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AWS updates its edge computing solutions with new hardware and Local Zones

By Frederic Lardinois

AWS today closed out its first re:Invent keynote with a focus on edge computing. The company launched two smaller appliances for its Outpost service, which originally brought AWS as a managed service and appliance right into its customers’ existing data centers in the form of a large rack. Now, the company is launching these smaller versions so that its users can also deploy them in their stores or office locations. These appliances are fully managed by AWS and offer 64 cores of compute, 128GB of memory and 4TB of local NVMe storage.

In addition, the company expanded its set of Local Zones, which are basically small extensions of existing AWS regions that are more expensive to use but offer low-latency access in metro areas. This service launched in Los Angeles in 2019 and starting today, it’s also available in preview in Boston, Houston and Miami. Soon, it’ll expand to Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle. Google, it’s worth noting, is doing something similar with its Mobile Edge Cloud.

The general idea here — and that’s not dissimilar from what Google, Microsoft and others are now doing — is to bring AWS to the edge and to do so in a variety of form factors.

As AWS CEO Andy Jassy rightly noted, AWS always believed that the vast majority of companies, “in the fullness of time” (Jassy’s favorite phrase from this keynote), would move to the cloud. Because of this, AWS focused on cloud services over hybrid capabilities early on. He argues that AWS watched others try and fail in building their hybrid offerings, in large parts because what customers really wanted was to use the same control plane on all edge nodes and in the cloud. None of the existing solutions from other vendors, Jassy argues, got any traction (though AWSs competitors would surely deny this) because of this.

The first result of that was VMware Cloud on AWS, which allowed customers to use the same VMware software and tools on AWS they were already familiar with. But at the end of the day, that was really about moving on-premises services to the cloud.

With Outpost, AWS launched a fully managed edge solution that can run AWS infrastructure in its customers’ data centers. It’s been an interesting journey for AWS, but the fact that the company closed out its keynote with this focus on hybrid — no matter how it wants to define it — shows that it now understands that there is clearly a need for this kind of service. The AWS way is to extend AWS into the edge — and I think most of its competitors will agree with that. Microsoft tried this early on with Azure Stack and really didn’t get a lot of traction, as far as I’m aware, but it has since retooled its efforts around Azure Arc. Google, meanwhile, is betting big on Anthos.

SoftBank’s $100 million diversity and inclusion fund makes its first bet … in health

By Jonathan Shieber

SoftBank’s Opportunity Growth Fund has made the health insurance startup Vitable Health the first commitment from its $100 million fund dedicated to investing in startups founded by entrepreneurs of color.

The Philadelphia-based company, which recently launched from Y Combinator, is focused on bringing basic health insurance to underserved and low-income communities.

Founded by Joseph Kitonga, a 23 year-old entrepreneur whose parents immigrated to the U.S. a decade ago, Vitable provides affordable acute healthcare coverage to underinsured or un-insured populations and was born out of Kitonga’s experience watching employees of his parents’ home healthcare agency struggle to receive basic coverage.

The $1.5 million commitment was led by the SoftBank Group Corp Opportunity Fund, and included Y Combinator, DNA Capital, Commerce Ventures, MSA Capital, Coughdrop Capital, and angels like Immad Akhund, the chief executive of Mercury Bank; and Allison Pickens, the former chief operating officer of Gainsight, the company said in a blog post.

“Good healthcare is a basic right that every American deserves, whoever they are,” said Paul Judge, the Atlanta-based Early Stage Investing Lead for the fund and the founder of Atlanta’s TechSquare Labs investment fund. “We’ve been inspired by Joseph and his approach to addressing this challenge. Vitable Health is bridging critical gaps in patient care and has emerged as a necessary, essential service for all whether they’re uninsured, underinsured, or simply need a better plan for their lifestyle.”

SoftBank created the opportunity fund while cities around the U.S. were witnessing a wave of public protests against systemic racism and police brutality stemming from the murder of the Black Minneapolis citizen George Floyd at the hands of white police officers.  Floyd’s murder reignited simmering tensions between citizens and police in cities around the country over issues including police brutality, the militarization of civil authorities, and racial profiling.

SoftBank has had its own problems with racism in its portfolio this year. A few months before the firm launched its fund, the CEO and founder of one of its portfolio companies, Banjo, resigned after it was revealed that he once had ties to the KKK.

With the Opportunity Fund, SoftBank is trying to address some of its issues, and notably, will not take a traditional management fee for transactions out of the fund “but instead will seek to put as much capital as possible into the hands of founders and entrepreneurs of color.”

The Opportunity Fund is the third investment vehicle announced by SoftBank in the last several years. The biggest of them all is the $100 billion Vision Fund; then last year it announced the $2 billion Innovation Fund focused on Latin America.

Splunk acquires Plumbr and Rigor to build out its observability platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Data platform Splunk today announced that it has acquired two startups, Plumbr and Rigor, to build out its new Observability Suite, which is also launching today. Plumbr is an application performance monitoring service, while Rigor focuses on digital experience monitoring, using synthetic monitoring and optimization tools to help businesses optimize their end-user experiences. Both of these acquisitions complement the technology and expertise Splunk acquired when it bought SignalFx for over $1 billion last year.

Splunk did not disclose the price of these acquisitions, but Estonia-based Plumbr had raised about $1.8 million, while Atlanta-based Rigor raised a debt round earlier this year.

When Splunk acquired SignalFx, it said it did so in order to become a leader in observability and APM. As Splunk CTO Tim Tully told me, the idea here now is to accelerate this process.

Image Credits: Splunk

“Because a lot of our users and our customers are moving to the cloud really, really quickly, the way that they monitor [their] applications changed because they’ve gone to serverless and microservices a ton,” he said. “So we entered that space with those acquisitions, we quickly folded them together with these next two acquisitions. What Plumbr and Rigor do is really fill out more of the portfolio.”

He noted that Splunk was especially interested in Plumbr’s bytecode implementation and its real-user monitoring capabilities, and Rigor’s synthetics capabilities around digital experience monitoring (DEM). “By filling in those two pieces of the portfolio, it gives us a really amazing set of solutions because DEM was the missing piece for our APM strategy,” Tully explained.

Image Credits: Splunk

With the launch of its Observability Suite, Splunk is now pulling together a lot of these capabilities into a single product — which also features a new design that makes it stand apart from the rest of Splunk’s tools. It combines logs, metrics, traces, digital experience, user monitoring, synthetics and more.

“At Yelp, our engineers are responsible for hundreds of different microservices, all aimed at helping people find and connect with great local businesses,” said Chris Gordon, Technical Lead at Yelp, where his team has been testing the new suite. “Our Production Observability team collaborates with Engineering to improve visibility into the performance of key services and infrastructure. Splunk gives us the tools to empower engineers to monitor their own services as they rapidly ship code, while also providing the observability team centralized control and visibility over usage to ensure we’re using our monitoring resources as efficiently as possible.”

Atlanta-based Speedscale now has $2.2 million more to grow its API test automation business

By Jonathan Shieber

It only took a few weeks after its Y Combinator demo day debut for the Atlanta-based API test automation company Speedscale to raise its first $2.2 million.

Founded by longtime developers and Georgia Institute of Technology alumni, Ken Ahrens, Matthew LeRay and Nate Lee had known each other for roughly twenty years before making the jump to working together.

A circuitous path of interconnecting programming jobs in the devops and monitoring space led the three men to realize that there was an opportunity to address one of the main struggles new programmers now face — making sure that updates to api integrations in a containerized programming world don’t wind up breaking apps or services.

“We were helping to solve incident outages and incidents that would cause downtime,” said Lee. “It’s hard to ensure the quality between all of these connection points [between applications]. And these connection points are growing as people add apis and containers. We said, ‘How about we solve this space? How could we preempt all of this and ensure maintaining release velocity with scalable automation?'”

Typically companies release new updates to code in a phased approach or in a test environment to ensure that they’re not going to break anything. Speedscale proposes test automation using real traffic so that developers can accelerate the release time.

“They want to change very frequently,” said Ahrens, speaking about the development life cycle. “Most of the changes are great, but every once in a while they make a change and break part of the system. The state of the art is to wait for it to be broken and get someone to fix it quickly.”

The pitch SpeedScale makes to developers is that its service can give coders the ability to see the problems before the release. They automate the creation of the staging environment, automation suite and orchestration to create that environment.

“One of the big things for me was when I saw the rise of Kubernetes was what’s really happening is that engineering leaders have been able to give more autonomy to developers, but no one has come up with a great way to validate and I really think that Speedscale can solve that problem.”

The Atlanta-based company, which only just graduated from Y Combinator a few months ago, is currently in a closed alpha with select pilot partners, according to LeRay. And the nine month-old company has raised $2.2 million from investors including Sierra Ventures from the Bay Area and Atlanta’s own Tech Square Ventures to grow the business.

“Apis are a huge market,” Ahrens said of the potential opportunity for the company. “there’s 11 million developers who develop against apis… We think the addressable market for us is in the billions.”

Popmenu earns raves from investors for its marketing and delivery software for restaurants

By Jonathan Shieber

Brendan Sweeney didn’t know anything about the restaurant business before he and his co-founders launched the Atlanta-based startup Popmenu.

What Sweeney did know was that it was nuts that while every other business was using incredible graphics, curated text, carefully crafted images and fancy videos to make their pitch to customers restaurants were — posting a text-based menu.

“It’s just crazy that restaurants present their inventory, which is their whole story, their whole selling proposition in plain text,” Sweeney said.

Popmenu, he company he co-founded with three former colleagues from software businesses around the Atlanta area (and which has closed on $17 million in new financing) offers a solution.

What the company’s software aims to do is keep customers on restaurant’s own online real estate by incorporating third party reviews, images, recommendations, and better descriptions into the webpages that it hosts for the culinary creators that use its service. “If you had all that information on a restaurant website it would probably reduce the need to bounce out so much,” Sweeney said.

Popmenu does more than just prettify webpages for the savory savants whose coding skills may not match their craft in the kitchen. The software also helps with social media management, emailing and, yes, even the all-important delivery services that have become vital in the time of a still-spreading pandemic.

It’s the pandemic that juiced the company’s growth, Sweeney said. “We saw ten years of trends in the first ten weeks of COVID-19,” he said. “A lot of people were unprepared for it.”

Sweeney and his co-founders Mike Gullo, Anthony Roy, and Justis Blasco had all worked together at either CareerBuilder or Commissions Inc. It was the experience at Commissions that actually gave Sweeney and his colleagues the idea to start Popmenu.

Popmenu co-founders Brendan Sweeney, Mike Gullo, Justis Blasco, and Anthony Roy. Image Credit: Popmenu

Where Commissions was about designing tools to help local real estate agents and brokers take some power back from the large online platforms that were eating their lunch, Popmenu is bringing the same tools for small businesses to restaurateurs.

“I got this playbook for helping small business with SAAS. [And we’re] helping restaurants take control back from Yelp and TripAdvisor,” said Sweeney.

Other companies around the country, like ChowNow out of Los Angeles, are trying to do something similar. But while ChowNow is focused on online ordering, Popmenu started with marketing and… well… making menus “pop”.

The company is going to use the new cash it raised to add services like on-premises contactless transactions and from there could have a connection from the front-of-the-house to the back-of-the-house operations and ordering and fulfillment services.

Existing investors like Base10 Partners and Felicis Ventures returned to finance the company’s Series B along with new lead investor Bedrock Capital. Popmenu has also received some celebrity financing in the form of a commitment from Mantis VC, the newly launched investment firm from the wildly popular Chainsmokers band.

Apparently, they wanted something just like this, according to Milan Koch of Mantis VC. “When Alex, Drew and I met the Popmenu team, it was obvious to us right away how much they really cared about restaurateurs,” Koch said in a statement. “Having close ties with owners and hospitality groups worldwide and knowing the unique challenges they face, we got excited about how Popmenu’s product could help impact their businesses in so many different ways.”

Popmenu sells its software for a monthly fee of $269 per-location.

“So many industries have experienced radically accelerated trends through the COVID crisis, probably none more so than the restaurant industry,” said Sweeney, in a statement. “They’ve embraced technology as key to weathering these challenging times. We are fired up to give them even more help attracting guests and reducing costs and complexity on the road to recovery.”

Hear from the CEO of Porsche Cars North America on electrifying the sports car

By Matt Burns

Few electric cars made a bigger splash than the new Porsche Taycan. As president and CEO of Porsche Cars North America, Klaus Zellmer has the tall order of bringing the electric sedan to America and selling it against Tesla on Tesla’s home turf. He also oversees Porsche’s digital assets in the U.S. market, namely the customer portal My Porsche and a digital sales platform — a critical test in the era of COVID-19.

We invited Zellmer to speak at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility due to his unique positioning inside Porsche. He’s well-suited to speak on a variety of topics critical to founders, engineers and venture capitalists within the mobility space.

Many see Porsche well-positioned to be a key player in electric vehicles, and the Taycan is just the start. As CEO of Porsche Cars North America, Zellmer can speak directly to the challenges and opportunities facing automakers and startups alike in the North American market.

Likewise, as the president and CEO of Porsche Digital, Zellmer has deep insights into the user experience expectations of today’s drivers, including online sales. As COVID-19 continues to strain retail, dealerships are feeling strains as well. More customers are turning to online dealerships — something Zellmer can speak directly to.

Porsche Digital launched its first U.S.-based operations in Silicon Valley in 2017, and later expanded to Atlanta in 2019. When writing about the Atlanta opening in 2019, TechCrunch writer Darrell Etherington noted that Porsche maintains facilities in global hubs of tech talent and speculated that the company uses these facilities for attracting engineering talent and potential acquisitions of complementary early-stage companies.

We hope you can join our talk with Zellmer at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility 2020. The event is virtual this year, therefore making it more accessible to attendees from around the world. Zellmer joins other mobility executives including Bryan Salesky of Argo AI, Peter Rawlinson of Lucid Motors and Tekedra Mawakana of Waymo.

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