Archive for the ‘Examples’ category

Every so often, I’m reminded of the important things

November 19, 2011

I don’t know him personally, but I like how he thinks about our industry.

In the latest issue of CIO Insight magazine from Ziff Davis Media, Larry Bonfante (CIO, US Tennis Association) writes that “Enterprise Infrastructure is Really About People.”  For those who follow this occasional blog, my sentiments should not be a surprise – since 2004, when I first published the proposition that WE are the platform, I’ve been explaining the fundamental relationship between our information systems and the people that build/support them.  So many of my colleagues (all of them good and smart women and men) focus solely upon the technology, only to find themselves mired in “fire fights” (Larry’s term) or relegated to non-strategic roles in their organizations.

Technology challenges are simply matters of time and money.  For exceptional compute environments, we must begin with exceptional people.  For transformational IT, we must first transform our organizations.  Larry Bonfante is on to something (we even have the same publisher), and though my list of Things To Read is long, I might just buy his book.

Library as Metaphor

August 13, 2011

I still recall the feel of the book, the yellow tint of overhead bulbs, the exact moment when I understood that books were made things, that words written by a stranger 100 years ago continue a beckoning call to new readers – and I wanted to become a maker of such things, a writer of words that (with good fortune and perhaps a bit of skill) could outlast me for years to come.

The place: our public library in Danville, Illinois.  The time: a Saturday morning, 1965.

This entry is not, however, about the publication of a book forty years later, or about the profound sense of purpose when I returned to my hometown a few weeks ago and located a copy of my book on its shelves.  Good topics, both.  Rather, it involves a small story about that small town library, a modest anecdote resonating a much larger theme. 

The new library building, with modern brick facades, bronze sculptures of children reading on the lawn, and a fully-computerized infrastructure not unlike many libraries in many other towns, is situated across the street from the old library of my childhood, now a museum.  As the town readied for the opening of the new library (several years ago), the last phase of the project involved the transfer of books from old building to new.  They didn’t hire specialists.  They didn’t use crates or forklifts.  They used little red wagons and dozens of children.

The wagons were donated by their manufacturer, just for this purpose.  And so it was, one Saturday morning, that a very organized but energetic line of little people – each with their own red wagon – moved an entire library’s contents from the library I knew to their sleek new home one hundred yards away, back and forth with their numbered, Dewey-catalogued pile of books, somewhere among them the one I held in my hands in 1965 and the one I published in 2005.  And it doesn’t require much imagination to visualize that scene from the air: the living channel of content and containers, the transfer of immense (incalculable) amounts of words and pictures from one physical location to another, the simple-but-important protocols each child was instructed to follow, and the sequencing-validation-archival of librarians chartered with ensuring that not a single word or book (or child or wagon) is lost in the transfer.

It reminds me of the advances in technology we now all take for granted, how gigabits of data (books and songs and movies) are so easily transferred across great (unimaginable) distances from one (now unknowable) physical location to the tiny device in our hands.  My teenage son does not know what a card catalog looks like, but he navigates the universe of information as easily as those kids navigated their wagons.  Information transfer is now measured in milliseconds. Fonts can be changed via menu.  Foreign languages translated with a click.

And yet, the physical space of the library itself – the quietness of reading rooms, the cluttered bulletin boards in the lobby, the airy ceilings of light – still remain a place for community, refuge, safety, and those moments of occasional delight.

Why are we still talking about The Stack?

May 9, 2007

I have been an attendee of MR Rangaswami’s enterprise software conferences since their inception five years ago, and yesterday’s sessions of Software 2007 (see www.sandhill.com) deserve some response.

Hasso Plattner is a smart guy, to be sure, and his keynote address acknowledged the massive transformation we are witnessing in the software industry.  Pundits have commented on his “chalkboard-style” presentation, yet no one has yet to point out that it was simply a chalkboard font to give the illusion of personalized notes.  Shane Robison (from HP) was far too unwilling to challenge his competitors/partners (Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, SAP) by saying anything that was controversial; no one seemed to notice his lapse in logic as he reiterated that HP was serious about software, yet offered nothing new in their roadmap as they shift R&D from hardware to software.  Even the PR/Marketing gurus in the breakout sessions were inconclusive: everyone notes the importance of innovation and the dominance of communities (of users, developers, bloggers, et. al) yet none of them was willing to propose a unique strategy for enabling us/them.  Marc Benioff comes the closest with his Software-as-a-Service paradigm, which some of us have been recognizing since Salesforce.com (and Corio and Jamcracker) were called ASPs in 2001.

One obvious (to this writer) theme echoed throughout everyone’s presentations:  The Stack.

Why are we still talking about The Stack?

For those unfamilar with this stale metaphor, a simple explanation: imagine a Powerpoint diagram of ascending boxes, with “the network” at the bottom, above which is a layer of “databases,” above which is a layer of “applications” and crowning the stack, a browser-based user interface.  Every IT diagram has included a variation of this diagram for the past ten years, and it was easily witnessed again this year in the “vision” of SAP, HP, Microsoft and friends.

Yes, they also nodded affirmatively to the slow-but-sure acceptance of services-oriented architectures, re-usable components and models, and widely available (even open source) functions and features that can and will be accessed ubiquitously across a worldwide network, yet no one in the room was willing to admit what I will state here:  The Stack is a legacy system, and the institutions who still depend upon the metaphor are those who continue to build and serve legacy architectures.  Of course, The Stack will not go away (few legacy systems ever do go away), except in those few, truly visionary institutions (think: Credit Suisse) who understand the challenge is not about linking devices, but about linking people, institutions that understand that the network is not the platform: we are the platform.

We are diffuse, global, personal, and inclined toward “local” communities (of thinking and behavior, not geography anymore).

We are the fundamental components of a network that is most often diagrammed without those fundamental components. 

At our best, we are not hierarchical (The Stack is hierarchical, and therefore does not serve us at our best).

Perhaps the keynoters will begin to acknowledge this at MR’s conferences in 2008 or 2010.

We are the Platform.

There are mirrors everywhere…even in The Navy

March 6, 2007

Last night, I had the good fortune to speak to a group of Navy captains as part of their continuous learning program sponsored by the Naval Postgratuate School in Monterey, CA. (See http://www.nps.edu for more information about their mission and programs.)

The simplicity of our metaphor (we reflect ourselves in the systems that we build; as such, to transform our information systems, we must transform the organizations that design, build, and maintain them) was immediately embraced by this engaging and articulate group of Navy leaders.  Though many at the dinner seemed to believe that their particular difficulties with institutional technology were more complicated than could be addressed by such a “catch phrase,” they asked challenging questions in order to better understand these principles and how they might be applied in specific circumstances.

I’m inclined to share two of the many conversations I had with these Navy captains and admirals, not to over-simplify their very complicated technology environments, but to serve as examples as we strive to apply what we know to what we don’t yet know.

Example 1: Trying to explain complex security algorithms to business executives (for funding)…

Executives “glaze over” when asked to understand the technologies of two-factor authentication or deep packet intrusion protection. However, they understand in great detail the risks of illness, and our various tools that can be used to address them.  A thermometer costs $9.98 and effectively identifies a fever that can be addressed by ibuprofen.  Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI) is much more expensive yet effectively identifies a mass in an organ that would require even more expensive oncological treatments. There is a risk-reward ratio that tells us it is ineffective to treat brain cancer simply with ibuprofen, and similarly ineffective to treat the common cold with radiation.  As parents, we make such decisions every day.  By asking the executives to understand the risks inherent in underfunding intrusion protection, and the consequences of providing the funds only for ibuprofen, they will be able to better understand the nature of the challenge and its proposed response.

Example 2:  We are convinced that a broader data search will yield more valuable results than the simple search being recommended, yet our executives don’t understand the complexity of tiered/virtualized storage.

Imagine that you are organizing a yard sale to yield some profits from your attic that is filled with no-longer-needed posessions.  You could simply provide your own used items for sale, or you could spend the time coordinating a neighborhood-wide yard sale on the assumption that there may be even more valuable items forgotten in the basement of the people who live down the block. How do you convince them to allow you to look through their basement, possibly discovering an old (inherited) painting that they didn’t remember, but could bring a substantial profit at your yard sale?  It is delicate diplomacy, requiring trust and an additional amount of administrative trivia, but the larger value to the entire neighborhood is compelling.

As I explained at our dinner last night, I do not mean to diminish the urgency or complexity of current technology initiatives.  On the contrary, applying this metaphor and understanding its human-centric components may add many complications we’d rather not confront.  There is no right or wrong – businesses have many constraints.  However, the application of the metaphor (and its resulting change in behavior) reduces the risk of miscommunication, and helps everyone understand the objectives in a more participatory way.  This becomes more complex, over time.  Yet there are fewer surprises (setting expectations) and less blame when projects exceed their initial timelines or cost structures.