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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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, , , , , , , , , , ,

Happy birthday Simon the smartphone

IBM Simon

IBM Simon

Today, 23 November 2012, is the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first smartphone. The IBM Simon was a handheld cellular phone and PDA that ended up selling some 50,000 units. This was impressive as, at the time, publicly available cellular networks were a rarity.

In fact, at the London launch of the device, I remember wondering how many people would buy one given the high costs of both a subscription and the phone. In the USA, BellSouth Cellular initially offered the Simon for US$899 with a two-year service contract or US$1099 without a contract.

As well as a touch screen, the widget included an address book, calendar, appointment scheduler, calculator, world time clock, electronic note pad, handwritten annotations, and standard and predictive stylus input screen keyboards.

Measuring 203mm by 63.5mm by 38mm, it had a massive 35mm by 115mm monochrome touch screen and weighed a stonking 510g, but was only on the market for about six months. The UK never saw it commercially available.

So while it never really took off, this was largely down to timing: it was ahead of its time and it was soon overtaken by smaller, less well-featured devices that were more affordable.

But when you contemplate which shiny shiny is your next object of desire, think about the Simon, and remember, Apple didn’t invent the smartphone: IBM did.

Filed under: Business, Consumer, Product, Product launch, Smartphone, Technology, , , , , ,

New developments in open source security

I just spent some time talking to Claudio Guarnieri, European security researcher for Rapid7, about some interesting new open source security developments. Guarnieri is responsible for Cuckoo Sandbox, a malware analysis system. His website reckons that “you can throw any suspicious file at it and in a matter of seconds Cuckoo will provide you back some detailed results outlining what such file did when executed inside an isolated environment.”

But he was also talking about a USB threat detection software which appears to be unique. Ghost USB Honeypot is a honeypot for malware which spreads via USB storage devices. The aim is to fool malware into infecting a fake device, from which point you can trap and/or analyse the malware.

It works by emulating a USB device so that, if a computer is infected by malware which propagates using USB flash drives, as so much of it does, the honeypot will trick the malware into infecting the emulated device, where it can be detected without compromising the host system. This kind of attack can particularly difficult to detect because it can attack high security machines that aren’t network-connected. Stuxnet was one such.

To anyone looking at it from user space or from higher levels in the kernel-mode storage architecture, the Ghost drive appears to be a real removable storage device, that strives to behave exactly like disk.sys, the operating system’s disk class driver. The key to its operation is that malware should not be able to detect that it’s not a real USB device.

You can drive it from a GUI or from the command line, and the aim is for companies to be able to deploy the software on standard client machines without the user having to get involved.

In fact, ideally, according to Ghost’s developer, Bonn University student Sebastian Poeplau, the best way to get this to work successfully is to hide it from the user so they don’t try to write to it. In this way, any write access can be assumed to be malware, and the data written is copied into an image file and can be copied off for later analysis. There’s a video of a recent presentation Poeplau gave about the project, its rationale and how it works, here.

Filed under: Business, desktops, Enterprise, Product, Security, , , , , , , , ,

AVM Fritz!Box 7390 review

I’ve just acquired a handful of home/small business networking products – the AVM Fritz!Box Fon WLAN 7390 router, AVM Fritz!WLAN Repeater, and AVM Fritz!Powerline 500E Set – and I’d like to share the experience.

AVM Fritz!Box Fon WLAN 7390

Like any broadband router, the 7390 connects your local area network (LAN) to an ADSL-enabled phone line – but there’s far more to it than that. It’s probably the fullest featured product of its kind.

At its heart, the 7390 runs Linux but you never need to know that unless you like tinkering. It provides a huge range of information about your DSL connection, not just speed but signal to noise ratio, error stats, and a graphical representation of the line’s carrier frequency spectrum.

If your line is noisy, you can adjust the sensitivity of the device to accommodate that, in order to trade off stability for speed. My phone line was very crackly for a few days which at first resulted in the router disconnecting and retraining frequently. Using the 7390’s line settings, I was able to achieve a stable, albeit slower connection until the line cleared.

And as well as the more common ADSL/ADSL2+, it will also connect to a VDSL line, useful for small businesses with a need for high speed uploading.

Telephony is one of the 7390’s fortés. It includes a DECT base station that allows all GAP-compatible cordless phones to connect to it, and you can also use with a SIP service to call over the Internet, with full logging and call quality data available. The telephony module includes an answering machine, a phone book, alarms, call blocking and diversion, and a call logging screen.

WiFi support includes all modern 2.4GHz standards, plus the 5GHz 802.11a standard, all with a full set of security controls, as well as the ability to avoid channels being used by nearby WLANs. Its four LAN ports are now Gigabit Ethernet enabled – its predecessor supported only 100Mbps – so the 7390 is now useful as a full participant of a home or small business network. It also includes a USB port into which you can plug storage, such as a NAS containing video and audio files, to be shared over the LAN via UPnP.

Other features include an energy saving mode, a night service, and daily, weekly or monthly email reports.

Any downsides? It’s expensive at around £185 from Amazon, and some users have complained of poor English language support from the German parent company.

There’s a lot more the device can do but in summary, it’s a highly capable router and a whole lot more.

AVM Fritz!WLAN Repeater 300E

A simple-to-use device, this extends the WLAN, connected either via the WLAN itself or using a wired network connection. Connection is simple, using push buttons on both the router and repeater, and the link is fully encrypted so, unlike some products, you don’t have to drop strong encryption to extend the WLAN. A good way to get a wireless connection in the workshop.

AVM Fritz!Powerline 500E Set

Fritz!Powerline adapters are an alternative to running network cables: instead, use the mains system for networking. The main drawback compared to a standard Ethernet connection is speed: the max theoretical throughput is 500Mbps but much less than that in practice. A batch file-driven data transfer showed a data rate over the Powerline network of 171Mbps, compared to a rate using gigabit Ethernet of 392Mbps.

The pair of devices in the box each sport an Ethernet port, and a security button which enables 128-bit encryption. You must use this or your data could be visible to everyone else connected to the same circuit – including your neighbours. You also get a pair of Ethernet cables, and the adapters are IEEE P1901 compliant, and so should be compatible with adapters from other vendors.


Both the Powerline devices and repeater are useful for extending your network, or you could combine both for a faster, more robust connection.

Filed under: Consumer

Cloud means gloom for hardware vendors – or does it?

Maintaining a good relationship with hardware vendors is an essential element of any cloud or service provider’s daily process. The problem is that, if some recent gloomy predictions come true, there will be fewer of them. That’s the line from Werner Vogels, Amazon’s chief technology officer, among others, according to this piece on ZDNet. But is it true?
Vogels reckons that, as enterprises aim to reduce capital expenditure by buying in an increasing number of services, hardware vendors will suffer a squeeze in sales, and so revenues.

The rest of this article can be found here.

Filed under: Business, Cloud computing, Enterprise, Technology, , , , , ,

Are SSDs too expensive?

Recent weeks have seen a deluge of products from solid-state disk (SSD) vendors, such as Tegile, Fusion-IO, and now LSI to name but a few; a significant proportion of new storage launches in the last year or two have been based around SSDs.

Some of this is no doubt opportunism, as the production of spinning disk media was seriously disrupted by floods in Thailand last year, a phenomenon that the disk industry reckons has now disappeared. Much of the SSD-fest though purports to resolve the problem of eking more performance from storage systems.

In your laptop or desktop PC, solid state makes sense simply because of its super-fast performance: you can boot the OS of your choice in 15-30 seconds, for example, and a laptop’s battery life is hugely extended. My ThinkPad now runs happily for four to five hours of continuous use, more if I watch a video or don’t interact with it constantly. And in a tablet or smartphone of course there’s no contest.

The problem is that the stuff is expensive, with a quick scan of retail prices showing a price delta of between 13 to 15 times the price of hard disks, measured purely on a capacity basis.

In the enterprise, though, things aren’t quite as simple as that. The vendors’ arguments in favour of SSDs ignore capacity, as they assume that the real problem is performance, where they can demonstrate that SSDs deliver more value for a given amount of cash than spinning media.

There is truth in this argument, but it’s not as if data growth is slowing down. In fact, when you consider that the next wave of data will come from sensors and what’s generally known as the Internet of things – or machine-to-machine communication – then expect the rate of data growth to increase, as this next data tsunami has barely started.

And conversations with both vendors and end users also show that capacity is not something that can be ignored. If you don’t have or can’t afford additional storage, you might need to do something drastic – like actually manage the stuff, although each time I’ve mooted that, I’m told that it remains more costly to do than technological fixes like thin provisioning and deduplication.

In practice, the vendors are, as so often happens in this industry, way ahead of all but the largest, most well-heeled customers. Most users, I would contend, more concerned with ensuring that they have enough storage to handle projected data growth over the next six months. Offer them high-cost, low capacity storage technology and they’re may well reject it in favour of capacity now.

When I put this point to him, LSI’s EMEA channel sales director Thomas Pavel reckoned that the market needed education. Maybe it does. Or maybe it’s just fighting to keep up with demand.

Filed under: Enterprise, Servers, Storage, , , , , , , ,

Precise Software adds new performance monitoring features

I don’t need to tell you about the technology industry’s love affair with cloud computing – since as an individual you’re likely to be way ahead of most enterprises in your seamless use of cloud already. After all, you probably use email, you store files on Dropbox, and you sync with Google or iCloud. That makes you a cloud computing user.

For a cloud provider however, extracting maximum value from expensive infrastructure is essential. And for that they need to be able to measure performance accurately – you can’t analyse what you can’t measure. And this is where Precise Software enters the picture.

Precise’s software uses analytics to measure the performance of applications, in the shape of a new version of its flagship product, Precise 9.5, which it sells to large enterprises with their own datacentre and cloud facilities.

The problem datacentre managers are having is tracking data as it moves from virtual machines across the network to storage and back again.

Company spokesman Kevin Wood said: “Users want to track the data through from client to storage, to find why a virtual server is being starved of resources. Are resources being sucked up by another server, for example?”

The software is tailored to work with EMC and VMware‘s storage and hypervisor infrastructure, although a version that supports Microsoft’s Hyper-V and then Citrix Xen are planned in about six months.

Precise is not alone in this area of the industry however, as the explosion of cloud computing is sucking in a growing number of companies keen to sell support products such as Precise. Additionally, the company’s focus on market leaders VMware and EMC may prove a barrier to many potential buyers, who are more likely to run heterogeneous environments.

Filed under: Enterprise, Product launch, Systems management, Technology

New start for Big Tin

It’s been a while since this blog was updated, but this is about to change, so expect a new beginning.

You’ll be getting regular updates from on new enterprise technologies – and sometimes consumer ones too – as I encounter interesting new ideas and implementations.

Watch for the next posting – it won’t be long…

Filed under: Technology,

Water companies profit as water bills soar

What’s the phrase you hear most, here in wet wet wet England, these days? Here are some examples that have reached my ears:

  • “Wettest drought ever”
  • “We should have a hosepipe ban more often”
  • “You can’t move on my farm for mud”

The last was said (more or less) by the man who delivers our veg. So what’s going on? I’m not a meteorologist (nor any other kind of scientist for that matter) but I do prefer to draw conclusions based on evidence.

Just under a couple of years ago, the Independent newspaper published its analysis of the performance of the water companies, saying that 3,300,000,000 litres are lost every single day through leakage. This has not changed much since and won’t before 2015. The paper went on to report that this represents “20 per cent of the nation’s supply and [is] 234 million litres a day more than a decade ago” and that “The water lost would meet the daily needs of 21.5 million people”. That’s about one-third of the country’s population.

Meanwhile, following the hosepipe ban imposed on substantial areas of the UK, mainly in the south and east, April 2012 was one of the wettest Aprils ever, or at least since records began. Yet, leaving aside the well-understood — by everyone I’ve spoken to — phenomenon that washing a car with a bucket uses two to three times more water than using a hosepipe, we still have a ban on hosepipes.

Rightly so, given that reservoirs remain well below the levels they should be at this time of year, my beef is first and foremost with the water companies.

The government’s regulator, Ofwat, has a job to protect the consumer against rampaging private enterprise which would otherwise rip us off. Somehow competition is supposed to make things more efficient and maybe it does but not when there’s a natural monopoly. There can be few more obviously natural monopolies than the supply of water but that didn’t stop the government from privatising the industry.

But when things go wrong, such as when water companies find it more profitable to pay directors big bonuses, there’s not much Ofwat can do, especially given that one of its three primary tasks is to “ensure that the companies can finance their functions“. This clearly includes paying the directors of water companies bonuses of up to £2 million, with the highest paid trousering £1.6 million.

More specifically, the average annual customer bill for water has risen by £64 since 2001 and is now £376, while the companies collectively made £2 billion in pre-tax profits, according to The Guardian.

So what do we have? Water companies making big profits. Paying directors millions from our mandatory and ever-increasing water bills. Lots of water leakage. And private enterprises whose primary duty is not to you and me but to their shareholders. This does not, on the face of it, seem to me to be a sensible or efficient way to run a natural monopoly.

So remind me again why the government privatised the water industry? Nothing to do with ideology above efficiency, was it? No, thought not.

Filed under: Privatisation, , , , , , , ,

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