At Dreamforce, it's marketing all the way down
THE JUNGLE IS DARK, BUT FULL OF DIAMONDS
Welcome to Mostly Cloudy, a semi-weekly roundup of everything worth noting from the last few days in the world of cloud computing! This episode will take a look at extravagant infomercial-meets-prosperity-gospel event that Salesforce put on this week for 170,000 of its closest friends.
This Week in Cloud: Marketing marketing tools to marketers
You’d think the first couple of seasons of HBO’s Silicon Valley would have sobered up tech companies that continue to insist they’re in business to make the world a better place, but Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce event remains one of the most surreal tech events on the calendar.
Dreamforce is marketing-ception, where upbeat executives sell a promise of a brighter future to their customers, sales and marketing professionals looking for tools that will help them wring just a little more money out of you and me every year. This week’s event was more of the same, albeit marred by protesters who interrupted co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff’s Tuesday morning keynote no less than three times.
Every year Salesforce constructs a “village” in the downtown San Francisco blocks around the Moscone Center adorned with cute cartoon creatures of the forest, as if attendees have arrived for a week in a woodland retreat. Celebrity speakers with no relation to the tech industry are booked, a list this year that that included former President Barack Obama, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, dubious spiritual guru Deepak Chopra and Megan Rapinoe, America’s best soccer player.
Amid it all is a bizarre mix of Eastern spiritual philosophies and hardcore Western capitalist practices that can leave you a bit dizzy. Salesforce likes to think that its employees and customers are all part of its “Ohana,” a Hawaiian concept of an extended but deeply connected group of family, friends, and neighbors that the charismatic Benioff learned about while taking a sabbatical from his job as a senior vice president at Oracle in the late 1990s and renting a beach house in Hawaii for a few months, as one does.
On Friday morning, you could sign up for a session called “Walking Meditation on Dreamforest,” a “mindful walking” tour of what are usually some of the busiest sidewalks in San Francisco led by “the Zen monks and nuns from the Plum Village Monastery as they guide you in this elegant and powerful practice.” Those who weren’t into mindful walking could attend a session called “Load and Orchestrate Your Data Like a Pro with Einstein Analytics (4)” at the same time.
All big tech events are in the entertainment business to some extent, but Salesforce’s approach really stands out. It’s designed not just to sell software, but to make you feel like a better human being for using that software to upsell widget features or triage irate customer-support calls.
It also obscures how incremental the advances in its products have become over the last few years, especially considering that most of its new ideas introduced of late have arrived through multibillion-dollar acquisitions. Salesforce was a legit cloud pioneer, one of the first companies to prove that mission-critical enterprise software could (and should) be consumed over the internet, but in 2019, that’s the operating model employed by almost all enterprise software companies.
During its rise, Salesforce sold the promise of convenience, reliability, and liberation from the massively complicated self-managed customer-relationship management software packages of the 1990s. These days, Salesforce is selling sales and marketing professionals the promise that Salesforce is their ticket to success in a cutthroat, uncertain economic world.
Many years ago, at a university that is technically not in Boston, I was awarded a business degree in marketing. I found out pretty quickly that a career in sales and marketing was not for me, but learned enough to know that at its heart, successful marketing creates an emotional attachment to a product or service: just think about the “Carousel” scene from Mad Men.
Dreamforce is designed to stoke emotional connections, but once attendees get home, they resume using Salesforce’s products to capture the massive amount of data that drives the modern economy. The company is betting its future on its Einstein artificial intelligence technology — complete with a cuddly Albert avatar — just as society starts to wake up to the ramifications of the surveillance machines that surround us.
Salesforce is one of the engines of modern capitalism, which has created profound inequality across its winners and losers. Benioff seems, by most accounts, to be a thoughtful person on this topic who supported raising taxes on San Francisco businesses to fund programs designed to address the city’s long-standing issues with homelessness.
And yet every year, Dreamforce transforms a neighborhood plagued by a large unsheltered population and open drug use into a slickly produced adult summer camp for rich people who are hoping to get richer. That’s why Dreamforce feels like the purchase of a capitalism offset, a week full of inspirational speeches and stories alongside detailed lessons on how to use cloud software to get more money from more people.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Salesforce’s mission, but there is something very weird about its need to pretend that it is a spiritual cause.
And Now, A Word…
It was an interesting week in San Diego at KubeCon, far from the gridlock of downtown San Francisco (although I could have done without the downpours). Stay tuned for some interesting stories gathered during the event, including IBM’s new approach to Kubernetes, an interview with longtime Googler and new Microsoft open-source guru Sarah Novotny, and why the Air Force thinks it is a good idea to run Kubernetes on a fighter plane.
Around the Cloud
Amazon's $10 Billion Pentagon Challenge: Proving Trump Meddled (Bloomberg)
As we learned this week during the impeachment hearings, President Trump rarely gives direct orders to do the nefarious thing he would like you to do, but he does drop a lot of strong hints. If Amazon Web Services wants to reverse the decision to award the JEDI contract to Microsoft, which it filed a lawsuit to do late Friday, it’s going to have to clear a high bar, although it sounds like it will be able to request documents and emails regarding the procurement process.
Has Arm Discovered The Ecosystem Keys? (The Next Platform)
One of my re:Invent goals is to look into whether or not anybody is actually using the Arm-based instances introduced by AWS last year, which was arguably the biggest announcement of the week. Third-party enterprise software support for Arm will make or break the attempt to introduce an alternative to Intel within servers, and while that support is growing slowly, it does appear to be growing.
Ampere Gears Up to Launch 7nm, 80-Core Arm Chip for Cloud Data Centers (Data Center Knowledge)
Along those lines, Ampere is one of the few companies trying to build a business around Arm-based servers, and it has a new product almost ready to go. Chips based around the Arm instruction set run nearly every processor in the iPhone and Android mobile computing world, and have long been coveted among server buyers concerned about energy efficiency.
Kubernetes is the new Java: VMware (ZDNet)
VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger (VMware Photo)
Is this … a good thing? Amazingly, Java remains as important a part of software development as it was a lifetime ago at Sun Microsystems, and VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger thinks Kubernetes is heading for that same future, even if “write once, run anywhere” remains the biggest lie in the history of the tech industry.
Cisco Shuffles Cloud, Networking Groups as Rivals Loom (The Information)
Cisco is one of those old-school enterprise tech companies that has been harder to kill than some would have predicted a few years ago, but still, the overall trends are not in its favor. When in doubt, re-org.
Google Cloud launches Bare Metal Solution (Techcrunch)
One interesting thing about this week’s KubeCon event was that Google, one of the most prominent backers of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, held its own event this week in the U.K. For most companies, virtual machines and containers are extremely attractive thanks to their flexibility and efficiency, but some applications require the “bare metal” approach: running directly on a dedicated server.
G Suite users get more AI writing help, Google Assistant calendar integration and more (Techcrunch)
The second pillar of Google Cloud’s product strategy also introduced a few new bells and whistles during its Next U.K. event, including introducing the canned suggestions for Gmail replies that look totally, totally authentic to Google Docs. It’s also improving the grammar suggestions within Google Docs, which in my experience have been correct somewhere around half the time.
Facebook: Microsoft's Visual Studio Code is now our default development platform (ZDNet)
The open-source version of Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code is one of the most popular developer environments in the game, and Facebook has decided to make it the default environment for its legions of developers. While Visual Studio Code usage might be overstated in some quarters, there’s no question that developers have embraced the technology, and as big companies like Facebook contribute back to the project that should only improve its prowess.
Home Depot’s $11 Billion Digital Rebuild Hits A Legacy-Tech Speed Bump (Forbes)
One thing that nobody talks about when urging legacy companies to modernize their tech operations is that it will probably be harder than expected, requiring more time and money. That’s the case at Home Depot, according to its latest earnings report, but once companies move past the initial implementation phase the long-term cost and agility benefits start to become clear.
Goldman Sachs is planning on giving some of its most valuable software to Wall Street for free (CNBC)
Goldman Sachs’ headquarters building in downtown Manhattan. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/cc 3.0)
If you had bet on something like “Goldman Sachs will be an open-source software company” a decade ago, you might have half as much money as Goldman Sachs. Here’s the key reason why Goldman decided to open-source its Alloy data-analysis tool: “more than half of the cost of most computing projects at Goldman was simply in finding and properly extracting datasets,” and many of its partners are in a similar boat.
Amazon tells senators it isn't to blame for Capital One breach (CNET)
Regular readers of this newsletter probably already know that cloud customers are responsible for their own security practices to a large extent, but this is notable because AWS has updated its response to claim that the Capital One hacker — who used to work at AWS — didn’t use a “server-side request forgery” attack, as was believed at the time. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ron Wyden had previously argued that AWS lacked sufficient security protections against this type of attack, but AWS is now saying that such protections wouldn’t have mattered.
Dining Preferences of the Cloud and Open Source: Who Eats Who? (Platformonomics)
Just in case you needed another long examination of the at-times contentious relationship between the open-source community and Big Cloud, Mostly Cloudy subscriber Charles Fitzgerald has you covered. In trademark fashion, Fitzgerald skewers the sacred cows on all sides of this debate, and notes that digging in your heels has never been a great strategy across changing times in tech.
As Gaming Moves to the Cloud, Data Centers Focus on Latency (Data Center Frontier)
The early review of Google’s Stadia streaming gaming service were not kind, to say the least, but if the concept takes off data-center operators are going to have to think differently about latency. No serious gamer is going to tolerate lag that prevents them from getting a shot off in time to blow away an opponent, and that means game-streaming server operations will have to optimize their systems with latency in mind.
NetApp and Google Cloud, whose CEOs are twin brothers, announce an expanded partnership because 'it would be crazy for us not to bring our services there' (Business Insider)
I haven’t followed NetApp very closely over the years, and a few weeks ago I snickered at a post from an enterprise tech blog about the company that I thought had clearly used a photo of Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian by mistake. Turns out, I’m the jerk, and this week NetApp CEO George Kurian announced a new partnership with his twin brother’s company this week that will expand NetApp’s data backup tools to Google’s Anthos product.