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Facing ransomware demands, one company had an unusual response

“What would you get from paying a ransom in such an attack?” Gimnes Are asks. “You will potentially get back your encrypted data – if the attacker gives you the key. Paying the ransom would not help you to rebuild the company infrastructure, all the servers, all the PCs, all the networks.

“Paying the ransom will not help you out of the situation. You will need to rebuild your infrastructure to be safe and be sure that the attacker is not still part of it,” he adds.

At Microsoft, Eric Doerr serves as general manager of the Microsoft Security Response Center, which protects customers from being harmed by security vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s products and services. The center also rapidly repulses attacks against the Microsoft Cloud. Doerr strongly promotes transparency among organizations that suffer cyberattacks.

“Norsk Hydro set the example for the industry in this incident,” Doerr says.

“Choosing not to pay the ransom and digging in with DART to evict the attacker is great. Sharing those learnings with the world is priceless. When companies do this, it makes us all better and makes the attackers work harder,” he adds.

Of course, some companies facing a ransomware attack may be highly tempted to pay bad actors to regain their hijacked data. But paying hackers doesn’t guarantee that a company will ever recover the goods, says Ann Johnson, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of cybersecurity solutions.

There’s a smarter way – following the plan executed by Norsk Hydro, says Johnson, whose team oversees DART.

“Your data is a strategic asset for you, and for cybercriminals. That’s why they want it. It is also why your data must be protected, and it should be backed up,” Johnson says.

At the same time, companies must invest in cybersecurity, she adds.

At Norsk Hydro, for example, the IT department works to increase security awareness among its employees, says Molland, the media relations SVP. That includes sending workers test emails to help train them to look for common phishing tactics like fake login pages and malicious attachments.

If companies fail to commit to cybersecurity, Johnson warns, bad actors will become repeat customers.

“You’ve likely seen signs that read, ‘Don’t feed the birds,’ when dining at an outdoor café. That’s because the birds will keep returning to the same places where they know it’s easy to be fed. It’s the same concept for cybercriminals,” Johnson says. “They know if you have weak cyber-defenses, and they will want to exploit those weaknesses over-and-over.

“The best defense is to ensure you have the right combination of people, processes and technology. We recommend you implement multifactor authentication, have a mature update process, and back up your data,” she adds.

Two Norsk Hydro workers work their way through the cyberattack using paper data.
At a Norsk Hydro extrusion plant in Norway, sales project manager Rune Johansen and extrusion anodizing fabrication manager Sten Stolpe dig through paper documentation to manually complete customer orders during the cyberattack.

In Hungary and Norway last March, DART members helped Norsk Hydro develop safe processes to restore their servers with an improved security posture. They also educated the company about the current threat landscape and known attacker behaviors to help reduce the risk of future attacks, Moeller says.

Inside Norsk Hydro, the internal response focused on multiple fronts. They launched old-school methods to resume full production and repair business operations. And they worked to protect the safety of employees and the environment.

“We operate heavy machinery. If the power is lost in an uncontrolled manner, it could risk severe safety incidents for people,” says Molland, the media relations SVP.

“Safety is always first priority with us. Secondly, it’s the concern for the environment and ensuring we don’t have any uncontrolled emissions (due to sudden machine stoppages) out to the air, land or water.”

Executives handwrote signs warning of the cyberattack, photographed them with their smart phones and texted the images to managers at Norsk Hydro plants and offices around the world. At those facilities, the staff used local printing shops to create paper signs, posting them on entryways, stairwells and elevators for employees to read as they arrived for the workday.

“Please do not connect any devices to the Hydro network. Do not turn on any devices connected to the Hydro network. Please disconnect devices from the Hydro network,” read some written alerts that also carried a simple signature: “Security.”

Two Norsk Hydro workers use pen and paper to restore production amid the cyberattack.
Two workers at a Norsk Hydro plant in Portland, Oregon manually operate machines to produce specific customer orders during the initial phase of the cyberattack.

The entire workforce did their jobs with pen and paper during the attack’s first days. Some plants switched to manual procedures to meet manufacturing orders. Retired employees – familiar with the old paper system – volunteered to return to their plants to keep production rolling.

“The way we pulled together to make the company come through the situation in one piece and get back into production has been an extreme team-building session,” Molland says.

“We have an organized emergency preparedness methodology within the company – in the corporate level, in the business area and at the plant level,” he adds. “That worked to our benefit. When this hit us, we were able to handle the situation in a constructive, organized manner.”

In other words, prevention is important but locking out all cyberattackers should not be a company’s sole security focus, says Jo De Vliegher, Norsk Hydro’s chief information officer.

“If hackers want to get in, they will get in,” De Vliegher says. “We now have an improved incident response to make sure that – should something similar happen – we are much better equipped to limit the damage in time and geography.”

Norsk Hydro reported the incident to Norway’s National Criminal Investigation Service (Kripos). The case remains under investigation, Molland says.

Video and photos courtesy of Norsk Hydro. 

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KPMG’s digital shift fuels AI-empowered audits and more, reducing risk across every industry

Envision this: It’s another frenetic morning in the stock market as an army of traders at one company chat with their clients by phone – counseling and cautioning, buying and selling.

The outcomes of those calls and transactions carry no guarantees, of course. There will be some winners, some losers. But before the closing bell rings, the traders’ company – an advisory client of KPMG – is sure of one outcome: the engagements were analyzed and potential risks surfaced.

How can the company be so certain? It deployed KPMG’s trader-risk-analytics platform, a solution that applies Azure Cognitive Services to help reduce risk and meet rising regulatory requirements within the financial services industry.

The platform is just one example of a solution jointly developed in the KPMG and Microsoft Digital Solution Hub, and a testament to KPMG’s drive to digitize its customer offerings across advisory, tax and audit by implementing Microsoft’s intelligent cloud.

En employee walks through a hallway at KPMG.
An employee at KPMG.

To accelerate KPMG’s move to the cloud, KPMG and Microsoft have signed a five-year agreement that will allow KPMG and its clients to benefit from Microsoft innovations, including a strong focus on AI, risk and cyber security.

As one of the “Big Four” organizations, KPMG’s services and solutions encompass all industries – from government to banking to health care. That wide-ranging impact means KPMG also provides a potent business case for the potential of Microsoft technology to enhance and revitalize customers’ businesses across every sector, says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

“Together with KPMG, we’re accelerating digital transformation across industries by bringing the latest advances in cloud, AI and security to highly regulated workloads in audit, tax and advisory,” Nadella says.

To grasp the scope and reach of KPMG’s digital evolution, take a closer look at one of the platforms it has launched for a core business line – audit. Better yet, just meet KPMG Clara.

KPMG is bolstering audit quality by infusing the process with data analytics, AI and Azure Cognitive Services, allowing audit professionals to use company data to bring more relevance to their audit findings and continue to meet increasing regulatory requirements and standards. KPMG uses Azure Cognitive Services to provide more continuous, holistic and deeper insights and value on audit-relevant data.

The company’s smart audit platform, KPMG Clara, is automated, agile, intelligent and scalable – ushering in what KPMG calls a new era for the audit. KPMG is deploying KPMG Clara globally, allowing clients access to real-time information arising from the audit process and communication with the audit team.

A KPMG building is shown from outside with grass in the foreground.
A KPMG building.

In addition, KPMG Clara will integrate with Microsoft Teams, providing a platform for audit professionals to work together on a project, centrally managing and securely sharing audit files, tracking audit-related activities and communicating using chat, voice and video meetings. This will simplify the auditors’ workflow, enabling them to stay in sync throughout the entire process and drive continuous communication with the client.

“Technology is disrupting organizations across the globe,” says Bill Thomas, global chairman of KPMG International. “Clients are turning to us like never before to help them implement, manage and optimize the digital transformation of their organizations.”

In fact, 65% of CEOs believe that AI will create more jobs than it eliminates, according to a survey of 1,300 CEOs conducted by KPMG for its 2019 “Global CEO Outlook” report.

The survey also found that 50% of CEOs expect to see significant a return on their AI investments in three to five years, while 100% have piloted or implemented AI to automate processes.

Through its tech expansion, KPMG’s clients will benefit from “consistent global service delivery, greater speed of deployment and industry-leading security standards to safeguard their data,” the company says.

At the same time, KPMG professionals will gain access to an arsenal of cloud-based tools to build business solutions and managed services that are embedded with AI and machine learning capabilities.

And with robotic process automation (RPA), they can utilize AI-infused software that completes the types of high-volume, repeatable tasks that once drained hours from their work weeks.

Two people inside a KPMG building enter a stairwell.
Two people entering a KPMG member firm.

“Technology and data-driven business models are disrupting the business landscape,” says KPMG global chairman Thomas. “Our multi-year investment in digital leadership will help us remain at the forefront of this shift and further strengthen our position as the digital transformation partner of choice for our clients.”

KPMG also is modernizing its workplace for 207,000 employees across 153 member firms, using the Microsoft 365 suite of cloud-based collaboration and productivity tools, including Microsoft Teams.

KPMG deployed Dynamics 365 for more than 30,000 of their professionals across 17 member firms. This equips them with modern customer-relationship applications to quickly and efficiently manage both client requests and client demand.

Says Nadella: “KPMG’s deep industry and process expertise, combined with the power of our trusted cloud – spanning Azure, Dynamics 365 and Microsoft 365 – will bring the best of both organizations together to help customers around the world become more agile in an increasingly complex business environment.”

Top photo: Two people sitting in a KPMG lobby. (All photos courtesy of KPMG)

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New Industry Experience Center brings digital transformation to life

We read every day about how companies are transforming their businesses through technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and the Internet of Things. But are these gains achievable across industries? Can a hospital, for instance, really see the same benefits from these technologies as, say, an automotive manufacturer?

Microsoft’s new Industry Experience Center (IEC), which opened last month in Redmond, Washington, aims to answer that question – with a resounding yes. The 23,000-square-foot center showcases 60 fascinating, real-world examples of customers and partners that are innovating their businesses and disrupting markets with Microsoft technologies.

An optical sorter shows how Bühler, one of the world’s largest providers of food processing solutions, is using visual AI to sort out poisonous corn, protecting consumers and increasing production efficiency.

Microsoft's new 23,000-square-foot Industry Experience Center in Redmond, Washington.
Microsoft’s new 23,000-square-foot Industry Experience Center in Redmond, Washington.

A short distance away, a drone from eSmart Systems buzzes above, dramatically illustrating how machine learning is allowing public utilities to spot problems with power poles without sending a technician out, helping them reduce costs and ensure the safety of their workers.

In the grocery aisle, IoT-enabled displays from Kroger illuminate dynamic pricing and product information based on what the customer touches and looks at on the shelf. Visual analytics automatically alert store staff when an item is out of stock or running low.

“We often talk about technology and services that drive digital transformation, but the IEC is a chance for customers to interact with them firsthand,” says Deb Cupp, CVP of Worldwide Enterprise and Commercial Industries at Microsoft. “These are immersive experiences that demonstrate how companies are digitally transforming, and how our customers and partners are using these solutions to drive disruption in their industries.”

An optical sorter from Bühler and a compact industrial robot from ABB in the manufacturing area of Microsoft's new Industry Experience Center.
The manufacturing area of the IEC features a compact industrial robot from ABB and an optical sorter from Bühler.

Technology at work in the real world

Each interactive exhibit allows visitors to get hands-on with the technologies and explore how they are being used across industries to drive innovation. Experiences are focused on nine key industries: Retail and Consumer Goods, Financial Services, Education, Government, Health Care, Automotive, Manufacturing, Energy and Media and Communications.

That doesn’t mean a health care company, for instance, will only be guided through health care experiences in the IEC. Instead, Microsoft’s team of full-time “envisioning specialists” take each customer on a customized journey through the most relevant technology solutions for their unique business – no matter what the industry.

RFID wristbands from partner Thuzi – which every visitor gets upon starting their engagement – add to the personalized experience. As customers walk through the center, if they see an exhibit they want to learn more about, they simply tap their wristband against a “puck” on the exhibit wall. They then receive an email with a link to a customized microsite with more information, designed just for them.

A portrait of Deb Cupp, CVP of Worldwide Enterprise and Commercial Industries at Microsoft.
Deb Cupp, CVP of Worldwide Enterprise and Commercial Industries.

Cupp says, “Engagements are tailored to each individual customer and designed to spark creative ideation, inspired conversations and new opportunities. With the IEC, customers can get up close and personal with innovative technologies applied across industries so they can envision what’s possible by partnering with Microsoft.”

A showcase for industry innovation

The IEC sits in the same building in what has been, for the last 10 years, the Retail Experience Center. But late last year, the company decided to expand the center to a cross-industry offering to demonstrate the application and breadth of its technology across verticals.

Today, the IEC features everything from first-party Microsoft technologies to solutions created by startups, large global companies and everything in between. Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studios has installed a state-of-the-art volumetric stage at the IEC where visitors can get a souvenir hologram.

“We’re lighting up innovation by industry across a wide variety of customers and partners all over the globe,” says Cupp.

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Mastercard and Microsoft team up to make online shopping easier and more secure

Mastercard and Microsoft walked a mile in each other’s shoes – or in an update on the old adage, spent three days hacking together – and came up with a new service to make shopping online easier and more secure around the world, not only for shoppers, but also retailers and banks.

The collaborative experience also kicked off a new way of thinking about innovation that promises to lead to even more developments to help e-commerce thrive.

New York-based Mastercard is a leading technology company in the payments space, processing about $20 billion in transactions a day across more than 210 countries or territories. And Microsoft is one of the top e-commerce merchants in the world, with online sales from the Microsoft Store, Xbox, Azure, Office 365 and more.

Both companies have felt an urgency in shifting toward online payments – especially with the increasing popularity of mobile apps and devices – that has made security more difficult even as consumers expect greater ease of use. So they brought together teams of engineers to tackle the issue at the recent Microsoft global Hackathon at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters.

man at table holding credit card and looking at computer screen“Both our infrastructures are used in creating online transactions, so we owe it to our customers to make them safe, secure and simple,” says Raj Dhamodharan, Mastercard’s executive vice president of channel propositions and partnerships. “Through co-innovation our customers benefit, because we’re solving a pain point that otherwise might take years to solve.”

The collaboration comes amid changing cultures at Microsoft and Mastercard that are being fostered from the top down.

“Both companies have shifted their mentality that by partnering and bringing in diverse thoughts, we build better products and work better together,” says Will White, Microsoft’s director of payments. “The benefit is you get true innovation from two companies that have radically different missions, in different industries, with different constituents.”

Mastercard provides payment services to Microsoft’s online stores, and Microsoft sells technology services back. So the Hackathon teams built on that symbiotic relationship and experimented with ways to securely store payment info, exchange credentials and authenticate identity with biometrics – using a PC to make a theoretical purchase of a game on the Microsoft Store as a trial.

Microsoft’s double role as merchant and tech company gave Mastercard engineers a better understanding of the challenges both stakeholders face, says Mohamed Abouelenin, Mastercard’s director of product development and innovation.

“That helped us push the bar in developing new services to help provide the best experience for consumers,” Abouelenin says.

It was the first time Mastercard had participated in another company’s Hackathon. The experience energized both groups and left them wanting more.

“I saw a big difference in my team when they got back, in how they approach their jobs and have a more customer-oriented perception of things now,” says Anand Mallepally, Mastercard’s vice president of cyber and intelligence solutions, whose group is based in St. Louis. Physically being together in Redmond was “a gamechanger” for the engineers as far as seeing situations from each other’s perspectives, he says. “I can foresee more and more innovative ideas now.”

A hand holding a credit card with a chip over a payment machineThat’s crucial at a time when chips on credit cards are stopping more fraud, leading criminals increasingly to focus on online forums instead, says Mallepally, who’s been working on fraud prevention and digital platforms with Mastercard for more than 12 years.

His team has to tread carefully, however, acknowledging that security protocols can bring friction to the shopping experience. Shoppers are turned off when they have to remember passwords or go through extra verification steps; retailers sell less when transactions take extra time; and the banks that issue credit cards incur extra expenses when they have to develop and implement new safety measures. So it’s critical to consider enhancements to improve the consumer’s experience, along with additional protections.

The situation is complicated by a new regulation Europe implemented in September that requires banks to communicate with the customer for two-factor authentication before online purchases – even for recurring charges such as monthly bills for utilities or streaming services.

The bank might send a code to a credit card customer’s mobile phone or email address, for example, and the customer has to type that in on the checkout screen before a purchase can proceed. That’s expected to reduce fraud but increase friction. It’s also expected to be adopted by other markets around the world, including the U.S., in coming years.

index finger resting on phone screenBut biometric authentication on mobile devices – such as a fingerprint scanner – has been approved to allow consumers to skip that step.

That got Microsoft’s White to thinking.

“How do we level the playing field between the mobile checkout experience and the PC checkout experience?” he wondered. “And why can’t we make e-commerce payments as fast and simple as we have in the physical world, where you tap or insert a card and you’re done?”

The Hackathon teams found an answer to both, with an extra measure of innovation thrown in.

They decided to leverage the infrastructure Microsoft already has with its Windows Hello technology, which allows 900 million Windows 10 users to access their devices with a fingerprint or facial recognition, instead of a password. Through their combined efforts, they came up with a new feature that screens the user’s biometrics again and then, as long as they match the Windows Hello identification, automatically authenticates the buyer and approves purchases. The new service will give banks and merchants the assurance they’re dealing with actual customers, and shoppers won’t have to go through additional steps to prove themselves.

And the solution can be used across many types of computers, laptops and tablets, without requiring people to own or use a specific device, as the mobile-phone offerings do.

woman on couch holding credit card and looking at computer screen“It’s a solution that neither Mastercard nor Microsoft could have done on our own,” says Matt Rossmeissl, Microsoft’s general manager for commerce engineering operations. “We each had to bring our own expertise to the table to get this done. They’ve got the relationships with the banks, and we’ve got hundreds of millions of Windows devices out there.”

Biometric authentication is built to make online shopping easier for everyone, but it will be especially helpful for those with disabilities, says Priyanka Banerjee, a senior program manager under Rossmeissl. Entering a code for two-factor authentication is a difficult process for anyone who’s blind, for example, or can’t use their fingers to type, especially since those codes are time-limited and expire quickly. But biometric authentication removes that friction.

“Microsoft is very focused on inclusiveness and accessibility, and that’s something that hadn’t yet been thought of in this scenario” by financial services companies, Banerjee says. “What we have built can be extended to those with disabilities, with no extra setup required, and we can make the experience of everybody better.”

The collaborative process is also helping to bring the concept to market faster. The Hackathon engineers were able to accomplish in a few days together what would have taken a month or more apart, says Mallepally.

“We created a prototype in only a week’s time, and I think that will change the relationship between us and Mastercard going forward, because we’ll be more willing to try new things and go do growth hacking,” Microsoft’s Rossmeissl says. “We have at least 10 conversations in parallel going on with Mastercard now.

“If you approach a challenge with an open mind and go into it thinking that what we produce will be better if we work together and leverage our unique independent strengths, we’ll find solutions to problems that could be far better than what we could have done if we’d tried to solve them ourselves.”

All photos provided by Mastercard.

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The Miami Heat are on a fast break to innovate

The Miami Heat next week open their regular-season schedule – a slate that stretches deep into April and includes 41 home games at AmericanAirlines Arena.

The outcomes of those 41 contests? Unknown. Who will lead the team in scoring on those 41 nights? Check back in April.

How many fans will attend each of those 41 games? How many Jimmy Butler jerseys will they buy each night? How many Mofongo Dogs will they gobble during every game? Miami Heat executive Edson Crevecoeur already has the answers.

Miami Heat executive Edson Crevecoeur sits in an empty AmericanAIrlines Arena, smiling.
Edson Crevecoeur.

Within hours of the NBA schedule’s release in August, Crevecoeur had forecast the attendance for each game at AmericanAirlines Arena plus the food and beverage sales, retail sales, ticket sales and staffing needs for every event, fueling business decisions well before the first tip-off.

In basketball, they call that connecting from distance.

In this case, Crevecoeur and team made the prognostications using Microsoft Power BI, a data-visualization tool, to display the purchasing patterns of tickets, concessions and arena retail from seasons past to offer a clear view of game nights to come.

“We use Power BI to provide the right information to the right audience at the right time,” says Crevecoeur, vice president of strategy and data analytics for the Heat. “We’re able to understand what’s happening a lot quicker than we were in the past and react accordingly.”

Those insights are part of the Heat’s drive to become the NBA’s digital leader. It begins with real-time data that’s generated by fans and their mobile devices while in the arena – or while buying tickets or merchandise away from games. The data gets collected and enriched by Microsoft Azure.

Heat employees make sense of that data with Power BI, becoming better acquainted with the tastes and behaviors of individual customers. On game days, the team can swiftly re-position staff to better accommodate arriving crowds – and to cater more personally to the appetites of fans in the building, whether they’re craving Ropa Vieja or D.Wade commemorative gear.

A Power BI dashboard showing Miami Heat business data.
A Power BI dashboard created by the Miami Heat.

“Our goal at the Miami Heat is not only to be one of the most innovative teams in sports, but to be innovation leaders across all industries,” says Matthew Jafarian, executive vice president of business strategy for the Heat and AmericanAirlines Arena.

Fans can see this digital evolution on their smart phones by downloading the Miami Heat mobile app, which becomes the digital focal point for fans attending Heat games or other live events at the venue, Jafarian says.

“Imagine walking up to AmericanAirlines Arena and your ticket is smart enough to know you’re attending an event that evening, so it pops up right on your home screen. You simply tap the app on the NFC-enabled pedestal and the ticket taker welcomes you into the venue,” Jafarian says.

“You check out real-time wait times at concessions, choose a great spot to eat and tap to pay with your phone. You can be in your seat and share a ticket with a friend that’s running late, all from the device in the palm of your hands,” he adds.

A Miami Heat fan's hand, holding a smart phone that displays a digital ticket, places the screen beneath a scanner.
A Heat fan scans his mobile ticket.

Two seasons ago, AmericanAirlines Arena adopted “mobile-only entry” and phased out paper tickets. That change is unleashing more opportunities for the Heat to better understand and communicate with their customers.

Based on how often a fan attends games, the opposing teams they tend to watch and the kinds of food or gear they buy at the arena, the marketing staff crafts and sends digital messages that are relevant to them, say, ticket packages or the arrival of new apparel.

“We want to know our customer,” says Lisette Toirac Perdomo, manager of data platform services for the Heat. “We want to anticipate what they want, so we can meet their interests.”

To gain that knowledge, the team creates 360-degree customer profiles, using the data generated whenever a fan interacts within the arena or visits online touchpoints, including the Heat app,, or, the team’s e-commerce presence.

Those digital interactions get captured by Adobe Analytics – a solution that measures and makes sense of web and app data – and is seamlessly integrated with Adobe Campaign, which connects the Heat to the customer throughout their journey via e-mail and push notification, Jafarian says. Adobe is a Microsoft partner.

“We capture some relevant information in Microsoft Dynamics 365,” a cloud-based tool that enables customer relationship management (CRM), Jafarian says. “We then put that fan profile into the hands of a Miami Heat sales or service person who can help provide a better experience.”

A Miami Heat fan entering AmericanAirlines Arena's seating area shows a smart phone screen showing a digital ticket.
With the Miami Heat mobile app, a fan’s phone shows the live score as he enters the arena.

All that extra attention is expanding the team’s fan base, he says.

“Three years ago, we didn’t even know who was walking in the building because paper tickets are largely anonymous. Now we’re getting an understanding of who they are,” Jafarian says. “The fan experience is everything for us.”

About five years ago, the Heat saw the need to commit to a full-scale, back-office modernization – a big shift sparked by an abrupt change to the basketball roster.

About five years ago, the Heat saw the need to commit to a full-scale, back-office modernization – a big shift sparked by an abrupt change to the basketball roster.

As one of the winningest NBA teams of the past 25 years, the Heat had a dynastic run when, from 2010 to 2014, the team dominated the NBA thanks to three superstars – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, dubbed “the Big Three.” During that span, the Heat reached four NBA Finals and won two back-to-back league titles, in 2012 and 2013. Ticket sales were hotter than a Miami summer, and there was no urgency to build a sales infrastructure. Then, the Big Three era ended.

James left the in 2014, while Wade and Bosh were gone by 2016.

“We were fortunate to have some of the greatest players to ever play the game,” Jafarian says. “Then we no longer had the Big Three, yet we still had to sell tickets. We stood up a CRM for the first time. It was a natural progression for us to choose Dynamics 365, enabling our salespeople to better sell.

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From farm to cloud to table, ButcherBox serves up a new approach to meat delivery

The path to a future of mining cloud-based data started in a decidedly low-tech way for Boston company ButcherBox after its founder, Mike Salguero, found himself in a Massachusetts parking lot buying garbage bags of beef from a local farmer.

Salguero’s wife, Karlene, has a thyroid condition, and the couple wanted to switch to an anti-inflammatory diet including lean, grass-fed meat. But they found little beyond ground beef and the occasional grass-fed steak at their local grocery stores — hence the parking-lot purchase. That was too much meat for the couple to eat, so Salguero gave some to a friend, who remarked how convenient it would be to have high-quality meat delivered at home.

“That was the initial spark of the idea for ButcherBox,” Salguero says.

The company launched in 2015, delivering boxes of frozen grass-fed beef, free-range organic chicken and heritage breed pork to subscribers, or “members,” around the United States. ButcherBox sells only meats raised without antibiotics or added hormones, ships them in 100 percent curbside-recyclable boxes made of 95 percent recycled materials, and prides itself on partnering with vendors that use sustainable, humane approaches and fair labor practices.

ButcherBox CEO and founder Mike Salguero sits outdoors next to wife Karlene as they hold their twin daughters and their other young daughter sits beside them
ButcherBox CEO and founder Mike Salguero with wife Karlene and their three daughters.

The company offers 21 cuts of meat and subscription boxes ranging from $129 to $270 monthly, depending how many pounds of meat are included.

ButcherBox tapped into a trio of hot retail trends: a demand for sustainable products, consumers’ interest in knowing more about what they’re buying, and an explosion in subscription box companies selling everything from dog toys to fitness gear, even house plants and hygge kits.

ButcherBox doesn’t release sales figures, but Salguero says the company has grown exponentially since its launch, even without seeking venture capital. Collecting and analyzing data became increasingly important as ButcherBox expanded, but the limited data the company had was mainly in Excel spreadsheets and didn’t provide the depth of information employees needed.

Customer service agents, for example, didn’t have access to warehouse data and couldn’t check to see if a member’s box had been filled or where it was. Teams in various departments were pulling data together in ad hoc ways, leading to inconsistent and imprecise insights.

“Depending on which department it was and where they got the data, everyone had their own truths about what was going on in the business,” says Kevin Hall, ButcherBox’s head of technology. “People began to realize there was a need for a single source of truth.”

Salguero puts it another way: “People became entrepreneurial and enterprising in finding ways to answer questions, but as an organization that’s pretty risky, because we don’t even know if it’s right.”

Image of ButcherBox employees posing on the street in front of the company's headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The ButcherBox team at the company’s headquarters in Cambridge, Mass.

So the company turned to Microsoft, adopting Azure as its cloud platform about a year ago. It developed a “demand plan” that uses members’ purchasing data to determine how much meat must be ordered and replenished in fulfillment centers. It enabled its approximately 70 employees to create and read dashboards using Microsoft’s Power BI data visualization tool. It interviewed more than 100 ButcherBox subscribers, then used Azure’s Databricks service to analyze their feedback and organize it into easily understandable reports in Power BI.

The interviews revealed a key insight — that the number one reason people were canceling their subscriptions wasn’t lack of freezer space, as previously thought, but value. Based on that finding, the company implemented an “add-on” program offering members perks (free bacon!) and specials on certain products, often undercutting grocery store prices on those promotional items.

More robust data also enabled the company to better determine how much dry ice is needed for each shipped box based on geographic location — a crucial calculation, since too much ice can cause leaks and too little can mean a thawed shipment.

“If someone doesn’t get his or her box or it shows up late, it’s ruined,” Salguero says. “So really understanding our data — what’s shipping, where the boxes are — became the rallying cry of the company in a big way to understand our members and build out our data infrastructure.”

Photo of a ButcherBox cardboard box, made of 95 percent recycled paper, that the company ships its products in.hat ButcherBox ships its products in
The company uses fully recyclable boxes made of 95 percent recycled cardboard to ship its products.

But even the most sophisticated data can’t necessarily provide the type of information gleaned from talking with people face-to-face. Last year, Salguero embarked on what employees jokingly refer to as his “freezer road show,” visiting members’ homes, asking them about their cooking and eating habits and yes, peering into their freezers.

The exercise provided useful insights about the degree to which members rely on ButcherBox meats to feed their families, Salguero says, and showed that subscribers who most often use the food in their freezers tend to plan out their meals. That finding could help with tackling one of the biggest challenges facing a company that sells frozen meat — which is, ironically, to get members to stop using their freezers so much.

“A lot of people think of a freezer as a savings account,” Salguero says. “It’s there for a rainy day, not necessarily the place you go if you want to eat dinner tonight.”

The company is exploring how technology might be used to get more information about what customers are eating, whether through a meal-planning app or other tool, with the goal of prompting them to move food out of the deep freeze and onto the dinner table.

“All of that is a data problem at its core,” Salguero says. “We should know what members are eating and in what order. If we do our job well, we’ll know that member A is eating through X and they have a pork shoulder left over, so if we’re going to send a recipe, we should be sending one for pork shoulder.”

ButcherBox is now focusing on using data science and analytics to provide more personalized service, starting with identifying “clusters” of members who have similar likes and buying habits to determine which products and services to market to them.

“It doesn’t make sense to show someone beef if they’re really a chicken or salmon member,” Hall says. “We’re really looking to understand the data so we can serve members in a much more personalized way.”

Photo of two bone-in pork chops on a wooden board, with bows of salt and peppercorns and a plate with fresh figs and fresh sage leaves
ButcherBox offers 21 different cuts of meat and a range of custom and curated boxes.

Since data showed that members who buy certain types of boxes are more likely to leave, the company began proactively suggesting different options to those members and introduced new subscription plans with varying delivery schedules.

“We’re giving people more flexibility to switch to a plan that comes less often,” says Reba Hatcher, ButcherBox’s chief of staff. “Giving people those options has been really helpful.”

The company’s approach suits Ismael Santos, who lives in Youngsville, a small city in south-central Louisiana. Santos tried various approaches to get high-quality, sustainably raised meat free of antibiotics and added hormones — driving to a grocery store more than 50 miles away, buying at local farmers markets, splitting a quarter- or half-cow with friends. None of the options was ideal, so Santos signed up for ButcherBox almost a year ago.

“It’s hard to get that quality at a good price, and conveniently and reliably here,” he says. “You can go out and buy beef, but you’re either going to pay a ton or you’re not going to get what you’re looking for sometimes. The cost (of ButcherBox) is good compared with going to a store and buying the same quality and quantity.”

Santos also tried several meal-kit subscription services but didn’t consider them a good value and didn’t like being restricted to cooking a particular meal. With ButcherBox, he gets the main part of his meal and builds around it, picking up other ingredients at his local market as needed and sometimes adding items to his box, like ribs or breakfast sausage.

“I like that you can change it up,” he says.

Photo of seven people, mostly ButcherBox employees, standing a ranch between two farm vehicles, with a herd of black cows in background
The company partners with vendors that use sustainable, humane approaches and fair labor practices.

ButcherBox is still in the early stages of using Azure, but Salguero says the move has already radically changed how employees think and operate.

“It’s pretty amazing to see the cultural change because of what we’re doing with Microsoft,” he says. “It’s a totally different conversation. People used to sit around a table and say, ‘I don’t really know what’s happening.’ Now it’s like, ‘Did you pull the data for that?’ or, ‘Let’s look at this dashboard and make a decision based on what we see.’

“The culture has really moved to a reliance on the data that we have,” Salguero says. “People trust the data, and it’s only getting better and better.”

Top photo: ButcherBox CEO and founder Mike Salguero. (All photos courtesy of ButcherBox)

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How NV Play is shaping the future of cricket – and making the global game more approachable

Every summer, Andy Nott spends his Saturdays on a verdant cricket field with his local team from Calne, a picturesque town in southwest England. But instead of batting and fielding balls, Nott is live-scoring his team’s seven-hour matches, often from inside a scorebox that looks like a garden shed. The job, though largely hidden, is a key role in the game, requiring intense focus and meticulous record-keeping.

To score a match, Nott brings colored pens, a paper scorebook, binoculars, water, a fan or heater, and a laptop connected to NV Play, an innovative, cloud-based cricket scoring and analytics solution launched last year. Built by NV Interactive, a digital agency in New Zealand, the platform has enabled more than 2,000 U.K. recreational teams like Calne Cricket Club to produce professional-grade livestreams that make the sport more engaging to follow. Calne doesn’t yet have the budget for video, but its live scores are deeply appreciated by fans.

“We’ve heard from people lying on a beach somewhere in Spain keeping abreast of a game by looking at the internet and seeing what’s happening,” says Nott, who learned to score cricket 15 years ago on paper, a method he still uses while scoring digitally. “The technology and live scoring make the game more appealing to a wider audience.”

screen image of NV Play user interface
NV Play solution. (Image courtesy of NV Interactive)

For NV Interactive, building NV Play was a way to democratize technology in a favorite sport of product director Matt Smith, chairman Geoff Cranko and brothers Matt Pickering, managing director, and Gus Pickering, technical director. Previously, the company had developed elite cricket solutions for 15 years, beginning with a scoring platform in 2005 for ESPNcricinfo, a global cricket news site, still in use today.

NV then went on to build digital tools for first-class and national teams in the U.K. and New Zealand, also still in use today. For NV Play, the company integrated the same advanced capabilities into a single platform that can scale from serving small, recreational teams to the highest levels of professional cricket. Built on Microsoft Azure, the flexible solution features live scoring, live video, video highlights, ball-by-ball statistics, high-performance analytics and predictive insights – all to help teams grow and shape the future of cricket.

“Historically, cricket has been scored on pen and paper,” says Smith, who grew up playing the sport. “Depending on the level of the game, the scores might end up on a spreadsheet that you share around or on a website, if you’re lucky.

“We’re making all the things typically available only to massive cricket clubs with high-performance budgets available to all levels of the game, from grassroots through to the elite.”

Even for famous, professional clubs like Middlesex Cricket in London, NV Play has enabled new ways to serve fans and new opportunities for growth. The platform helps the club deliver high-quality video livestreams and video highlights of key moments, which delight fans who can’t attend the club’s four-day matches. The features also serve Middlesex’s many global fans from Australia to India to South Africa.

“We’ve had a lot of feedback from people who enjoy having an open window on their laptop and being able to duck in and out of a game and get a real feel for what’s going on, without being here in the stadium,” says Rob Lynch, chief operating officer of Middlesex Cricket, which plays at London’s iconic Lord’s Cricket Ground venue.

green cricket field with players and historic building in background
Middlesex Cricket first XI men’s team at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. (Photo courtesy of Middlesex Cricket)

The platform helped Middlesex livestream video of its professional women’s matches for the first time this year. It has also increased engagement on the club’s website, leading to new monetization opportunities.

“We work hard to keep our website a living, breathing organism and not something that goes dormant and out of date quickly,” Lynch says. “By incorporating NV Play, we’ve seen a significant increase in traffic to our site.”

Building the solution with Azure DevOps, NV Interactive worked with the England and Wales Cricket Board to deliver the solution in the U.K., where it’s branded as Play-Cricket Scorer Pro. An NV Play partnership with New Zealand Cricket soon followed. To date, the platform has scored more than 30,000 matches involving 90,000 players and captured more than 24 terabytes of video.

It has coded metadata for 18 million balls bowled, including details on batter, bowler, type of hit, runs scored, weather and pitch conditions. In any given week, NV Play is livestreaming scores and video of more than 750 simultaneous matches to an audience of over 2 million people. The scalability of Azure is crucial for handling the enormous usage spikes.

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MediaValet bets big on AI to deliver more customer value

Transform recently sat down with several Microsoft customers at an event highlighting emerging trends in data and artificial intelligence (AI). We spoke with Jean Lozano, chief technology officer at MediaValet, a cloud-based digital asset management (DAM) system, which helps customers of all sizes manage their growing digital media libraries.

TRANSFORM: What is a DAM and what business problem does it solve?

JEAN LOZANO: A DAM is like a video or photo library, but it can handle way more than that. It’s typically used by enterprise marketing teams to provide a single source of truth for all brand and marketing content.

The big challenge with digital media is that it’s unstructured by nature, so discoverability can be a problem. A lot of companies invest tens of thousands of dollars in creating digital media and infographics, but its lack of searchable data makes them hard to find.

A DAM implementation contains anywhere from 10,000 to several-million digital media [items] that are put into a central repository and tagged to make them discoverable. Having just one person as the curator of the digital library is way too much, and that’s where AI comes in.

TRANSFORM: How does AI help you serve your customers?

LOZANO: We’re betting big on Azure AI to make MediaValet the most intelligent DAM out there. We’ve seen it in various deal cycles that we would not have otherwise won. It’s just a matter of demonstrating capabilities.

So, for example, one of the hottest technologies that we can demo is our capability for video indexing, which other DAMs cannot offer right now. Video is the fastest growing media out there, so when our customers can actually see their videos getting analyzed and made discoverable, they can see the value it adds.

As an example, we have a huge video production house as a customer. Every time they do a shoot, it’s a 500-gigabyte upload to MediaValet. But, they also have to generate video transcriptions. With video indexing, we [provide] the transcriptions as soon as they load it on our system, so they don’t have to send the files [elsewhere] for manual transcription. Does that improve their workflow? Definitely.

TRANSFORM: Have your customers fully embraced the changes and the new technologies?

LOZANO:  Many of our customers are digital asset curators, and some of them probably fear that AI is going to replace them. But the guiding principle for AI is assistance, not replacement. AI is going to make their lives easier. It will enrich the data that they’re producing, but it doesn’t replace them.

TRANSFORM: How does AI make life easier for a digital asset curator?

LOZANO: We have a couple of customers that are sports franchises that are creating millions of images. These teams have been there for decades and decades. One hockey team had about 50 petabytes of video clips. So, how do you work through millions of images and hundreds of thousands of hours of video?

Machine learning is actually helping with that now. For example, you can detect a jersey number and see who is the player that wears that number. We can actually make those images easy to use for marketers, or the communications team when they look for brand approved images.

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From predicting performance to preventing injuries: How machine learning is unlocking the secrets of human movement

Launched in 2006, P3 is the first facility to apply a more data-driven approach to understanding how elite competitors move. It uses advanced sports-science strategies to assess and train athletes in ways that will revolutionize pro sports – and, eventually, the bodies and abilities of weekend warriors, Elliott says.

“We are challenging them and measuring them. But we’re not interested in how high they jump or how fast they accelerate,” Elliott says. “We’re interested in the mechanics of how they jump, how they accelerate and decelerate. It’s helping us unlock the secrets of human movement.”

Working directly with players and their agents or families, P3 has evaluated members of the past six NBA draft classes, amassing a database of more than 600 current and former NBA athletes.

An athlete jumps in a gym, reaching for the ceiling with her right hand.
Volleyball player Cassandra Strickland leaps at P3.

Some of P3’s clients include NBA stars Luka Doncic and Zach LaVine plus athletes from the NFL, Major League Baseball, international soccer, track and field and more.

Many of those NBA clients, like Philadelphia 76ers guard Josh Richardson, return to P3 each summer for re-testing to pinpoint whether their movement patterns have gained asymmetries that could cause injury, or to reconfirm the health of physical systems they use to leap, land, stop and start, fueling their on-court edge.

“This is my fifth off-season now at P3,” Richardson says. “When I started with them during my NBA draft preparation, I immediately saw that their approach was different and that it could help me have the best chance to improve my athleticism. Every off-season I get to see exactly where I am physically compared to where I was before – and compared to other NBA players.

“They are able to help me identify where I might be at risk of injury and where I can improve physically. It’s important for me to know that the training I am doing is specific to my unique needs,” Richardson says.

To collect all that granular data, P3 outfitted its lab with a high-speed camera system manufactured by Simi Reality Motion Systems GmbH, a German company from the ZF Group and a Microsoft partner.

Simi offers markerless, motion-capture software that removes the need for athletes to wear tracking sensors while they play or train. Simi also works with seven Major League Baseball clubs, deploying high-speed camera systems to those stadiums to record every pitch during every game since the 2017 season.

Simi’s software digitizes the pitchers’ arm angles and related body movements, spanning 42 different joint centers across 24,000 pitches thrown per team per season. That produces hundreds of billions of data points that are uploaded and processed on Microsoft Azure, enabling teams to create in-depth biomechanical analyses for the players, says Pascal Russ, Simi’s CEO.

A laptop screen shows a player in mid-stride on a track and the movement data he is producing.
An athlete’s workout at P3 produces data on his body angles and movements.

“The first team that deploys this effectively on the field to pick lineups or to see which pitch angles worked well against which batters is going to see a huge separation between them and the other teams not using this,” Russ says.

“It’s freakishly accurate.”

While Russ foresees this technology eventually remaking baseball, such seismic shifts already are occurring in the NBA through P3’s player assessments, says Benedikt Jocham, Simi’s U.S. chief operations officer.

“We provide the software solution that can quantify the movement and analyze, for example, how much pressure and torque a person is putting on various body parts,” Jocham says. “P3 adds the magic sauce. They are wizards at figuring out what it all means and making sense out of it for athletes.”

After the cameras record a player’s movements in the P3 lab, those datasets are loaded into Azure where machine-learning algorithms reveal how that player’s physical systems are most related to other NBA players who were similarly assessed. The algorithm then assigns that player into one of several clusters or branches that predict how their basketball career may unfold, Elliott says.

One branch, for example, contains athletes who had a brief NBA experience and never became significant players. Another branch encompasses players who were impactful during their first three or four seasons then sustained serious injuries that depleted their skills. In still another branch, players share rare combinations of length, power and force that fed elite careers – and they remained healthy.

“The human eye is good at measuring size and maybe estimating weight, and very bad at comparing athletes’ physical systems and movement symmetries to one another,” Elliot says. “But we can measure those things in the lab and the machine tells us how young athletes are most alike.

“It’s a solid foothold into an area of sports science that has been out of sight until now,” he says.

An athlete looks at a big screen projection of his workout and the data is produced while a coach talks with him.
Cleveland Indians prospect Will Benson scans his workout data with P3 biomechanist Ben Johnson.

The data is also helping to shatter long-held theories that successful NBA players who, at first glance, lack the size, jumping ability or quickness of traditional stars are merely compensating by tapping unmeasurable intangibles such as “intuition” or “IQ” or “heart.”

“That’s how people once would have defined (2017-18 NBA most valuable player) James Harden, as somebody who just has this super-high basketball IQ,” Elliott says. “Maybe he does. But he also has a better stopping or braking system than anybody we’ve ever assessed in the NBA.

“That creates competitive advantages,” he adds. “There’s Newtonian physics behind these advantages.”

Case in point: Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic. In its pre-draft assessment of Doncic one year ago, P3 identified that same hidden performance metric – the elite ability to stop quickly. P3 knew, before his NBA Draft, that Doncic and Harden were in the same player branch. Doncic posted a stunning first pro season.

An athlete is shown moving sideways on an indoor track.
Aaron Gordon training on the P3 indoor track.

The insights also help athletes avoid injuries by adopting new training techniques to change unhealthy movement patterns revealed in the data, says Elliott, who previously served as the first director of sports science in MLB (for the Seattle Mariners) and as the first director of sports science in the NFL (for the New England Patriots).

Every NBA player or draft prospect assessed by P3 receives a report that highlights their injury risks and compares them to league peers based on performance.

“Athletes come to us because they trust us to take better care of their bodies than would happen anywhere else,” Elliott says. “Traditionally, and still today, when these bad things happen to players, everyone says, ‘Oh, that was a freak injury.’ I’m just telling you that the machine learning models predict a whole lot of these.

“I can’t imagine a world where out of nowhere you suffer, say, a right tibial stress fracture – not your left one, not your femur, it’s your tibia, out of nowhere,” he adds. “Without a doubt, these are not random events. Sports science just has not been very good about identifying them.”

Eventually, this same information may become available to amateur athletes and everyone else, Elliott says. The same technologies could predict, for example, that a weekend warrior has too much force going through the left leg while jumping or landing plus a tiny but unhealthy rotation of the left knee and femur, causing too much friction, and, eventually, an erosion of the left knee cartilage.

“What if you identified that when you were 30 or 20, instead of learning when you’re 50 that your cartilage is gone? That really is the future,” Elliott says.

“The power of machine learning and (Microsoft) Artificial Intelligence are going to help us unlock these secrets in ways that have never existed. We’re already doing it but it’s only in the early days of what I think is going to be a revolution in this space,” he says. “It’s coming. It’s definitely coming.

Top photo: Stanley Johnson, a forward with the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, moves laterally inside an exercise band at the P3 lab. (All photos courtesy of P3.)

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New tracking solution aims to keep skies safe as drones proliferate

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects the number of drones in our airspace to increase as much as threefold by 2023, as commercial drone operations become more common. But with more drones in the air, mishaps become more likely. In 2017, the FAA reported an average of 250 safety incidents per month, in some cases halting operations at major international airports.

Engineers test a cloud technology solution on a drone.Israeli startup Vorpal specializes in tracking and, ideally, preventing those near misses. Their drone detection and tracking solution, VigilAir, uses a geographically distributed network of sensors that scan relevant frequencies to identify drone transmissions, allowing them to identify and track drones and their operators in near-real time.

Each of Vorpal’s sensors is equipped with computing hardware that processes their location-tracking software. The more drones in the sky, the more compute power needed to handle all that data. To ensure that VigilAir can seamlessly maintain those capabilities, Vorpal is looking to the cloud, working with AT&T and Microsoft to test how edge computing could allow them to track thousands of drones at any given time.

The AT&T Foundry, a network of innovation spaces dedicated to rapid prototyping, is testing how to bring network edge compute (NEC) capabilities into AT&T’s network with Microsoft’s intelligent edge offerings, including Azure’s IoT and AI services, and Azure Stack hybrid technology. By deploying Microsoft’s advanced cloud services closer to the edge of the network, NEC could allow businesses to access low-latency network compute at a fraction of the cost of traditional, embedded processing.

Learn more about the proof-of-concept solution Vorpal is developing with AT&T and Microsoft.