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 2)

Here’s part 2 of my round-up of some of the more interesting news stories that came my way in 2012. Part 1 was published on 28 December 2012.

Datacentre infrastructure
NextIO impressed with its network consolidation product, vNet. This device virtualises the I/O of all the data to and from servers in a rack, so that they can share the bandwidth resource which is allocated according to need. It means that one adapter can look like multiple virtual adapters for sharing between both physical and virtual servers, with each virtual adapter looking like a physical adapter to each server. The main beneficiaries, according to the company, are cloud providers, who can then add more servers quickly and easily without having to physically reconfigure their systems and cables. According to the company, a typical virtualisation host can be integrated into the datacentre in minutes as opposed to hours.

In the same part of the forest, the longer-established Xsigo launched a new management layer for its Data Center Fabric appliances, its connectivity virtualisation products. This allows you to see all I/O traffic across all the servers, any protocol, and with a granularity that ranges from specific ports to entire servers.

Nutanix came up with a twist on virtualisation by cramming all the pieces you need for a virtualisation infrastructure into a single box. The result, says the company, is a converged virtualisation appliance that allows you to build a datacentre with no need for separate storage systems. “Our mission is to make virtualisation simple by eliminating the need for network storage,” reckons the company. Its all-in-one appliances mean faster setup and reduced hardware expenditure, the company claims. However, like any do-it-all device, its desirability depends on how much you value the ability to customise over ease of use and setup. Most tend to prefer separates so they can pick and choose.

Cooling servers is a major problem: it costs money and wastes energy that could be more usefully employed doing computing. This is why Iceotope has developed a server that’s entirely enclosed and filled with an inert liquid: 3M Novec 7300. This convects heat away from heat-generating components and is, according to chemical giant 3M, environmentally friendly and thermally stable. The fluid needs no pumping, instead using convection currents to transport heat and dump it to a water-filled radiator. The water is pumped but, Iceotope says, you need only a 72W pump for a 20kW cabinet of servers, a far cry from a typical 1:1 ratio of cooling energy to compute power when using air as the transmission medium.

Networking
Vello Systems launched its Data Center Gateway incorporating VellOS, its operating system designed for software-defined networking (SDN) – probably the biggest revolution in network technology over the last decade. The box is among the first SDN products – as opposed to vapourware – to emerge. The OS can manage not just Vello’s own products but other SDN compliant systems too.

Cloud computing
One of the highlights of my cloud computing year was a visit to Lille, to see one of OVH‘s datacentres. One of France’s biggest cloud providers, OVH is unusual in that it builds everything itself from standard components. You’ll find no HP, IBM or Dell servers here, just bare Supermicro motherboards in open trays, cooled by fresh air. The motivation, says the company comes from thefact there are no external investors and a high level of technical and engineering expertise at the top. Effectively, the company does it this way because it has the resources to do so, and “because we are techies and it’s one of our strong values.” The claimed benefit is lower costs for its customers.

I had an interesting discussion with Martino Corbelli, the chief customer officer at Star, a UK-based cloud services provider. He said that the UK’s mid-market firms are getting stuck in bad relationships with cloud services vendors because they lack both the management and negotiation skills required to handle issues and the budget to cover the cost of swapping out.

“The industry for managed services and cloud is full of examples of people who over promise and under deliver and don’t meet expectations,” he said, reckoning that discussions with potential customers now revolve more around business issues than technology. “Now it’s about the peer-to-peer relationship,” he said. “Can you trust them, are you on the same wavelength, do you feel that your CFO can call their CFO and talk to them as equals?”

We also saw the launch of new cloud computing providers and services from mid-market specialist Dedipower, CloudBees with a Java-based platform service, and Doyenz with a disaster recovery service aimed at smaller businesses.

Storage
Coraid boasted of attracting over 1,500 customers for its unique ATA-over-Ethernet (AoE) storage products. This means that storage is using native Ethernet rather than storage-specific protocols. Coraid reckons this reduces protocol overheads and so is three to five times faster than iSCSI. The company makes a range of storage systems but, although AoE is an open standard, no other company is designing and selling products with it.

WhipTail joined the growing list of vendors selling all-flash storage systems with its Accela products. Solid-state gives you huge performance advantages but the raw storage (as opposed to the surrounding support infrastructure) costs ten times as much compared to spinning disks, so the value proposition is that the added performance allows you to make more money.

Eventually, the bulk of storage will be solid-state, as the price comes down, with disk relegated to storing backups, archives and low-priority data, but that time has yet to come. It’s a delicate balancing operation for companies such as WhipTail and Violin Memory: they don’t want to be too far ahead of the mass market and don’t want to miss the boat when flash storage becomes mainstream.

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Filed under: Business, Cloud computing, Data centre, Enterprise, Networking, operating systems, Product launch, 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, , , , , , , , , , ,

NAS upgrade on the way

It’s time to rebuild my server. Currently supporting two smartphones, a pair of high-powered desktops, two laptops and a variety of other devices scattered around the house, the lifespan of the Ubuntu server-powered machine in the basement has just about run out.

Not only is it running out of disk space, the space it does have badly needs re-organising. Now I know that it’s quite easy to upgrade the five-spindle EXT4-formatted RAID5 disk system in the self-built server but to be honest it’s more time and trouble than I have available to give. Also, the Ubuntu update system seems to have broken. Maybe they’ve moved where they put all the updates since I installed Ubuntu 8.10 but it no longer works and I can’t be bothered spending ages figuring out how to fix it.

Guess I’m not a pure hobbyist any more if I value my time so much that I don’t want to spend it in a dark basement tending an Ubuntu server as it rebuilds its RAID stripes.

When I first set up the server, it was designed to provide more than just storage. It would be the digital hub, functioning as as server for DHCP (IP address serving) NTP (time), VPN termination (using OpenVPN so I could log in from anywhere), and a half-dozen other things that I thought we’d need. Actually we don’t need most of that stuff. Turns out we really just need some central storage, properly managed.

Trouble is it’s not very well managed, in that it consists of five 500GB drives in one case providing about 2TB and an Iomega RAID (kindly donated) box with 1.4TB. They’re connected over the network using NFS to tie the Iomega into the main server’s directory hierarchy. All that’s shared using CIFS for the Windows boxes and AFP for the Apple machines.

The folder structure’s a mess though and the disks need upgrading both because they’ve been sitting there spinning away for over two years in an increasingly dense cloud of cobwebs — can’t keep the bugs out of the server as it’s the warmest thing down there in the winter — and because the volumes of data that video can gobble never ceases to amaze.

So it’s time to upgrade and rebuild it using bigger disks (4 x 2TB I think) and an off-the-shelf storage appliance such as FreeNAS. That way I don’t have too much support to do, costs are contained, and the functions it doesn’t have I don’t really need. I’m also going to build it on top of VMware’s ESX hypervisor (I’ll use my old PC’s motherboard and Intel Core Due CPU as the hardware for this) so if it needs more functionality (which I doubt) then I can just create and fire up a virtual machine.

So far, I’ve acquired an ESX-compliant network card (Intel PRO/1000 CT) and a low-end graphics card (with VGA out for my Adderlink IP remote KVM device that allows me to log in directly to the server from the office), and a 2TB drive that will act as a sink for the data before I move it all over to FreeNAS.

Watch this space for more – and maybe even a review or two.

Filed under: How-To, operating systems, Servers

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, , , , , ,

Guidance for upgrading to Windows 7 RTM

The purpose of this post is to help you start with a copy of the Windows 7 RTM code and upgrade an existing installation, especially if you installed the Windows 7 release candidate.

Note that this is not a detailed how to – there’s plenty of those on the Web already, and anyway it’s really not that difficult. Instead, this is a list of some of the gotchas that could put a spoke in the smooth ride that Microsoft promises but so often fails to deliver. Rule one: be patient…

1. Copy the installation files onto your hard disk. It’s faster than installing from a DVD and allows you to make a small tweak that you’ll need if you’re upgrading from the Windows 7 RC (release candidate) as I did. Even better, install from a second hard disk or a USB stick, as this will speed things further.

2. Get a proper copy of the OS and check the files are all valid. If you don’t do this, you could get a third of the way through the process only for the installation process to throw up an error because it couldn’t read a file. That’s annoying.

3. If you’re upgrading from the release candidate of Windows 7, then you need to make a small alteration to \Sources\cversion.ini, as an in-place upgrade, as opposed to a fresh installation, is not officially supported. However, it does work without problems if you do the following:
i) Open cversion.ini with Notepad. This is what you’ll see:
[HostBuild]
MinClient=7233.0
MinServer=7100.0

ii) Alter the first line so it reads:
MinClient=7000.0

iii) Save the file. That’s it.

4. Start the installation and load up your patience.

5. After a few prompts, the system will tell you that it doesn’t need your attention: effectively, it’s telling you to go away and come back in a while. If you’re upgrading an existing installation, that timescale is longer than you think. I left it running overnight and it took over six hours to copy across an installation of several hundred gigabytes. Don’t be tempted to reboot if it seems to be doing nothing at the start of the ‘Transferring settings’ section.

6. If you do reboot before the process completes, check the logs in the c:\$WINDOWS.~BT\Sources\Panther folder, especially setupact.log, to find out why it failed. There’s a workaround available here for an installation that gets stuck around 61%-62%. The system should then roll back to your original OS – it worked three times for me after rebooting at different points in the installation process, despite the dire warnings about doing so.

7. Why might you want to do this?
i) Your Win7 RC licence key runs out in June 2010
ii) The release candidate manifested a few glitches
iii) The release candidate certainly included some debug code, slowing things down.

Each of these three reasons is a good one to get onto the RTM code asap – together they’re compelling. Unless of course you decide that Windows 7 is not for you and you want to go run Ubuntu…

Filed under: How-To, operating systems, , , , , ,

Oracle buys Sun — but who really wins?

The big news this week this is undoubtedly the $7.4 billion purchase of the troubled server company Sun Microsystems by database specialist Oracle. But, given the very different nature of the two companies, will it work?

Well-known in the industry for being the favourite of developers and geeks, and among its customers for its high-powered, reliable but expensive systems, Sun has nonetheless suffered financially since the implosion of the dotcom bubble. Its accounts have bled red for years, and selling the company seems for eons — that’s eons in IT years — to have been the only way out.

Just two weeks ago, IBM made overtures to buy the company. This author among others could see that there would be some synergies, although I struggled to see how Big Blue would swallow Sun’s server range, given that it has a well-established and rational product portfolio already. IBM and Sun would have fitted together mainly on the software side, where the acquisition of Solaris, a major platform in the database world, along with Java and many open source technologies including OpenOffice, would have sat comfortably alongside IBM’s espousal of open source, and its conversion from hardware to software and services company.

It wasn’t to be. Sun demanded too much of IBM — more here — and the deal fell through. We wondered at the time how Sun could have let it happen, and accused the Silicon Valley stalwart of greed and complacency.

What we didn’t know was that it had another suitor in the wings, one willing to pay Sun’s pretty substantial asking price.

Early post-purchase signs are good. Most analysts and observers see more positives than negatives emerging from the deal. Oracle is a software company first and foremost, while Sun’s revenues stem mostly from hardware.

What’s more, Sun’s Solaris is a major platform for Oracle’s eponymous database, which means that Oracle can now offer the whole stack, from raw iron upwards, and so is in a better position to offer more tightly integrated solutions. As the company’s acquisition statement said: “Oracle will be the only company that can engineer an integrated system — applications to disk — where all the pieces fit and work together so customers do not have to do it themselves”.

Some systems integrators may suffer as a result, but that’ll be some way down the line, after two or three product refresh cycles.

The deal has even got some of the opposition thinking. As Colin Barker reports from an HP product launch in Berlin (which I was unable to make, sadly): “HP executives thought that the news was interesting and it was not difficult to see their internal calculators trying to work out any options the move would give them.”

So far so fitted.

But big questions remain to be answered. Sun has always been a fairly open company, and has always seen itself and wanted to be seen as part of a wider community. When open source came along, Sun gradually adopted it and, with no little external persuasion it seemed at the time, even made some of its own, expensively developed technology open source.

In complete contrast, Oracle has rarely if ever done that — apart perhaps from its development of its own version of Red Hat Linux, which the market has largely ignored. Oracle’s proprietary approach and eagerness to squeeze every last dollar out of its large enterprise customers is the stuff of legend.

This is unlikely to change, especially now that it can lock down those customers to a tightly integrated hardware platform. The reactions of those customers, of the competition, many of whom are in alliances with either or both the parties to the acquisition, and of the channel remain to be seen.

There will be layoffs too, given the economic situation, and the more obvious lack of need for duplicated sales, marketing or HR departments, for example. One analyst is reported to have predicted up to 10,000 job losses. I would expect the culture shock to squeeze quite a few through the out door.

But if you’re a customer, you might prefer not be locked in. If you’re a hardware partner of Oracle’s, you’re likely to be re-thinking that deal, big time. HP is in that boat, given that it’s co-developed servers for Oracle, in the database company’s first venture into hardware, back in 2008. And if you either work for Sun or are one of the developer community in Sun’s orbit, you might well find yourself wondering where to go next, whether voluntarily or not.

My take is that most customers will stay put. It’s not the time to start launching into expensive new IT roll-outs. That’s not to say that those with an aversion to single-supplier deals won’t bail as soon as possible.

However, the pressure on the competition in the current climate is likely to result in more mergers and acquisitions, and a jungle populated by fewer but bigger beasts.

But who and which? Here are some questions: will IBM swallow EMC? Will Cisco buy Brocade? And could Microsoft finally buy Yahoo!? And how many more yachts will this deal enable Oracle CEO Larry Ellison to buy?

Filed under: mergers & acquisitions, operating systems, Servers, , , , , , ,

Microsoft trashes its brand — with Apple the big winner

You have to wonder if Microsoft really knows what it’s doing. There’s a lot of hoo-hah around the Web about Windows 7, and how it’s going to fix Vista’s problems. Thing is, the signs are that it won’t — and that Apple will be the biggest winner.

That Microsoft understands it has a problem with Vista is obvious: the company took — what? — six years to drag Vista onto dealers’ shelves after the launch of Windows XP, following which Microsoft seemed to just squat on its haunches and watch the money roll in. In comparison, Windows 7, slated to launch later this year, follows hard on Vista’s heels, just over two years later.

Windows Vista’s done a lot of damage to Microsoft’s reputation and brand. The last sheer dog was Windows ME, which answered a question no-one asked (a bit like a Porsche Cayenne – only prettier) but proved to have all sorts of technical problems associated with it (not at all like a Porsche Cayenne, apparently).

But when ME was launched, messing with PCs was still by and large a minority sport.

No longer. Everyone and his or her dog has at least one PC. My sister-in-law, who knows close to nothing about computers, has two in her family — and guess who gets the tech support questions — but let’s just leave that one there. The point is that the brand is now ubiquitous, and Microsoft messes with it at its peril.

So the damage to Microsoft is proportionately bigger when it messes up as it has done with Vista — it’s so bad even people who know nothing about Vista notice. They notice that some of their old software doesn’t run properly any more. They notice too that they keep getting asked stupid questions to which they don’t know and couldn’t possibly be expected to know the answer. So of course they click OK — in which case, users quite reasonably say, why does the computer bother them at all?

Is Windows 7 going to fix these issues? We’re told so and I hope to be able to report on a copy on the release candidate in the not too distant future.

Just as important from Microsoft’s point of view is the enterprise market. A recent survey of over 1,100 IT managers and commissioned by KACE, a systems management company, found that “84 percent of IT staff polled do not have plans to upgrade existing Windows desktop and laptop systems to Windows 7 in the next year”.

Why aren’t IT managers following the Microsoft roadmap — assuming such a thing exists (Redmond used to flaunt one but hasn’t done so for years)? They cited software compatibility, cost of implementation, and the current economic environment as their main concerns.

The story told to me by the company’s Wynne White is that enterprises are sticking with XP for the time being. Some 89 per cent of the 500,000-plus desktops managed by KACE appliances use it, while just 1.89 per cent use Vista. For sure, deployments of new enterprise desktops are always slow — it’s the nature of the beast — but White reckoned that he could see at least five years’ life in XP yet.

And while they’re not going to Vista, they’re also being much more cautious with Win7. “People’s perception is positive but they’re being much more cautious in their approach,” he said.

“Eighty-four per cent are not going to adopt Windows 7 in the next 12 months, but more telling is that 72 per cent said they were more concerned about upgrading to Windows 7 than they were about staying with XP,” said White.

What all this suggests is that Windows has run out of steam. People no longer have any real reason to upgrade — if that’s the right word. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, for all intents and purposes, Windows XP is good enough: it’s easy to use, robust, stable, and reasonably secure (could do better, of course). Neither of its two successors offer all of that — and they’re just as expensive.

Linux looks to be a big desktop OS winner — at least in the enterprise. White reckoned that, in the 2007 version of this annual survey, 42 per cent said they’d switch to Linux, but two years later in 2009, half said they’d switch. And when asked if they either had switched or were in the process of switching, nine per cent said yes in 2007, 11 per cent in 2008 and 14 per cent this year.

But Linux isn’t the big beast Microsoft fears: it’s Apple. Between a half and a third of those IT managers said they were contemplating going Mac for their next tranche of desktops.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Microsoft seems to be in the process of trashing its brand — and Apple looks to be the biggest picker-up of the pieces.

It’s just a major shame that Apple’s business model and contempt for its users is even less appetising than Microsoft’s…

Filed under: desktops, operating systems, , , , , , , , ,

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