Eyes on APAC

December 21, 2017  8:40 AM

Singapore strikes net neutrality balance

Aaron Tan Aaron Tan Profile: Aaron Tan

A vote by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to repeal the net neutrality rules spearheaded by the Obama administration was largely met with disdain by internet companies and users.

Proponents of these rules often claim that blocking or discriminating internet traffic limits consumer choices, hampers innovation and goes against the principle of a free and open internet.

Those on the opposing fence, mainly telcos and internet service providers (ISPs), have argued for their right to optimise finite network resources and charge over-the-top (OTT) service providers for traffic that passes through their networks. Video streaming services, for one, account for a large part of web traffic.

Singapore’s net neutrality stance appears to have struck a compromise on both sides of the net neutrality debate.

In a white paper published by the then Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) in 2011, ISPs and telcos in Singapore are not allowed to block legitimate content. Nor can they impose discriminatory practices that could render any legitimate content effectively inaccessible or unusable.

While telcos and ISPs in the city-state can still throttle traffic, IDA said “traffic management practices that are found to be anti-competitive or to harm consumer interests will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis”.

Service providers are also allowed to offer specialised or customised content, applications and services based on commercially negotiated arrangements. This has enabled telcos to partner with OTT service providers such as Netflix and Spotify to offer add-on services for consumers without any degradation in user experience.

Singapore’s net neutrality stance has enabled telcos and ISPs to benefit from the growing popularity of OTT services, keeping them invested in efforts to improve their networks and offer a wider variety of services for consumers.

It is thus heartening to know that the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), formed from the merger of IDA and the Media Development Authority in 2016, has said that it would not change Singapore’s position on net neutrality, which together with its licensing approach, has kept the telcos on their toes and brought new services and operators to market.

December 15, 2017  8:57 AM

Southeast Asia welcomes yet another Chinese cloud provider

Aaron Tan Aaron Tan Profile: Aaron Tan

By hosting its cloud infrastructure at Equinix’s Singapore datacentre, Kingsoft Cloud has become the latest Chinese cloud service provider to set its foot in Southeast Asia. The move is expected to improve the performance of Kingsoft’s services for Southeast Asian customers.

Kingsoft Cloud, which recently raised $300m in Series D funding, is currently the main cloud service provider in China for Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. Lei Jun, founder and CEO of Xiaomi, is a substantial shareholder and chairman of Kingsoft.

In fact, Kingsoft Cloud provides a bulk of the cloud storage on Xiaomi’s MIUI operating system that has helped the company serve its rapidly growing customer base within and outside China.

Other Chinese cloud players such as Alibaba and Huawei have also made their foray into Southeast Asia, a growing region with a tech-savvy, young population and a rising middle class.

Kingsoft declined to be interviewed for a story, but going by its performance in its most recent quarter, the company is poised to give rivals a run for their money.

In Q3 2017, Kingsoft reported cloud revenues of RMB358.1 million – an increase of 80% year-over-year and 18% quarter-over-quarter.

The company attributed the strong year-over-year performance to a robust increase in customer usage, especially in sweet spots such as mobile gaming and video streaming, where it has secured key customers in the broadcast and television industry.

Besides media and entertainment, Kingsoft is also making inroads in healthcare, where it is offering cloud services to leading medical institutions and enterprises such as the PKUCare Rehabilitation Hospital, The University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital and Peking University People’s Hospital.

Kingsoft’s vertical strategy is a smart one, and differs from the general-purpose approach that most other cloud providers are adopting.

By focusing on specific industries, Kingsoft is in a better position to meet the unique needs of organisations in different industries, especially in Southeast Asia where some organisations may be more demanding than others in terms of security, compliance and performance requirements.

December 8, 2017  7:32 AM

Coming to grips with digital transformation in APAC

Aaron Tan Aaron Tan Profile: Aaron Tan

The hype over digital transformation is tapering off. Organisations in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region are now confronting the realities of rolling out digitalisation initiatives, many of which are plagued with challenges.

According to a global survey of CIOs carried out by Logicalis, a global IT solutions and managed services provider, optimism around digital transformation progress had dampened over the past year.

Across the region, fewer CIOs (3%) now think of their organisations as digital innovators compared to last year when the figure was 6%. The proportion of CIOs who characterise their organisations as part of an early majority in digital transformation is also down to 46% from 53% in 2016.

The sombre mood over digitalisation initiatives hails from bugbears in areas such as cost, complexity, corporate culture, skills and cyber security.

Specifically, 62% of APAC CIOs cite cost as the main barrier in digital transformation, 51% point to complex legacy technology and 49% say organisational culture is an issue, while 43% point to lack of skills and 40% cite security issues.

In the face of those challenges, it is heartening that APAC CIOs aren’t giving up the fight. Nearly half or more than half of them want to simplify IT, engage their business users, provide additional training and attempt to change the culture of their organisations.

CIOs, however, cannot do it all alone. Change has to come from the top and at a strategic level for digital transformation initiatives to succeed.

The CIO of a major Singapore bank whom I met recently says he works hand in glove with the senior management team, setting goals and measuring the success of digital transformation efforts with metrics and balance scorecards that are all agreed upon by all business units.

Those metrics are reviewed regularly and tweaked if need be, making the bank one of the most successful among its peers in embracing digital technologies not only to connect with customers, but also to change traditional banking practices.

Going by the survey results, the CIO I met with seems to be more of the exception than the norm, where most CIOs are still grappling with digital transformation initiatives that are led more by pragmatism than by strategy.

However, as Mark Rogers, CEO of Logicalis Group and Logicalis Asia, says, digital transformation is possible if CIOs have a clear vision and strategy, and receive the right support from management.

December 1, 2017  2:49 AM

Going beyond the AI hype

Aaron Tan Aaron Tan Profile: Aaron Tan

At a recent media event in Singapore, the CEO of Boston-based AI tools supplier DataRobot blamed the media for hyping up the potential of AI, and over-stating the technology’s impact on jobs.

After all, with headlines like “38% of US jobs to be lost to robots by 2030” and more recently, reports on researchers creating an AI system that teaches itself new languages, it is understandable that the general public would view AI in awe – and perhaps with some trepidation too.

To be sure, AI developments have come a long way. In the 1980s, AI researchers had a hard time gathering the data they need. They also spent a long time running and validating data models due to the limited computing capacity they had then. Today, compute and data availability are not longer holding back data scientists, leading to huge leaps in AI capabilities.

Yet, the AI we are seeing today aren’t anywhere near human cognitive and intellectual abilities despite advances in deep learning that mimic how the human brain learns and processes information. By the way, scientists haven’t fully figured out how the brain works, so I’d say we’re still far from achieving singularity – a state where machines become smarter than humans.

What then is the current state of AI good at? For now, it is most apt at performing what I’d call “one-track mind” tasks, like picking out faces in a photo, identifying songs playing in the background and recognising voice commands. These so-called narrow AI applications have the potential to improve human-computer interaction and perform tasks like quality control in a production line with a high level of accuracy.

Further out in the horizon is general AI that can potentially do the stuff that humans do, such as solving a broad range of problems with some common sense. While the likes of IBM Watson have made some headway, there are different Watson machines that cater to different purposes such as medical diagnoses and wealth management. There isn’t a single Watson with multiple intelligences.

That doesn’t mean workers can stand still, because machines will only get smarter and better at performing a growing list of repetitive tasks that once took armies of people to do. What sets humans apart from machines are our ingenuity, tenacity and our common resolve to overcome humanity’s biggest problems – these are the qualities that will serve us well as we enter the machine age.

November 23, 2017  6:29 AM

Asia is pace-setter in IoT

Aaron Tan Aaron Tan Profile: Aaron Tan

A Vodafone survey has put Asia on the forefront of internet of things (IoT) adoption, with 36% of the region’s businesses reportedly using connected devices in 2017, up 200% from 2013.

The global survey of business sentiment relating to investment and innovation in IoT showed that 77% of Asia’s businesses now see IoT as mission-critical to their business, with 88% of respondents reporting an increased use of IoT in the past year. Over half acknowledged that IoT has increased their market competitiveness.

When it came to optimism and the future, Asia’s message to the world was even clearer. Over 90% of businesses in the region believe IoT will have a sizeable impact on the wider economy in the next five years, while 79% believe IoT usage will rise as security and privacy concerns decline.

But how has IoT benefited businesses? According to the survey, topping the list of benefits were greater business insights, reduced costs and improved productivity. Asian businesses also reported improved brand differentiation (42%) and market competitiveness (53%), as compared to 35% in the Americas and 33% in Europe, respectively.

It may come as a surprise that Asian businesses tend to view IoT security more positively, rather than being a barrier to IoT deployment, giving them the confidence to do more. In fact, 86% of respondents saw security as an enabler of IoT deployment compared to 79% globally. Some 83% of businesses also claimed to have adequate skills to manage IoT security, ahead of Europe (70%) and the Americas (65%).

When it comes to IoT connectivity, the survey found that businesses are looking at using a mix of technologies from fixed line to low power wide area networks (LP-WAN) depending on the application.

Large scale projects tend to use mobile and Wi-Fi connectivity, though there is increasing interest in narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), with 28% of all companies now considering it and other LP-WAN options, for new IoT projects.

To Singapore bike-sharing startup oBike, LP-WAN connectivity supplied by UnaBiz, a Sigfox network operator, will enable it to locate its bikes at regular intervals.

Currently, the operator’s bikes are connected to its users’ bike-sharing app via Bluetooth and 3G/4G networks. When a user concludes a ride, the user’s phone will send a signal of the bike’s last location to a cloud service run by oBike, which will then highlight the bike’s location on the map. The issue is that if a bike is moved when locked, oBike will not be able to track and trace it.

Meanwhile, China’s ofo, another bike-sharing service provider, is using China Mobile’s NB-IoT network and Huawei’s IoT chipsets to manage its bikes through smart locks. Each lock collects information such as equipment status, user data and operating data, allowing bikes to be located and serviced easily.

Such proven use cases, whether they involve the use of NB-IoT, Sigfox or other types of LP-WAN networks, will go a long way to instil confidence in organisations that are still holding back any IoT adoption plans.

November 6, 2017  6:02 AM

How one Singapore library is keeping up with the digital age

Aaron Tan Aaron Tan Profile: Aaron Tan

At a time when traditional industries are being upended by technological disruption, the most progressive libraries around the world in places like South Korea are pulling all stops to stay relevant to users who prefer to turn to digital resources rather than visit a local library.

In Singapore, public library users have been able to download e-books and electronic versions of popular magazines for free, as well as access information databases that cover a broad range of subjects for some time now.

The Sports Hub Library is no exception. Located at the Singapore Sports Hub, the city-state’s largest sporting and events facility, the library offers easy access to a wide range of digital resources such as e-books, e-journals and images, which are searchable through library management software provided by Civica, a supplier of library services and systems.

The library also subscribes to the SportDiscus online database that provides full-text access to sports, fitness and health-related journals and publications.

Like the public libraries run by Singapore’s National Library Board, the Sports Hub library also uses a recommendations engine to suggest resources based on the user’s borrowing preferences, as well as radio frequency identification (RFID) that lets users check out physical items at self-service stations, and return them at a 24-hour book-drop with immediate cancellation of loans.

The RFID technology also makes stocktaking much easier as books on shelves can be scanned directly without having to remove them from the shelves, says SS Chopra, managing director of Civica Singapore.

With libraries evolving to become learning and participatory spaces, rather than merely serving as book repositories, the Sports Hub Library offers activities and programmes that cater to sporting professionals, children and elderly users who are interested in amateur games. The library facilities include video viewing stations, virtual sports stations, a giant chess and checkers board, internet stations, meeting rooms and a kids’ zone.

These efforts to remain relevant are already bearing fruit. At the time when libraries are facing declining membership and loans, the Sports Hub’s library membership grew by 62.4% compared to 2015. Along with this increase, the library’s loan rate also jumped by 196%, with the total number of loans transacted reaching 73,973 from 25,619 for the same period ending June 2016.

More can be done, however, given that the Sports Hub Library is one of the newest libraries in Singapore, and is hence free from the shackles of legacy systems and thinking that have held back some libraries from transforming themselves in the digital age. For example, it could explore the use of AI chatbots to help users with their enquiries or enable users to check out physical items using a smartphone without having to use a self-service terminal.

November 3, 2017  8:52 AM

DBS Bank shows off API platform in fintech gold rush

Aaron Tan Aaron Tan Profile: Aaron Tan

DBS Bank, Southeast Asia’s largest bank by market cap, has claimed the honour of having the world’s biggest banking API (application programming interface) platform with over 155 APIs that developers can plug into to create a variety of services.

These APIs run the gamut, from mortgage loan APIs that can be used to create and save, retrieve, update, cancel and search for mortgage loan applications, to fund transfer APIs for transferring money between own accounts or to third parties within or outside the bank.

The bank claims its API platform is the largest of its kind in the world, having counted the number of APIs made available to developers by rival banks, its executives told the media during a briefing earlier this week.

Banks and the financial services industry are in the midst of a gold rush to ramp up their digitisation and fintech efforts, in a bid to stay relevant to customers and better compete against disruptive fintech start-ups rivals looking to bypass traditional financial services.

Ireland’s Currencyfair, for example, has been offering a foreign exchange service that claims to offer better exchange rates and lower fees than banks for several years now. Then, there’s also PayPal, one of the earliest fintech companies even before the term fintech was coined.

By opening up an extensive library of APIs, DBS hopes organisations with products and services that touch some aspects of the financial system – be it payments, fund transfers or payroll processing – will plug into its platform rather than turn to fintech upstarts.

The API platform is already off to a good start. DBS claims over 50 companies including household names such as AIG, McDonald’s, MSIG, PropertyGuru, as well as start-ups like FoodPanda, Homage and soCash have already hopped onto the platform.

McDonald’s, for one, is using DBS’ APIs under the PayLah payments category, enabling to offer the PayLah payment option to McDelivery customers. Online property portal PropertyGuru is also tapping DBS’ APIs to provide users with instant loan affordability assessments.

DBS’ group CIO David Gledhill says the bank started to transform its technology infrastructure as early as nine years ago, noting that the head-start has given it the ability operate with fintech-like agility and nimbleness.

While so-called “open banking” efforts by DBS and others can be a force for innovation, the risks of sharing data with a wider ecosystem beyond a bank’s reaches should not be ignored.

Banks must put in place measures to ensure that customer data is used in line with existing compliance and data protection rules, as well as upcoming ones such as the Payment Service Directive (PSD2) in the EU. In addition, customers should also provide consent in one way or another (whether it’s implied or direct consent) for the use of their data by third-party services.

October 27, 2017  8:34 AM

Singapore cements position as regional datacentre powerhouse

Aaron Tan Aaron Tan Profile: Aaron Tan

With 90% of the world’s data created in the last two years, it’s hardly surprising that the datacentre industry is booming, with cities around the world racing to entice the global tech giants and datacentre providers to open facilities in their hometowns.

The economic benefits of datacentres are immense. Not only are they magnets for the brightest minds from around the world, they also draw investments in local infrastructure and create jobs. Datacentres, the equivalent of air and sea ports in the virtual world, also elevate a city’s standing on the global information superhighway.

While it’s easy for governments to declare their intentions to become datacentre hubs, it takes more than that to become one. For one, a city needs to offer reliable and sustainable energy sources, a robust network infrastructure with good international connectivity and plenty of bandwidth, a sound regulatory framework, and a pro-business and stable political environment.

Singapore ticks all the right boxes, at least according to the new Data Center Risk Index study that identifies the top risks likely to affect datacentre business operations. Conducted by global real-estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, the study placed the city-state in pole position out of 10 Asia-Pacific (APAC) countries in terms of robustness of datacentre business operations. Other countries/territories in the top five are South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia.

Singapore already sits at the top of the APAC datacentre market in terms of capacity, with a current total supply of 370 MW of IT power supply among co-location operators, according to Cushman & Wakefield.

“Around 59 MW of IT power is readily available for datacentre use, and 103 MW can be converted into IT power within three to six months should demand keep pace. Singapore has seen an influx of new datacentre capacity in the last two years, with an additional 130 MW on top of the existing capacity of 240 MW at the beginning of 2015,” it said in its report.

The company predicted that over the medium to long term, Singapore should be able to expand its capacity by another 100 MW on the back of its smart nation initiative. “Local datacentre providers such as Singtel, Keppel Data Centres and ST Telemedia stand to be the primary beneficiaries of this, while the international datacentre providers will continue to focus on winning international deals from medium to large enterprises coming into Singapore,” it added.

Krupal Raval, Digital Realty’s chief financial officer for APAC, noted that one of the key factors behind Singapore’s booming datacentre industry lies in its vast interconnectivity. With no less than 17 submarine cables, businesses are able to take advantage of the low-cost and low-latency connectivity, enabling them to be agile when operating across regions.

“Geographically, Singapore is also close to major emerging markets such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, while being well connected to established locations like Australia, China and Japan – making it an unmatched internet and trading gateway across the Asian market,” Raval said. “Constant uptime is crucial to datacentre operations. In this day and age, downtime will have a profound impact across industries.”

Singapore’s land constraints, however, could put a damper on its position as a datacentre hub. Earlier this year, the Singapore government said it will conduct a feasibility study with Huawei and Keppel Data Centres to explore the possibility of developing a high-rise datacentre building possibly more than 20 storeys high.

However, the study will not be just about stacking datacentres on top of each other in a high-rise complex. It will also look into building architecture and innovations that can significantly reduce energy use, or increase efficiency to lower the best PUE ratings in Singapore by 10-20%.

Such efforts are laudable, and will go a long way to cement Singapore’s leadership in the regional datacentre market, beyond creating a green datacentre scheme.

October 20, 2017  7:30 AM

Backing up is not hard to do

Aaron Tan Aaron Tan Profile: Aaron Tan

When some employees at FCM Travel Solutions lost their laptops over the past year, they were able to get their data back within half an hour.

“People were really happy with the kind of support they were getting, as there are not many technical people in our industry,” says Surender Arora, head of IT at FCM Travel Solutions in India. “It was like a miracle and was something they had never expected.”

That FCM’s employees thought that they would still be able access the data they thought they had lost says a lot about the state of adoption of backup and recovery processes in organisations, especially among small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

Some studies suggest that nearly 30% of people have never backed up their data. Why anyone, or any company for that matter, would not back up data is puzzling, especially since it has been widely extolled that data is the new gold – and thus catching the attention of cyber criminals who have been unleashing more ransomware attacks in recent memory.

Today, there’s an abundance of software that makes it easier to back up data to the cloud or to an on-premise datacentre. Gone are the days when administrators had to go around initiating backups – the process can now be automated using a slew of backup and recovery tools.

Earlier this year, FCM put a stop to inefficient, manual backups using USB drives and recovery media, and turned to Commvault’s backup and recovery software to automate and manage its data management processes. At the same time, it also moved data from over 1,000 employee devices to the cloud.

The result: data backup and restoration times were slashed by up to 70%, enhancing awareness and visibility of data storage and improving FCM’s ability to recover quickly and completely.

Surender says FCM had also been able to back up data over a wide area network, particularly for data hosted on cloud-based systems that reside on Amazon Web Services. The Commvault software also adheres to the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), giving FCM peace of mind when it comes to security and compliance, Surender says.

But backup and recovery is only the first step. Organisations should also encrypt their data to make any stolen or lost data unreadable and unusable. Backups should also be tested on a regularly basis, and scanned for vulnerabilities that could be exploited by pesky hackers.

How have you been protecting your data from prying eyes or recovering business-critical information in the event of a disaster? Tell us more in the comments!

October 13, 2017  7:34 AM

Chinese IT giants flexing cloud muscle in APAC

Aaron Tan Aaron Tan Profile: Aaron Tan

In Southeast Asia, Huawei and Alibaba are already household names to those who have either bought something online from Alibaba-owned Lazada or used Huawei’s Leica-branded P10 smartphones to take snapshots.

While the two Chinese tech giants have made significant inroads in the region’s consumer markets, they are only getting started in making themselves known to enterprise IT buyers – at least in Southeast Asia.

This week in Hangzhou, Alibaba said it is on-track in overtaking public cloud leader Amazon Web Services (AWS), claiming that some of its products have already exceeded that of AWS’s.

Alibaba’s confidence dovetails with that of a rising China which has been investing aggressively across the region, driven by its Belt and Road initiative that aims to foster closer economic cooperation and connectivity between Asia and Europe.

In Southeast Asia, Alibaba has positioned itself as the only global cloud service supplier from Asia, and claims to have the cultural and contextual advantages to provide data intelligence and computing capabilities to customers in this region.

“Among global cloud top players, we are the only company originating from the East. By working extensively with China or Asia-based clients, we have a better understanding of their needs and more insightful knowledge of the China and Asia market,” an Alibaba spokesperson told Computer Weekly.

In Singapore, it is collaborating with National University of Singapore and EZ-Link, Singapore’s largest issuer of contactless payment cards, to boost Singapore’s smart city and data-driven capabilities.

In Malaysia, it signed a memorandum of understanding with Conversant Solutions and Prestariang Berhad to collaborate on building an integrated education platform that will deliver a range of cloud-based education and related services, such as campus management, teaching and learning, and digital payment.

Alibaba is also building a datacentre in Malaysia to provide enterprises in the region with cloud capabilities to support their global expansion.

These efforts are already bearing fruit. According to Gartner, Alibaba was the world’s third largest public cloud service provider in 2016, buoyed by its position as the volume leader and dominant player in China’s cloud services market.

Lesser known to enterprises are Huawei’s cloud services, which are just starting to take shape. This week, the company said it plans to invest $500m globally in developing cloud-based professional services, a cloud platform and a cloud ecosystem as part of its APAC strategy. In the next five years, Huawei will also pour more resources into cloud-related R&D, increasing annual investment by more than 50%.

Like Alibaba, Huawei is riding on China’s economic clout, hoping to help Chinese companies expand overseas and non-Chinese companies enter the China market through a global cloud network and a suite of ICT services.

That the two Chinese tech giants are aggressively pursuing customers in APAC spells good news for enterprises. Besides keeping the two incumbents Amazon and Microsoft on their toes, Alibaba and Huawei may well bring new innovations honed through years of operating in the cut-throat, highly-competitive Chinese technology market.

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