Microsoft Azure gets new high-performance storage options

Microsoft Azure is getting a number of new storage options today that mostly focus on use cases where disk performance matters.

The first of these is Azure Ultra SSD Managed Disks, which are now in public preview. Microsoft says that these drives will offer “sub-millisecond latency,” which unsurprisingly makes them ideal for workloads where latency matters.

Earlier this year, Microsoft launched its Premium and Standard SSD Managed Disks offerings for Azure into preview. As far as we can tell, these ‘ultra’ SSDs represent the next tier up from the Premium SSDs with even lower latency and higher throughput.

And talking about Standard SSD Managed Disks, this service is now generally available after only three months in preview. To top things off, all of Azure’s storage tiers (Premium and Standard SSD, as well as Standard HDD) now offer 8, 16 and 32 TB storage capacity.

Also new today is Azure Premium files, which is now in preview. This, too, is an SSD-based service. Azure Files itself isn’t new, though. It offers users access to cloud storage using the standard SMB protocol. This new premium offering promises higher throughput and lower latency for these kind of SMB operations.

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VC firms of Kevin Durant and Snoop Dogg back Dutchie, a new cannabis delivery service

Ross Lipson, the chief executive officer and co-founder of the on-demand marijuana and cannabis delivery service, Dutchie, had thought he was done with the online delivery business.

Instead, he’s launched a new delivery service that has just raised $3 million from Casa Verde Capital, the $45 million venture firm founded by hip hop impresario Snoop Dogg, and Kevin Durant’s Durant Company — among others — to take advantage of the growing demand for marijuana delivery.

It had been only five years since Lipson sold a food delivery business he spent a decade building when the inspiration for Dutchie came to him. And the idea was too compelling to shake.

Lipson was living in Bend, Ore., where he’d retired after selling his online food delivery business GrubCanada to JustEat, the European tech-enabled delivery giant, back in 2012.

Then, in 2015, after Oregon legalized recreational use of marijuana, Lipson began wondering if it wasn’t time to revisit the whole delivery space again.

For him, the conundrum for consumers looking to buy cannabis products was similar to the dilemma in-home diners faced when choosing what to eat. In the modern weed world (at least in places where marijuana is legal), consumers are so spoiled for choice they often go with a default option.

Before online delivery, ordering food meant turning to the neighborhood spot for everything from American to Ethiopian, Italian, Jamaican, Chinese, Indian, Thai, or Tibetan food. But with online delivery services, a whole city’s worth of restaurant options opened up to consumers (as long as they were in your delivery area).

The same, Lipson figured, was true of marijuana.

“We’re creating a tool that helps the user and consumer navigate the delivery space,” he said. “We’re educating the consumer to that buying experiences…. If you don’t have that online ordering tool in front of you you’re forced to choose a dispensary and take the information that that ‘budtender’ gives you, which is their personal preference.”

Right now, marijuana delivery is something of a land grab. In Los Angeles alone, services like Nugg, Ganjarunner, Kushfly, Eaze, HERB, Westside Organic, and Cannabis Express, all pitch delivery services for marijuana or cannabis infused products, oils and vapes to willing consumers.

Eaze, the biggest startup in the online delivery space, has raised at least $37 million to tackle the growing market for legal cannabis delivery since its launch in 2014.

Lipson, however, has seen this all before with food. He started Dutchie in 2017 (and yes, it is named after the song) in 2017 from Bend and has been slowly and steadily growing the business. The company signed on 50 dispensaries in Oregon to help prove out the product and just raised $3 million in a seed round from Casa Verde Capital, The Durant Company, Sinai Ventures and other angel investors.

The company currently operates in Oregon, Washington, and Michigan and is launching in Colorado, Nevada and California this month. It currently works with 100 dispensaries and has seen $2.5 million in gross merchandise volume in its first year of operations alone.

To further boost its expansion efforts, the company also signed an agreement with Canopy Rivers (the newly spun off investment and operating arm of $10 billion dollar Canadian cannabis company, Canopy Growth) to operate internationally in Canada. Asked why Lipson didn’t just try to float the business on the Toronto Stock Exchange to take advantage of the exuberance investors have for all things cannabis, the chief executive said he wanted to be more measured in his approach.

“There’s a lot of hype and speculation around the cannabis space especially in the public markets,” Lipson said. “It’s not a traditional way to go about a business of this size. We’re extremely excited and eager to partner with the investors that we did.”

With only 14 employees — many of whom work remotely — Lipson is hoping to roll out aggressively in the next few months across all states in which medical marijuana is legal as well and into Canada as well. 

“We’re priding ourselves on the concept of scalability,” says Lipson. Who’s relying on his co-founder, and brother, Zach, to help him execute. “That’s the underlying mantra of our strategy.”

That mantra of scalability was apparently what attracted Casa Verde, which took only two months to decide to lead the investment round into Lipson’s new venture. “I started talking to them four months ago,” Lipson said. “A month or two into it, they did the deal and took the lead and we’ve just been filling out the round with strategics.”

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Microsoft hopes enterprises will want to use Cortana

In a world dominated by Alexa and the Google Assistant, Cortana suffers the fate of a perfectly good alternative that nobody uses and everybody forgets about. But Microsoft wouldn’t be Microsoft if it just gave up on its investment in this space, so it’s now launching the Cortana Skills Kit for Enterprise to see if that’s a niche where Cortana can succeed.

This new kit is an end-to-end solution for enterprises that want to build their own skills and agents. Of course, they could have done this before using the existing developer tools. This kit isn’t all that different from those, after all. Microsoft notes that it is designed for deployment inside an organization and represents a new platform for them to build these experiences.

The Skills Kit platform is based on the Microsoft Bot Framework and the Azure Cognitive Services Language Understanding feature.

Overall, this is probably not a bad bet on Microsoft’s part. I can see how some enterprises would want to build their own skills for their employees and customers to access internal data, for example, or to complete routine tasks.

For now, this tool is only available in private preview. No word on when we can expect a wider launch.

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Microsoft OneDrive’s on-demand files come to the MacOS Finder

If you live and work in the Microsoft Office ecosystem but often use a Mac, here is some good news: OneDrive Files On-Demand is now available in public preview for MacOS.

Files-On Demand was one of the marquee features of the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update. The general idea here is you can store your files in the cloud and sync them between devices, but while they show up in your Windows Explorer and — now — MacOS Finder, those files don’t actually have to be downloaded. Instead, as the name so smartly implies, Files On-Demand only downloads them as needed, freeing up precious local storage space.

Of course, you can always opt to sync every file, too. You really don’t want to have to sync a 2 GB file over slow airplane Wi-Fi, after all.

Microsoft notes that it is committed to “to the Mac as a first-class endpoint” and that it continues to invest in the platform. And these days, the Mac and Windows versions draw from the same code base and Mac updates arrive at monthly.

While Files On-Demand is about more than Office, chances are that many of the users will be Office users who use the built-in OneDrive features to store their documents in the cloud.

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Microsoft’s massive Surface Hub 2 whiteboards will launch in Q2 2019

The Surface Hub 2, the successor to Microsoft’s first set of giant Windows 10 touchscreen displays for collaboration, will launch in Q2 2019, the company announced today. Previously, the company had only said that it was targeting 2019 for the launch.

The company also today provided a roadmap beyond that, though. First, it will launch the Surface Hub 2S. The S is significantly lighter and slimmer than the original Surface Hub, yet offers the same kind of user experience. The display is a bit smaller, though, and there will only be a 50.5-inch display instead of the 55-inch and 84-inch version previously offered. It’ll also feature a 4K camera, improved microphones and support for Microsoft Teams.

What’s maybe most interesting, though, is that in 2020, Microsoft plans to update the Surface Hub family with the Surface Hub 2X. It’s this update that brings a number of updates to the family that most users have been waiting for (and maybe hoped for from the 2S). The 2X will include the ability to rotate and tile the screen. It will also enable multiuser log in.

The good news here is that Surface Hub owners won’t have to throw away their old displays if they want to upgrade to the 2X. The Surface Hub 2 includes a replaceable processor cartridge, so 2S users will be able to upgrade to the 2X experience.

If you opt for the 2S for now (and if you had a few thousand dollars to spend on a collaborative digital whiteboard, why wouldn’t you?), then you can also make use of the new whiteboard app, use Bing to search (no word on whether you can choose search providers) and get all of the other benefits of the existing Surface Hub experience.

“As with all our devices, Surface Hub 2 was designed to give people a product that will help them create more, do more, and achieve more,” Microsoft says in today’s announcement. “With Surface Hub 2 we believe we have created an experience that not only people, but teams will love. Surface Hub 2 breaks down barriers between teammates and will help organizations around the world to elevate themselves with a more modern and collaborative culture.”

It’s worth noting that Microsoft got a bit of competition since it launched the first version of the Surface Hub. With its Jamboard, Google now offers a similar and somewhat more affordable experience, though if you are in the Microsoft and Office ecosystem, that won’t do you much good.

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