Archive for the 'appliances' Category

The app hell of the future

Just over 5-years ago, in April 2011, I wrote this post after having a fairly interesting exchange with my then boss, Michael Dell, and George Conoly, co-founder and CEO of Forrester Research. I’m guessing in the long term, the disagreement, and semi-public dissension shut some doors in front of me.

Fast forward 5-years, and we are getting the equivalent of a do-over as the Internet of Things and “bots” become the next big thing. This arrived in my email the other day:

This year, MobileBeat is diving deep into the new paradigm that’s rocking the mobile world. It’s the big shift away from our love affair with apps to AI, messaging, and bots – and is poised to transform the mobile ecosystem.

Yes, it’s the emperor’s new clothes of software over again. Marketing lead software always does this, over imagines what’s possible, under estimates the issues with building in and then the fast fail product methodology kicks-in. So, bots will be the next bloatware, becoming a security attack front. Too much code, forced-fit into micro-controllers. The ecosystem driven solely by the need to make money. Instead of tiny pieces of firmware that have a single job, wax-on, wax-off, they will become dumping ground for lots of short-term fixes, that never go away.

Screenshot_20160524-113359Meanwhile, the app hell of today continues. My phone apps update all the time, mostly with no noticeable new function; I’m required to register with loads of different “app stores” each one a walled garden with few published rules, no oversight, and little transparency. The only real source of trusted apps is github and the like where you can at least scan the source code.IMG_20160504_074211

IMG_20160504_081201When these apps update, it doesn’t always go well. See this picture of my Garmin Fenix 3, a classic walled garden, my phone starts to update at 8:10 a.m., and when it’s done, my watch says it’s now 7:11 a.m.

IMG_20160111_074518Over on my Samsung Smart TV, I switch it from monitor to Smart TV mode and get this… it never ends. Nothing resolves it accept disconnecting the power supply. It recovered OK but this is hardly a good user experience.

Yeah, I have a lot of smart home stuff,  but little or none of it is immune to the app upgrade death spiral; each app upgrade taking the device nearer to obsolescence because there isn’t enough memory, storage or the processor isn’t fast enough to include the bloated functions marketing thinks it needs.

If the IoT and message bots are really the future, then software engineers need to stand up and be counted. Design small, tight reentrant code. Document the interfaces, publish the source and instead of continuously being pushed to deliver more and more function, push back, software has got to become engineering and not a form of story telling.

YesToUninstallAnUpdate[1]

Case story for Dell Software and Hardware

I’ve not posted much of late as I’m working on a lot of back office and process stuff, but still working in Dell Software Group. I recently attended the annual Dell Patent Award dinner where I was able to catch up with Michael Dell and my boss, John Swainson as well as a few other executives, as well many of the great innovators and inventors.

My former boss and Dell Vice President, Gerry Hackett made an interesting point in her remarks prior to doing the roll call for her team at the dinner, she said to the effect that Dell was going to be the only integrated solution provider. I was surprised, but thinking it through she was right.

When I saw this customer story about San Bernardino County School district, I thought it was worth linking here.

Of NFC, QR Code, Payments, PayPal and Reuters and vendor influence

I thought this one worth a quick blog entry for, especially as it’s one of the industries dirty little, but well known secrets. I’ve been a unwilling shill a few times. After a while it gets much easier to spot them.

As part of the app store/walled garden debate that kicked off after my Q&A with George Conoly, co-counder and CEO of Forrester Research, I’ve been staying late working on some HTML5 related topics and technologies. Especially as they relate to mobile devices. One topic that has been really interesting is QR codes and how perhaps we might use them in servers. There was, much to my surprise already a project running to use them. I’ve been looking at dynamically generating them, possibly for use in error codes, and maintenance, service calls, etc.

One of the follow-ons from this was the use of Near Field Communication (NFC). Ostentatiously, NFC is being punted by the industry for mobile payments. It’s much more interesting to me though to use for the initiation of mobile, wireless connectivity, via say, Bluetooth. Anyway, just as I was scanning my tweetstream for today before I left, I spotted an @techmeme tweet “PayPal is top brand for mobile payments: survey (@georginius / Reuters)http://reut.rs/iFJ36T http://techme.me/BXW= ”

This immediately struck me as nonsense. Linking PayPal to NFC, how so? Surely, the whole point of NFC is that you have a device, the device or an app on the device(possibly HTML5 based) is used to charge for something, a micro-purchase, coffee, sandwhich, MP3, or similar bypassing the typical website switch and charge service provided by PayPal.

Thus, rather than PayPal benefiting from NFC, they actually have the most to lose and need to be as proactive as they can to ensure they are infact not dis-intermediated in the upcoming NFC payments boom. What happens is that the NFC device micro-/payment is charged to the account associated to the device, or a credit card registered to the device owner. There are some obvious and some legal issues with this. Some countries are bound to have laws that restrict telco’s and wireless carriers business, ie. not allowing them to become banks. So rather than the carrier consuming the charge from the NFC device aka smart/cellphone, the charge is passed on to a credit card registered to the device owner. And, this is where, from reading after seeing the tweet, PayPal want in on the act.

Now, theres the obvious issue of the device falling into the hands of an unauthorized 3rd party, but thats a whole different post. The point of this post was there was nowhere in this process where we needed PayPal, unless I’ve misunderstood. PayPal need to be an early wave adopter, or they risk being cut-out completely.

I went and chased down the survey qouted by Reuters. Low and behold, survey by market research firm GfK suggests that PayPal, the eBay-owned online payment system, “could be set for a major boost as mobile payment systems start to take off over the next year”. The GfK survey was of course funded by, err, PayPal. The Reuters piece then goes on to discuss NFC.

If in fact NFC is used as I posit above, this is typical bait and switch type press release, where you create confusion by associating yourself in a positive light with something that is in fact a weakness. It’s done all the time, you make sure you ask the questions that get the answers you want, especially when you are paying the people asking the questions.

Now, it could be I’m completely wrong on this. Maybe someone from PayPal or GfK would like to send me a copy of the survey? It looks though like Reuters fell for the press release, hook, line and sub-editor. Their carrying the release has meant it’s gone “viral” and as George Bush might have said, “job done!”.

Dell joins Yocto project

Openembedded logoOne of the key activities here, outside of the VIS orchestration, automation engine has been the work around our embedded software stack and where we are heading next. Today we committed to joining the Yocto project, which will be aligned with the OpenEmbedded build system.

The Linux Foundation announced today, via Press Release that Dell+Cavium Networks, Freescale Semiconductor, Intel, LSI, Mentor Graphics, Mindspeed, MontaVista Software, NetLogic Microsystems, RidgeRun, Texas Instruments, Tilera, Timesys, and Wind River, among others would collaborate on a cross-compile environment enabling the development of “a complete Linux Distribution for embedded systems, with the initial target systems being ARM, MIPS, PowerPC and x86 (32 and 64 Bit).

I’m hopeful that this will allow our guys to continue their SDK work, allowing us to move core product technologies between chip architectures, while at the same time contributing back as we innovate around the Linux platform, while building out the the software build recipes and core Linux components, preventing fragmentation.

VIS from the top

Michael Dell recently spoke at the 2010 Gartner conference. One of the questions he was asked was about the evolutionary and revolutionary approaches to IT, most recently amplified by the cloud discussion. Michael nails it when discussing the Dell approach with our Data Center Solutions business, our PowerEdge C servers and the Virtual Integrated System aka VIS.

Deviation: The new old

104 modules in a Doepher A-100PMD12 double case sitting on top of the A-100PMB case

Deadmau5 Analalog Modular setup

IBM 360/40 at Attwood Statistics

IBM 360/40 at Attwood Statistics

Anyone that knows me, knows that I’ve retained a high level of interest in dance music. I guess it stems from growing up in and around London in the early 70’s and the emergence of  funk, and especially Jazz Funk, especially through some of the new music put together by people like Johnny Hammond(Los Conquistadors Chocolate), Idris Muhammed(Could Heaven Ever Be Like This) which remain to this day two of my all time favorite tracks, along with many from Quincy Jones.

Later, my interest was retained by the further exploitation of electronics as disco became the plat de jour and although I, like most others became disenchanted once it became metronomic and formulaic, I’m convinced that the style, type and beat of music you like and listen to create pathways in your brain to activate feelings.

As so it was that with time, and energy on my hands over the past few years I’ve re-engaged with dance music. Mostly because I like it, it activates those pathways in my mind that release feel good endorphins, I enjoy the freedom of the dance.

I’ve been to some great live performances, Tiesto and Gareth Emery especially down in San Antonio and Houston, and anyone who thinks these guys are just DJ’s, playing other peoples music through a computer or off CD’s is just missing the point.

However, one electronic music producer more than any other has really piqued my interest, Deadmau5, aka Joel Zimmerman from Toronto. I first saw Deadmau5 during South by South West (SXSW) in 2008, when Joel played at the now defunct Sky Lounge on Congress Ave. The club was small enough that you could actually stand at the side of the stage and see what he was doing, it was a fascinating insight. [In this video on YouTube, one of many from that night, not only can you see Joel “producing” music, but if you stop the video on the right frame at 16-seconds, you can see me in the audience! Who knew…]

I saw him again in March 2009 at Bar Rio in Houston. This time I had clear line of sight to what he was doing from the VIP balcony. It was fascinating, I actually saw and heard him make mistakes, not significant mistakes but ones that proved he was actually making live music. [You can read my review from the time here including links to YouTube videos.] It turns out he was something he was using during that Houston concert was either a prototype or something similar to a monome.

Joel regularly posts and runs live video streams from his home studio, and recently posted this video of his latest analog modular system. It and some of the other videos are a great insight into how dance music producers work. Watching this, this morning, I was struck with the similarities to the IBM 360/40 mainframe which was the first computer I worked on, especially I can remember the first time I was shown by an IBM Hardware Engineer, who might have been Paul Badger or Geoff Chapman, how the system worked. How to put it into instruction step, how to display the value of registers and so on. I felt the same way watching the Deadmau5 video, I got to get me some playtime with one of these.

And yes, the guy in the picture above is me and the 360/40. It was taken in probably the spring of 1976 I’d guess, at Attwood Statistics in Berkhampstead, Herts. UK.

The power and capacity of the IBM 36/40 are easily exceeded by handheld devices such as the Dell Streak. Meanwhile, it’s clear that some music producers are headed in the opposite direction, moving from digital software to analog hardware. The new old.

Appliances – Good, bad or virtual ?

So, in another prime example of “Why do Analysts blogs make it so hard to have a conversation?” , Gordon Haff of Illuminata today tweeted a link to a new blog post of his on appliances. No comments allowed, no trackbacks provided.

He takes Chuck Hollis (EMC) post and opines various positions on it. It’s not clear what the notion of “big appliance” is as Chuck uses it. Personally, I think he’s talking about solutions. Yes, I know it’s a fine line, but a large all purpose data mining solution with its’own storage, own server, own console, etc. is no more an appliance than a kitchen is. The kitchen will contain appliances but it is not one itself. If thats not what Chuck is describing, then his post has some confusion, very few organizations will have a large number of these “solutions”.

On the generally accepted view of appliances, I think both Gordon and Chuck are being a little naive when they think that all compute appliances can be made virtual and run on shared resource machines.

While at IBM I spent a lot of time, and learned some valuable lessons about appliances. I was looking at the potential for the first generation of IBM designed WebSphere DataPower appliances. At first, it seemd to me even 3-years ago that turning them into a virtual appliance would be a good idea. However, I’d made the same mistake that Hollis and Haff make. They assume that the type of processing done in an appliance can be transparently replaced by the onward march of Moores Law on Intel and IBM Power processors.

The same can be said for most appliances I’ve looked at. They have unique hardware design, which often includes numerous specialized processing functions, such as encryption, key management and even environmental monitoring. Appliances though real value add is that they are designed with a very specific market opportunity in mind. That design will require complex workload analysis, and reviewing the balance between general purpose compute, graphics, security, I/O and much more, and producing a balanced design and most importantly, a complete user experience to support it. Thats often the key.

Some appliances offer the sort of hardware based security and tamper protection that can never be replaced by general purpose machines.

Yes Hollis and Haff make a fair point that these appliances need separate management, the real point is that many of these appliances need NO management at all. You set them up, then run them. Because the workload is tested and integrated the software rarely, if ever fails. Since the hardware isn’t generally extensible, aka as Chuck would have it, you are locked into what you buy, updating drivers and introducing incompatibility isn’t an issue as it is with most general purpose servers.

As for trading one headache for another, while it’s a valid point, my experience so far with live migration and pools of virtual servers, network switches, SAN setup etc. is that you are once again trading one headache for another. While in a limited fashion it’s fairly straight forward to do live migration of a virtual workload from one system to another. Doing it at scale, which is what is required if you’ve reached the “headache”point that Chuck is positing, is far from simple.

Chuck closes his blog entry with:

Will we see a best-of-both-worlds approach in the future?

Well I’d say that was more than likely, in fact it’s happening and has been for a while. The beauty of an appliance is that the end user is not exposed to the internal workings. They don’t have to worry about most configuration options and setup, management is often minimised or eliminated, and many appliances today offer “phone home” like features for upgrade and maintenance. I know, we build many of them here at Dell for our customers, including EMC, Google etc.

One direction that we are likely to see, is that in the same current form factor of an appliance, it will become a fault tolerant appliance by replicating key parts of the h/w, virtualizing the appliance and running multiple copies of the appliance workload within a single physical appliance, all once again delivering that workload and deployment specific features and functions. This in turn reduces the number of physical appliance a customer will need. So the best of both worlds, although I suspect that not what Chuck was hinting at.

While there is definitely a market for virtual software stacks, complete application and OS instances, presuming that you can move all h/w appliances to this model, is missing the point.

Let’s not forget, SANs are often just another form of appliance, as are TOR/EOR network switches, and things like the Cisco Nexus. Haff says that appliances have been around since the late 1990’s, well at least as far as I can recall, in the category of “big appliances”, the IBM Parallel Query Server which ran a customized mainframe DB2 workload, and attached to an IBM S/390 Enterprise Server was around in the early 1990’s.

Before that many devices were in fact sold as appliances, they were just not called that, but by todays definition, thats exactly what they were. My all time favorite was the IBM 3704, part of the IBM 3705 communications controller family. The 3704 was all about integrated function and a unique user experience, with at the time(1976) an almost space age touch panel user interface.


About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I'm an information technology optimist.


I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

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