Softcat Tech Update: November 2017

Posted on Thursday, November 23, 2017
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It's been a long old time since our last tech update, so let's take a look through the myriad happenings in the IT industry over the last few weeks and months.

Hello, Mr Chips

Any tech pundit worth their salt (and vinegar) can tell you that chips are the core of everything we do, and that silicon innovation isn't going anywhere. The last few months have been particularly interesting in the industry, with some big moves happening.

In Santa Clara, Intel have started shipping their 8th generation Core CPUs, also known as Coffee Lake, though the main tranche of chips won't hit the market until early 2018. Intel have been busy though, and they also unveiled the new Core i9 SKUs. Based on the 7th generation Skylake platform, the i9 CPUs offer up to 18 Cores on a single package, with chunky clock speeds to match. In the datacentre, Intel have been busy shipping their Xeon Scalable family of CPUs, beefing up their offering to 28 cores, and offering specific SKUs for targeted workloads such as AI and analytics.

Five miles down the road in Sunnyvale, AMD have been busy expanding their portfolio in an attempt to take some market share back from Intel. Ryzen CPUs have been well received on the desktop, and with their Threadripper line going head to head with Intel's Core i9, more power than ever before is available to desktop users. In the datacentre, OEMs are gearing up to launch the first range of servers powered by AMD's EPYC 7000 line of datacentre CPUs, featuring up to 32 cores per socket, targeted at single and dual socket server workloads.

But while these two are going toe-to-toe on multiple fronts, they are also collaborating. Q1 2018 is set to see a multi-chip module launching, with Intel CPU cores and AMD graphics glued together with some silicon wizardry, ostensibly to bring high end graphical performance to thin and light notebooks without having to use a discrete chip. The fact that almost all of these discrete chips are presently made by Nvidia, who are taking both Intel and AMD's market share in the HPC, AI and emerging tech markets is surely no coincidence. How long this product will last is anyone's guess, as Intel have announced that they have hired Raja Koduri, former head of AMD's Radeon graphics division, to work on high-end, discrete graphics components. Those amongst you with a good long-term memory will recall that Intel tried this a while ago with Larabee but canned the discrete graphics element of this project before it could launch (though the tech did make its way into the 'Knights' HPC platforms).

Company News

IT organisations getting bought and sold is pretty commonplace, but given the long absence of the tech update, there's plenty to get through.

The major story is that the biggest EVER tech acquisition may be on the cards. Like seemingly every man in Hollywood, Broadcom made an unsolicited advance offering Qualcomm a deal in excess of one hundred Billion Dollars, a deal which would create a system on a chip goliath. At the time of writing, the advances have been strongly rebuffed but it's likely this is not the last we've heard in this saga.

I say that's the major story, but the limelight may have been stolen by HPE. They have announced that CEO Meg Whitman is to step down in early 2018, handing over the reins to company President Antonio Neri. Whitman leaves a company much smaller and focussed than when she arrived six years ago, having downsized and overseen the split of HP inc and HPE. Her replacement is a long-term HPE careerist with a strong engineering background, who commented "HPE is in a tremendous position to win, and we remain focused on executing our strategy, driving our innovation agenda, and delivering the next wave of shareholder value."

Elsewhere, VMware have announced a deal to acquire VeloCloud, a leading light in the booming SD-WAN market. This purchase is designed to bolster the networking, automation and application continuity portfolio in VMware, and underlines the strategic shift within the company away from the traditional Hypervisor market to products like NSX and the vRealize suite.

Analytics Swiss Army Knife vendors, Splunk, have announced a deal to acquire the assets and IP of Rocana, a similar organisation specialising in large scale machine data and operational analytics. Just two years ago these two were embroiled in a bitter war of words and law suits, and it appears Slunk have won that war.

Fujitsu have taken a leaf out of Big Blue's book and divested a controlling stake in its PC business to Lenovo. With tightening margins, scale is of huge importance, and with this new joint venture Lenovo are bringing that scale in spades. Fujitsu meanwhile offer Lenovo additional sales channels in addition to well-regarded manufacturing and engineering operations in Germany and Japan. Outside of these synergies, business continues as usual and the Fujitsu brand and operations remain unaffected.

Security Round-up

InfoSec continues to be the gift that keeps on giving for anyone with a copy deadline to meet. We've seen a number of interesting events over the past couple of months, so let's run through a summary of the big ones.

It's 2017, so obviously the first topic is more ransomware. Bad Rabbit is yet another variant of the 'Not Petya' Ransomware that leverages tools leaked by the Shadow Brokers. Once again, the biggest targets have been in Russia and Ukraine, with distribution mainly via a drive-by attack masquerading as an Adobe Flash Player update.

Perhaps the most impactful event has been a vulnerability rather than an attack, in the form of WiFi KRACK. Discovered by two researchers in Belgium, this attack uses flaws in the WPA2 protocol that is used to secure pretty much all modern WiFi networks. Vendors have rushed to patch this vulnerability but there remains a risk of this vulnerability being used in attacks on outdated systems that cannot be or have not been patched.

But that's not the only cryptographic vulnerability hitting the streets! 'ROCA' takes advantage of an issue in the RSALib software library to extract private keys from public keys. This vulnerability most significantly affects Trusted Platform Modules and Secure Elements, used to secure enterprise PCs and smart cards. Microsoft have issued a TPM firmware update via Windows Update to fix this flaw, and other vendors have also followed suit.

Cloud Formations

Public Cloud is an ever-changing market, with the major providers constantly adding new functionality and products to their offerings. Here's a look at some of the big announcements we've seen recently:

Microsoft announced the introduction of Azure Databricks, a partnership product that brings simple deployment of Databricks, a leading Apache Spark based data platform. This tight integration into Azure is ideal for organisations that already use services such as Azure Data Lake.

Microsoft also have pushed forward Azure IoT Edge towards General Availability. Azure IoT Edge is a similar proposition to AWS Greengrass, allowing organisations to embed intelligence, analytics and decision making into the edge of the network. These technologies open up real time technologies for IoT deployments without having to sacrifice cloud management, and can dramatically cut costs.

AWS revealed recently that they have shifted loyalty in their EC2 deployments, with the new C5 instances using an Amazon tweaked version of KVM instead of the typical Xen hypervisor used elsewhere across AWS EC2. The move is attributed to efficiency gains and tuning for the custom Intel CPUs that AWS are deploying, with the KVM hypervisor expected to appear on more instances moving forward in parallel with Xen.

AOB

  • Rackspace and HPE have announced the launch of a scalable, OpenStack based private cloud service, with flexible consumption and billing models, and attractive commercials. More details as we get them.
  • Intel look to have gone back to the drawing board in HPC, taking the slated Knights Hill chips out behind the barn, as they look to improve their specialist silicon to build an Exascale supercomputer for the US government.
  • Mozilla have released Firefox Quantum, a radical change in the venerable browser, designed to make it significantly quicker, use less memory, and take advantage of multiple cores.
  • Dell EMC have updated their midrange storage arrays, adding flash to the SC arrays, and bringing deduplication to the Unity arrays with Unity v4.3 software.
  • Slack fell over again for a bit, sparking a huge surge in productivity, and early afternoon pub revenues.

If you're interested in the news from the earlier half of 2017, please check out the first Softcat Tech Update of the year, here.

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