Category Archives: Computing and IT

Cloud and the end of the PC era

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I was asked to comment on the question “Are we close to the end of the PC era?” at ebizQ. It was a good enough question to prompt this post.

Indeed we are – I’d say that we’re already beyond it. I think that the proliferation of web applications is the curtain call of the PC era, leading the way to the Cloud era. I consider myself an avid PC user and cherish its stand-alone autonomy, yet I already use my PC mostly to access web based applications. And without web access, much of the stand-alone value would become a moot (or should I say Stale?) point.

The PC era introduced the practice of Business Empowered IT, in which the central IT department was short-circuited by business units who needed situational solutions “now and here”. That practice is endowed to the Cloud era, but in a more mitigated manner.

After the heady drunkenness of Business Empowered IT adoption, enterprises woke up to the hangover of unmanageable application portfolios and business disruptions due to rogue code. The result was a backlash trend towards centralized IT, which made PC’s a physical extension of the computing centre.

But it did result in a role change, in which Business got the lead role in requisitioning new solutions and IT projects.

The introduction of the Cloud and SaaS brought back some of the PC era Business Empowered IT practices, as the well-known example of Salesforce.com demonstrated. But at a very different level. What we see now is actually Business Empowered Solutions (or Business Technology, as Forrester termed it), in which what really matters is the process and not the IT implementation.

That is further amplified by the rapid adoption of mobile computing, in particular smartphones and tablets. As long as you have web access, who cares about the device?

And as one would expect, in the Cloud era we see completely new business practices and enterprises, which are the embodiment of Business Technology.

Take for example eBay and its Partner Network business (ePN). This whole business revolves around web sites and applications which reference eBay offerings and catalyse sales of eBay merchants. That’s actually a business which is already derived from existing Cloud business, and which could not exist without a thriving internet economy.

The PC, or any other IT equipment, has become immaterial and a commodity.

So here we go – applause to the good old PC, and Hello Cloud.

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The 3 U’s of Business Technology

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I attended yesterday the annual customer event of Creativ Software, and was dazed to see Business Technology at the down-to-earth level.

Creativ is a small ISV with a big part of the Swiss market for non-profit organization management software. Their customers are non-nonsense people who do not care much about technology, and the nature of their business forces them to run a lean operation with a very compelling and personalized attention to their constituencies.

Yesterday, I witnessed some 100 such users express “wows” and “aha!” and wide smiles when the Creativ team showed them their new “OM V10” product. It was not about the visual design, which is great. It was about the small things that you wish every day were done with more insight into your work. It starts with context persistence across the board, and reaches as far as automated background updates of the contact addresses via third party services. All of that, of course, without having to install anything on your workstation or device…

You may ask at this point where Business Technology comes into this. In my view, that IS Business Technology. It is the intimate and extended use of technology that performs parts of the business. Creativ’s solution is a useful and usable part of the NPO business environment and it is also used – in personalized and fit for the purpose variations – not only by a few subject matter specialists but by the broad community of stakeholders.

How did Creativ achieve such a feat?

About two years ago, when I worked with Magic Software on the elaboration of
the uniPaaS RIA platform, I met with Andy Schwengeler – Creativ’s CEO – to get his reaction to Magic’s new offering. Andy was adamant about usability and architecture. He told me that he was willing to go as far as to redevelop his entire solution if he could achieve a rich user experience as well as the latest flashy and intuitive designs, with zero Client management (or in other words a Cloud based RIA architecture) and a SaaS capability. He finally chose to work with uniPaaS RIA and the Extreme Programming methodology, and brought into the loop one of his most demanding customers as a watchdog. I heard very little from him until a few weeks ago, when he surfaced and invited me to the event.

I had the opportunity to chat a bit with some of the developers and get their take about this achievement. What they said further confirmed the blurring of the distinction between business and technology. In fact, technological advancement further challenges solution vendors for line-of-business expertise.

So there are some things that stay the same even in this age of accelerating change. The well-known recipe for success is still a valid one. If you want to be a successful solution vendor, you must know the relevant business practices better than most of your target customers. Because in order to achieve Usefulness, Usability and Usage, you will have to deliver a solution that embeds and abstracts much of the particular processes and practices which are the fundamentals of their business.

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A cut through the hype of Enterprise Mobility

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During the last few months I did a deep dive into the Mobile Apps world, in particular in the Enterprise context. I talked with a lot of industry analysts, vendors and enterprise customers and I would like to clear away some of the smoke and mirrors that abound in this bubbling market.

A first distinction must be made between large “desktop” format mobile devices and the smaller smartphone devices. Even though netbooks and some laptops are very mobile, they provide a very similar user experience and usability to the ubiquitous Desktop PC’s. The availability of thin clients such as Silverlight, Air or uniPaaS extends the reach of the Desktop beyond the office, but it is an evolution – not a revolution. And it’s not what is usually meant by Enterprise Mobility.

The seeds of an upcoming revolution are in the mobile app style, which is exclusively the domain of handheld devices. The usability patterns of apps are very different. One could compare this difference to what happened when the world moved from “green screen” character terminals to “grey screen” graphical user interfaces and powerful personal computers. That is the magnitude of the change to expect.

Another similarity to the early PC era is the proliferation of hardware and operating systems with no or poor compatibility and a very fast rate of change. For an individual developing one app this might be manageable, but for an enterprise that wants to deploy some functionality this becomes very fast a costly nightmare.

Newcomers to Enterprise Mobility often start by thinking that the idea is to transpose an important desktop process to the mobile device “the Citrix way”. Reality is different – mobile apps address specific and concise functions that are very simple to use yet are intimately tied and related to the core enterprise IT.

That is the real challenge and benefit of enterprise mobility. I’ll look at some related technology in a forthcoming post.

How will cloud computing change the IT organization?

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With the proliferation of 2011 forecasts for Cloud Computing, it might be worthwhile to take a step back and look at a longer term horizon. Clearly, Cloud Computing would significantly impact the IT organization. I am probably not the only one to expect it to push IT further away from the technical terrain to the functional one.

That trend is not new. About 30 years ago , Alvin Toffler wrote In his futurology book “The Third Wave” that most upcoming IT professionals would not do programming but rather adapt pre-programmed software to business needs. Indeed, Enterprise Architects, Solution Specialists and Business Process Experts have already substituted Programmers and System Analysts in most IT organizations (in the Enterprise). It is about time for a name change: from IT to BT (Business Technology)…

Cloud Computing brings what might be “The Forth Wave”, in which the technology itself is abstracted –replaced by increasingly complex and intertwined application services which support business processes. The technology – both the hardware infrastructure and the fine grained software functions – is being offered as a consumable commodity, often as a service. BT is about selecting and orchestrating these consumables to fit and support the business activity of the enterprise. Programming and Software Development is relegated to specialized organizations. Analogies that come to my mind are car manufacturers and garages, although their products and services are much simpler.

Banking is a major early adopter of computing, and this move to BT is very visible when one examines the personnel composition of a bank. BT has taken over many processes that were previously performed by specialized back-office employees, and many consumers prefer to use self-service BT processes rather than be waited upon. That’s Convergence – a topic that merits quite a few dedicated discussions.

So here’s my question – how would you define the profession of a banking BT employee – a Banker, or a Computing Professional?

Cloud Computing – Hype or Reality?

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Last week I spoke about this theme at the CON.ECT conference in Vienna with the same title. I found it a pretty representative sample of the present perception and market situation. Here are a few highlights.

There is a very live interest in Cloud Computing. This event managed to convince some 40 C level and Team Managers to spend most of a day learning more and getting acquainted with this topic.

Most of the effective projects are essentially hosting of traditional applications in a virtual hosting environment, driven essentially by cost savings and a measure of on-demand infrastructure features.

Google, Amazon and Microsoft were perceived by the audience as the key players in the foggy space of Cloud Computing. My presentation of effective Cloud based core applications and implementation examples, and the technical architecture required for such, raised a lot of interest and surprised many attendees. I was in turn surprised by the almost total unawareness of the architectural/technical issues related to the deployment of Cloud applications (as opposed to Cloud Infrastructure).

Another intriguing and highly demanded topic was the legal angle. Data Protection and Privacy legislation impose quite specific responsibilities and liabilities on IT operators and providers, and the multi-tier settings of data storage in the Cloud create potential liability exposures that must be assessed and dealt with before a business implements such a solution.

My conclusion – there’s still quite a lot of fog and hype surrounding Cloud Computing, and the industry must continue to educate and communicate in order to enable the potential it holds.

I’m keen to have more opinions on this.

How to make more with BPM, Mashups and Integration combined

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I had many discussions recently about composite applications, process management and integration. A couple of years ago it looked like It would all be subsumed into a big BPM cloud. Well, it had not.

BPM Suites reinforced substantially the “high-end”, intelligent layer of their stack (processBig payload on a slim base optimization, complex event processing, process performance …). But they did little about integration and composition of information assets that were not designed to be integrated (about 80% or more of enterprise assets). It reminds me of a chicken – big payload on a rather slim base. That explains, at least partially, why BPM has not yet made it to the IT Mainstream.

What went somewhat unnoticed was the brief mushrooming of Mashup technology – which was targeted at power users, enabling them to recompose those existing information assets into new applications. That did not work because it still required skills that were beyond those possessed by the target audience (see A reality check on “citizen development”). Yet Mashup platforms (such as Convertigo) offer a very cost effective and compelling way to enhance BPM suites by extending their information base. The ability to interact with a key application without having to re-engineer it can make the difference in deciding upon the implementation of a BPM initiative.

Application Integration has also regained in importance, in particular when it comes to integration between Cloud and On-Premise applications. That is yet another facet of the orchestration of business processes, which is championed by BPM. Here I also see an increasing number of productive alliances, such as the recent partnership between Pallas-Athena and Magic Software.

All this leads me to expect that the next wave of consolidation in the BPM space would happen at the lower level of the stack, adding a rich set of easy integration and composition technologies to really enable the incredible potential of a full-fledged BPM system.

Tips about (Cloud) Service Culture and Contingencies

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A recent discussion at the ebizQ forum is “How Should Companies Prepare for When the Cloud Goes Down?”. It triggered this post.

What do companies do when the electricity goes down or the phone is out? I am not familiar with outage statistics of the Internet at large or specific Cloud Services providers, but I venture to guess that their track record is not worse than that of the major utilities – probably even better. What is often missing is feedback from those service providers when they experience problems. I rarely saw providers that acknowledged a service interruption while that interruption took place. This is the most frustrating part – you do not know if the fault is within your sphere or if it is external.

A very recent example is Orange in Switzerland – following the announcement of iPhone 4, their web site became overloaded and registered users could not access their account – unrelated to their interest in the iPhone offering. Yet, the only message you got when trying to log on was that it cannot present you a personal iPhone offer due to the high demand – and no word about the general login problem. It took about a week until you could log-in again. I expect providers to follow the example of Salesforce.com and be transparent about their on-going service level.

Then comes the contingency aspect. Those who need constant electrical power install UPS systems. Those who need constant communications use multiple alternative networks. And those who need constant computing have DRP and facilities and processes in relation to their service tolerance. Why should using the Cloud be different?

Now let me get back to the popular apprehension about the Cloud going down – and while we’re at it what about the risk of your Cloud Provider going under? One of the most popular SaaS integration applications at Magic Software is the replication of Cloud based data – simply providing an integration link between a Cloud application (such as Salesforce.com) and a local DBMS hosted on the company premises. I consider this as some kind of life insurance policy – not too expensive, not a perfect solution, but something that would help you survive in case of the ultimate disaster.

And putting things in proportion, data is probably safer and more available at Salesforce.com systems than in most companies’ data centres…

My recommendation? Do your due diligence when choosing a Cloud service, require transparency from your Cloud provider in particular on the service state, and set up a contingency to cover your disaster tolerance.