Who’s My Mum? Our Ami Bot Throws Up Some Challenges


Following our first Bot blog on 23rd March which marked the start of our ‘Ami’ Bot chatbot journey, we find ourselves deep in talks off the back of discovery  and  as we explore what the technology can offer.  We are also asking ourselves some crunch questions about what precisely we want out of the Bot for the business.  This will continue, but views are starting to form.

Ami has thrown up a number of questions and challenges from our lead technical and architecture stakeholders in the Bot project’s team.   As a tech firm, some might regard it as an automatic shoe-in for us just to add the Bot simply as an additional cloud option for customers and visitors using our web portal.  However, it has to be right for the business, whatever the technology and right for purpose – and certainly before any costs are incurred.

A key question that arose in recent discussions centred on our technology.  We needed to check what the structure map was around our infrastructure and ITSM toolsets.  Our Service Desk toolset doesn’t come with a baked in chatbot which would have made things simpler, but it was an important exercise as a reminder and a review point for our chatbot options, which led to some positive API additions.  Our lead Technical Design Authority, Julian Green has taken time to investigate different Bot frameworks and potential options for consideration.  Being a largely Microsoft house, Amicus ITS has ready access to the Microsoft Bot framework.  However, whilst the set up would be very fast, that would still require substantial input as it developed.  Julian has also investigated the option for us of using IBM Watson as the backbone for the Bot.  Both of these options would require substantial input from our technical team and that is where the conundrum lies, as that route could tie up valuable resource.  We’ve also engaged with some market leading suppliers with off the shelf options.  These might be a more effective route for Ami as a Sales bot for us.

Either way, it has to be technically right to introduce into our portfolio of toolset service options and it has to feel right, so it’s a benefit not a hindrance for anyone to have a conversation with Ami.  We know we need a Sales bot at this stage, as a Service bot is a step too far that we are not ready for, but it remains the goal on the distant horizon.

So in terms of where we are today, I think we are on the verge of agreeing the right route on how to make Ami (metaphorically), which hopefully the Board can agree on in June. Then the project team can start to build on the content for the FAQs to respond to sales enquiries.  Plus, we have some general housekeeping to review.  We need to interrogate the existing routes, including email addresses etc., through which organisations engage with us – as it looks like there are some we no longer use.  If we tidy things up, we may see our Reception and Business Services resource time being used more efficiently in the first place, enabling greater focus on the right enquiries.  Using technology to work smarter.  Sounds good.  Above all, we want Ami when she joins us to become popular and user friendly, helping direct people usefully AND managing user expectations too.

Ami is causing us to re-evaluate what we do and how.  We will have taken a meaningful step if we can serve our customers more intelligently and flexibly – not only using joined up technology, but also joined up thinking behind the scenes from Board to floor.   Change can be hard for any business.   Our plans for a soft GoLive in July with Ami Sales bot were perhaps a bit too ambitious on reflection given our gap in knowledge and working implementation.   But I have no doubt that following our numerous discussions, research and conversations with experts, that we are heading in the right direction.  We just have to get over Ami’s toddler stage and commit to holding her by the hand.

 

Bots – Amicus ITS dips its toes in the art of conversation with our baby bot ‘Ami’

  

At Amicus ITS, with Spring looming at last, we are considering taking our first baby steps to explore the world of smart bot technology.  Developing a bot as a new route of engagement and communication is an experiment, demanding fresh thinking, analysis, reflection and nurture from us all.  We are up for the challenge.  However, just because Amicus ITS is a tech firm and IT solution provider, there’s no assumption that the route to adoption is a given.  It needs to be a positive compliment alongside our existing customer service.  Our baby bot, affectionately christened Amicus ‘Ami‘ by one of our Sales team, will have to prove herself, not just by being a smart technology, but by developing a good working vocabulary.  Her first words we hope will focus on helping customers with general sales enquiries before she has any chance of graduating to anything grander.

Why develop a bot?

The potential for AI in customer service is twofold. With machine learning and Neural Linguistic Programming it can seamlessly give customers the right information they need at the right time by offering self-service options and eliminating the need for a call to a service centre. Secondly, AI has the potential to give customer service representatives more information to help them handle the complicated issues that self-service cannot resolve.

Our instincts to start this journey now in our business lifecycle are borne out by the latest statistics.  At this week’s #MarketingExpo at London’s Excel, chatbots were trending as a key topic of conversation.  34% of call centres in the UK are stated as using AI now, with the expectation that this will rise to 68% by the end of 2018.

The human bit

How we as people communicate and our responses to different types of engagement, is fundamental to the art of good conversation and we have to seek to provide a great customer experience with Ami.  Yielding positive results in a customer’s interactions with a business through a bot has commercial potential in the long term.  But for now, it’s all about getting it right.   We know that a bot should not pretend to be a person.  If we can ensure Ami provides provide relevant information, answers and signposts for you, some of you will enjoy trying this route of enquiry.  But there will always be our people too, alongside and behind Ami, always on hand 24×365 to help support you in every way we can.

B2B

Having a bot in a B2B environment is perhaps less straightforward than if we were in the retail trade. However, there is as much opportunity to make a difference if we do this well.  Amy will need to become customer savvy if she’s to make a difference and be welcomed as part of our service family.  We are keen for our bot not to be a turn off and we would love to include you in helping raise this tech child!  There will be a feedback option built in to the platform when it’s launched in a few months time.  If you do choose to comment, you will help in our education too!  So, watch this space for news as we look forward to becoming a digital parent to this disruptive technology child.   What do you think of bots?   Let’s start the conversation!

 

HCI, waking up the storage market – the new must have for enterprise and SMEs

What’s got us talking?

Amicus ITS has secured a major new contract for Hyper-Converged Infrastructure and will be providing professional services to deploy and implement the solution for the customer.

What is Hyper-Converged-Infrastructure (HCI)?

In our fast changing technology world, hyper-convergence is the latest new buzzword and a topic that is exciting many here in Amicus ITS.

Hyper-convergence grew out of the concept of converged infrastructure. Under the converged infrastructure approach, a vendor provides a pre-configured bundle of hardware and software in a single package from different hardware vendors.  Hyper-converged systems are modular systems designed to scale out by adding additional modules.  The magic is that HCI requires only a single vendor’s server platform and a ‘single pane of glass’ management console.

Enabling integrated technologies to be managed as a single system through a common toolset is a big step forward and to assure flexibility, HCI systems can be expanded through the addition of nodes to the base unit. Hyper-converged infrastructure streamlines the deployment, management and scaling of datacentre resources by combining x86-based server chassis and storage resources with intelligent software in a turnkey software-defined solution. Separate servers, storage networks and storage arrays can be replaced with a single hyper-converged solution to create an agile datacentre that easily scales with our customers’ business.

Why is Amicus ITS so excited by HCI?

We are constantly looking to keep ahead of the technology curve and stay one-step ahead of the MSP competition.  By taking solutions to our customers that add true value to their business, this gives us real opportunity to demonstrate forward thinking and benefits all round.  Amicus ITS has the confidence of combining the right technologies with our most important assets, our people and our proven processes – to build comprehensive and compelling solutions, fit for tomorrow.  Wrapped with Amicus ITS’ quietly assured Managed Services capabilities, it creates a powerful combination of positive results for both sides.

Whether a customer wants an HCI solution delivered that they manage, or an HCI solution that Amicus ITS as an MSP looks after – what this shows is that to be a fit MSP in today’s market, you cannot go on just selling traditional three-tier architectures with their associated multiple different technologies, higher costs and greater complexity.  This swallows up greater day-to-day management resource, as well as the people and skills to support and maintain a wide variety of servers, storage, networking and software management technologies.  At scale, this can be challenging as it increases the chance of incompatibilities and administration overheads.

HCI appeals because it radically simplifies infrastructure for the customer and enables smooth management processes to wrap around it.   So, it’s time to slim down and de-mystify the technology and show what is really good out there for our customers – and here, utilising what was designed for Google and Facebook always available engineering, as a technical model for both enterprises or SMEs.   Being forward thinking and flexible in our consultative approach – where the solution benefits both the customer and MSP, it’s a win-win for both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Microsoft announces launch of new UK datacentres

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Microsoft have announced their launch of new data centres in London, Durham and Cardiff amid mounting commercial concerns about the growing need to ring-fence the location of where data resides in Europe.

Back in June 2015, we blogged about the EU’s frustration around multiple legislative barriers inter-country which were stifling off-premise cloud technologies due to disparate data protection laws.  The EC’s Head of Software, Services & Cloud Computing, Pearse O’Donohue spoke then of this desire to create a centralised EC Digital Single Market.  Post Brexit and with no EU exit Clause 50 triggered yet, the UK can, with this news, demonstrate it remains in demand by being able to attract such heavyweight attention and become an important datacentre hub this side of the Pond.  The news is also a flip for Microsoft as it steals a march on its main rival AWS which is due to open its UK datacentres early in 2017.

Microsoft commented: “Built on Microsoft’s Trusted Cloud principles of security, privacy, compliance, transparency and availability, this creates new opportunities for innovation, with the intent to spark local economic growth for Microsoft UK’s 25,000-plus partners and support local technology advancement”.

There will no doubt be further rationalisation and stitching of new laws around UK data, however, this news will create confidence for UK organisations and businesses in meeting regulatory obligations and as well as creating greater productivity opportunities with Microsoft’s products.   Whether this will get backed up by positive, joined-up thinking and innovation with our EU counterparts when it comes to the negotiating table is one crystal ball too far at present.  However, in this increasingly digital age for consumers and business alike, it would be of benefit to everyone that sovereignty and neighbourliness could share the stage as we seek to look after our customers and citizens.

“The investment by Microsoft shows their continued commitment to the UK Economy and may encourage a post Brexit UK Data Protection Act that is essentially a nationalisation of the General Data Protection Regulation. With significant support from the Ministry of Defence and the NHS I am certain the UK datacentres will prove very popular. With our years of proven history working in regulated sectors and our long standing relationship with Microsoft Amicus ITS is ideally placed to assist existing and new customers migrating to Microsoft CloudJP Norman, Director of Technology, Security & Governance Amicus ITS.

Transparency sought in the Cloud storage market

The Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) is to investigate whether consumers are being unfairly charged for their cloud storage services.  The regulator’s focus is mainly on:

• Unexpected price increases after a contract has been taken out
• Changes or reductions to unlimited storage capacity deals
• Consumers’ data being lost or deleted
• How contracts are automatically renewed at the end of the period
• What happens to consumers’ data when they cancel a contract

With a far wider range of devices now providing storage services (laptops, mobiles and tablets) with demand access from anywhere in the world, it is of little surprise to hear from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), that 40% of UK adults now reportedly use some form of Cloud storage.

The price of Cloud storage is flattening to near zero levels, so many storage providers are offering interesting deals to lure internet users in off the back of tie-ins to more lucrative profit margin services (ie. Amazon Prime and Amazon Web Services).  However, often it’s the small print that trips end users up, because unlike enterprise storage, it doesn’t have to be smart or require management.  These inflated costs to change use volumes or content type can prompt significant excess costs (ie. a user seeks to store videos versus just photos or documents).  The initial free memory included in the bundle, pales into insignificance when top up charges of up to £40 per month for needed extra gigabytes are incurred.

The investigation may result in enforcement action using consumer protection laws, as well as the regulators seeking voluntary change within the sector and guidance to business.  With the new Consumer Rights Act having taken effect in October 2015, price transparency has been tightened, so expect changes in the market to follow.

The question is whether this consumer experience could manifest itself in the higher margined enterprise zone in the future potentially as behaviours do tend to follow in markets?   When a deal sounds too good to be true, it often is.  For MSPs, the answer will come if we start to see cloud providers offering bundled packages that are smart to organisations and include the necessary high performance and high availability for large amounts of data, but at more transparent, reasonable prices.

Cloud 10@300

 

 

 

Microsoft moved to build new EU datacentres

In response to the collapse of the Safe Harbour Agreement of 2000 on 6th October 2015, and following meetings and conversations between EU and US regulators, Microsoft has announced it will invest $2 billion in infrastructure development across Europe. This is addition to confirming the completion of the latest phase of improvements to its existing data centres in Dublin and the Netherlands.

This new investment will enable Microsoft to provide secure commercial cloud services for its customers and address the sovereign issues of data transfer and compliance that the lapse of legal reference created by the scrapping of Safe Harbour created on 21st October 2015.

Once the new datacentres are up and running (planned to open late 2016), Microsoft will be able to replicate data within the UK for backup and recovery (vs the current failover of data going to the US from Europe).  General Manager of Microsoft UK, Michael Van der Bel said, “This will help meet demand from those who want their could systems based in the UK and now they can meet the strict regulations of the banking, financial services and public sectors”.

It is good news for compliance within Europe, but the EU and US still need to work assiduously to thrash out a legal plan before the end of January 2016 when fines will kick in for non-compliance, to ensure that transatlantic business data can still traverse fluidly and securely across the Pond, avoiding nation fragmentation and an MSP administrative mess.
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HMRC mark U-turn on VAT for IT Managed Services

HMRC appears to have done something positive for a change in a way that will be welcome news for IT Managed Service Providers.

Last year, HMRC advised that only large system IT integrators would get a VAT refund for aggregated purchases. Public sector organisations were thus being penalised for buying standardised ‘off the shelf’ Cloud services and having to pay the full amount of VAT on purchases.  An unjust penalty where transparency and best price are being argued for by the regulators.

However, following representations to HMRC from public sector bodies which spend several billion pounds per year, happily HMRC have done a pleasing U-turn on VAT refunds. The new document published this week, ‘Contracting Out Services’ guidance, shows that cloud services are now eligible for the VAT reclaim. Hardware can be considered but only if part of a managed service bundle. The new rules also support a “disaggregated” managed IT service, where the various areas of IT such as hosting and networks are broken up into multiple suppliers.

The rules specifically state that the following services should be included in the VAT refund:

• Hosting Computing Services
• Archiving Communication Services
• Data Communications Services
• Desktop Communications Services, for example Picture Archiving Services (PACS)
• Ethernet cable/Data lines and Cloud computing

With the new G-Cloud 7 Digital Marketplace providers to be announced in November to compliment the public sector tendering frameworks, the Government’s linking of a transparent approved supplier system and joined up thinking on tax for public sector buyers will make a positive change for SMEs and their clients on tightened budgets, especially in the downtrodden NHS marketplace.  The latest sales reported for G-Cloud are £753million, with 51% in value and 60% in volume going to SMEs (defined as sub 250 employees with annual turnover not exceeding Euro 50 millions).  77% of total sales by value were through Central Government, with 23% through the Wider Public Sector.

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