Two cans labelled 911 connected by string.
Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Are emergency services ready for the cloud?

Protocol Enterprise

Hello and welcome to Protocol Enterprise! Today: how first responders are finally embracing the benefits of cloud-based 911 call centers despite outage worries, Broadcom is supposedly making a big bid for VMware, and the latest funding rounds raised by enterprise tech startups.

Spin up

Syncing data between multiple operating environments is one of the biggest challenges of choosing a hybrid cloud strategy, according to new research from Confluent. 32% of respondents said they “struggle” with operating across cloud providers and their own data centers, and only 39% think they are “completely prepared” for such a future.

The last cloud holdouts

Dialing 911 could be the most important phone call you will ever make. But what happens when the software that’s supposed to deliver that call fails you? It may seem simple, but the technology behind a call for help is complicated, and when it fails, deadly.

The infrastructure supporting emergency contact centers is one of the most critical assets for any city, town or local government. But just as the pandemic exposed the creaky tech infrastructure that runs local governments, in many cases the technology in those call centers is outdated and hasn’t been touched for decades.

  • But in an industry where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, many public safety departments are hesitant to take risks on new cloud-based technologies.
  • However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of the limitations of their current systems.
  • The need for increased resilience in the face of outages or natural disasters, a desire for better location data and the benefits of introducing more ways of communicating with first responders via text or video are pushing some 911 systems into the cloud.

The first 911 call was made only 40 to 50 years ago, said Robin Erkkila, a 911 solutions engineer at software company Bandwidth.

  • Although it appears straightforward on the surface, dialing 911 requires a number of parties to interact, from telecommunications providers and device manufacturers to local governments and first responders.
  • When a 911 call is placed in the modern era, it probably goes first to a cell phone carrier, then to the 911 network normally operated by state governments, where it's then routed to a public safety answering point, or PSAP, said Brandon Abley, director of Technology for the National Emergency Number Association.
  • At each point in this process, some form of technology is involved, whether it's checking a caller’s location or identifying the nearest fire station.
  • However, “basically what happened is that since the ‘70s and ‘80s, the technology there hasn't changed a great deal,” said Alex Dizengof, co-founder and CTO of cloud-based emergency communications provider Carbyne.

Emergency contact centers still face many of the same challenges as traditional on-premises contact centers.

  • Like traditional contact centers, some 911 dispatch centers are limited in the number of calls they can handle or are subject to the impacts of physical damage in the event of a natural disaster.
  • In most contact centers, there are limits to the number of calls that can be handled concurrently. While that can be inconvenient for a traditional contact center, it’s mission critical for 911.
  • During a national emergency such as a hurricane or earthquake, a PSAP could receive several dozen if not hundreds of calls at the same time, but only be able to handle 14 simultaneously, said Dizengof.
  • In other cases, a natural disaster can completely overtake a public safety answering point, preventing dispatch operators from communicating with first responders.

Migrating to the cloud has the potential to solve many of the challenges facing 911 contact centers, from providing flexibility to scale contact center seats seamlessly to enabling better resilience in the face of outages or natural disasters.

  • Scale is one of the traditional benefits of the cloud, providing the ability to adjust capacity up and down as needed without having to pay for a fixed number of physical seats.
  • A sheriff's office can’t necessarily afford to build a contact center that operates dozens of seats or thousands of backup servers, said Abley.
  • The cloud also provides much-needed resilience to a critical operation that needs to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Migrating 911 to the cloud also opens up new avenues for citizens to communicate with first responders. In many large-scale emergencies ordinary citizens often share photos and videos via social media, but have no way of providing this information to first responders.

While there are benefits to upgrading analog telephone networks to the cloud, there are also certainly disadvantages that come along with depending on any cloud service.

  • Operating over the public internet can make 911 systems more susceptible to cyberattacks or downtime when there are internet outages.
  • Even a simple coding error can prevent thousands of people from reaching 911.

In the future, cloud-911 backers believe that additional capabilities such as AI, natural-language processing and automation will make 911 even more responsive, allowing dispatchers to more accurately route calls, provide automated responses where appropriate or group similar incidents.

  • As the world modernizes its technology at a dizzying pace, emergency services remain an arena where there needs to be a bent towards safety and security, even at the risk of using outdated technologies.
  • “It's a very critical system,” said Dizengof. “It's the most critical infrastructure a county could have and the most critical information source.”
  • “Seven or eight years ago, you had big companies suspicious of the cloud, of cloud services. They aren't anymore, but they were,” Abley said. “And public safety is always culturally a few years behind, technologically speaking.”
— Aisha Counts (email | twitter)


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Just when I thought I was out...

VMware’s independence as a standalone company could be short-lived.

Chipmaker Broadcom reportedly is in discussions to acquire the virtualization and cloud computing software company for $60 billion, both Reuters and The Wall Street Journal reported Monday, citing unnamed people familiar with the matter.

News of the talks comes almost seven months after VMware spun off from Dell Technologies last November.

“A VMware acquisition would just about triple the size of Broadcom's software segment, as well as bring overall software mix close to 50% for the combined company,” Bernstein analysts wrote in a research note on Monday.

Broadcom has been diversifying beyond its semiconductor business after the Trump administration blocked the then-Singapore-based company from taking over mobile chipmaker Qualcomm in 2018, citing national security concerns related to China. Broadcom subsequently moved its headquarters to California and made a pair of software plays, acquiring CA Technologies that year for $18.9 billion and Symantec's enterprise security business for $10.7 billion in 2019.

“We note that Broadcom took 60-70% out of the cost base from CA and Symantec post-purchase; a similar degree of synergies would suggest they might target $5B+ in cost savings (if possible) following a VMware acquisition,” Bernstein analysts said.

VMware, which got its start as a hypervisor pioneer, has shifted to what CEO Raghu Raghuram calls the third phase of its evolution: helping customers navigate a distributed, multicloud world and hybrid work. In an interview with Protocol this month, Raghuram touted VMware’s freedom from Dell and its new position as the “Switzerland of the industry” with its ability to now partner with the industry’s top cloud, infrastructure and software providers.

“The second [benefit] is ... it strengthens our M&A strategy down the road, because it gives us the ability to use our stock as a currency in addition to cash,” Raghuram told Protocol.

VMware is scheduled to release its first-quarter results on Thursday, while Broadcom’s second-quarter earnings call is set for June 2.

— Donna Goodison (email | twitter)

Financial corner

Imply Data was valued at more than $1 billion after raising $100 million for its real-time analytics database.

Glean was valued at $1 billion after raising $100 million to help companies search across workplace SaaS apps.

Velocity Global raised $400 million to simplify the hiring process for remote and international workers.

Inflection AIraised $225 million to build AI software products that make it easier for humans to communicate with computers.

Pathlockraised $200 million to develop access governance and application security tools.

Nearraised $100 million for its privacy-focused data intelligence platform.

GreyOrangeraised $110 million for its AI cloud software that powers warehouse robotics.

— Aisha Counts (email | twitter)

Around the enterprise

Zoom beat Wall Street estimates with revenue growth of 12%, which might be a welcome sign that the incredible growth expectations put on workplace collaboration companies during the pandemic might be coming back to normal.

Microsoft released two open-source tools that could make it easier for AI researchers to test large-language models for flaws or signs of toxic content.

AWS launched the first instances based on its Graviton3 processor, expanding its Arm server program with a chip that it believes stacks up well against Intel and AMD.


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