CEO in his own right,” Leary said.

While the consensus is that Selipsky is a good choice, he is going to have awfully big shoes to fill.  The fact is that division is continuing to grow like a large company currently on a run rate of over $50 billion. With a track record like that to follow, and Jassy still close at hand, Selipsky has to simply continue letting the unit do its thing while putting his own unique stamp on it.

Any kind of change is disconcerting though, and it will be up to him to put customers and employees at ease and plow ahead into the future. Same mission. New boss.


By Ron Miller

Salesforce updates includes sales info overlay for Zoom meetings

The pandemic has clearly had an impact on the way we work, and this is especially true for salespeople. Salesforce introduced a number updates to Sales Cloud this morning including Salesforce Meetings, a smart overlay for Zoom meetings that gives information and advice to the sales team as they interact with potential customers in online meetings.

Bill Patterson, EVP and General Manager of CRM applications at Salesforce says that the company wanted to help sales teams manage these types of interactions better and take advantage of the fact they are digital.

“There’s a broad recognition, not just from Salesforce, but really from every sales organization that selling is forever changed, and I think that there’s been a broad understanding, and maybe a surprise in learning how effective we can be in the from anywhere kind of times, whether that’s in office or not in office or whatever,” Patterson explained.

Salesforce Meetings gives that overlay of information, whether it’s advice to slow down the pace of your speech or information about the person speaking. It can also compile action items and present a To Do list to participants at the end of each meeting to make sure that tasks don’t fall through the cracks.

This is made possible in part through the Einstein intelligence layer that is built across the entire Salesforce platform. In this case, it takes advantage of a new tool called Einstein Intelligent Insights, which the company is also exposing as a feature for developers to build their own solutions using this tool.

For sales people who might find the tool a bit too invasive, you can dial the confidence level of the information up or down on an individual basis, so that you can get a lot of information or a little depending on your needs.

For now, it works with Zoom and the company has been working closely with the Zoom development team to provide the API and SDK tooling it needs to pull something like this off, according to Patterson. He notes that plans are in the works to make it compatible with WebEx and Microsoft Teams in the future.

While the idea was in the works prior to the pandemic, COVID created a sense of urgency for this kind of feature, as well as other features announced today like Pipeline Inspection, which uses AI to analyze the sales pipeline. It searches for changes to deals over time with the goal of finding the ones that could benefit most from coaching or managerial support to get them over the finish line.

Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials says that this ability to capture information in online meetings is changing the way we think about CRM.

“The thing the caught my attention is how tightly integrated video meetings/collaboration is now into sales process. This is really compelling because meeting interactions that may not find their way into the CRM system are now automatically captured,” Leary told me.

Salesforce Meetings is available today, while Pipeline Inspection is expected to be available this summer.


By Ron Miller

Tableau CEO Adam Selipsky is returning to AWS to replace Andy Jassy as CEO

When Amazon announced last month that Jeff Bezos was moving into the executive chairman role, and AWS CEO Andy Jassy would be taking over the entire Amazon operation, speculation began about who would replace Jassy.

People considered a number of internal candidates such as Peter DeSantis, vice president of global infrastructure at AWS and Matt Garman, who is vice president of sales and marketing. Not many would have chosen Tableau CEO Adam Selipsky, but sure enough he is returning home to run the division he left in 2016.

In an email to employees, Jassy wasted no time getting to the point that Selipsky was his choice, saying that the former employee who helped launch the division when they hired him 2005, spent 11 years helping Jassy build the unit before taking the job at Tableau. Through that lens, the the choice makes perfect sense.

“Adam brings strong judgment, customer obsession, team building, demand generation, and CEO experience to an already very strong AWS leadership team. And, having been in such a senior role at AWS for 11 years, he knows our culture and business well,” Jassy wrote in the email.

Jassy has run the AWS since its earliest days taking it from humble beginnings as a kind of internal experiment on running a storage web service to building a mega division currently on a $51 billion run rate. It is that juggernaut that will be Selipsky to run, but he seems well suited for the job.

He is a seasoned executive, and while he’s been away from AWS when it really began to grow, he still understands the culture well enough to step smoothly into the role.  At the same, he’s leaving Tableau, a company he helped transform from a desktop software company into one firmly in the cloud.

Salesforce bought Tableau in June 2019 for a cool $15.7 billion and Selipsky has remained at the helm since then, but perhaps the lure of running AWS was too great and he decided to take the leap to the new job.

When we wrote a story at the end of last year about Salesforce’s deep bench of executive talent one of the CEOs we pointed at as a possible replacement was Selipsky. But with it looking more like president and COO Bret Taylor would be the heir apparent, perhaps Selipsky was ready for a new challenge.

Selipsky will make his return to AWS on May 17th and spend a few weeks with Jassy in a transitional time before taking over to run the division on his own. As Jassy slides into the Amazon CEO role, it’s clear the two will continue to work closely together, just like they did all those years ago.


By Ron Miller

ServiceNow takes RPA plunge by acquiring India-based startup Intellibot

ServiceNow became the latest company to take the robotic process automation (RPA) plunge when it announced it was acquiring Intellibot, an RPA startup based in Hyderabad, India. The companies did not reveal the purchase price.

The purchase comes at a time where companies are looking to automate workflows across the organization. RPA provides a way to automate a set of legacy processes, which often involve humans dealing with mundane repetitive work.

The announcement comes on the heels of the company’s no-code workflow announcements earlier this month and is part of the company’s broader workflow strategy, according to Josh Kahn, SVP of Creator Workflow Products at ServiceNow.

“RPA enhances ServiceNow’s current automation capabilities including low code tools, workflow, playbooks, integrations with over 150 out of the box connectors, machine learning, process mining and predictive analytics,” Khan explained. He says that the company can now bring RPA natively to the platform with this acquisition, yet still use RPA bots from other vendors if that’s what the customer requires.

“ServiceNow customers can build workflows that incorporate bots from the pure play RPA vendors such as Automation Anywhere, UiPath and Blue Prism, and we will continue to partner with those companies. There will be many instances where customers want to use our native RPA capabilities alongside those from our partners as they build intelligent, end-to-end automation workflows on the Now Platform,” Khan explained.

The company is making this purchase as other enterprise vendors enter the RPA market. SAP announced a new RPA tool at the end of December and acquired process automation startup Signavio in January. Meanwhile Microsoft announced a free RPA tool earlier this month, as the space is clearly getting the attention of these larger vendors.

ServiceNow has been on a buying spree over the last year or so buying five companies including Element AI, Loom Systems, Passage AI and Sweagle. Khan says the acquisitions are all in the service of helping companies create automation across the organization.

“As we bring all of these technologies into the Now Platform, we will accelerate our ability to automate more and more sophisticated use cases. Things like better handling of unstructured data from documents such as written forms, emails and PDFs, and more resilient automations such as larger data sets and non-routine tasks,” Khan said.

Intellibot was founded in 2015 and will provide the added bonus of giving ServiceNow a stronger foothold in India. The companies expect to close the deal no later than June.

 


By Ron Miller