GDC 2018: Who Is This Event For Anymore?

San Francisco is a little bit more crowded than usual today, thanks to the 2018 Game Developers Conference. For a week each March, developers from all over the world come to learn, play new games, and hopefully get a job—while journalists congregate to report on the activity of said developers (and also to get jobs). GDC is possibly the most important event of the year for the army of engineers, artists, and businesspeople who make up the commercial videogame industry: a hub of networking, showcases, and creative reflection, a place for both announcements and edification.

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Yet, like videogames itself, the conference seems to be at a crossroads. As the event has continued to grow, and its profile in the industry has increased, its purpose has begun to shift. The usual excitement still exists among those in the professional gaming (not to be confused with esports) community, who change their Twitter names to include variations “at GDC” and who populate the conference’s scheduling app with selfies and meeting requests, but it seems more than ever to be undercut with restlessness: Who is this conference even for, anyway? More than ever, huge platforms are taking a huge share of the show floor and speaking schedule. Facebook, Oculus, and even Magic Leap are all hosting multiple sessions this year.

It’s not just that the industry-wide muddling of the lines between indie and triple-A creator has hit GDC, though that’s part of it. The games ecosystem is home to a complex variety of types of developers, and the intense divide between indie and major is both fuzzier and more important than it’s felt like in the past. Mid-tier titles like PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds or the free-to-play Fortnite can become dizzyingly popular in a relatively short amount of time (just look to this past weekend’s record-breaking result when Drake joined forces with a popular Twitch streamer to play Fortnite‘s battle-royale mode) while the difference in costs and resources between small and big games continues to balloon. This year, at least for me, it’s not quite clear what sort of games GDC is meant to showcase, and even less clarity about what sort of developers are meant to attend—and what they’re supposed to take away from their time.

GDC is considered by many in the industry to be an essential event, the core platform for connecting with colleagues, scouting new recruits, and taking stock of the industry. But it’s become increasingly clear in recent years how limited this event really is. Taking place in one of the most expensive cities in America, it’s a stretch simply to afford accommodations for the week of the conference—and that’s not counting expo passes, travel, and any extracurricular activities. For poor or disabled American developers, and especially for international developers, GDC represents a sizable, and difficult, investment. (Meanwhile, foreign developers now have to contend with the increasing risks of entering the country in the first place, particularly if they’re from Muslim or non-white countries.)

So now, in 2018, discontent is running higher than normal, as many in the industry are wondering out loud if the Game Developer’s Conference, once lauded as the Mecca of the industry, is really the event we need.

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'Socially responsible' investors reassess Facebook ownership

NEW YORK (Reuters) – With European and U.S. lawmakers calling for investigations into reports that Facebook user data was accessed by UK based consultancy Cambridge Analytica to help President Donald Trump win the 2016 election, investors are asking even more questions about the social media company’s operations.

A Facebook sign is displayed at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

An increasingly vocal base of investors who put their money where their values are had already started to sour on Facebook, one of the market’s tech darlings.

Facebook’s shares closed down nearly 7.0 percent on Monday, wiping nearly $40 billion off its market value as investors worried that potential legislation could damage the company’s advertising business.

Facebook Inc Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg is facing calls from lawmakers to explain how the political consultancy gained improper access to data on 50 million Facebook users.

Cambridge Analytica said it strongly denies the media claims and said it deleted all Facebook data it obtained from a third-party application in 2014 after learning the information did not adhere to data protection rules.

“The lid is being opened on the black box of Facebook’s data practices, and the picture is not pretty,” said Frank Pasquale, a University of Maryland law professor who has written about Silicon Valley’s use of data.

The scrutiny presents a fresh threat to Facebook’s reputation, which is already under attack over Russia’s alleged use of Facebook tools to sway U.S. voters with divisive and false news posts before and after the 2016 election.

“We do have some concerns,” said Ron Bates, portfolio manager on the $131 million 1919 Socially Responsive Balanced Fund, a Facebook shareholder.

“The big issue of the day around customer incidents and data is something that has been discussed among ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance) investors for some time and has been a concern.”

Bates said he is encouraged by the fact that the company has acknowledged the privacy issues and is responding, and thinks it remains an appropriate investment for now.

Facebook said on Monday it had hired digital forensics firm Stroz Friedberg to carry out a comprehensive audit of Cambridge Analytica and the company had agreed to comply and give the forensics firm complete access to their servers and systems.

“What would be a deal-breaker for us would be if we saw this recurring and we saw significant risk to the consumer around privacy,” said Bates.

More than $20 trillion globally is allocated toward “responsible” investment strategies in 2016, a figure that grew by a quarter from just two years prior, according to Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, an advocacy group.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who oversees $193 billion in city pension fund assets, said in a statement to Reuters on Monday that, “as investors in Facebook, we’re closely following what are very alarming reports.”

Sustainalytics BV, a widely used research service that rates companies on their ESG performance for investors, told Reuters on Monday it is reviewing its Facebook rating, which is currently “average.”

“We’re definitely taking a look at it to see if there should be some change,” said Matthew Barg, research manager at Sustainalytics.

“Their business model is so closely tied to having access to consumer data and building off that access. You want to see that they understand that and care about that.”

ESG investors had already expressed concerns about Facebook before media reports that Cambridge Analytica harvested the private data on Facebook users to develop techniques to support Trump’s presidential campaign.

Wall Street investors, including ESG funds, have ridden the tech sector to record highs in recent months, betting on further outsized returns from stocks including Facebook, Apple Inc and Google parent Alphabet Inc.

Jennifer Sireklove, director of responsible investing at Seattle-based Parametric, a money manager with $200 billion in assets, said an increasing number of ethics-focused investors were avoiding Facebook and other social media companies, even before the most recent reports about privacy breaches.

Parametric held a call with clients on Friday to discuss concerns about investing in social media companies overall, including Google.

“More investors are starting to question whether these companies are contributing to a fair and well-informed public marketplace, or are we becoming all the more fragmented because of the ways in which these companies are operating,” she said.

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and David Randall; Additional reporting by Kate Duguid in New York and Noel Randewich in San Francisco; Editing by Jennifer Ablan and Clive McKeef

China Will Block Travel for Those With Bad ‘Social Credit’

Chinese authorities will begin revoking the travel privileges of those with low scores on its so-called “social credit system,” which ranks Chinese citizens based on comprehensive monitoring of their behavior. Those who fall afoul of the system could be blocked from rail and air travel for up to a year.

China’s National Development and Reform Commission released announcements on Friday saying that the restrictions could be triggered by a broad range of offenses. According to Reuters, those include acts from spreading false information about terrorism to using expired tickets or smoking on trains.

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The Chinese government publicized its plans to create a social credit system in 2014. There is some evidence that the government’s system is entwined with China’s private credit scoring systems, such as Alibaba’s Zhima Credit, which tracks users of the AliPay smartphone payment system. It evaluates not only individuals’ financial history (which has proven problematic enough in the U.S.), but consumption patterns, education, and even social connections.

A Wired report last year found that a user with a low Zhima Credit score had to pay more to rent a bicycle, hotel room, or even an umbrella. Zhima Credit’s CEO has said, in an eerie prefiguring of the new travel restrictions, that the system “will ensure that the bad people in society don’t have a place to go, while good people can move freely and without obstruction.”

Though the policy has only now become public, Reuters says it may have come into effect earlier — in a press conference last year, an official said 6.15 million Chinese citizens had already been blocked from air travel for social misdeeds.

Amazon Did Not Kill Toys "R" Us — It Was a Giraffe

The sad closing of a beloved retailer can be pinned on a number of factors, but here is one theory that everyone has overlooked.

This past week saw the sad end to the slow, lingering demise of one of the most beloved retailers of our generation, Toys “R” Us.

The company announced that it will close all 735 US stores, leaving over 30,000 employees without jobs and effectively ending its 70-year run as America’s favorite toy store — and most expensive playground on earth.

For most, the closure came as no surprise. The company filed bankruptcy in September of last year in order to restructure debt and introduce changes to be more competitive. The advances, which included in-store augmented reality games and children’s playrooms, proved to be ineffective — not to mention a few years too late — in attracting more shoppers from the comforts of their couches this past holiday season.

Most believe it was Walmart and Target, the two leading toy retailers in the US, who slowly and steadily eroded market share from Toys “R” Us. Others believe it was the rise of Amazon and consumers’ move to online shopping that has and continues to be the bain of all traditional retailers.

Other more sophisticated analysts will point to massive debt the company carried as a result of being taken private in 2005, saddling it with over $5 billion and yearly interest payments of over $400 million.

The sad truth is, however, that the reason that Toys “R” Us failed is much less obvious. I believe it was because of the company’s mascot: Geoffrey the giraffe.

Think about it — what do we really know about giraffes? They have abnormally long necks, which figuratively puts their heads in the clouds and literally makes them too tall to have any meaningful relationships. They make almost no sound and are herbivores, typically preyed on by more aggressive hunters like lions, hyenas and Jeff Bezos.

Moreover, according to National Geographic, giraffes spend up to 20 hours a day eating and sleeping as little as five to 30 minutes. How can any marketing mascot be productive and creative with that routine?

Let us also look at TRU’s competitors. Target once boasted Bullseye, a lovable bull terrier with a conveniently placed red target “birthmark” over his left eye. But Bullseye last appeared in 2015 and is reported to be retired and enjoying a life on a ranch without the speculating eyes of investors, according to Globe and Mail.

On the other hand, the closest thing Walmart has to a mascot is a boring, yellow, never-flinching smiley face, which harkens more to the drugs and rock and roll era of the 1960’s than a wholesome family retailer.  But here’s the thing — Walmart is Walmart, a force that long ago took the reigns of the nation’s top retailer and can pretty much do what it likes.

And lastly, Amazon. Amazon has no known mascot — unless you count its Dr. Evil-resembling and highly visible founder, Jeff Bezos. More appropriate perhaps is Amazon’s in-home personal assistant, Alexa, which had remarkably found itself in 22 million homes by the end of 2017, according to Forbes.

A personal assistant, I might add, that sits in your house and is constantly listening to every conversation you are having. That sounds more like a villainous piece of spy technology than a mascot.

So, while we all mourn the fall of a retail giant, one that provided countless wonderful memories for generations of Toys “R” Us kids, I hope we don’t overlook the valuable lesson that derived from this sad fall.

Far more critical than adapting to a quickly advancing and globalizing business world, staying ahead of rapidly progressing technology, and understanding the changing preferences and buying habits of new digital generations, you simply need to have a more lovable or maniacal mascot. Take your pick.

What do you think? What other reasons do you believe led to the demise of Toys “R” Us? Share your thoughts with others in the comments below.

Why Every Entrepreneur Should Keep a Sleep Diary (And How to Do It Right)

As any entrepreneur should know, good sleep is essential to good business.

High-quality sleep sustains the energy levels you need to grow a company. It enhances cognitive function so your brain operates at its best. It helps you recover from grueling days so you don’t burn out . And it’s consistently linked to improved performance and productivity in the workplace.

On the other hand, chronic sleep deprivation degrades your ability to think clearly, make sound decisions, perform at your best, avoid illness, and get things done without running yourself into the ground. Nevertheless, too many entrepreneurs sacrifice sleep in the name of productivity.

So what’s the antidote to this productivity-killing sleep deprivation? One of the best strategies for ensuring you consistently get a good night’s sleep is to create a sleep log. While that might sound like one more thing to add to your already-overwhelming to-do list, the effort pays for itself. Here’s why every entrepreneur should keep a sleep diary–plus how to do it right.

The Benefits of Keeping a Sleep Diary

It holds you accountable to getting enough sleep

If you don’t track how many hours you’ve slept each night, then it’s easy to start cutting back on sleep without even realizing it. Before you know it, you’re catching only four or five hours of shut eye in the pursuit of more working hours. You may be vaguely aware of the fact that you’re feeling awfully tired lately, but you won’t realize the full scope of your sleep deprivation unless you actually count how much time you spend sleeping.

Bottom line? Tracking your sleep lets you quickly identify when you’re not getting enough of it. This gives you the opportunity to course correct before things get dire.

It helps you identify obstacles to quality sleep

Speaking of course correction: Keeping a detailed sleep log enables you to identify the behavioral or environmental patterns that might be interfering with your ability to sleep well each night.

For instance, if you keep track of your caffeine consumption habits along with your sleep quality, you might notice that consuming caffeine after 6 pm consistently disrupts your sleep, while consuming caffeine earlier in the day keeps you in the clear. This allows you to curate your daily habits so they serve your nighttime sleep quality.

It provides valuable info to your doctor (if necessary)

If you tweak your habits to facilitate high-quality sleep but still struggle to fall and stay asleep each night, there’s a chance you’re dealing with a sleep disorder. In that event, having a written record of your sleep habits will be enormously helpful to a medical professional.

Handing over this written log not only saves your doctor time; it may also save you money that would otherwise be spent on diagnostic questions that were already answered by your diary. And if you do start treatment for a sleep disorder, the sleep log will let you keep track of whether the treatment is working.

All told, keeping a sleep diary can help you improve your sleep quality in a number of ways. And that has major ramifications for your cognitive function, learning capacities, energy levels, and productivity.

How to Keep a Sleep Diary

Ready to create a sleep diary? Keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Track how much you slept each night. Write down when you got in bed, how long it took you to fall asleep, when you woke up to start your day, and whether (and why) you woke up at all during the night.
  • Track quality in addition to quality. Each morning, rate how well you slept the night before. You can use a simple scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing poor quality sleep and 5 representing very good quality sleep.
  • Track lifestyle factors. What you do during your day can have a major impact on the sleep you get at night. Jot down how much caffeine and alcohol you consumed (and when you consumed it), what and when you ate, if and when you exercised, whether you’re experiencing any emotional stressors, if and when you napped, your daily activities, and any drugs or medication you may have taken.
  • Track environmental factors. Note the temperature of your bedroom, the bedding you used, whether the room was dark or light, whether the room was quiet or loud, and so on.

If all that sounds daunting, don’t worry. There are plenty of sleep diary templates available, and they make it easy to track these factors in one place. (Not sure where to start? Give this template from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine a try.)

Keeping a sleep diary is one of the best ways to ensure you’re consistently getting high-quality sleep. And that is one of the best things you can do for yourself when you’re trying to make it big.

6 Signs You're About to Be Fired

?No matter how hard you work, there’s a possibility you may someday be laid off or fired, often without much warning. However, after your boss has delivered the bad news, chances are you’ll be able to look back and think of a few warning signs.

But what if you could know in advance that the hammer was about to fall? Those who have been fired multiple times often report similar experiences in the hours, days, and even weeks before they were let go.

Here are a few signs that you may need to dust off your resume.

1. Your boss warns you.

Your boss likely won’t give you an exact date and time of your firing in advance, but many employees do get warnings. The first indication is likely your performance review, which will contain valuable insights into how your boss thinks you’re doing.

Beyond that, you may receive verbal or written warnings about certain behaviors that could put your job at risk. If you ignore those warnings and refuse to make changes, your supervisor may feel there’s no other choice but to terminate.

2. You commit fireable offenses.

Not every fired employee is guilty of an offense, but there are things you can do that will increase your risk. If you’re chronically late, for instance, you could end up on the chopping block.

In fact, in a 2017 CareerBuilder survey, a whopping 41 percent of employers said they’ve fired an employee for being late. You’ll also put a target on your back by having an affair with a coworker or client, blabbing about your company on social media, or behaving inappropriately.

3. The job is a bad fit.

When you landed the job, it may have been the right fit at the time. Or perhaps it was always a bad match, but you needed the money. Whatever the situation, if your job is no longer right for you, you may not be the only one noticing it.

Consider edging your way back into the job market by networking and keeping an eye out for opportunities that are a good fit. Otherwise, you’re not only risking termination, but you’re wasting time in a job that won’t further your career.

4. You’ve been ostracized.

It usually takes a while for employers to fire someone, especially if HR brings pressure to document everything to avoid legal issues. During that time period, any employees who know the termination is imminent can tend to distance themselves from the person. You may notice people have difficulty making eye contact or you are shut out of important meetings. If you start to feel as though people are avoiding you, it might be time to get your resume ready.

5. Your boss’s behavior has changed.

In the months leading up to a termination, an employee often finds his or her boss has a sudden change in behavior. I’ve seen this run in extremes. At one job years ago, not too long before I was let go, my boss began clamping down on me, micromanaging my every move. I’ve also seen it where a soon-to-be-fired colleague found themselves completely abandoned by the boss. Either way, this type of sudden behavior change isn’t usually good news.

6. Your company has changed.

Layoffs and terminations often occur as a result of a company-wide change. It could be something as simple as losing a big client, cutting the business’s income. Mergers and acquisitions also prompt unexpected staff changes, sometimes impacting large groups of people at once.

It’s important to realize that not every company change will result in terminations. However, employers will usually expend a great deal of effort reassuring employees nothing will change, only to turn around and make changes soon after.

As a journalist and employee of television and radio stations, I saw this situation repeatedly because of the ever-changing media landscape and the layoffs that came with it over the years. You sometimes get a little too familiar with that feeling of dread that pops up before an expected layoff. The best remedy for this is to always keep your resume up to date.

Firings often catch people by surprise, even if there were warning signs. But if you begin to feel uncomfortable with your work situation, you can always meet with a recruiter or begin networking in your industry to make valuable connections. Once you are ready to begin looking for a job, you’ll be in a position to quickly move on to something else.

The VR Metaverse of 'Ready Player One' Is Just Beyond Our Grasp

Virtual reality, as it’s been promised to us by science fiction, is a singular realm of infinite possibility. Star Trek’s Holodeck, Yu-Gi-Oh!’s Virtual World, Snow Crash’s Metaverse: Each is the all-powerful experience generator of its world, able to accommodate a character’s any desire. Novelist Ernest Cline sharpened this vision in his 2011 debut, Ready Player One, which hits theaters in March courtesy of Steven Spielberg. While the story is set in the strife-torn meatspace of 2045, most of its action unfolds in a vast network of artificial worlds called the OASIS. And in the tradition of reality playing catch-up to sci-fi, the OASIS has become the endgame for real-world VR developers, many of whom are actively trying to replicate its promise. Are they making progress? Absolutely. Are they doing it right? Absolutely not.

The OASIS is saddled with a terrible acronym—hopefully Spielberg never lets one of his characters say “Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation”—but it offers something attractive: breadth. Some of the environments contained in the OASIS are created by users, others by government agencies; they range from educational to recreational (reconstructions of ’80s fantasy novels are popular), nonprofit to commercial.

Today’s real-life multiuser VR experiences, by contrast, are less OASIS and more ­PUDDLE (Provisionally Usable Demonstration of Dazz­ling Lucid Environments). Some of the constraints are aesthetic: In AltspaceVR, users are limited to a narrow range of expressionless human and robot avatars, while the goofy up-with-people charm of Against Gravity’s Rec Room hinges on you not caring that avatars lack noses. Other constraints are experiential: Facebook’s Spaces lets you hang out only with people you’re already Friends with. Startups with OASIS-size ambitions are hampered by still other issues, whether that’s a noob-unfriendly world-building system (Sansar) or a dark-side-of-Reddit vibe that invites trollery (VRchat).

The problem, though, isn’t such metaphorical boundaries—it’s literal ones. None of these PUDDLEs touch. You can’t hop from Rec Room to VRchat; you’re stuck where you started. That’s why it’s hard to feel truly immersed. To reach Cline’s 2045, developers need to start laying the foundation now for an infrastructure that links each of these worlds. If that sounds idealistic, or even dangerous, it’s not. Think of the days before the internet, when various institutions ran their own walled-off networks. Only when computer scientists came together to standardize protocols did the idea of a single network become possible. Now imagine applying that notion to VR—a metaverse in which users can flit between domains without losing their identity or their bearings as they travel.

The OASIS works because it feels like it has no owners, no urgent needs. It’s a utility, a toolkit available for artisans and corporations alike. If we want to realize this potential ourselves—universal freedom and possibility—let’s start thinking about VR the way Cline does: not as a first-to-market commodity, but as an internet all its own.

Peter Rubin (@provenself) is the author of the upcoming book Future Presence.

This article appears in the March issue. Subscribe now.

All photo references by Getty Images

All-flash rules while Brexit slows UK storage spend, says IDC

All-flash storage arrays continue to chart staggering growth and total shipments, with sales accounting for 31% of all external disk systems in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (Emea) and a growth rate in shipments of 35.8%.

These figures – released in IDC’s Quarterly disk storage systems tracker for the last three months of 2017 – form part of a second quarter in succession that has seen storage spend increase. The UK lags behind other areas of Europe, however, which IDC attributes to Brexit worries putting a freeze on budgets.

Another interesting development is that Chinese hardware maker Huawei has supplanted Hitachi Data Systems in IDC’s top five suppliers by market share.

While all-flash storage is the star of the show, hybrid flash storage system shipments also grew by 19.5%, although their share of total shipments remained static.

Spinning disk-based HDD-equipped storage systems continued to decline in market share, with a shrinkage of 18.9%.

In total, the Western European external storage market recorded growth of 9.8% in monetary terms, while capacity grew by 8.7% to 3,043PB (petabytes).

“IT departments in key Emea countries have resumed investments while progressing into their digital transformation plans, or modernising or refreshing their datacentre in an effort to get ready for key workloads, such as big data,” said Silvia Cosso, research manager in European storage and datacentre for IDC.

IDC attributes weaker IT spending in the UK to uncertainty surrounding Brexit. Recent spending forecasts show IT spend to 2020 being driven by the Nordic countries, France and Germany, with the UK expected to be the fourth weakest in terms of growth for 2017-2018.

According to IDC, the hardware market in the UK shows weak positive expected growth for the forecast period, with strong currency fluctuations cited as a factor and “British demand … underperforming other countries”.

Top disk storage system suppliers in Emea by market share in the IDC fourth quarter 2017 report were Dell EMC with 25% (down 8.5% year-on-year), HPE with 16.67% (up 7.5% year-on-year), IBM on 14.88% (up 41.5% year-on-year), NetApp on 13.86% (up 14.56% year-on-year) and Huawei, which recorded market share of 7.65% (up 137.94% year-on-year) and drove HDS out of the Emea top five.

Bitcoin exchange reaches deal with Barclays for UK transactions

LONDON (Reuters) – One of the biggest bitcoin exchanges has struck a rare deal which will allow it to open a bank account with Britain’s Barclays, making it easier for UK customers of the exchange to buy and sell cryptocurrencies, the UK boss of the exchange said on Wednesday.

Workers are seen in at Barclays bank offices in the Canary Wharf financial district in London, Britain, November 17, 2017. Picture taken November 17, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Large global banks have been reluctant to do business with companies that handle bitcoin and other digital coins because of concerns they are used by criminals to launder money and that regulators will soon crack down on them.

San Francisco-based exchange, Coinbase, said its UK subsidiary was the first to be granted an e-money license by the UK’s financial watchdog, a precursor to getting the banking relationship with Barclays.

The Barclays account will make it easier for British customers. Previously, they had to transfer pounds into euros and go through an Estonian bank.

“Having domestic GBP payments with Barclays reduces the cost, improves the customer experience…and makes the transaction faster,” said Zeeshan Feroz, Coinbase’s UK CEO.

The UK is the largest market for Coinbase in Europe, and the exchange said its customer base in the region was growing at twice the rate of elsewhere.

A collection of Bitcoin (virtual currency) tokens are displayed in this picture illustration taken December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/Illustration

Feroz said that it took considerable time to get a UK bank on board, partly because Barclays needed to be sure that Coinbase had the right systems in place to prevent money laundering.

Regulators across the globe have warned that cryptocurrencies are used by criminals to launder money, and some exchanges have been shut down.

“It’s a completely brand new industry. There’s a lot of understanding and risk management that’s needed,” Feroz said.

Despite growing interest in both digital currencies and the technology behind them, some big lenders have limited their customers ability to buy cryptocurrencies, fearing a plunge in their value will leave customers unable to repay debts.

In February, British banks Lloyds and Virgin Money said they would ban credit card customers from buying cryptocurrencies, following the lead of JP Morgan and Citigroup. [nL8N1PU10Y]

Coinbase said it had also become the first crypto exchange to use Britain’s Faster Payments Scheme, a network used by the traditional financial industry.

Reporting by Tommy Wilkes and Emma Rumney; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle

Hybrid cloud file and object pushes the frontiers of storage

Use of public cloud services have been widely adopted by IT departments around the world. But it has become clear hybrid solutions that span on- and off-premises deployment are often superior, and seem to be on the rise.

However, to get data in and out of the public cloud can be tricky from a performance and consistency point of view. So, could a new wave of distributed file systems and object stores hold the answer?

Hybrid cloud operations require the ability to move data between private and public datacentres. Without data mobility, public and private cloud are nothing more than two separate environments that can’t exploit the benefits of data and application portability.

Looking at the storage that underpins public and private cloud, there are potentially three options available.

Block storage, traditionally used for high-performance input/output (I/O), doesn’t offer practical mobility features. The technology is great on-premise, or across locations operated by the same organisation.

That’s because block access storage depends on the use of a file system above the block level to organise data and provide functionality. For example, snapshots and replication depend on the maintenance of strict consistency between data instances.

Meanwhile, object storage provides high scalability and ubiquitous access, but can lag in terms of data integrity and performance capabilities required by modern applications.

Last writer wins

There’s also no concept of object locking – it’s simply a case of last writer wins. This is great for relatively static content, but not practical for database applications or analytics that need to do partial content reads and updates.

But, object storage is a method of choice for some hybrid cloud storage distributed environments. It can work to provide a single object/file environment across locations with S3 almost a de facto standard for access between sites.

File storage sits between the two extremes. It offers high scalability, data integrity and security and file systems have locking that protect against concurrent updates either locally or globally, depending on how lock management is implemented. Often, file system data security permissions integrate with existing credentials management systems like Active Directory.

File systems, like object storage, implement a single global name space that abstracts from the underlying hardware and provide consistency in accessing content, wherever it is located. Some object storage-based systems also provide file access via network file system (NFS) and server message block protocol (SMB).

In some ways what we’re looking at here are a development of the parallel file system, or its key functionality, for hybrid cloud operations.

Distributed and parallel file systems have been on the market for years. Dell EMC is a market leader with its Isilon hardware platform. Also, DDN offers a hardware solution called Gridscaler and there are also a range of other software solutions like Lustre, Ceph and IBM’s Spectrum Scale (GPFS).

But these are not built for hybrid cloud operations. So, what do new solutions offer over the traditional suppliers?

Distributed file systems 2.0

The new wave of distributed file systems and object stores are built to operate in hybrid cloud environments. In other words, they are designed to work across private and public environments.

Key to this is support for public cloud and the capability to deploy a scale-out file/object cluster in the public cloud and span on/off-premise operations with a hybrid solution.

Native support for public cloud means much more than simply running a software instance in a cloud VM. Solutions need to be deployable with automation, understand the performance characteristics of storage in cloud instances and be lightweight and efficient to reduce costs as much as possible.

New distributed file systems in particular are designed to cover applications that require very low latency to operate efficiently. These include traditional databases, high-performance analytics, financial trading and general high-performance computing applications, such as life sciences and media/entertainment.

By providing data mobility, these new distributed file systems allow end users and IT organisations to take advantage of cheap compute in public cloud, while maintaining data consistency across geographic boundaries.

Supplier roundup

WekaIO was founded in 2013 and has spent almost five years developing a scale-out parallel file system solution called Matrix. Matrix is a POSIX-compliant file system that was specifically designed for NVMe storage.

As a scale-out storage offering, Matrix runs across a cluster of commodity storage servers or can be deployed in the public cloud and run on standard compute instances using local SSD block storage. It also claims hybrid operations are possible, with the ability to tier to public cloud services. WekaIO publishes latency figures as low as 200µs and I/O throughput of 20,000 to 50,000 IOPS per CPU core.

Elastifile was founded in 2014 and has a team with a range of successful storage product developments behind it, including XtremIO and XIV. The Elastifile Cloud File System (ECFS) is a software solution built to scale across thousands of compute nodes, offering file, block and object storage.

ECFS is designed to support heterogeneous environments, including public and private cloud environments under a single global name space. Today, this is achieved using a feature called CloudConnect, which bridges the gap between on-premise and cloud deployments.

Qumulo was founded in 2012 by a team that previously worked on developing the Isilon scale-out NAS platform. The Qumulo File Fabric (QF2) is a scale-out software solution that can be deployed on commodity hardware or in the public cloud.

Cross-platform capabilities are provided through the ability to replicate file shares between physical locations using a feature called Continuous Replication. Although primarily a software solution, QF2 is available as an appliance with a throughput of 4GBps per node (minimum four nodes), although no latency figures are quoted.

Object storage maker Cloudian announced an upgrade in January 2018 to its Hyperstore product which brings true hybrid cloud operations across Microsoft, Amazon and Google cloud environments with data portability between them. Cloudian is based on the Apache Cassandra open source distributed database.

It can come as storage software that customers deploy on commodity hardware, in cloud software format or in hardware appliance form. Hyperfile file access – which is Posix/Windows compliant – can also be deployed on-premise and in the cloud to provide file access.

Multi-cloud data controller

Another object storage specialist, Scality, will release a commercially supported version of its “multi-cloud data controller” Zenko at the end of March. The product promises to allow customers hybrid cloud functionality; to move, replicate, tier, migrate and search data across on-premise, private cloud locations and public cloud, although it’s not that clear how seamless those operations will be.

Zenko is based on Scality’s 2016 launch of its S3 server, which provided S3 access to Scality Ring object storage. The key concept behind Zenko is to allow customers to mix and match Scality on-site storage with storage from different cloud providers, initially Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure.