You can now buy AWS’ $99 DeepComposer keyboard

AWS today announced that its DeepComposer keyboard is now available for purchase. And no, DeepComposer isn’t a mechanical keyboard for hackers but a small MIDI keyboard for working with the AWS DeepComposer service that uses AI to create songs based on your input.

First announced at AWS re:Invent 2019, the keyboard created a bit of confusion, in part because Amazon’s announcement almost made it seem like a consumer product. DeepComposer, which also works without the actual hardware keyboard, is more of a learning tool, though, and belongs to the same family of AWS hardware like DeepLens and DeepRacer. It’s meant to teach developers about generative adversarial networks, just like DeepLens and DeepRacer also focus on specific machine learning technologies.

Users play a short melody, either using the hardware keyboard or an on-screen one, and the service then automatically generates a backing track based on your choice of musical style. The results I heard at re:Invent last year were a bit uneven (or worse), but that may have improved by now. But this isn’t a tool for creating the next Top 40 song. It’s simply a learning tool. I’m not sure you need the keyboard to get that learning experience out of it, but if you do, you can now head over to Amazon and buy it.

Google Cloud launches a managed Memcached service

Google today announced the beta of Memorystore for Memcached, a new service that provides a fully managed in-memory datastore that is compatible with the open-source Memcached protocol. It will join Redis in the Memorystore family, which first launched in 2018.

As Gopal Ashok, Google’s product manager for Memorystore notes in today’s announcement, Redis remains a popular choice for use cases like session stores, gaming leaderboard, stream analytics, threat detection and API rate limiting, while Memcached is typically used as a caching layer for databases. Developers also regularly use Memcached as a session store and with this new service, developers can scale their clusters up to 5TB of memory per instance.

Since the service is fully compatible with Memcached, developers should be able to take any of their applications that use the protocol and migrate them over to Google Cloud and its Memorystore platform. As a fully managed service, Google will handle all of the routine tasks like monitoring and patching. Figuring out the right size of a cache remains a bit of an art, though, but Google Cloud argues that its detailed metrics will allow developers to easily scale their instances up and down as needed to optimize the service for their specific use cases. Those metrics, the company notes, are exposed in Cloud Monitoring, Google Cloud’s centralized monitoring dashboard, and the Cloud Console.

Currently, Memorystore for Memcached can be used for applications that run on Compute Engine, Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE), App Engine Flex, App Engine Standard and Cloud Functions.

It’s worth noting that Amazon, with ElastiCache for Memcached, and specialized startups like MemCachier. And Redis Labs, too, is offering a fully managed Memcached service that can run on AWS, Azure and Google Cloud.

Stocks post worst quarter since 2008 financial crisis

The first quarter of 2020 ended with a whimper  — with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, S&P 500 and NASDAQ posting their worst quarter in decades — as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause uncertainty and volatility across all major stock market indices.

At the beginning of the quarter, we were still basking in a decade-long bull market. The global pandemic, and the economic havoc it caused, put an end to those halcyon days. All major American indices dropped into bear-market territory March 12, after shedding the requisite 20% from recent highs.

The rollercoaster continued, with equities bumping along the bottom, periodically popping up, only to fall again as the epicenter of the pandemic shifted from China to Europe and now the United States. The number of cases in the U.S. has prompted states to issue stay at home orders, putting the brakes on business as usual. As a result, unemployment benefits have skyrocketed. Last week alone, around 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, dwarfing numbers set during the 2008-era economic meltdown.

The economic stimulus bill, known as the CARES Act, along with a series of actions taken by the Federal Reserve have provided some lift. But the volatility continues. For the quarter, Dow Jones is down 24.08%, while the S&P is down 20.67% and NASDAQ is off 15.3%.

Here’s the breakdown of what happened today.

  • Dow Jones Industrial Average: declined 1.85%, or 413.11 to 21,914.37
  • S&P 500: slid 1.61%, or 42.18, to 2,584.47
  • Nasdaq Composite: fell 0.95%, or 74.05, to 7,700.10

All sectors were down today with the exception of the energy sector, which saw a lift after being battered for weeks. Meanwhile, investors have fled equities for treasuries, pushing yields down. Case in point: U.S. 10-year yields are down 64% in the first quarter.

SaaS shares fell more than most tech equity in today’s trading, with the Bessemer cloud index off from a little over 2.5%. The index, which tracks a basket of SaaS and cloud shares, is off around 20% from its recent highs. Shares of modern software companies and therefore still technically in a bear market, though just. If recent gains hold, the index will have made up around 10% of its lost ground since recent lows.

Wrapping on cryptocurrencies as we close the book on the quarter, bitcoin posted a net loss for the period. It’s worth just over $6,400 as we write this post.

What a quarter. What a quarter of surprises and turmoil and cut expectations and downgraded hope. Here’s to a better Q2 if we can manage.

Amid shift to remote work, application performance monitoring is IT’s big moment

In recent weeks, millions have started working from home, putting unheard-of pressure on services like video conferencing, online learning, food delivery and e-commerce platforms. While some verticals have seen a marked reduction in traffic, others are being asked to scale to new heights.

Services that were previously nice to have are now necessities, but how do organizations track pressure points that can add up to a critical failure? There is actually a whole class of software to help in this regard.

Monitoring tools like Datadog, New Relic and Elastic are designed to help companies understand what’s happening inside their key systems and warn them when things may be going sideways. That’s absolutely essential as these services are being asked to handle unprecedented levels of activity.

At a time when performance is critical, application performance monitoring (APM) tools are helping companies stay up and running. They also help track root causes should the worst case happen and they go down, with the goal of getting going again as quickly as possible.

We spoke to a few monitoring vendor CEOs to understand better how they are helping customers navigate this demand and keep systems up and running when we need them most.

IT’s big moment

DataStax launches Kubernetes operator for open source Cassandra database

Today, DataStax, the commercial company behind the open source Apache Cassandra project, announced an open source Kubernetes operator developed by the company to run a cloud native version of the database.

When Sam Ramji, chief strategy officer at DataStax, came over from Google last year, the first thing he did was take the pulse of customers, partners and community members around Kubernetes and Cassandra, and they found there was surprisingly limited support.

While some companies had built Kubernetes support themselves, DataStax lacked one to call its own. Given that Kubernetes was born inside Google, and the company has widely embraced the notion of containerization in general, Ramji wanted there to be an operator specifically designed by the company to give customers a general starting point with Kubernetes.

“What’s special about the Kube operator that we’re offering to the community as an opinion — one of many — is that we have done the work to generalize the operator to Cassandra wherever it might be implemented,” Ramji told TechCrunch.

Ramji says that most companies that have created their own Kubernetes operators tend to specialize for their own particular requirements, which is fine, but as the company built on top of Cassandra, they wanted to come up with a general version that could appeal broader range of use cases.

In Kubernetes, the operator is how the DevOps team packages, manages and deploys an application, giving it the instructions it needs to run correctly. DataStax has created this operator specifically to run Cassandra with a broad set of assumptions.

Cassandra is a powerful database because it stays running when many others fall down. As such it is used by companies as varied as Apple, eBay and Netflix to run their key services. This new Kubernetes implementation will enable anyone who wishes to run Cassandra as a containerized application, helping push it into a modern development realm.

The company also announced a free help service for engineers trying to cope with increased usage on their databases due to COVID-19. They are calling the program, “Keep calm and Cassandra on.” The engineers charged with keeping systems like Cassandra running are called Site Reliability Engineers or SREs.

“The new service is completely free SRE-to-SRE support calls. So our SREs are taking calls from Apache Cassandra users anywhere in the world, no matter what version they’re using if they’re trying to figure out how to keep it up to stand up to the increased demand,” Ramji explained.

DataStax was founded in 2010 and has raised over $190 million, according to PitchBook data.

Turbo Systems hires former Looker CMO Jen Grant as CEO

Turbo Systems, a three-year old, no-code mobile app startup, announced today it has brought on industry veteran Jen Grant to be CEO.

Grant, who was previously vice president of marketing at Box and chief marketing officer at Elastic and Looker, brings more than 15 years of tech company experience to the young startup.

She says that when Looker got acquired by Google last June for $2.6 billion, she began looking for her next opportunity. She had done a stint with Google as a product manager earlier in her career and was looking for something new.

She saw Looker as a model for the kind of company she wanted to join, one that had a founder focused on product and engineering, who hired an outside CEO early on to run the business, as Looker had done. She found that in Turbo where founder Hari Subramanian was taking on that type of role. Subramanian was also a successful entrepreneur, having previously founded ServiceMax before selling it to GE in 2016.

“The first thing that really drew me to Turbo was this partnership with Hari,” Grant told TechCrunch. While that relationship was a key component for her, she says even with that, before she decided to join, she spoke to customers and she saw an enthusiasm there that drew her to the company.

“I love products that actually help people. And so Box is helping people collaborate and share files and work together. Looker is about getting data to everyone in the organization so that everyone could be making great decisions, and at Turbo we’re making it easy for anyone to create a mobile app that helps run their business,” she said.

Grant has been on the job for just 30 days, joining the company in the middle of a global pandemic. So it’s even more challenging than the typical early days for any new CEO, but she is looking forward and trying to help her 36 employees navigate this situation.

“You know, I didn’t know that this is what would happen in my first 30 days, but what inspires me, what’s a big part of it is that I can help by growing this company, by being successful and by being able to hire more and more people, and contribute to getting our economy back on track,” Grant said.

She also recognizes that there is a lack of diversity in her new CEO role, and she hopes to be a role model. “I have been fortunate to get to a position where I know I can do this job and do it well. And it’s my responsibility to do this work, my responsibility to show it can be done and shouldn’t be an anomaly.”

Turbo Systems was founded in 2017 and has raised $8 million, according to Crunchbase. It helps companies build mobile apps without coding, connecting to 140 different data sources such as Salesforce, SAP and Oracle.

Tech giants should let startups defer cloud payments

Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are the landlords. Amidst the Coronavirus economic crisis, startups need a break from paying rent. They’re in a cash crunch. Revenue has stopped flowing in, capital markets like venture debt are hesitant, and startups and small-to-medium sized businessesf are at risk of either having to lay off huge numbers of employees and/or shut down.

Meanwhile, the tech giants are cash rich. Their success this decade means they’re able to weather the storm for a few months. Their customers cannot.

Cloud infrastructure costs area amongst many startups’ top expenses besides payroll. The option to pay these cloud bills later could save some from going out of business or axing huge parts of their staff. Both would hurt the tech industry, the economy, and the individuals laid off. But most worryingly for the giants, it could destroy their customer base.

The mass layoffs have already begun. Soon we’re sure to start hearing about sizable companies shutting down, upended by COVID-19. But there’s still an opportunity to stop a larger bloodbath from ensuing.

That’s why I have a proposal: cloud relief.

The platform giants should let startups and small businesses defer their cloud infrastructure payments for three to six months until they can pay them back in installments. Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, these companies’ additional infrastructure products, and other platform providers should let customers pause payment until the worst of the first wave of the COVID-19 economic disruption passes. Profitable SAAS providers like Salesforce could give customers an extension too.

There are plenty of altruistic reasons to do this. They have the resources to help businesses in need. We all need to support each other in these tough times. This could protect tons of families. Some of these startups are providing important services to the public and even discounting them, thereby ramping up their bills while decreasing revenue.

Then there are the PR reasons. After years of techlash and anti-trust scrutiny, here’s the chance for the giants to prove their size can be beneficial to the world. Recruiters could use it as a talking point. “We’re the company that helped save Silicon Valley.” There’s an explanation for them squirreling away so much cash: the rainy day has finally arrived.

But the capitalistic truth and the story they could sell to Wall Street is that it’s not good for our business if our customers go out of business. Look at what happened to infrastructure providers in the dotcom crash. When tons of startups vaporized, so did the profits for those selling them hosting and tools. Any government stimulus for businesses would be better spent by them paying employees than paying the cloud companies that aren’t in danger. Saving one future Netflix from shutting down could cover any short-term loss from helping 100 other businesses.

This isn’t a handout. These startups will still owe the money. They’d just be able to pay it a little later, spread out over their monthly bills for a year or so. Once mass shelter-in-place orders subside, businesses can operate at least a little closer to normal, and investors get less cautious, customers will have the cash they need to pay their dues. Plus interest if necessary.

Meanwhile, they’ll be locked in and loyal customers for the foreseeable future. Cloud vendors could gate the deferment to only customers that have been with them for X amount of months or that have already spent Y amount on the platform. The vendors could also offer the deferment on the condition that customers add a year or more to their existing contracts. Founders will remember who gave them the benefit of the doubt.

cloud ice cream cone imagine

Consider it a marketing expense. Platforms often offer discounts or free trials to new customers. Now it’s existing customers that need a reprieve. Instead of airport ads, the giants could spend the money ensuring they’ll still have plenty of developers building atop them by the end of 2020.

Beyond deferred payment, platforms could just push the due date on all outstanding bills to three or six months from now. Alternatively, they could offer a deep discount such as 50% off for three months if they didn’t want to deal with accruing debt and then servicing it. Customers with multi-year contracts could offered the opportunity to downgrade or renegotiate their contracts without penalties. Any of these might require giving sales quota forgiveness to their account executives.

It would likely be far too complicated and risky to accept equity in lieu of cash, a cut of revenue going forward, or to provide loans or credit lines to customers. The clearest and simplest solution is to let startups skip a few payments, then pay more every month later until they clear their debt. When asked for comment or about whether they’re considering payment deferment options, Microsoft declined, and Amazon and Google did not respond.

To be clear, administering payment deferment won’t be simple or free. It could require the giants to change their earnings guidance. Rewriting deals with significantly sized customers will take work on both ends, and there’s a chance of breach of contract disputes. Giants would face the threat of customers recklessly using cloud resources before shutting down or skipping town.

Most taxing would be determining and enforcing the criteria of who’s eligible. The vendors would need to lay out which customers are too big so they don’t accidentally give a cloud-intensive but healthy media company a deferment they don’t need. Businesses that get questionably excluded could make a stink in public. Executing on the plan will require staff when giants are stretched thin trying to handle logistics disruptions, misinformation, and accelerating work-from-home usage.

Still, this is the moment when the fortunate need to lend a hand to the vulnerable. Not a hand out, but a hand up. Companies with billions in cash in their coffers could save those struggling to pay salaries. All the fundraisers and info centers and hackathons are great, but this is how the tech giants can live up to their lofty mission statements.

We all live in the cloud now. Don’t evict us. #CloudRelief

Thanks to Falon Fatemi, Corey Quinn, Ilya Fushman, Jason Kim, Ilya Sukhar, and Michael Campbell for their ideas and feedback on this proposal

Salesforce’s Benioff pledges no ‘significant’ layoffs for 90 days

In a Twitter thread on Tuesday, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff outlined an eight-step plan to keep people safe and find treatments and a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus, all while working to find a way to get people back to work safely. He also asked that all CEOs take a 90-day “no lay off” pledge to help everyone get through the crisis.

The same day, he posted another tweet pledging to not make any “significant” layoffs for 90 days. When TechCrunch asked Salesforce to comment on the difference between the two tweets, the company chose not to comment any further on the matter and let the tweets stand on their own.

It sounds like Benioff’s second tweet, which also asked employees to consider paying their own hourly workers like housekeepers and dog walkers throughout the layoff period, whether they were working or not, was designed to give the CEO some wiggle room for at least some layoffs.

Salesforce has almost 50,000 employees worldwide. Even if the company were to lay off just 1% of employees it would equal 500 people without jobs, though it’s not clear if that would count as “significant.” Perhaps more likely, the company might make some cuts to staff for performance or HR-related reasons, but not broad cuts, and thus make both of its CEO’s claims essentially true.

Salesforce is a wildly successful company. It celebrated its 20th anniversary last fall and has grown from a pesky startup to a software behemoth with a projected revenue of over $20 billion for FY2021. It currently has almost $8 billion in cash and equivalents on hand. Certainly companies that use Salesforce’s products will continue to need them, even with the workforce at home.

While it could have an impact on that projection for FY2021 and its ability to land new customers this quarter, it seems like it has the money and revenue to ride out the situation for the short term without making any moves to reduce headcount at this critical time.

Microsoft acquires 5G specialist Affirmed Networks

Microsoft today announced that it has acquired Affirmed Networks, a company that specializes in fully virtualized, cloud-native networking solutions for telecom operators.

With its focus on 5G and edge computing, Affirmed looks like the ideal acquisition target for a large cloud provider looking to get deeper into the telco business. According to Crunchbase, Affirmed had raised a total of $155 million before this acquisition and the company’s over 100 enterprise customers include the likes of AT&T, Orange, Vodafone, Telus, Turkcell and STC.

“As we’ve seen with other technology transformations, we believe that software can play an important role in helping advance 5G and deliver new network solutions that offer step-change advancements in speed, cost and security,” writes Yousef Khalidi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Azure Networking. “There is a significant opportunity for both incumbents and new players across the industry to innovate, collaborate and create new markets, serving the networking and edge computing needs of our mutual customers.”

With its customer base, Affirmed gives Microsoft another entry point into the telecom industry. Previously, the telcos would often build their own data centers and stuff it with costly proprietary hardware (and the software to manage it). But thanks to today’s virtualization technologies, the large cloud platforms are now able to offer the same capabilities and reliability without any of the cost. And unsurprisingly, a new technology like 5G with its promise of new and expanded markets makes for a good moment to push forward with these new technologies.

Google recently made some moves in this direction with its Anthos for Telecom and Global Mobile Edge Cloud, too. Chances are, we will see all of the large cloud providers continue to go after this market in the coming months.

In a somewhat odd move, only yesterday Affirmed announced a new CEO and President, Anand Krishnamurthy. It’s not often that we see these kinds of executive moves hours before a company announces its acquisition.

The announcement doesn’t feature a single hint at today’s news and includes all of the usual cliches we’ve come to expect from a press release that announces a new CEO. “We are thankful to Hassan for his vision and commitment in guiding the company through this extraordinary journey and positioning us for tremendous success in the future,” Krishnamurthy wrote at the time. “It is my honor to lead Affirmed as we continue to drive this incredible transformation in our industry.”

We asked Affirmed for some more background about this and will update this post once we hear more.

SendBird adds voice and video to popular chat API

SendBird has built a highly successful business with a chat API, but the company never intended to stop there, and today it announced it was adding voice and video capabilities to its communications platform.

“We’re creating more of an interaction platform to allow not just text messaging, but also voice calling and video recording capabilities on top of our platform. So it becomes a more comprehensive offering,” CEO and co-founder John Kim told TechCrunch.

The new tools are built on an IP-based delivery system, so it doesn’t touch telephony, according to Kim. That should help give it some differentiation from another popular communications platform, Twilio.

Kim says that his company is currently number one in the chat API space, delivering 100 million interactions per month. This involves primarily powering chat in on-demand services like ride hailing and food delivery, and also online marketplaces and communities. More recently, Kim says he is seeing an uptick in digital health applications, something that is bound to continue as telehealth options abound as a practical way to get medical advice during the COVID-19 crisis.

Adding voice and video will definitely add to the resources required to deliver these services, but Kim says they have built the platform to handle it. “One of the things that clearly differentiate us from the rest of the market was our ability to scale. So we haven’t had any issues from the technical side of things with the increasing demand,” he said.

The company plans to bill for these services by the minute, which Kim says is an industry best practice for voice and video. SendBird lets developers add these capabilities with just a couple of lines of code, offering a similar value proposition to companies like Plaid (recently sold to MasterCard), Twilio and Stripe. It saves developers from having to build these capabilities themselves.

The company was founded in 2013, and was part of the Y Combinator Winter 2016 cohort. The company has over 200 employees today and has raised over $120 million, according to PitchBook data. Pitchbook pegged the company’s valuation at more than $287 million as of last May when it announced a $50 million Series B extension that brought the total Series B to $102 million.