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An argument against cloud-based applications

By Walter Thompson
Michael Huth Contributor
Professor Michael Huth (Ph.D.) is co-founder and CTO of Xayn and teaches at Imperial College London. His research focuses on cybersecurity, cryptography and mathematical modeling, as well as security and privacy in machine learning.

In the last decade we’ve seen massive changes in how we consume and interact with our world. The Yellow Pages is a concept that has to be meticulously explained with an impertinent scoff at our own age. We live within our smartphones, within our apps.

While we thrive with the information of the world at our fingertips, we casually throw away any semblance of privacy in exchange for the convenience of this world.

This line we straddle has been drawn with recklessness and calculation by big tech companies over the years as we’ve come to terms with what app manufacturers, large technology companies, and app stores demand of us.

Our private data into the cloud

According to Symantec, 89% of our Android apps and 39% of our iOS apps require access to private information. This risky use sends our data to cloud servers, to both amplify the performance of the application (think about the data needed for fitness apps) and store data for advertising demographics.

While large data companies would argue that data is not held for long, or not used in a nefarious manner, when we use the apps on our phones, we create an undeniable data trail. Companies generally keep data on the move, and servers around the world are constantly keeping data flowing, further away from its source.

Once we accept the terms and conditions we rarely read, our private data is no longer such. It is in the cloud, a term which has eluded concrete understanding throughout the years.

A distinction between cloud-based apps and cloud computing must be addressed. Cloud computing at an enterprise level, while argued against ad nauseam over the years, is generally considered to be a secure and cost-effective option for many businesses.

Even back in 2010, Microsoft said 70% of its team was working on things that were cloud-based or cloud-inspired, and the company projected that number would rise to 90% within a year. That was before we started relying on the cloud to store our most personal, private data.

Cloudy with a chance of confusion

To add complexity to this issue, there are literally apps to protect your privacy from other apps on your smart phone. Tearing more meat off the privacy bone, these apps themselves require a level of access that would generally raise eyebrows if it were any other category of app.

Consider the scenario where you use a key to encrypt data, but then you need to encrypt that key to make it safe. Ultimately, you end up with the most important keys not being encrypted. There is no win-win here. There is only finding a middle ground of contentment in which your apps find as much purchase in your private data as your doctor finds in your medical history.

The cloud is not tangible, nor is it something we as givers of the data can access. Each company has its own cloud servers, each one collecting similar data. But we have to consider why we give up this data. What are we getting in return? We are given access to applications that perhaps make our lives easier or better, but essentially are a service. It’s this service end of the transaction that must be altered.

App developers have to find a method of service delivery that does not require storage of personal data. There are two sides to this. The first is creating algorithms that can function on a local basis, rather than centralized and mixed with other data sets. The second is a shift in the general attitude of the industry, one in which free services are provided for the cost of your personal data (which ultimately is used to foster marketing opportunities).

Of course, asking this of any big data company that thrives on its data collection and marketing process is untenable. So the change has to come from new companies, willing to risk offering cloud privacy while still providing a service worth paying for. Because it wouldn’t be free. It cannot be free, as free is what got us into this situation in the first place.

Clearing the clouds of future privacy

What we can do right now is at least take a stance of personal vigilance. While there is some personal data that we cannot stem the flow of onto cloud servers around the world, we can at least limit the use of frivolous apps that collect too much data. For instance, games should never need access to our contacts, to our camera and so on. Everything within our phone is connected, it’s why Facebook seems to know everything about us, down to what’s in our bank account.

This sharing takes place on our phone and at the cloud level, and is something we need to consider when accepting the terms on a new app. When we sign into apps with our social accounts, we are just assisting the further collection of our data.

The cloud isn’t some omnipotent enemy here, but it is the excuse and tool that allows the mass collection of our personal data.

The future is likely one in which devices and apps finally become self-sufficient and localized, enabling users to maintain control of their data. The way we access apps and data in the cloud will change as well, as we’ll demand a functional process that forces a methodology change in service provisions. The cloud will be relegated to public data storage, leaving our private data on our devices where it belongs. We have to collectively push for this change, lest we lose whatever semblance of privacy in our data we have left.

Vantage makes managing AWS easier

By Frederic Lardinois

Vantage, a new service that makes managing AWS resources and their associated spend easier, is coming out of stealth today. The service offers its users an alternative to the complex AWS console with support for most of the standard AWS services, including EC2 instances, S3 buckets, VPCs, ECS and Fargate and Route 53 hosted zones.

The company’s founder, Ben Schaechter, previously worked at AWS and Digital Ocean (and before that, he worked on Crunchbase, too). Yet while DigitalOcean showed him how to build a developer experience for individuals and small businesses, he argues that the underlying services and hardware simply weren’t as robust as those of the hyperclouds. AWS, on the other hand, offers everything a developer could want (and likely more), but the user experience leaves a lot to be desired.

Image Credits: Vantage

“The idea was really born out of ‘what if we could take the user experience of DigitalOcean and apply it to the three public cloud providers, AWS, GCP and Azure,” Schaechter told me. “We decided to start just with AWS because the experience there is the roughest and it’s the largest player in the market. And I really think that we can provide a lot of value there before we do GCP and Azure.”

The focus for Vantage is on the developer experience and cost transparency. Schaechter noted that some of its users describe it as being akin to a “Mint for AWS.” To get started, you give Vantage a set of read permissions to your AWS services and the tool will automatically profile everything in your account. The service refreshes this list once per hour, but users can also refresh their lists manually.

Given that it’s often hard enough to know which AWS services you are actually using, that alone is a useful feature. “That’s the number one use case,” he said. “What are we paying for and what do we have?”

At the core of Vantage is what the team calls “views,” which allows you to see which resources you are using. What is interesting here is that this is quite a flexible system and allows you to build custom views to see which resources you are using for a given application across regions, for example. Those may include Lambda, storage buckets, your subnet, code pipeline and more.

On the cost-tracking side, Vantage currently only offers point-in-time costs, but Schaechter tells me that the team plans to add historical trends as well to give users a better view of their cloud spend.

Schaechter and his co-founder bootstrapped the company and he noted that before he wants to raise any money for the service, he wants to see people paying for it. Currently, Vantage offers a free plan, as well as paid “pro” and “business” plans with additional functionality.

Image Credits: Vantage 

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners looks to make CA power grids more reliable with a $100 million investment

By Jonathan Shieber

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, the company which spun out of Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to fund, develop, and own the next generation of infrastructure, has unveiled its latest project — Reslia, which focuses on upgrading the efficiency and reliability of power grids.

Through a $20 million equity investment in the startup OhmConnect, and an $80 million commitment to develop a demand response program leveraging OhmConnect’s technology and services across the state of California, Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners intends to plant a flag for demand-response technologies as a key pathway to ensuring stable energy grids across the country.

‘We’re creating a virtual power plant,” said Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners co-CEO, Jonathan Winer. “With a typical power plant … it’s project finance, but for a virtual power plant… We’re basically going to subsidize the rollout of smart devices.”

The idea that people will respond to signals from the grid isn’t a new one, as Winer himself acknowledged in an interview. But the approach that Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners is taking, alongside OhmConnect, to roll out the incentives to residential customers through a combination of push notifications and payouts, is novel. “The first place people focused is on commercial and industrial buildings,” he said. 

What drew Sidewalk to the OhmConnect approach was the knowledge of the end consumer that OhmConnect’s management team brought to the table The company’s chief technology officer was the former chief technology officer of Zynga, Winer noted.

“What’s cool about the OhmConnect platform is that it empowers participation,” Winer said. “Anyone can enroll in these programs. If you’re an OhmConnect user and there’s a blackout coming, we’ll give you five bucks if you turn down your thermostat for the next two hours.”

Illustration of Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners Resilia Power Plant. Image Credit: Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners

The San Francisco-based demand-response company already has 150,000 users on its platform, and has paid out something like $1 million to its customers during the brownouts and blackouts that have roiled California’s electricity grid over the past year.

The first collaboration between OhmConnect and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners under the Resilia banner will be what the companies are calling a “Resi-Station” — a 550 megawatt capacity demand response program that will use smart devices to power targeted energy reductions.

At full scale, the companies said that the project will be the largest residential virtual power plant in the world. 

“OhmConnect has shown that by linking together the savings of many individual consumers, we can reduce stress on the grid and help prevent blackouts,” said OhmConnect CEO Cisco DeVries. “This investment by SIP will allow us to bring the rewards of energy savings to hundreds of thousands of additional Californians – and at the same time build the smart energy platform of the future.” 

California’s utilities need all the help they can get. Heat waves and rolling blackouts spread across the state as it confronted some of its hottest temperatures over the summer. California residents already pay among the highest residential power prices in the counry at 21 cents per kilowatt hour, versus a national average of 13 cents.

During times of peak stress earlier in the year, OhmConnect engaged its customers to reduce almost one gigawatt hour of total energy usage. That’s the equivalent of taking 600,000 homes off the grid for one hour.

If the Resilia project was rolled out at scale, the companies estimate they could provide 5 gigawatt hours of energy conservation — that’s the full amount of the energy shortfall from the year’s blackouts and the equivalent of not burning 3.8 million pounds of coal.

Going forward, the Resilia energy efficiency and demand response platform will scale up other infrastructure innovations as energy grids shift from centralized power to distributed, decentralized generation sources, the company said. OhmConnect looks to be an integral part of that platform.

“The energy grid used to be uni-directional.. .we believe that in the near future the grid is going to be become bi-directional and responsive,” said Winer. “With our approach, this won’t be one investment. We’ll likely make multiple investments. [Vehicle-to-grid], micro-grid platforms, and generative design are going to be important.” 

Google acquires Actifio to step into the area of data management and business continuity

By Ingrid Lunden

In the same week that Amazon is holding its big AWS confab, Google is also announcing a move to raise its own enterprise game with Google Cloud. Today the company announced that it is acquiring Actifio, a data management company that helps companies with data continuity to be better prepared in the event of a security breach or other need for disaster recovery. The deal squares Google up as a competitor against the likes of Rubrik, another big player in data continuity.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed in the announcement; we’re looking and will update as we learn more. Notably, when the company was valued at over $1 billion in a funding round back in 2014, it had said it was preparing for an IPO (which never happened). PitchBook data estimated its value at $1.3 billion in 2018, but earlier this year it appeared to be raising money at about a 60% discount to its recent valuation, according to data provided to us by Prime Unicorn Index.

The company was also involved in a patent infringement suit against Rubrik, which it also filed earlier this year.

It had raised around $461 million, with investors including Andreessen Horowitz, TCV, Tiger, 83 North, and more.

With Actifio, Google is moving into what is one of the key investment areas for enterprises in recent years. The growth of increasingly sophisticated security breaches, coupled with stronger data protection regulation, has given a new priority to the task of holding and using business data more responsibly, and business continuity is a cornerstone of that.

Google describes the startup as as a “leader in backup and disaster recovery” providing virtual copies of data that can be managed and updated for storage, testing, and more. The fact that it covers data in a number of environments — including SAP HANA, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, PostgreSQL, and MySQL, virtual machines (VMs) in VMware, Hyper-V, physical servers, and of course Google Compute Engine — means that it also gives Google a strong play to work with companies in hybrid and multi-vendor environments rather than just all-Google shops.

“We know that customers have many options when it comes to cloud solutions, including backup and DR, and the acquisition of Actifio will help us to better serve enterprises as they deploy and manage business-critical workloads, including in hybrid scenarios,” writes Brad Calder, VP, engineering, in the blog post. :In addition, we are committed to supporting our backup and DR technology and channel partner ecosystem, providing customers with a variety of options so they can choose the solution that best fits their needs.”

The company will join Google Cloud.

“We’re excited to join Google Cloud and build on the success we’ve had as partners over the past four years,” said Ash Ashutosh, CEO at Actifio, in a statement. “Backup and recovery is essential to enterprise cloud adoption and, together with Google Cloud, we are well-positioned to serve the needs of data-driven customers across industries.”

AWS launches Glue Elastic Views to make it easier to move data from one purpose-built data store to another

By Jonathan Shieber

AWS has launched a new tool to let developers move data from one store to another called Glue Elastic Views.

At the AWS:Invent keynote CEO Andy Jassy announced Glue Elastic Views, a service that lets programmers move data across multiple data stores more seamlessly.

The new service can take data from disparate silos and move them together. That AWS ETL service allows programmers to write a little bit of SQL code to have a materialized view tht can move from one source data store to another.

For instance, Jassy said, a programmer can move data from DynamoDB to Elastic Search allowing a developer to set up a materialized view to copy that data — all the while managing dependencies. That means if data changes in the source data lake, then it will automatically be updated in the other data stores where the data has been relocated, Jassy said.

“When you have the ability to move data… and move that data easily from data store to data store… that’s incredibly powerful,” said Jassy.

Thousands of U.S. lab results and medical records spilled online after a security lapse

By Zack Whittaker

NTreatment, a technology company that manages electronic health and patient records for doctors and psychiatrists, left thousands of sensitive health records exposed to the internet because one of its cloud servers wasn’t protected with a password.

The cloud storage server server was hosted on Microsoft Azure and contained 109,000 files, a large portion of which contained lab test results from third-party providers like LabCorp, medical records, doctor’s notes, insurance claims, and other sensitive health data for patients across the U.S., a class of data considered protected health information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Running afoul of HIPAA can result in steep fines.

None of the data was encrypted, and nearly all of the sensitive files were viewable in the browser. Some of the medical records belonged to children.

TechCrunch found the exposed data as part of a separate investigation. It wasn’t initially clear who owned the storage server, but many of the electronic health records that TechCrunch reviewed in an effort to trace the source of the data spillage were tied to doctors and psychiatrists and healthcare workers working at hospitals or networks known to use nTreatment. The storage server also contained some internal company documents, including a non-disclosure agreement with a major prescriptions provider.

The data was secured on Monday after TechCrunch contacted the company. In an email, NTreatment co-founder Gregory Katz said the server was “used as a general purpose storage,” but did not say how long the server was exposed.

Katz said the company would notify affected providers and regulators of the incident.

It’s the latest in a series of incidents involving the exposure of medical data. Earlier this year we found a bug in LabCorp’s website that exposed thousands of lab results, and reported on the vast amounts of medical imaging floating around the web.

Amazon S3 Storage Lens gives IT visibility into complex S3 usage

By Ron Miller

As your S3 storage requirements grow, it gets harder to understand exactly what you have, and this especially true when it crosses multiple regions. This could have broad implications for administrators, who are forced to build their own solutions to get that missing visibility. AWS changed that this week when it announced a new product called Amazon S3 Storage Lens, a way to understand highly complex S3 storage environments.

The tool provides analytics that help you understand what’s happening across your S3 object storage installations, and to take action when needed. As the company describes the new service in a blog post, “This is the first cloud storage analytics solution to give you organization-wide visibility into object storage, with point-in-time metrics and trend lines as well as actionable recommendations,” the company wrote in the post.

Amazon S3 Storage Lens Console

Image Credits: Amazon

The idea is to present a set of 29 metrics in a dashboard that help you “discover anomalies, identify cost efficiencies and apply data protection best practices,” according to the company. IT administrators can get a view of their storage landscape and can drill down into specific instances when necessary, such as if there is a problem that requires attention. The product comes out of the box with a default dashboard, but admins can also create their own customized dashboards, and even export S3 Lens data to other Amazon tools.

For companies with complex storage requirements, as in thousands or even tens of thousands of S3 storage instances, who have had to kludge together ways to understand what’s happening across the systems, this gives them a single view across it all.

S3 Storage Lens is now available in all AWS regions, according to the company.

A Biden presidency doesn’t need a Green New Deal to make progress on climate change

By Jonathan Shieber

Even without a Green New Deal, the sweeping set of climate-related initiatives many Democrats are pushing for, President-elect Joe Biden will have plenty of opportunities to move ahead with much of the ambitious energy transformation plan as part of any infrastructure or stimulus package.

Should Republicans manage to maintain control of the Senate, there are still several opportunities to build climate-friendly policies into the infrastructure and stimulus bills Congress will be pushing through as its first orders of business, according to experts, investors and advisors to the President-elect.

That’s good news for established companies and the wave of startups focused on technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global climate change. And these changes could happen despite intransigence from even moderate Republicans like Mitt Romney on climate issues.

“I think people are saying that conservative principles still account for a majority of public opinion in our country,” Romney said on “Meet the Press” Sunday. “I don’t think they want to sign up for a Green New Deal. I don’t think they want to sign up for getting rid of coal or oil or gas. I don’t think they’re interested in Medicare for All or higher taxes that would slow down the economy.”

Already, current market conditions are forcing some of the largest oil, gas and energy companies to transition to renewables. As those companies begin closing refineries in the U.S., Congress is going to feel increasing pressure to find a way to replace those jobs.

For instance, Shell announced earlier this month in Louisiana that it was closing a factory and laying off roughly 650 workers. The closure is primarily due to declining demand for oil brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, but both Netherlands-headquartered Shell and its U.K.-based counterpart BP believe fossil fuel consumption may have reached its peak in 2019 and is headed for long-term decline.

U.S. oil and gas giants aren’t immune from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and a global shift away from fossil fuels either. Two of the largest companies, Chevron and ExxonMobil, have seen their share prices decline over the past year as the oil industry reckons with steep reductions in demand and other market pressures.

Meanwhile, some of the nation’s largest utilities are working to phase out fossil fuel-based power generation.

The markets are already supporting the transition to renewable energy, without much government guidance, at least here in the U.S. So against this backdrop, the question isn’t if the government should be supporting the transition to renewable energy, but how quickly stimulus can be mobilized to save American jobs.

“A lot of the really consequential climate-related stuff that’s going to come out in the [near term] … won’t actually be related to renewables,” an advisor to the President-elect said.

So the questions become: What will economic stimulus look like? How will it be distributed? and how will it be financed?

Image Credits: Artem_Egorov/Getty Images

Economic stimulus, COVID-19 and climate

President-elect Biden has already spelled out the first priorities for his incoming administration. While trying to manage the COVID-19 pandemic that has already killed over 238,000 Americans comes first, dealing with the economic fallout caused by the response to the pandemic will quickly follow.

Climate-friendly initiatives will loom large in that effort, analysts and advisors indicate, and could be a boon to new technology companies — as well as longtime players in the fossil fuels business.

“If we are going to be spending that money, there is an enormous opportunity to make sure that these investments are moving us forward and not recreating problems,” said one advisor to the Biden campaign earlier this year.

To understand how the trillions of dollars that are up for grabs will be spent, it’s helpful to think in terms of short-, medium- and long-term goals.

In the short term, the focus will be on “shovel-ready” projects that can be spun up as quickly as possible. These would be initiatives like environmental retrofits and building upgrades; repairing and upgrading water systems and electricity grids; providing more manufacturing incentives for electric vehicles; and potentially boosting money for environmental remediation and reclamation projects.

In all, that spending could total $750 billion by some estimates and would be used to get Americans back to work with a focus on industrial and manufacturing jobs that could have long-term benefits for the national economy — especially if that spending targets the government-designated Opportunity Zones carved out around the country to help low-income rural and urban communities.

If these efforts incorporate Opportunity Zones, there’s a chance to deploy the cash even faster. And if there are ways to preferentially rank infrastructure projects that also include a tech component, then that’s even better for startups who have managed to overcome hurdles associated with technology risk.

“Any time you craft policy, especially federal policy, you have to be so careful that the incentives line up correctly with what you’re trying to achieve,” said a Biden advisor.

Medium- and longer-term goals will likely require more time to plan and develop, because they’re relying on newer technologies in some cases, or they will have to wind their way through the planning process at the local and state levels before they can receive federal funds to begin construction.

Expect another $60 billion to be spent on these projects to finance development, workforce training and reskilling to prepare a labor force for a different kind of labor market.

Incentives over mandates 

One of the biggest risks that Biden administration climate policies face is the potential for legal challenges heard before an increasingly sympathetic conservative judiciary appointed under the Trump administration.

These challenges could force the Biden team to emphasize the financial benefits of adopting business-friendly carrots over regulatory sticks.

“Whenever possible you do want to let the markets figure themselves out,” said the advisor to the President-elect. “You always want to default to incentives rather than mandates.”

Coming off of the news this week that Pfizer has received positive results for its vaccine, there are some models from the current administration’s progress on a COVID-19 vaccine that can be instructive.

While Pfizer wasn’t involved in the Operation Warp Speed program created by the Department of Health and Human Services, the company did cut a $2 billion deal with the government that guaranteed a market for its vaccines.

FYI a lot of people are tweeting about how Pfizer didn't accept government money for this vaccine. This isn't true. HHS did a $2 billion deal with Pfizer to guarantee a market for the vaccine, making Pfizer's R&D spend viable. Classic public/private partnership.

— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) November 9, 2020

The type of public-private partnerships that Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy mentions could also be employed in the climate space — especially in areas that will be hardest hit by the transition away from coal.

Some of that spending guarantee could come in the form of environmental remediation for orphaned natural gas wells or coal mining operations — especially in regions of the country like the Dakotas, Montana, West Virginia and Wyoming, that would be hardest hit by a transition away from fossil fuels. Some could come from the development of new geothermal engineering projects that require the same kind of skills that engineering firms and oil companies have developed over the past decades.

And, there’s the looming promise of a hydrogen-based economy, which could take advantage of some of the existing oil-and-gas infrastructure and expertise that exists in the country to transition to a cleaner energy future (n.b., that’s not necessarily a clean energy future, but it’s a cleaner one).

Already, nations like Japan are building the groundwork for replacing oil with hydrogen fuels, and these kinds of incentive-based programs and public-private partnerships could be a big boost for startups in a number of industries as well.

Image Credits: Cameron Davidson/Getty Images

Sharing the wealth (rural edition)

Any policies that a Biden administration enacts would have to focus on economic opportunity broadly, and much of the proposed plan from the campaign fulfills that need. One of its key propositions was that it would be “creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation — rural, urban and tribal,” according to the transition website.

An early emphasis on grid and utility infrastructure could create significant opportunities for job creation across America — and be a boost for technology companies.

“Our electric power infrastructure is old, aging and not secure,” said Abe Yokell, co-founder of the energy and climate-focused venture capital firm Congruent Ventures. “From an infrastructure standpoint, transmission distribution really should be upgraded and has been underinvested over the years. And it is in direct alignment with providing renewable energy deployment across the U.S. and the electrification of everything.”

Combining electric infrastructure revitalization with new broadband capabilities and monitoring technologies for power and water would be a massive windfall for companies like Verizon (which owns TechCrunch), and other networking companies. It also provides utilities with a way to adjust their rates (which they appreciate).

Those infrastructure upgrades are also useful in helping utilities find a way to repurpose stranded coal assets that are both costly and — increasingly — useless.

“Coal … it doesn’t make sense to burn coal anymore,” Yokell said. “People are doing it even though it’s out of the money for liability reasons … everyone is looking to retire coal even in the assets.”

If those assets can be decommissioned and repurposed to act as nodes on a distributed energy grid using energy storage to smooth capacity in the same way that those coal plants used to, “it’s a massive win,” according to Yokell. Adoption of energy storage used to be a cost issue, Yokell said. “It’s now a siting issue.”

Repowering old hydroelectric assets with newer, more efficient technologies offer another way to move the needle with shovel-ready projects and is an area where startups could stand to benefit from the push. It’s also a way to bring jobs to rural communities.

The promise of infrastructure spending can be born out across urban and rural areas, but the stimulus benefits don’t end there.

For rural communities there are business opportunities in “climate-smart agriculture, resilience and conservation, including 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hardrock and uranium mines,” as the Biden transition team notes. And there’s a huge opportunity for oil industry workers to find jobs in the new and growing tech-enabled geothermal energy industry.

The farm subsidies that have skyrocketed under the Trump administration could continue, just with a more climate-focused bent. Instead of literally giving away the farm to the tune of a projected $46 billion that the Trump administration will hand out to farmers over the course of 2020, payouts could be predicated on “carbon farming.” Wooing the farm vote with the promise of payouts for carbon sequestration could be a way to restart a conversation around a carbon price (a largely failed prospect in government circles). Beyond carbon sequestration, rapid innovations in synthetic biology for biomaterials, coatings and even food could take advantage of the big biofuel fermenters and feedstocks in the Midwest to enable a new biomanufacturing industry.

Furthermore, the expansion of rail lines thanks to the fracking and oil boom means opportunities and the potential to build out other types of manufacturing capacity that can be transported across the U.S.

vw-plant-tennessee

Volkswagen broke ground Wednesday, November 13, 2019 on an $800 million factory expansion in Tennessee that will be the North American hub of its electric vehicle plans. Image Credits: Volkswagen

Sharing the wealth (urban edition) 

The same spending that could juice rural economies can be equally applied in America’s largest cities. Any movement to boost the auto industry through incentives around electric vehicles or federal mandates to upgrade fleets would do wonders for automakers and the original equipment manufacturers that supply them.

Public-private partnerships for urban infrastructure could first receive support from funds devoted to planning and managing upgrades. That could boost the adoption of new tech from startup companies around the country, while creating new jobs for a significant number of workers through implementation.

One large area where urban economic revitalization and climate policies can intersect is in the relatively unsexy area of weatherization, energy efficient appliance installation and building retrofits.

“Local governments across the country are highly interested in the green economy and transitioning to the low-carbon economy,” said Lauren Zullo, the director of environmental impact at the real estate management firm, Jonathan Rose Companies. “Cities are really looking to partner with the private real estate sector because they know we’re going to have to get buildings involved in the green economy. And any work that you do retrofitting local buildings is literally local economy.”

By channeling dollars into green retrofits and the deployment of distributed renewable energy, local economies will get a huge boost — and one that disproportionately will go to helping the communities that have been on the front lines of climate change.

You saw … a lot of investment made just this way out of the Recovery Act,” Zullo said, referring to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the stimulus bill passed in the first term of the Obama administration. “A lot of [funds] focused on low-income weatherization that were earmarked for low income and affordable housing. [Those] funds have allowed us to reduce energy consumption anywhere from 30% to 50% … and being able to gain those utility cost savings have been transformational to those communities.”

Why are these programs so important? Zullo explained further, “Low-income folks are disproportionately burdened by utility and energy costs. Any sort of energy-saving opportunities that we can earmark or target in these low-income communities is truly impactful … not just on a carbon footprint, but on the lives and success of these low-income communities.”

Paying for it

For even this more-modest legislation to make it through Congress, a Biden administration will have to answer the questions of who would pay for the stimulus and how it would get distributed.

In a tweet, the political commentator Matthew Yglesias proffered that the country could afford “to throw an ice cream party.” That policy would enable Republicans to keep the tax cuts while allowing the government to continue to spend on stimulus measures.

“[Interest] rates are very low. The country can afford an ice cream option where we spend money on some good things and ‘offset’ with tax cuts,” Yglesias wrote.

On paper the Biden agenda is full of things like “we’ll spend money on this good thing and pay for it by taxing the rich.”

But interest rates are very low. The country can afford an ice cream option where we spend money on some good things and “offset” with tax cuts.

— Matthew Yglesias 🍦 (@mattyglesias) November 10, 2020

To distribute the funds, Congress could set up a body similar to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was established by Herbert Hoover’s administration back at the start of the Great Depression. It was expanded under Franklin Delano Roosevelt to disburse funds to financial institutions, farms and corporations at risk of collapse.

While the success of the institution itself is somewhat murky, the RFC along with federal deposit insurance and the related Commodity Credit Corporation (which, unlike the RFC, still exists) laid the groundwork for the country to emerge from the Great Depression and gear up manufacturing to engage with a world at war in the 1940s.

The durability of the CCC could provide a model for any infrastructure credit corporation that the government may want to establish.

Some investors support the idea. “It’s more about channeling dollars to state, municipal or private businesses with the ability to underwrite heavily subsidized loans to any entity proposing a modern infrastructure project that could be paid through municipal bonds or tolling,” said one investor in the infrastructure space. “It would offer a credit backstop to anyone who wanted to invest in infrastructure and could have a technological requirement associated with it.”

Several investors suggested that capital from loans paid out through the infrastructure bank could finance the reshoring of industry, with potential tax revenues from the businesses offsetting some of the costs of the loans. Some of these measures could have additional economic benefits if the loans get funneled through local financial institutions as well.

“If you think about a vehicle to deliver these funds, you already have an existing architecture to deliver this … which is the municipal bond market,” said Mark Paris, a managing partner at Urban.us, a venture capital fund focused on urban infrastructure. 

The infrastructure answer

There’s no shortage of levers that the Biden administration can pull to reverse the course of the Trump administration’s policies on climate change, but many of these federal policy changes are likely to face challenges in courts.

Vox’s David Roberts has an excellent run down of some of the direct actions that Biden can take along the path toward decarbonization of the U.S. economy. They include restoring the over 125 climate and environmental regulations that the Trump presidency reversed or rolled back; working with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a new, more sweeping version of the original Obama-era Clean Power Plan; push the Department of Transportation’s development of new fuel economy standards; and supporting California’s own, very aggressive vehicle standards.

Biden can also encourage financial markets to make more of an effort to price climate risk into their financial models for investment, which would further encourage investment in climate-friendly businesses and a divestment from fossil fuels, as Roberts notes.

Some of America’s largest financial services institutions are already doing just that, and oil-and-gas companies are wrestling with the need to transition to renewable or emission-free fuels as their share prices take a pummeling and demand plummets on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Mother Jones suggested last year, a Biden administration could declare climate change a national security emergency, in the same way that the Trump administration declared immigration to be a national security emergency. That would give Biden extensive powers to reshape the economy and directly influence industrial policy.

Declaring a national climate emergency would give Biden the powers he needs to enact much of the infrastructure initiatives that comprise the President-elect’s energy plan, but not a popular mandate to support it.

Before taking that step, Biden may choose to try and exhaust all legislative options first. In a divided Congress that means focusing on infrastructure, jobs and industry incentives.

“The impacts of climate change don’t pick and choose. That’s because it’s not a partisan phenomenon. It’s science. And our response should be the same. Grounded in science. Acting together. All of us,” Biden said in a September speech.

“These are concrete, actionable policies that create jobs, mitigate climate change and put our nation on the road to net-zero emissions by no later than 2050,” he said. “We can invest in our infrastructure to make it stronger and more resilient, while at the same time tackling the root causes of climate change.”

Biden’s infrastructure plans could boost startups

By Jonathan Shieber

As President-elect Joe Biden readies his transition team and sets the agenda for his first 100 days in office, startups can expect to see some movement on long-stalled infrastructure initiatives that could mean big boosts to their business.

Infrastructure is high on the list of priorities of the incoming Biden Administration as the former vice president hopes to make good on his campaign promise to “build back better.”

American infrastructure has been crumbling for decades without significant investment from the federal government, and much of what will be replaced will also be upgraded with new technology, according to people familiar with the Biden plan.

That means tech companies focused on next-generation telecommunications and utility infrastructure, transportation, housing and construction tech around energy efficiency could see new dollars pour in over the next four years.

“Infrastructure and build out of the clean energy economy … doesn’t necessarily mean large wind or large solar projects. It could mean advanced metering … it can be new engine technologies,” said Dan Goldman, a managing partner at Clean Energy Ventures. “We think that that can be a huge opportunity for job creation … not only putting people back to work but putting people back to work in high quality jobs.”

And there’s a willingness to encourage these infrastructure projects in less partisan ways in states like Massachusetts, Virginia and Florida, which are actively building out electric vehicle infrastructure and renewable energy projects, Goldman said.

While the federal government will ultimately be distributing the cash, startups can expect to see the spending actually come from municipalities and state governments, which often have a better understanding of local needs and where the money should go.

Next-generation energy infrastructure

The electrification of everything — a component of any zero-carbon movement — requires significant upgrades to existing power infrastructure. That means everything from systems management technologies to distribution facilities to ways to store power that can be moved on to the grid.

“Without that infrastructure investment it gets quite challenging,” said Abe Yokell, a co-founder and managing partner of Congruent Ventures. 

He pointed to large-scale energy storage technologies as one solution, but management systems for utilities will be another area of interest.

Those infrastructure initiatives will likely mean good things for battery companies like Form Energy, which signed its first major contract with Great River Energy earlier this year; or Antora and Malta, which store energy as heat; or Quidnet, which has a pumped hydroelectric play for large-scale energy storage by pumping water into the gaps between rocks underground that creates pressure and can force water back up through a generator.

Other large-scale energy storage companies working on developing and installing batteries could benefit as well. That means good things for Tesla, which has a few major battery installs under its belt, and Fluence, which manages and operates big install projects.

Natel Energy, another startup working on energy storage (and generation) using hydropower, could also find its technology in the mix, according to company founder, Gia Schneider.

Schneider sees three potential pitches for her company’s technologies. “Climate change is water change,” she said. “We have a bucket in energy, a bucket of stuff in environmental and a bucket of stuff in working lands.”

Dropbox shifts business product focus to remote work with Spaces update

By Ron Miller

In a September interview at TechCrunch Disrupt, Dropbox co-founder and CEO Drew Houston talked about how the pandemic had forced the company to rethink what work means, and how his company is shifting with the new requirements of a work-from-home world. Today, the company announced broad changes to Dropbox Spaces, the product introduced last year, to make it a collaboration and project management tool designed with these new requirements in mind.

Dropbox president Timothy Young says that the company has always been about making it easy to access files wherever you happen to be and whatever device you happen to be on, whether that was in a consumer or business context. As the company has built out its business products over the last several years, that involved sharing content internally or externally. Today’s announcement is about helping teams plan and execute around the content you create with a strong project focus.

“Now what we’re basically trying to do is really help distributed teams stay organized, collaborate together and keep moving along, but also do so in a really secure way and support IT, administrators and companies with some features around that as well, while staying true to Dropbox principles,” Young said.

This involves updating Spaces to be a full-fledged project management tool designed with a distributed workforce in mind. Spaces connects to other tools like your calendar, people directory, project management software — and of course files. You can create a project, add people and files, then set up a timeline and assign and track tasks, In addition, you can access meetings directly from Spaces and communicate with team members, who can be inside or outside the company.

Houston suggested a product like this could be coming in his September interview when he said:

“Back in March we started thinking about this, and how [the rapid shift to distributed work] just kind of happened. It wasn’t really designed. What if you did design it? How would you design this experience to be really great? And so starting in March we reoriented our whole product road map around distributed work,” he said.

Along these same lines, Young says the company itself plans to continue to be a remote first company even after the pandemic ends, and will continue to build tools to make it easier to collaborate and share information with that personal experience in mind.

Today’s announcement is a step in that direction. Dropbox Spaces has been in private beta, but will be available in public beta starting today. It should be available publicly at the beginning of next year.

Come June 1, 2021, all of your new photos will count against your free Google storage

By Frederic Lardinois

Come June 1, 2021, Google will change its storage policies for free accounts — and not for the better. Basically, if you’re on a free account and a semi-regular Google Photos user, get ready to pay up next year and subscribe to Google One.

Currently, every free Google Account comes with 15 GB of online storage for all your Gmail, Drive and Photos needs. Email and the files you store in Drive already counted against those 15 GB, but come June 1, all Docs, Sheets, Slides, Drawings, Forms or Jamboard files will count against the free storage as well. Those tend to be small files, but what’s maybe most important here, virtually all of your Photos uploads will now count against those 15 GB as well.

That’s a bid deal because today, Google Photos lets you store unlimited images (and unlimited video, if it’s in HD) for free as long as they are under 16MP in resolution or you opt to have Google degrade the quality. Come June of 2021, any new photo or video uploaded in high quality, which currently wouldn’t count against your allocation, will count against those free 15 GB.

Image Credits: Google

As people take more photos every year, that free allotment won’t last very long. Google argues that 80 percent of its users will have at least three years to reach those 15 GB. Given that you’re reading TechCrunch, though, chances are you’re in those 20 percent that will run out of space much faster (or you’re already on a Google One plan).

Some good news: to make this transition a bit easier, photos and videos uploaded in high quality before June 1, 2021 will not count toward the 15 GB of free storage. As usual, original quality images will continue to count against it, though. And if you own a Pixel device, even after June 1, you can still upload an unlimited number of high-quality images from those.

To let you see how long your current storage will last, Google will now show you personalized estimates, too, and come next June, the company will release a new free tool for Photos that lets you more easily manage your storage. It’ll also show you dark and blurry photos you may want to delete — but then, for a long time Google’s promise was you didn’t have to worry about storage (remember Google’s old Gmail motto? ‘Archive, don’t delete!’)

In addition to these storage updates, there’s a few additional changes worth knowing about. If your account is inactive in Gmail, Drive or Photos for more than two years, Google ‘may’ delete the content in that product. So if you use Gmail but don’t use Photos for two years because you use another service, Google may delete any old photos you had stored there. And if you stay over your storage limit for two years, Google “may delete your content across Gmail, Drive and Photos.”

Cutting back a free and (in some cases) unlimited service is never a great move. Google argues that it needs to make these changes to “continue to provide everyone with a great storage experience and to keep pace with the growing demand.”

People now upload more than 4.3 million GB to Gmail, Drive and Photos every day. That’s not cheap, I’m sure, but Google also controls every aspect of this and must have had some internal projections of how this would evolve when it first set those policies.

To some degree, though, this was maybe to be expected. This isn’t the freewheeling Google of 2010 anymore, after all. We’ve already seen some indications that Google may reserve some advanced features for Google One subscribers in Photos, for example. This new move will obviously push more people to pay for Google One and more money from Google One means a little bit less dependence on advertising for the company.

Qumulo update adds NvME caching for more efficient use of flash storage

By Ron Miller

Qumulo, the Seattle-based data storage startup, announced a bunch of updates today including support for NvME caching, an approach that should enable customers to access faster flash storage at a lower price point.

NvME flash storage development is evolving quickly, driving down the price with higher performance, a win-win situation for large data producers, but it’s still more expensive than traditional drives. Qumulo CEO Bill Richter pointed out that the software still has to take advantage of these changing flash storage dynamics.

To that end, the company claims with its new NvME caching capability, it is giving customers the ability to access faster flash storage for the same price as spinning disks by optimizing the software to more intelligently manage data on its platform and take advantage of the higher performance storage.

The company is also announcing the ability to dynamically scale using the latest technologies such as chips, memory and storage in an automated way. Further, it’s providing automated data encryption at no additional charge and new instant updates, which it says can be implemented without any down time. Finally, it has introduced a new interface to make it easier for customers to move their data from on premises data storage to Amazon S3.

Richter says that the company’s mission has always been about creating, managing and consuming massive amounts of file-based data. As the pandemic has taken hold, more companies are moving their data and applications to the cloud.

“The major secular trends that underpin Qumulo’s mission — the massive amount of file-based content, and the use of cloud computing to solve the content challenge, have both accelerated during the pandemic and we have received really clear signs of that,” he said.

Qumulo was founded back in 2012 and has raised $351 million. Its most recent raise was a hefty $125 million last July on a valuation over $1.2 billion.

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