GitLab raises $195M in secondary funding on $6B valuation

GitLab has confirmed with TechCrunch that it raised a $195 million secondary round on a $6 billion valuation. CNBC broke the story earlier today.

The company’s impressive valuation comes after its most recent 2019 Series E in which it raised $268 million on a 2.75 billion valuation, an increase of $3.25 billion in under 18 months. Company co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij believes the increase is due to his company’s progress adding functionality to the platform.

“We believe the increase in valuation over the past year reflects the progress of our complete DevOps platform towards realizing a greater share of the growing, multi-billion dollar software development market,” he told TechCrunch.

While the startup has raised over $434 million, this round involved buying employee stock options, a move that allows the company’s workers to cash in some of their equity prior to going public. CNBC reported that the firms buying the stock included Alta Park, HMI Capital, OMERS Growth Equity, TCV and Verition.

The next logical step would be appear to be IPO, something the company has never shied away from. In fact, it actually at one point included the proposed date of November 18, 2020 as a target IPO date on the company wiki. While they didn’t quite make that goal, Sijbrandij still sees the company going public at some point. He’s just not being so specific as in the past, suggesting that the company has plenty of runway left from the last funding round and can go public when the timing is right.

“We continue to believe that being a public company is an integral part of realizing our mission. As a public company, GitLab would benefit from enhanced brand awareness, access to capital, shareholder liquidity, autonomy and transparency,” he said.

He added, “That said, we want to maximize the outcome by selecting an opportune time. Our most recent capital raise was in 2019 and contributed to an already healthy balance sheet. A strong balance sheet and business model, enables us to select a period that works best for realizing our long term goals.”

GitLab has not only published IPO goals on its Wiki, but it’s entire company philosophy, goals and OKRs for everyone to see. Sijbrandij told TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm at a TechCrunch Disrupt panel in September, he believes that transparency helps attract and keep employees. It doesn’t hurt that the company was and remains a fully remote organization, even pre-COVID.

“We started [this level of] transparency to connect with the wider community around GitLab, but it turned out to be super beneficial for attracting great talent as well,” Sijbrandij told Wilhelm in September.

The company, which launched in 2014, offers a DevOps platform to help move applications through the programming lifecycle.


By Ron Miller

Harness snags $85M Series C on $1.7B valuation as revenue grows 3x

Harness, the startup that wants to create a suite of engineering tools to give every company the kind of technological reach that the biggest companies have, announced an $85 million Series C today on a $1.7 billion valuation.

Today’s round comes after 2019’s $60 million Series B, which had a $500 million valuation, showing a company rapidly increasing in value. For a company that launched just three years ago, this is a fairly remarkable trajectory.

Alkeon Capital led the round with help from new investors Battery Ventures, Citi Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, Sorenson Capital and Thomvest Ventures. The startup also revealed a previously unannounced $30 million B-1 round raised after the $60 million round, bringing the total raised to date to $195 million.

Company founder and CEO Jyoti Bansal previously founded AppDynamics, which he sold to Cisco in 2017 for $3.7 billion. With his track record, investors came looking for him this round. It didn’t hurt that revenue grew almost 3x last year.

“The business is doing very well, so the investor community has been proactively reaching out and trying to invest in us. We were not actually planning to raise a round until later this year. We had enough capital to get through that, but there were a lot of people wanting to invest,” Bansal told me.

In fact, he said there is so much investor interest that he could have raised twice as much, but didn’t feel a need to take on that much capital at this time. “Overall, the investor community sees the value in developer tools and the DevOps market. There are so many big public companies now in that space that have gone out in the last three to five years and that has definitely created even more validation of this space,” he said.

Bansal says that he started the company with the goal of making every company as good as Google or Facebook when it comes to engineering efficiency. Since most companies lack the engineering resources of these large companies, that’s a tall task, but one he thinks he can solve through software.

The company started by building a continuous delivery module. A cloud cost efficiency module followed. Last year the company bought open source continuous integration company Drone.io and they are working on building that into the platform now with it currently in beta. There are additional modules on the product roadmap coming this year, according to Bansal.

As the company continued to grow revenue and build out the platform in 2020, it also added a slew of new employees, growing from 200 to 300 during the pandemic. Bansal says that he has plans to add another 200 by the end of this year. Harness has a reputation of being a good place to work, recently landing on Glassdoor’s best companies list.

As an experienced entrepreneur, Bansal takes building a diverse company with a welcoming culture very seriously. “Yes, you have to provide equal opportunity and make sure that you are open to hiring people from diverse backgrounds, but you have to be more proactive about it in the sense that you have to make sure that your company environment and company culture feels very welcoming to everyone,” he said.

It’s been a difficult time building a company during the pandemic, adding so many new employees, and finding a way to make everyone feel welcome and included. Bansal says he has actually seen productivity increase during the pandemic, but now has to guard against employee burnout.

He says that people didn’t know how to draw boundaries when working at home. One thing he did was introduce a program to give everyone one Friday a month off to recharge. The company also recently announced it would be a ‘work from anywhere’ company post-COVID, but Bansal still plans on having regional offices where people can meet when needed.


By Ron Miller

Slim.ai announces $6.6M seed to build container DevOps platform

We are more than seven years into the notion of modern containerization, and it still requires a complex set of tools and a high level of knowledge on how containers work. The DockerSlim open source project developed several years ago from a desire to remove some of that complexity for developers.

Slim.ai, a new startup that wants to build a commercial product on top of the open source project, announced a $6.6 million seed round today from Boldstart Ventures, Decibel Partners, FXP Ventures and TechAviv Founder Partners.

Company co-founder and CEO John Amaral says he and fellow co-founder and CTO Kyle Quest have worked together for years, but it was Quest who started and nurtured DockerSlim. “We started coming together around a project that Kyle built called DockerSlim. He’s the primary author, inventor and up until we started doing this company, the sole proprietor of that of that community,” Amaral explained.

At the time Quest built DockerSlim in 2015, he was working with Docker containers and he wanted a way to automate some of the lower level tasks involved in dealing with them. “I wanted to solve my own pain points and problems that I had to deal with, and my team had to deal with dealing with containers. Containers were an exciting new technology, but there was a lot of domain knowledge you needed to build production-grade applications and not everybody had that kind of domain expertise on the team, which is pretty common in almost every team,” he said.

He originally built the tool to optimize container images, but he began looking at other aspects of the DevOps lifecycle including the author, build, deploy and run phases. He found as he looked at that, he saw the possibility of building a commercial company on top of the open source project.

Quinn says that while the open source project is a starting point, he and Amaral see a lot of areas to expand. “You need to integrate it into your developer workflow and then you have different systems you deal with, different container registries, different cloud environments and all of that. […] You need a solution that can address those needs and doing that through an open source tool is challenging, and that’s where there’s a lot of opportunity to provide premium value and have a commercial product offering,” Quinn explained.

Ed Sim, founder and general partner at Boldstart Ventures, one of the seed investors sees a company bringing innovation to an area of technology where it has been lacking, while putting some more control in the hands of developers. “Slim can shift that all left and give developers the power through the Slim tools to answer all those questions, and then, boom, they can develop containers, push them into production and then DevOps can do their thing,” he said.

They are just 15 people right now including the founders, but Amaral says building a diverse and inclusive company is important to him, and that’s why one of his early hires was head of culture. “One of the first two or three people we brought into the company was our head of culture. We actually have that role in our company now, and she is a rock star and a highly competent and focused person on building a great culture. Culture and diversity to me are two sides of the same coin,” he said.

The company is still in the very early stages of developing that product. In the meantime, they continue to nurture the open source project and to build a community around that. They hope to use that as a springboard to build interest in the commercial product, which should be available some time later this year.


By Ron Miller

F5 snags Volterra multi-cloud management startup for $500M

F5, the applications networking company announced today that it is acquiring Volterra, a multi-cloud management startup for $500 million. That breaks down to $440 million in cash and $60 million in deferred and unvested incentive compensation.

Volterra emerged in 2019 with a $50 million investment from multiple sources including Khosla Ventures and Mayfield along with strategic investors like M12 (Microsoft’s venture arm) and Samsung Ventures. As the company described it to me at the time of the funding:

Volterra has innovated a consistent, cloud-native environment that can be deployed across multiple public clouds and edge sites — a distributed cloud platform. Within this SaaS-based offering, Volterra integrates a broad range of services that have normally been siloed across many point products and network or cloud providers.

The solution is designed to provide a single way to view security, operations and management components.

F5 president and CEO François Locoh-Donou sees Volterra’s edge solution integrating across its product line. “With Volterra, we advance our Adaptive Applications vision with an Edge 2.0 platform that solves the complex multi-cloud reality enterprise customers confront. Our platform will create a SaaS solution that solves our customers’ biggest pain points,” he said in a statement.

Volterra founder and CEO Ankur Singla, writing in a company blog post announcing the deal, says the need for this solution only accelerated during 2020 when companies were shifting rapidly to the cloud due to the pandemic. “When we started Volterra, multi-cloud and edge were still buzzwords and venture funding was still searching for tangible use cases. Fast forward three years and COVID-19 has dramatically changed the landscape — it has accelerated digitization of physical experiences and moved more of our day-to-day activities online. This is causing massive spikes in global Internet traffic while creating new attack vectors that impact the security and availability of our increasing set of daily apps,” he wrote.

He sees Volterra’s capabilities fitting in well with the F5 family of products to help solve these issues. While F5 had a quiet 2020 on the M&A front, today’s purchase comes on top of a couple of major acquisitions in 2019 including Shape Security for $1 billion and NGINX for $670 million.

The deal has been approved by both companies boards, and is expected to close before the end of March subject to regulatory approvals.


By Ron Miller

RedHat is acquiring container security company StackRox

RedHat today announced that it’s acquiring container security startup StackRox . The companies did not share the purchase price.

RedHat, which is perhaps best known for its enterprise Linux products has been making the shift to the cloud in recent years. IBM purchased the company in 2018 for a hefty $34 billion and has been leveraging that acquisition as part of a shift to a hybrid cloud strategy under CEO Arvind Krishna.

The acquisition fits nicely with RedHat OpenShift, its container platform, but the company says it will continue to support StackRox usage on other platforms including AWS, Azure and Google Cloud Platform. This approach is consistent with IBM’s strategy of supporting multi-cloud, hybrid environments.

In fact, Red Hat president and CEO Paul Cormier sees the two companies working together well. “Red Hat adds StackRox’s Kubernetes-native capabilities to OpenShift’s layered security approach, furthering our mission to bring product-ready open innovation to every organization across the open hybrid cloud across IT footprints,” he said in a statement.

CEO Kamal Shah, writing in a company blog post announcing the acquisition, explained that the company made a bet a couple of years ago on Kubernetes and it has paid off. “Over two and half years ago, we made a strategic decision to focus exclusively on Kubernetes and pivoted our entire product to be Kubernetes-native. While this seems obvious today; it wasn’t so then. Fast forward to 2020 and Kubernetes has emerged as the de facto operating system for cloud-native applications and hybrid cloud environments,” Shah wrote.

Shah sees the purchase as a way to expand the company and the road map more quickly using the resources of Red Hat (and IBM), a typical argument from CEOs of smaller acquired companies. But the trick is always finding a way to stay relevant inside such a large organization.

StackRox’s acquisition is part of some consolidation we have been seeing in the Kubernetes space in general and the security space more specifically. That includes Palo Alto Networks acquiring competitor TwistLock for $410 million in 2019. Another competitor, Aqua Security, which has raised $130 million, remains independent.

StackRox was founded in 2014 and raised over $65 million, according to Crunchbase data. Investors included Menlo Ventures, Redpoint and Sequoia Capital. The deal is expected to close this quarter subject to normal regulatory scrutiny.


By Ron Miller

Lacework lands $525M investment as revenue grows 300%

As the pandemic took hold in 2020, companies accelerated their move to cloud services. Lacework, the cloud security startup, was in the right place at the right time as customers looked for ways to secure their cloud native workloads. The company reported that revenue grew 300% year over year for the second straight year.

It was rewarded for that kind of performance with a $525 million Series D today. It did not share an exact valuation, only saying that it exceeded $1 billion, which you would expect on such a hefty investment. Sutter Hill and Altimeter Capital led the round with help from D1, Coatue, Dragoneer Investment Group, Liberty Global Ventures, Snowflake Ventures and Tiger Capital. The company has now raised close to $600 million.

Lacework CEO Dan Hubbard says one of the reasons for such widespread interest from investors is the breadth of the company’s security solution. “We enable companies to build securely in the cloud, and we span across multiple different categories of markets, which enable the customers to do that,” he said.

He says that encompasses a range of services including configuration and compliance, security for infrastructure as code, build time and runtime vulnerability scanning and runtime security for cloud native environments like Kubernetes and containers.

As the company has grown revenue, it has been adding employees quickly. It started the year with 92 employees and closed with over 200 with plans to double that by the end of this year. As he looks at hiring, Hubbard is aware of the need to build a diverse organization, but acknowledges that tech in general hasn’t done a great job so far.

He says they are working with the various teams inside the company to try and change that, while also working to support outside organizations that are helping educate under represented groups to get the skills they need and then building from that. “If you can help solve the problem at an earlier stage, then I think you’ve got a bigger opportunity [to have a base of people to hire] there,” he said.

The company was originally nurtured inside Sutter Hill and is built on top of the Snowflake platform. It reports that $20 million of today’s total comes from Snowflake’s new venture arm, which is putting some money into an early partner.

“We were an alpha Snowflake customer, and they were an alpha customer of ours. Our platform is built on top of the Snowflake data cloud and their new venture arm has also joined the round with an investment to further strengthen the partnership there,” Hubbard said.

As for Sutter Hill, investor Mike Speiser sees Lacework as one of his firm’s critical investments. “[Much] like Snowflake at a similar point in its evolution, Lacework is growing revenue at over 300% per year making Lacework one of Sutter Hill Ventures’ most important and promising portfolio companies,” he said in a statement.


By Ron Miller

How Segment redesigned its core systems to solve an existential scaling crisis

Segment, the startup Twilio bought last fall for $3.2 billion, was just beginning to take off in 2015 when it ran into a scaling problem: It was growing so quickly, the tools it had built to process marketing data on its platform were starting to outgrow the original system design.

Inaction would cause the company to hit a technology wall, managers feared. Every early-stage startup craves growth and Segment was no exception, but it also needed to begin thinking about how to make its data platform more resilient or reach a point where it could no longer handle the data it was moving through the system. It was — in a real sense — an existential crisis for the young business.

The project that came out of their efforts was called Centrifuge, and its purpose was to move data through Segment’s data pipes to wherever customers needed it quickly and efficiently at the lowest operating cost.

Segment’s engineering team began thinking hard about what a more robust and scalable system would look like. As it turned out, their vision would evolve in a number of ways between the end of 2015 and today, and with each iteration, they would take a leap in terms of how efficiently they allocated resources and processed data moving through its systems.

The project that came out of their efforts was called Centrifuge, and its purpose was to move data through Segment’s data pipes to wherever customers needed it quickly and efficiently at the lowest operating cost. This is the story of how that system came together.

Growing pains

The systemic issues became apparent the way they often do — when customers began complaining. When Tido Carriero, Segment’s chief product development officer, came on board at the end of 2015, he was charged with finding a solution. The issue involved the original system design, which like many early iterations from startups was designed to get the product to market with little thought given to future growth and the technical debt payment was coming due.

“We had [designed] our initial integrations architecture in a way that just wasn’t scalable in a number of different ways. We had been experiencing massive growth, and our CEO [Peter Reinhardt] came to me maybe three times within a month and reported various scaling challenges that either customers or partners of ours had alerted him to,” said Carriero.

The good news was that it was attracting customers and partners to the platform at a rapid clip, but it could all have come crashing down if the company didn’t improve the underlying system architecture to support the robust growth. As Carriero reports, that made it a stressful time, but having come from Dropbox, he was actually in a position to understand that it’s possible to completely rearchitect the business’s technology platform and live to tell about it.

“One of the things I learned from my past life [at Dropbox] is when you have a problem that’s just so core to your business, at a certain point you start to realize that you are the only company in the world kind of experiencing this problem at this kind of scale,” he said. For Dropbox that was related to storage, and for Segment it was processing large amounts of data concurrently.

In the build-versus-buy equation, Carriero knew that he had to build his way out of the problem. There was nothing out there that could solve Segment’s unique scaling issues. “Obviously that led us to believe that we really need to think about this a little bit differently, and that was when our Centrifuge V2 architecture was born,” he said.

Building the imperfect beast

The company began measuring system performance, at the time processing 8,442 events per second. When it began building V2 of its architecture, that number had grown to an average of 18,907 events per second.


By Ron Miller

Chronosphere nabs $43M Series B to expand cloud native monitoring tool

Chronosphere, the scalable cloud native monitoring tool launched in 2019 by two former Uber engineers, announced a $43.4 million Series B today. The company also announced that their service was generally available starting today.

Greylock, Lux Capital and venture capitalist Lee Fixel, all of whom participated in the startup’s $11 million Series A in 2019, led the round with participation from new investor General Atlantic. The company has raised $54.4 million.

The two founders, CEO Martin Mao and CTO Rob Skillington, created the open source M3 monitoring project while they were working at Uber, and left in 2019 to launch Chronosphere, a startup based on that project. As Mao told me at the time of the A round, the company wanted to simplify the management of running the open source project:

“M3 itself is a fairly complex piece of technology to run. It is solving a fairly complex problem at large scale, and running it actually requires a decent amount of investment to run at large scale, so the first thing we’re doing is taking care of that management,” Mao said.

He said that the company spent most of last year iterating the product and working with beta customers, adding that they certainly benefited from building the commercial service on top of the open source project.

“I think we’re lucky that we have the foundation already from the open source project, but we really wanted to focus a lot on building a product on top of that technology and really have this product be differentiated, so that was most of the focus of 2020 for us,” he said.

Mao points out that he and Skillington weren’t looking for this new round of funding as they still had money left from the A round, but the company’s previous investors approached them and they decided to strike to add additional money to the balance sheet, which would help grow the company, attract employees and help reassure customers they had plenty of capital to continue building the product and the company.

As the company has developed over the last year, it has been adding employees at a rapid clip, growing from 13 at the time of the A round in 2019 to 50 today with plans to double that by the end of next year. Mao says the founders have been thinking about how to build a diverse company from its early days.

“So […] beginning last year we were making sure we were hiring the right leaders, and the right recruiting team who also care about diversity, then following that we made company-wide goals and targets for both gender and ethnic diversity, and then [we have been] holding ourselves accountable on these particular goals and tracking against them,” Mao said.

The company has been spread out from the beginning, even before COVID, with offices in Seattle, New York and Lithuania, and that has helped in terms of having a broader base to recruit from. Mao wants to remain mostly remote whenever it’s possible to return to the office, but maintain hubs on each coast where employees can meet and see each other in person.

With the product generally available today, the company will look to expand its customer base, and with the open source project to drive interest, they have a proven way to attract new customers to the commercial product.


By Ron Miller

Salesforce has built a deep bench of executive talent via acquisition

When Salesforce acquired Quip in 2016 for $750 million, it gained CEO and co-founder Bret Taylor as part of the deal. Taylor has since risen quickly through the ranks of the software giant to become president and COO, second in command behind CEO Marc Benioff. Taylor’s experience shows that startup founders can sometimes play a key role in the companies that acquire them.

Benioff, 56, has been running Salesforce since its founding more than 20 years ago. While he hasn’t given any public hints that he intends to leave anytime soon, if he wanted to step back from the day-to-day running of the company or even job share the role, he has a deep bench of executive talent including many experienced CEOs, who like Taylor came to the company via acquisition.

One way to step back from the enormous responsibility of running Salesforce would be by sharing the role.

He and his wife Lynne have been active in charitable giving and in 2016 signed The Giving Pledge, an initiative from the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to give a majority of their wealth to philanthropy. One could see him wanting to put more time into pursuing these charitable endeavors just as Gates did 20 years ago. As a means of comparison, Gates founded Microsoft in 1975 and stayed for 25 years until he left in 2000 to run his charitable foundation full time.

Even if this remains purely speculative for the moment, there is a group of people behind him with deep industry experience, who could be well-suited to take over should the time ever come.

Resurrecting the co-CEO role

One way to step back from the enormous responsibility of running Salesforce would be by sharing the role. In fact, for more than a year starting in 2018, Benioff actually shared the top job with Keith Block until his departure last year. When they worked together, the arrangement seemed to work out just fine with Block dealing with many larger customers and helping the software giant reach its $20 billion revenue goal.

Before Block became co-CEO, he had a myriad other high-level titles including co-chairman, president and COO — two of which, by the way, Taylor has today. That was a lot of responsibility for one person inside a company the size of Salesforce, but promoting him to co-CEO from COO gave the company a way to reward his hard work and help keep him from jumping ship (he eventually did anyway).

As Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research points out, the co-CEO concept has worked out well at major enterprise companies that have tried it in the past, and it helped with continuity. “Salesforce, SAP and Oracle all didn’t miss a beat really with the co-CEO departures,” he said.

If Benioff wanted to go back to the shared responsibility model and take some work off his plate, making Taylor (or someone else) co-CEO would be one way to achieve that. Certainly, Brent Leary, lead analyst at CRM Essentials sees Taylor gaining increasing responsibility as time goes along, giving credence to the idea.

“Ever since Quip was acquired Taylor seemed to be on the fast track, becoming president and chief product officer less than a year-and-a-half after the acquisition, and then two years later being promoted to chief operating officer,” Leary said.

Who else could be in line?

While Taylor isn’t the only person who could step into Benioff’s shoes, he looks like he has the best shot at the moment, especially in light of the $27.7 billion Slack deal he helped deliver earlier this month.

“Taylor being publicly praised by Benioff for playing a significant role in the Slack acquisition, Salesforce’s largest acquisition to date, shows how much he has solidified his place at the highest levels of influence and decision-making in the organization,” Leary pointed out.

But Mueller posits that his rapid promotions could also show something might be lacking with internal options, especially around product. “Taylor is a great, smart guy, but his rise shows more the product organization bench depth challenges that Salesforce has,” he said.


By Ron Miller

VMware files suit against former exec for moving to rival company

Earlier this month, when Nutanix announced it was hiring former VMware COO Rajiv Ramaswami as CEO, it looked like a good match. What’s more, it pulled a key player from a market rival. Well, it seems VMware took exception to losing the executive, and filed a lawsuit against him yesterday for breach of contract.

The company is claiming that Ramaswami had inside knowledge of the key plans of his former company and that he should have told them that he was interviewing for a job at a rival organization.

Rajiv Ramaswami failed to honor his fiduciary and contractual obligations to VMware. For at least two months before resigning from the company, at the same time he was working with senior leadership to shape VMware’s key strategic vision and direction, Mr. Ramaswami also was secretly meeting with at least the CEO, CFO, and apparently the entire Board of Directors of Nutanix, Inc. to become Nutanix’s Chief Executive Officer. He joined Nutanix as its CEO only two days after leaving VMware,” the company wrote in a statement.

As you can imagine, Nutanix didn’t agree, countering in a statement of its own that, “VMware’s lawsuit seeks to make interviewing for a new job wrongful. We view VMware’s misguided action as a response to losing a deeply valued and respected member of its leadership team. Mr. Ramaswami and Nutanix have gone above and beyond to be proactive and cooperative with VMware throughout the transition.”

At the time of the hiring, analyst Holger Mueller from Constellation Research noted that the two companies were primary competitors and hiring Ramawami was was a big win for Nutanix. “So hiring Ramaswami brings both an expert for multi-cloud to the Nutanix helm, as well as weakening a key competitor from a talent perspective,” he told me earlier this month.

Mueller doesn’t see much chance of the suit succeeding. “It’s been a long time since the last lawsuit happened in Silicon Valley [involving] a tech exec jumping ship. Being an ‘Employment at Will’ state, these suits are typically unsuccessful,” he told me this morning.

He added, “The interesting part of the VMware vs Nutanix lawsuit is, does a high ranking executive interviewing a competitor equal a break of confidentiality by itself, or does material information have to be breached to reach the point. Traditionally the right to (confidentially) interview has been protected by the courts,” he said.

It’s unclear what the end game would be in this type of legal action, but it does complicate matters for Nutanix as it transitions to a new chief executive. Ramaswami took over from co-founder Dheeraj Pandey, who announced plans to leave the post last summer.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in Superior Court of the State of California, County of Santa Clara.


By Ron Miller

Looking ahead after 2020’s epic M&A spree

When we examine any year in enterprise M&A, it’s tempting to highlight the biggest, gaudiest deals — and there were plenty of those in 2020. I’ve written about 34 acquisitions so far this year. Of those, 15 were worth $1 billion or more, 12 were small enough to not require that the companies disclose the price and the remainder fell somewhere in between.

Four deals involving chip companies coming together totaled over $100 billion on their own. While nobody does eye-popping M&A quite like the chip industry, other sectors also offered their own eyebrow-raising deals, led by Salesforce buying Slack earlier this month for $27.7 billion.

We are likely to see more industries consolidate the way chips did in 2020, albeit probably not quite as dramatically or expensively.

Yet in spite of the drama of these larger numbers, the most interesting targets to me were the pandemic-driven smaller deals that started popping up in May. Those small acquisitions are the ones that are so insignificant that the company doesn’t have to share the purchase price publicly. They usually involve early-stage companies being absorbed by cash-rich concerns looking for some combination of missing technology or engineering talent in a particular area like security or artificial intelligence.

It was certainly an active year in M&A, and we still might not have seen the last of it. Let’s have a look at why those minor deals were so interesting and how they compared with larger ones, while looking ahead to what 2021 M&A might look like.

Early-stage blues

It’s always hard to know exactly why an early-stage startup would give up its independence by selling to a larger entity, but we can certainly speculate on some of the reasons why this year’s rapid-fire dealing started in May. While we can never know for certain why these companies decided to exit via acquisition, we know that in April, the pandemic hit full force in the United States and the economy began to shut down.

Some startups were particularly vulnerable, especially companies low on cash in the April timeframe. Obviously companies fail when they run out of funding, and we started seeing early-stage startups being scooped up the following month.

We don’t know for sure of course if there is a direct correlation between April’s economic woes and the flurry of deals that started in May, but we can reasonably speculate that there was. For some percentage of them, I’m guessing it was a fire sale or at least a deal made under less than ideal terms. For others, maybe they simply didn’t have the wherewithal to keep going under such adverse economic conditions or the partnerships were just too good to pass up.

It’s worth noting that I didn’t cover any deals in April. But, beginning on May 7, Zoom bought Keybase for its encryption expertise; five days later Atlassian bought Halp for Slack integration; and the day after that VMware bought cloud native security startup Octarine — and we were off and running. Granted the big companies benefited from making these acquisitions, but the timing stood out.


By Ron Miller

IBM snags Nordcloud to add multi-cloud consulting expertise

IBM has been busy since it announced plans to spin out its legacy infrastructure management business in October, placing an all-in bet on the hybrid cloud. Today, it built on that bet by acquiring Helsinki-based multi-cloud consulting firm Nordcloud. The companies did not share the purchase price.

Nordcloud fits neatly into this strategy with 500 consultants certified in AWS, Azure and Google Cloud Platform; giving the company a trained staff of experts to help as they move away from an IBM -centric solution to choosing to work with the customer however they wish to implement their cloud strategy.

This hybrid approach harkens back to the $34 billion Red Hat acquisition in 2018, which is really the lynchpin for this approach, as CEO Arvind Krishna told CNBC’s Jon Fortt in an interview last month. Krishna is in the midst of trying to completely transform his organization, and acquisitions like this are meant to speed up that process.

“The Red Hat acquisition gave us the technology base on which to build a hybrid cloud technology platform based on open-source, and based on giving choice to our clients as they embark on this journey. With the success of that acquisition now giving us the fuel, we can then take the next step, and the larger step, of taking the managed infrastructure services out. So the rest of the company can be absolutely focused on hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence.”

John Granger, senior vice president for cloud application innovation and COO for IBM Global Business Services says that IBM’s customers are increasingly looking for help managing resources across multiple vendors, as well as on premises.

“IBM’s acquisition of Nordcloud adds the kind of deep expertise that will drive our clients’ digital transformations as well as support the further adoption of IBM’s hybrid cloud platform. Nordcloud’s cloud-native tools, methodologies and talent send a strong signal that IBM is committed to deliver our clients’ successful journey to cloud,” Granger said in a statement.

After the deal closes, which is expected in the first quarter next year subject to typical regulatory approvals, Nordcloud will become an IBM company and operate to help continue this strategy.

It’s worth noting that this deal comes on the heels several other small recent deals including acquiring Expertus last week and Truqua and Instana last month. These three companies provide expertise in digital payments, SAP consulting and hybrid cloud applications performance monitoring respectively.

Nordcloud, which is based in Helsinki with offices in Amsterdam, was founded 2011 and raised over $26 million, according to Pitchbook data.

 


By Ron Miller

Amazon asks judge to set aside Microsoft’s $10B DoD JEDI cloud contract win

It’s been more than two years since the Pentagon announced its $10 billion, decade long JEDI cloud contract, which was supposed to provide a pathway to technological modernization for U.S. armed forces. While Microsoft was awarded the contract in October 2019, Amazon went to court to protest that decision, and it has been in legal limbo ever since.

Yesterday marked another twist in this government procurement saga when Amazon released its latest legal volley, asking a judge to set aside the decision to select Microsoft. Its arguments are similar to ones it has made before, but this time takes aim at the Pentagon’s reevaluation process, which after reviewing the contract and selection process, still found in a decision released this past September that Microsoft had won.

Amazon believes that reevaluation was highly flawed, and subject to undue influence, bias and pressure from the president. Based on this, Amazon has asked the court to set aside the award to Microsoft .

The JEDI reevaluations and re-award decision have fallen victim to an Administration that suppresses the good-faith analysis and reasoning of career officials for political reasons — ultimately to the detriment of national security and the efficient and lawful use of taxpayer dollars. DoD has demonstrated again that it has not executed this procurement objectively and in good faith. This re-award should be set aside.

As you might imagine, Frank X. Shaw, corporate vice president for communications at Microsoft does not agree, believing his company won on merit and by providing the best price.

“As the losing bidder, Amazon was informed of our pricing and they realized they’d originally bid too high. They then amended aspects of their bid to achieve a lower price. However, when looking at all the criteria together, the career procurement officials at the DoD decided that given the superior technical advantages and overall value, we continued to offer the best solution,” Shaw said in a statement shared with TechCrunch.

As for Amazon, a spokesperson told TechCrunch, “We are simply seeking a fair and objective review by the court, regarding the technical errors, bias and political interference that blatantly impacted this contract award.”

And so it goes.

The Pentagon announced it was putting out a bid for a $10 billion, decade long contract in 2018, dubbing it JEDI, short for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure. The procurement process has been mired in controversy from the start, and the size and scope of the deal has attracted widespread attention, much more than your typical government contract. It brought with it claims of bias, particularly by Oracle, that the bidding process was designed to favor Amazon.

We are more than two years beyond the original announcement. We are more than year beyond the original award to Microsoft, and it still remains stuck in a court battle with two major tech companies continuing to snipe at one another. With neither likely to give in, it will be up to the court to decide the final outcome, and perhaps end this saga once and for all.

Note: The DoD did not respond to our request for comment. Should that change, we will update the story.


By Ron Miller

Twitter taps AWS for its latest foray into the public cloud

Twitter has a lot going on, and it’s not always easy to manage that kind of scale on your own. Today, Amazon announced that Twitter has chosen AWS to run its real-time timelines. It’s a major win for Amazon’s cloud arm.

While the companies have worked together in some capacity for over a decade, this marks the first time that Twitter is tapping AWS to help run its core timelines.

“This expansion onto AWS marks the first time that Twitter is leveraging the public cloud to scale their real-time service. Twitter will rely on the breadth and depth of AWS, including capabilities in compute, containers, storage, and security, to reliably deliver the real-time service with the lowest latency, while continuing to develop and deploy new features to improve how people use Twitter,” the company explained in the announcement.

Parag Agrawal, Chief Technology Officer at Twitter sees this as a way to expand and improve the company’s real-time offerings by taking advantage of AWS’s network of data centers to deliver content closer to the user. “The collaboration with AWS will improve performance for people who use Twitter by enabling us to serve Tweets from data centers closer to our customers at the same time as we leverage the Arm-based architecture of AWS Graviton2 instances. In addition to helping us scale our infrastructure, this work with AWS enables us to ship features faster as we apply AWS’s diverse and growing portfolio of services,” Agrawal said in a statement.

It’s worth noting that Twitter also has a relationship with Google Cloud. In 2018, it announced it was moving its Hadoop clusters to GCP.

This announcement could be considered a case of the rich getting richer as AWS is the leader in the cloud infrastructure market by far with around 33% market share. Microsoft is in second with around 18% and Google is in third with 9%, according to Synergy Research. In its most recent earnings report, Amazon reported that $11.6 billion in AWS revenue putting it on a run rate of over $46 billion.


By Ron Miller

AWS announces SageMaker Clarify to help reduce bias in machine learning models

As companies rely increasingly on machine learning models to run their businesses, it’s imperative to include anti-bias measures to ensure these models are not making false or misleading assumptions. Today at AWS re:Invent, AWS introduced Amazon SageMaker Clarify to help reduce bias in machine learning models.

“We are launching Amazon SageMaker Clarify. And what that does is it allows you to have insight into your data and models throughout your machine learning lifecycle,” Bratin Saha, Amazon VP and general manager of machine learning told TechCrunch.

He says that it is designed to analyze the data for bias before you start data prep, so you can find these kinds of problems before you even start building your model.

“Once I have my training data set, I can [look at things like if I have] an equal number of various classes, like do I have equal numbers of males and females or do I have equal numbers of other kinds of classes, and we have a set of several metrics that you can use for the statistical analysis so you get real insight into easier data set balance,” Saha explained.

After you build your model, you can run SageMaker Clarify again to look for similar factors that might have crept into your model as you built it. “So you start off by doing statistical bias analysis on your data, and then post training you can again do analysis on the model,” he said.

There are multiple types of bias that can enter a model due to the background of the data scientists building the model, the nature of the data and how they data scientists interpret that data through the model they built. While this can be problematic in general it can also lead to racial stereotypes being extended to algorithms. As an example, facial recognition systems have proven quite accurate at identifying white faces, but much less so when it comes to recognizing people of color.

It may be difficult to identify these kinds of biases with software as it often has to do with team makeup and other factors outside the purview of a software analysis tool, but Saha says they are trying to make that software approach as comprehensive as possible.

“If you look at SageMaker Clarify it gives you data bias analysis, it gives you model bias analysis, it gives you model explainability it gives you poor inference explainability it gives you a global explainability,” Saha said.

Saha says that Amazon is aware of the bias problem and that is why it created this tool to help, but he recognizes that this tool alone won’t eliminate all of the bias issues that can crop up in machine learning models, and they offer other ways to help too.

“We are also working with our customers in various ways. So we have documentation, best practices, and we point our customers to how to be able to architect their systems and work with the system so they get the desired results,” he said.

SageMaker Clarify is available starting to day in multiple regions.


By Ron Miller