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Virtual desktops keep the movies coming

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When a company is operating at the cutting edge of entertainment, it also needs cutting edge technology to keep the business running. Ster-Kinekor showed us how it was able to update its infrastructure without breaking the bank.

But Ster-Kinekor, South Africa’s main movie distributor, was labouring with an IT ecosystem comprising dated infrastructure, characterised by a poor end user experience, no workload mobility, and abysmal support times. How, then, to achieve digital transformation?

“The situation was bleak and when quotes began coming in to replace 150 high-end laptops, update infrastructure, backup and recovery, and expedite product update deployments and refresh cycles – it seemed insurmountable,” said Andre Potgieter, IT Executive at Ster-Kinekor Entertainment. “We couldn’t afford the solutions being proffered and were unwilling to sign-up for 15-years of technical debt.”

Yet the need remained pressing to transform this environment, in which it took IT on average two weeks to load Windows onto a machine, and the mere mention of IT evoked emotions ranging from anger to loathing among end-users. So the embattled IT department, with its partner VMXperts, turned to suppliers Dell and VMware to look at leveraging their desktop virtualisation strategies.

Key among the challenges facing Ster-Kinekor were: lengthy IT support times; a costly mobile environment; and no visibility and control. To surmount these, the team employed a staged approach to deploy a wall-to-wall VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) environment – rolling out Workspace on Dell thin clients – to address its EUC (end user computing) needs; upgraded the backend to vSphere 6 on Tintri; and deployed VMware Mirage with Commvault to assist with backups, product migrations and refreshes.

“Mobility was a problem – everyone had a laptop in the past and made extensive use of (costly) mobile data, there was also a problem with theft and loss of machines with corporate data on them,” said Potgieter. “With Workspace we can ensure users only access corporate data by logging in through their virtual machine.”

The secure access offered by the VMware VDI solution also meant that Ster-Kinekor could abandon its VPN. End users now connect to mail publicly and access business applications, including SAP, by connecting securely to the virtual machine – improving performance and security. In addition, using Mirage has enabled faster, cheaper backing up of endpoints; rapid reinjection of data onto new machines; and the ability to securely access information from multiple devices, dramatically improving the mobility of users.

As a media company, Ster-Kinekor also requires the ability to broadcast and process HD audio and video amid densities of between 30 and 70 virtual machines per host, without any impact on the desktop environment. Notably, with its new solution, the team is able to achieve precisely this.

Other achievements include the near elimination of downtime in the company’s warehouse, where four production lines work on specific SAP configurations and where the team had previously set up three to four desktops to mitigate the effects of downtime which could result in the loss of a million rand per day. According to Potgieter, since deploying VMware in the backend and on the desktops, if the warehouse has had one hour of downtime, it’s a lot.

All told, Ster-Kinekor has achieved a significant reduction in its IT support numbers; desktop deployments of just a few minutes; and has virtualised 50-percent of its applications.

IT support times have shrunk from weeks to minutes, productivity has increased across the organisation, and it now has a robust failover environment, and is positioned to react quickly to the digital changes occurring in the fast-paced media industry.

Perhaps the most significant result, however, has been the manner in which the sentiment around IT has completely changed within the company.

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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