Big Tin

Big tin: IT infrastructure used by organisations to run their businesses. And other stuff too when I feel like it…

2012: the tech year in view (part 1)

As 2012 draws to a close, here’s a round-up of some of the more interesting news stories that came my way this year. This is part 1 of 2 – part 2 will be posted on Monday 31 December 2012.

Storage
Virsto, a company making software that boosts storage performance by sequentialising the random data streams from multiple virtual machines, launched Virsto for vSphere 2.0. According to the company, this adds features for virtual desktop infrastructures (VDI), and it can lower the cost of providing storage for each desktop by 50 percent. The technology can save money because you need less storage to deliver sufficient data throughput, says Virsto.

At the IPExpo show, I spoke with Overland which has added a block-based product called SnapSAN to its portfolio. According to the company, the SnapSAN 3000 and 5000 offer primary storage using SSD for cacheing or auto-tiering. This “moves us towards the big enterprise market while remaining simple and cost-effective,” said a spokesman. Also, Overland’s new SnapServer DX series now includes dynamic RAID, which works somewhat like Drobo’s system in that you can install differently sized disks into the array and still use all the capacity.

Storage startup Tegile is one of many companies making storage arrays with both spinning and solid-state disks to boost performance and so, the company claims boost performance cost-effectively. Tegile claims it reduces data aggressively, using de-duplication and compression, and so cuts the cost of the SSD overhead. Its main competitor is Nimble Storage.

Nimble itself launched a so-called ‘scale to fit’ architecture for its hybrid SSD-spinning disk arrays this year, adding a rack of expansion shelves that allows capacity to be expanded. It’s a unified approach, says the company, which means that adding storage doesn’t mean you need to perform a lot of admin moving data around.

Cloud computing
Red Hat launched OpenShift Enterprise, a cloud-based platform service (PaaS). This is, says Red Hat, a solution for developers to launch new projects, including a development toolkit that allows you to quickly fire up new VM instances. Based on SE Linux, you can fire up a container and get middleware components such as JBoss, php, and a wide variety of languages. The benefits, says the company, are that the system allows you to pool your development projects.

Red Hat also launched Enterprise Virtualization 3.1, a platform for hosting virtual servers with up to 160 logical CPUs and up to 2TB of memory per virtual machine. It adds command line tools for administrators, and features such as RESTful APIs, a new Python-based software development kit, and a bash shell. The open source system includes a GUI to allow you to manage hundreds of hosts with thousands of VMs, according to Red Hat.

HP spoke to me at IPExpo about a new CGI rendering system that it’s offering as a cloud-based service. According to HP’s Bristol labs director, it’s 100 percent automated and autonomic. It means that a graphics designer uses a framework to send a CGI job to a service provider who creates the film frame. The service works by estimating the number of servers required, sets them up and configures them automatically in just two minutes, then tears them down after delivery of the video frames. The evidence that it works can apparently be seen in the animated film Madagascar where, to make the lion’s mane move realistically, calculations were needed for 50,000 individual hairs.

For the future, HP Labs is looking at using big data and analytics for security purposes and is looking at providing an app store for analytics as a service.

Security
I also spoke with Rapid7, an open-source security company that offers a range of tools for companies large and small to control and manage the security of their digital assets. It includes a vulnerability scanner, Nexpose, a penetration testing tool, Metasploit, and Mobilisafe, a tool for mobile devices that “discovers, identifies and eliminates risks to company data from mobile devices”, according to the company. Overall, the company aims to provide “solutions for comprehensive security assessments that enable smart decisions and the ability to act effectively”, a tall order in a crowded security market.

I caught up with Druva, a company that develops software to protect mobile devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets. Given the explosive growth in the numbers of end-user owned devices in companies today, this company has found itself in the right place at the right time. New features added to its flagship product inSync include better usability and reporting, with the aim of giving IT admins a clearer idea of what users are doing with their devices on the company network.

Networking
Enterasys – once Cabletron for the oldies around here – launched a new wireless system, IdentiFi. The company calls it wireless with embedded intelligence offering wired-like performance but with added security. The system can identify issues of performance and identity, and user locations, the company says, and it integrates with Enterasys’ OneFabric network architecture that’s managed using a single database.

Management
The growth of virtualisation in datacentres has resulted in a need to manage the virtual machines, so a number of companies focusing on this problem have sprung up. Among them is vKernel, whose product vOPS Server aims to be a tool for admins that’s easy to use; experts should feel they have another pair of hands to help them do stuff, was how one company spokesman put it. The company, now owned by Dell, claims it has largest feature set for virtualisation management when you include its vKernel and vFoglight products, which provide analysis, advice and automation of common tasks.

Filed under: Business, Cloud computing, data protection, Enterprise, mobile, Networking, Product, Product launch, Security, Servers, Storage, Systems management, Technology, , , , , , , , , ,

Technology predictions for 2013

The approaching end of the year marks the season of predictions for and by the technology industry for the next year, or three years, or decade. These are now flowing in nicely, so I thought I’d share some of mine.

Shine to rub off Apple
I don’t believe that the lustre that attaches to everything Apple does will save it from the ability of its competitors to do pretty much everything it does, but without the smugness. Some of this was deserved when it was the only company making smartphones, but this is no longer true. and despite the success of the iPhone 5, I wonder if its incremental approach – a slightly bigger screen and some nice to have features – will be enough to satisfy in the medium term. With no dictatorial obsessive at the top of a company organised and for around that individual’s modus operandi, can Apple make awesome stuff again, but in a more collective way?

We shall see, but I’m not holding my breath.

Touch screens
Conventional wisdom says that touchscreens only work when they are either horizontal and/or attached to a handheld device. It must be true: Steve Jobs said so. But have you tried using a touchscreen laptop? Probably not.

One reviewer has, though, and he makes a compelling case for them, suggesting that they don’t lead to gorilla arm, after all. I’m inclined to agree that a touchscreen laptop could become popular, as they share a style of interaction with users’ phones – and they’re just starting to appear. Could Apple’s refusal to make a touchscreen MacBook mean it’s caught wrong-footed on this one?

I predict that touchscreen laptops will become surprisingly popular.

Windows 8
Everyone’s a got a bit of a downer on Windows 8. After all, it’s pretty much Windows 7 but with a touchscreen interface slapped on top. Doesn’t that limit its usefulness? And since enterprises are only now starting to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 — and this might be the last refresh cycle that sees end users being issued with company PCs — doesn’t that spell the end for Windows 8?

I predict that it will be more successful than many think: not because it’s especially great because it certainly has flaws, especially when used with a mouse, which means learning how to use the interface all over again.

In large part, this is because the next version of Windows won’t be three years away or more, which has tended to be the release cycle of new versions. Instead, Microsoft is aiming for a series of smaller, point releases, much as Apple does but hopefully without the annoying animal names from which it’s impossible to derive an understanding of whether you’ve got the latest version.

So Windows Blue – the alleged codename – is the next version and will take into account lessons from users’ experiences with Windows 8, and take account of the growth in touchscreens by including multi-touch. And it will be out in 2013, probably the third quarter.

Bring your own device
The phenomenon whereby firms no longer provide employees with a computing device but instead allow you to bring your own, provided it fulfils certain security requirements, will blossom.

IT departments hate this bring your own device policy because it’s messy and inconvenient but they have no choice. They had no choice from the moment the CEO walked into the IT department some years ago with his shiny new iPhone – he was the first because he was the only one able to afford one at that point – and commanded them to connect it to the company network. They had to comply and, once that was done, the floodgates opened. The people have spoken.

So if you work for an employer, expect hot-desking and office downsizing to continue as the austerity resulting from the failed economic policies of some politicians continue to be pursued, in the teeth of evidence of their failure.

In the datacentre
Storage vendors will be snapped up by the deep-pocketed big boys – especially Dell and HP – as they seek to compensate for their mediocre financial performance by buying companies producing new technologies, such as solid-state disk caching and tiering.

Datacentres will get bigger as cloud providers amalgamate, and will more or less be forced to consider and adopt software-defined networking (SDN) to manage their increasingly complex systems. SDN promises to do that by virtualising the network, in the same way as the other major datacentre elements – storage and computing – have already been virtualised.

And of course, now that virtualisation is an entirely mainstream technology, we will see even bigger servers hosting more complex and mission-critical applications such as transactional databases, as the overhead imposed by virtualisation shrinks with each new generation of technology. What is likely to lag however is the wherewithal to manage those virtualised systems, so expect to see some failures as virtual servers go walkabout.

Security
Despite the efforts of technologists to secure systems – whether for individuals or organisations, security breaches will continue unabated. Convenience trumps security every time, experience teaches us. And this means that people will find increasingly ingenious ways around technology designed to stop them walking around with the company’s customer database on a USB stick in their pocket, or exposing the rest of the world to a nasty piece of malware because they refuse to update their operating system’s defences.

That is, of course, not news at all, sadly.

Filed under: Cloud computing, Consumer, data protection, desktops, Enterprise, Laptop, mobile, Networking, operating systems, Product, Security, Servers, Storage, Technology, , , , , , , , , , ,

Vodafone doesn’t want new customers

Vodafone – how hard can it be to become a customer of yours? So hard I almost gave up, that’s how hard.

It all started about a month ago — a month away from the end of my contract with O2, who didn’t have the phone I wanted. Vodafone does, so I planned to switch — in spite of the company’s current poor reputation for avoiding paying £6bn in corporation tax in the cash-strapped UK.

Around that time, I got a call from Vodafone’s ‘Win Back’ sales team — as a previous customer I’m cheaper to acquire than a brand new one, so they wanted to know if I would come back to Voda. I agreed to a deal, and expected to get a call nearer the time confirming this. Score one point for Vodafone.

But a week before the contract expired, I’d heard nothing so I called the sales number. They’d no record of the phone call or of the good deal (£10 a month cheaper than any advertised price plan) that I’d agreed to. Strike one point for Vodafone – score now zero.

So I tried to cut a deal there but I was told my name would be passed to the Win Back sales team’s list. Four days later I got a call — this from a company that’s reportedly keen to expand its customer base after a long period of decline. Strike one more point for lack of urgency – tally is minus one.

In the end, I got a deal slightly better than the one I’d agreed a month before (one up for Voda, score now zero). I carefully spelt out my address, bank account details and the porting code (PAC) that O2 had given me, to allow my old number to be carried over. The PAC would be activated two days later, I was told.

Next day I got a text confirming that a phone would be sent out the day after — though the abysmal spelling of my address suggested a high degree of illiteracy or lack of attention to detail, or both, and gave me cause to wonder if the phone would actually turn up at the right address. Hmm, nul points each way, I think, score still zero.

The phone turned up on the appointed day — so a grudging point there, score one — but two days later there was no sign of the PAC being activated, so I emailed Vodafone. They’d no record of a PAC. Minus one. They suggested I send it and other details to a specific Vodafone email address, which I did in a hurry, since at this point I’m paying for two parallel phone contracts, and the PAC has a 30-day expiry limit that’s approaching fast.

I got a email back instructing me to enter the same details into a web page — this would be the third time of providing the code. Subtract one point, score minus two so far. An email arrived within a few hours complaining that the details I’d provided didn’t match what they held — I suspect that’s because the address I’d originally given them had been transcribed so poorly. Score: minus three.

So I provided the details for the fourth time and now, at last, have confirmation, and a date and time that the PAC will be activated — one day before it expires. Add one point, and the total so far is minus two.

If the PAC works as Voda claims, no change in score as that’s expected behaviour. If it doesn’t, you’ll hear about it.

If Vodafone wants to gain customer loyalty, it really needs to sharpen up its act. As it is, if another company offers a reasonable deal at the end of this 18-month contract, I’m off.

Filed under: mobile, , , , , ,

iPad? Just say no

If the world needed an iPad, why hasn’t one been invented before? Oh look: it has. Called the Newton when Apple launched it in 1992 – there were a couple of others released about the same time but the Newton got the headlines – it died in 1998 as not enough people bought it.

Will the iPad be different? Do you care?

Amid the inevitable hoopla and swooning going on in Applista diasporas at media outlets such as the Guardian and the BBC, let’s be clear: the iPad is a blown-up iPhone. And already we hear calls for there to be a cut-down version of the iPad so that you can carry it in your pocket. Thought that’s what an iPhone was…

The iPad’s remit seems to be more limited than the Newton’s. There’s no handwriting recognition for a start but it is very shiny, has bright colours and maybe the battery life is long enough to make it useful enough to carry around all day. I await review samples for verification. There’s no talk of local connectivity to either Mac or Windows, no talk of open access to all the applications you want, no talk of opening up the OS so that others can develop extensions or applications.

And for all of Jobs’ sneering at netbooks, mine works for hours on a single charge, runs Ubuntu quite happily – though I suspect that Windows 7 might actually be easier to to use in terms of getting everything working, but at least I have the choice.

As one blogger has already pointed out, this closed-world mentality could be the fatal flaw in the iPad’s shiny armour.

iPad? I don’t think so.

Filed under: Laptop, mobile, operating systems, Product launch, , , , , ,

What’s the prognosis for true high-speed mobile data?

The mobile industry confuses its customers and doesn’t deliver what it promises.

We all talk much about the latest technology, and how it will transform this that or the other element of our personal and/or working lives.

I spent quite a bit of time yesterday talking about LTE — also known as 4G by some, but not everyone, in the mobile industry. It’s known as 4G because it succeeds 3G, today’s iteration of mobile broadband technology. Even though, confusingly, some of it, such as HSPA which can give you as much as 21Mbits/sec is known as 3.5G.

And LTE isn’t 4G technically, because it doesn’t quite meet the definition of 4G laid down by the global standards body, the ITU, according to one analyst I spoke to. So you’ll find LTE referred as 4G or as 3.5+G, LTE-Advanced — which does meet the 4G spec — or just plain LTE. WiMax, incidentally, is 4G according to the ITU. No wonder the mobile industry confuses its customers. There’s a pithy piece about LTE and 4G here.

But that’s all by the by in some ways. The important thing about LTE is that it promises 100Mbit/sec download and 50Mbits/sec upload speeds. If you know anything about the technology, you’ll know that in practice some 25 percent that is likely to be eaten up by protocol and other overheads. You’ll also know that a further 25 percent is likely to be lost to distance losses, cell sharing, and clogged up backhaul networks.

All this is due to arrive over the next ten years. Yes, ten years. Roll-outs are unlikely to start happening in the UK before 2012, more likely 2015.

Except that this is so much hogwash.

I was in the middle of London — yes, challenging conditions due to the concrete canyon effect, but the kind of area in which the mobile industry has to demonstrate its best technology. And the best mobile data rate I managed inside or out was a standard GSM-level 56kbits/sec. This is early 1990s technology.

So if 20 years after its invention and 15 years after its introduction, that’s the best I can get in the middle of one of the world’s leading capital cities, I suspect it’ll be 2025 before I see LTE speeds.

You know what? I’m not sure how much I’ll care by then…

Filed under: mobile, , , , , , ,

Dust to dust…or is that CPUs?

A quick follow-up from a news story I wrote for eWeek yesterday entitled ‘Moore’s Law – Still Driving Down The IT Footprint’.

The story concerned the research by Stanford University professor, Dr Jonathan Koomey, who found that Moore’s Law was active for long before Gordon Moore coined his eponymous observation. Koomey reckons that Moore’s Law will result in the huge growth in mobile devices with fixed computational needs, such as controllers.

Their requirements won’t grow but the growth of smaller, more power-efficient processors will come towards them, to the point where battery life becomes a non-issue.

Then you’ll get ‘dust’, as this fascinating paper posits. Read and enjoy!

Filed under: mobile, Wireless, , , ,

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