Thursday, January 31, 2008

A short but long interlude

For the last few weeks I've been buried in research. So today, I thought I'd take a break and make a quick video about my areas of research. Unfortunately, I started with my previous talks and extended from there.

So my quick introduction rapidly turned into 600 slides and lasts over an hour.

Well, it's all very rough but then again it was supposed to be a break from my research. So I've posted the video here today.

What does it cover? All the usual from commoditisation to commodification, from innovation to organisation, from XaaS to agile development, from broadcast media to politics and from P2P to 3D printing.

Monday, January 28, 2008

What is innovation?

One of the problems with any study of innovation, is; "What does the term mean?"

Unfortunately the mainstream media's hickledy-pickledy use of terms such as innovation, idea and invention causes a great deal of confusion. Personally I find Professor Jan Fagerberg's definition simple and precise: innovation is the first attempt to carry out an idea into practice.

An innovation doesn't have to be successful or financially viable, it is merely the first attempt. However, it should always be remembered that first is a fairly fluid term because of the law of firsts.

So generally I find "first-ish" is good enough.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

XaaS and Innovation

Ignoring the epidemic of confusion that is the web, "Innovation is the first attempt to put an idea into practice" - Jan Fagerberg.

I mention it purely because of the number of times I see that word misused.

This is particularly true in the XaaS (X as a service - whether software, hardware, framework or whatever) field where every rehash of the concepts of commoditisation, commodification, utility services, second sourcing and "computing in the cloud" is described as a some sort of breakthrough.

The reality is that most XaaS concepts went beyond the innovative stage a long time ago and are now on the well trodden path to becoming mainstream.

This doesn't mean innovation doesn't continue to happen in this field, it does, certainly sustaining innovation whether incremental or radical. However for a consumer of these services, any cost advantages gained are rapidly disappearing as your competitors are already starting to use them. Soon you'll just need to use them in order to remain cost competitive. These services will become little more than a cost of doing business.

Unfortunately, in order to have competitive price pressure for the service we need the ability for customers to easily switch between services. Furthermore without that ability to switch providers, we will continue to throw down a gauntlet at the deity of disaster. Learning those second sourcing lessons again is going to become someone's very painful experience of the next year.

So on one hand we are going to have adopt such services (for reasons of cost competitiveness) but we are going to be putting ourselves into a weaker position (due to a lack of portability between providers)

What we really need is some form of organisation to represent the XaaS buyers interest, to put pressure on the providers to have true portability for services. This means multiple providers, ease of transfer between providers, assurance that the primitives remain constant and quality of service reporting.

It's all stuff we planned with Zimki (R.I.P.) a few years ago, however, it is still valid today.

The potential with XaaS is very wide. Not just in terms of replacement of existing industries but also the new opportunities which can be built upon XaaS and the secondary markets in XaaS.

Beyond utility revenue sales, there are a number of secondary markets which include :-

  • Service revenue: sales of technical support to customers own XaaS installation (assume XaaS product is provided open source)
  • Generic utility billing service: providing billing mechanisms for other XaaS products.
  • Market reporting: provision of Quality of Service vs Price reports for different XaaS providers.
  • Marketing Service: provision of a market portal for a XaaS industry with switching service to increase portability between providers and click through revenues to providers or sale of application
  • Brokerage:
  • The other obvious stuff: XaaS conferences, XaaS training, XaaS consultancy

However, the most interesting opportunity is in the XaaS Exchange. With portability between providers, switching between providers and a large number of consumers of XaaS then you have a constant balancing act between supply and demand. This provides all sorts of opportunities for an exchange and the purchasing and sale of future computer resources.

Friday, January 11, 2008

CFPs in the wild ....

I've spoken at a number of conferences over the years, however it has been more by accident than design. For those who are interested in speaking at a conference, a key starting point are the "calls for (participation or papers)" or CFPs which are occasionally broadcast on the web. Finding out about these is sometimes tricky, as there doesn't seem to be any canonical source for CFPs.

Now I'm not starting that canonical source (I'm hoping a friend of mine is going to do this) but in the meantime I thought I'd keep a list of current CFPs in the wild.

If you know of any other CFP which should be on the list, please tell me. Thx.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Fancy that ....

When I was young (about fifteen), I started working on this somewhat lunatic idea that an entire model of the universe that we exist within can be derived from the number zero. I carried on this work whilst I was at Cambridge and subsequently afterwards.

The origins of my delusion (which still occupies my time occasionally today) derives from my natural mathematical bent, a youthful interest in Tao and a disturbing belief that " space, energy and matter are simply different interpretations of the same thing and time is merely linked to the variations in that interpretation" - don't ask.

I came up with a number of different conclusions from my "model" for example "empty space is teaming with activity", "Everything is nothing" and forget about finding any absolute truths unless you want everything to be imaginary.

Anyway it's a silly hobby but I enjoy it.

The thing about ideas, even silly ones, is that if you have enough then eventually some of then turn out "right" by pure chance. So I was amazed when I read the articles by Lawrence Kraus recently that the "dominant energy-stuff in our universe ... is associated with empty space!"

Who'd have believed it? Well I would for starters.

Under starters' orders ....

EMI is a company which has seen some serious changes in its principal industry - music production, distribution, promotion and marketing.

Let's examine some of these.

Changes in Production and Distribution: As a record producer, EMI once owned large LP manufacturing facilities in Hayes which were superseded by CD manufacturing facilities in Swindon which were then finally closed and off-shored to the Netherlands and then finally outsourced.

EMI no longer owns the means to manufacture "traditional" music media and this makes perfect sense in a world where digital music can be simply copied and distributed over the internet.

The internet itself is another massive change, becoming a major sales channel for the music industry and accounting for almost 10% of EMI's revenues. Obviously, this new industry is something that EMI is pursuing.

Apart from the usual cited issues of piracy and new internet business models, these changes in production and distribution create a number of other more serious problems for EMI. These include:-

  • EMI used to be among an elite band who had access to the means for music publishing. There existed a high cost barrier to publishing a record, broadcasting TV and print publishing as these all required access to high cost physical assets. Controlling the access to such assets was a powerful mechanism for controlling artists as they had few alternative routes. If you wanted to produce a record then you generally needed to have a deal with a record company. Unfortunately for EMI this is no longer true as artists can now publish their work direct to the internet.
  • As the barriers to competing in the music industry have reduced, this has allowed for more competitors.
  • Artists themselves are realising that alternative models for business exist. For example giving away content (in this case music) whilst selling services and other physical products related to that digital content (such as performances and merchandising)

So what is EMI's role in this new world? Whilst the elitist world of music production and distribution maybe crumbling, there still remains clear roles for talent scouting, nurturing and promotion from the cacophony of wannabe musicians.

As this world rapidly heads to an environment where content is free and revenue is made from related activities, then those companies supporting such activities will become the backbone of tomorrow's media industries.

So for a company like EMI signing up a growing stable of talent and focusing on promotion and marketing would seem to be the way forward. This brings me neatly onto ....

Changes in Promotion and Marketing: I was amazed to read in the Guardian that EMI's boss Guy Hands (EMI was recently bought by Terra Firma for some £2.4bn) is clamping down on costs by limiting new signings and spending on promotion and marketing.

Now I'm assuming that Guy Hands is some sort of super smart cookie and not hell bent on corporate suicide, but I can't help wondering what the dickens is this fellow doing?

Any answers would be appreciated, as in my opinion this is the future equivalent of committing seppuku before the race for this brave new world has really got started.

A sort of ready, steady ..... arghhhhhh.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Who's the Daddy?

Commoditisation does not necessarily end with centralisation. The current IT trend would appear to be towards large scale utility computing resource providers (such as Amazon EC2). However, I believe there is a future for P2P or F2F (friend to friend) infrastructure. This is where all that spare capacity and idle resources of your personal computing devices are connected together to provide a continuously available online computing gird.

This will probably need some form of reputation system based upon mechanism design theory as per the reputation currency developed in Tribler. It is also (in my view) most likely to start with the distribution of the social graph.

In any case, I made some very rough, primitive and speculative estimates on the size of this available network based upon the number of machines connected, time spent online, actual utilisation rate etc. It would suggest that there is at the very least an 800,000 machine network continuously available all of the time (and that is just the PCs).

This doesn't sound unreasonable given what we know of zombie networks and also the size of some of the BOINC projects such as SETI@home. A 2006 paper on computational and storage potential for volunteer computer networks provides an analysis of 300,000 hosts participating in volunteer computing projects. Of course these machines were not available all of the time, but the spare resources they provided sustained a processing rate of 95.5 TFLOPS (tera floating point operations per second), 7.74 PB of available storage and an access rate of 5.27 TB per second.

The current BOINC stats show 2.5 million hosts with over half a million of these being active and providing 795 TFLOPS. Of course this is just scratching the surface of the 1 billion+ PCs in the wild, let alone the number of games consoles, mobile and other devices.

Another volunteer computing project, Folding@Home, combines PCs with PS3s and has over 250,000 active CPUs providing 1 PFLOPS (peta FLOPS). This huge publicly owned spare computing resource is only going to grow.

So let's compare these massive distributed computers which are using a fraction of a percent of the available spare computing power owned by the public to some of the giants of computing. According to the NYTimes Google is estimated to have 450,000 servers and it has been calculated that this provides between 126 and 316 TFLOPS. I'm not convinced by such figures, but it a least gives you a sense of proportion. A small fraction of a percent of the idle computing resources available to the public is probably larger than Google. How about the fastest operational supercomputer in the world, the IBM Blue Gene/L at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. With a sustained processing rate of 478.2 TFLOPS it makes a half decent effort of standing up to a fraction of a percent but no more.

So whilst I agree that commoditisation will led to more centralisation in the first stages, I'm not convinced that this is the end of the story.

Whose got the biggest computing cloud? Amazon? Microsoft? Google?

I reckon in the long run, that'll be us.

Who's the Daddy? We're the Daddy! We just haven't got tooled up yet.

FUD ... 1888 stylie.

I've been recently reading about the A/C (Westinghouse) vs D/C (Edison) wars of 1888. As usual it was a bitter struggle over which technology was better with D/C being the incumbent and A/C being the new upstart.

Now we've seen lots of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about the open source world, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant. Back then subtle was not part of the vocabulary.

Electrocuting people's pets (apparently often stolen) to provide evidence that A/C was dangerous. FUD on an unprecedented level with the mass circulation of leaflets making deadly claims about A/C. Newspaper articles demanding that A/C was outlawed.


Mystic Me .....

I scribbled this down a few days ago, however given my posts recently I thought I'd better announce my own Mystic Me "completely redundant cowardly custard predictions for 2008".

These are:

  • XaaS and utility computing will become a more mainstream subject.
  • Commoditisation of IT will become a hotter topic and there will be increasing concern as to its long term social and employment ramifications.
  • More companies will adopt Enterprise 2.0 technology.
  • There will be a greater convergence between the worlds of SaaS and SOA.
  • There will be a security issue (loss of data or loss of service) with one or more SaaS vendors.
  • There will be increased disruption in the traditional media industries brought on by the lowering of the barriers of entry into those industries.
  • The rate of innovation of new web products will appear to increase.
  • The 3D printer industry will continue to grow with the likely release of personal desktop printers
  • Portability between service providers will become a more important discussion point.
  • Green computing will be on the radar of an increasing number of execs.

There aren't actually meaningful predictions. Rather, they are continuations of existing trends now with new added vagueness. Enjoy.

Going, going ... moved on.

Brian Suda has just sent me a link to Chris Anderson's keynote at Nokia World 2007 on his upcoming new book "Free".

According to Brian, 'the whole talk is about "free" which is basically commoditization, where things become so cheap you can just ignore and waste it'.

Chris apparently also explores 3D printing, the commoditisation of the manufacturing process and the explosion of choice for end users. This naturally piqued my interest seeing that I've long held similar views.

After watching I can certainly say, it's well worth a look. Chris goes into examples of web services becoming a commodity, the need for a focus on the attention economy, the importance of reputation and how commoditisation will lead to further innovation. He even uses an example of how music performers should give away their music for free and generate revenue from performances.

All of this is stuff I'd agree with. I'd really like to say this is exciting and new, but to be honest having spoken on similar subjects myself it all feels a bit old hat, despite it being well presented. Everywhere I look I now see articles on XaaS, commoditisation, 3D printing and portability between services (i.e. patration or software fluidity).

These subjects have all gone mainstream now, so it's a good thing I've moved on to a new hobby.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Portability, that's the beauty of XaaS ....

(Brits over 30 will understand the title, just hum it, you know you want to.)

Is Nick up to some wicked and devilish posting with an item on the future of SaaS followed in quick succession by a subtle caveat emptor on data portability?

So as SaaS becomes more mainstream, I'm in agreement with Christopher Hoff and James Urquhart that at some point we are going to face a major security or resilience issue with a SaaS Vendor and a repeat of second sourcing lessons.

Could 2008 turn out to be the year we start to realise that without portability we face being seduced by an almost irresistable proposition which comes with some serious handcuffs? Is this when we start to recognise that we really need choice and competitive utility markets in the SaaS or HaaS or X as a Service fields? This was my concern at oscon and web 2.0

Of course unlike electricity where switching providers is simple, we have a relationship with our XaaS vendor as our data resides with them. However portability (why stop at data, with FaaS vendors you need to port your code as well) is more than just open standards and APIs to transfer that data. They are necessary but not sufficient and as Nick hints at it's a big and complex issue.

There is no point in portability if you have no other provider to go to, or if not all the data is covered by the standard, or if the data is not interpreted or used in the same way. To solve this invariably requires multiple providers running the same XaaS system but no provider is ever going to hand over strategic control of their business to another. The only realistic way we are ever likely to have an ecosystem of providers with portability between them is if we end up with open source XaaS technology complying to open standards and providers competing on operational implementation.

But even that isn't enough to ensure actual portability. Switching providers has got to be an easily achievable task, not buried in arcane concepts and obscurity.

So could portability turn out to be the real big issue of 2008? Well it's going to be this year or the next, and I reckon Nick knows this.

A truly wonderful quote ...

I came across this quote while reading Ira Flatow's wonderful book - "They all laughed"

The Law of Firsts (as in who discovered it first) was hypothesised by Eliot Sivowitch of the National Museum of American History.

“Whenever you prove who was first, the harder you look you will find someone else who was more first. And if you persist in your efforts you find that the person whom you thought was first was third.”

Of course, applying the law means that at least two other people said it before Eliot.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The times they are a changin' ...

I was asked by a friend of mine Mark Fowler, the following question:

"You use software as a service. In particular, you use service providers who provide email, blog hosting, and instant messaging. However, for all three of these you choose service providers with zero portability"

Good question; so why do I?

When I talk about the XaaS field and the need for portability between providers, I'm normally talking from the perspective of a business.

I agree that the personal services I use are not very portable and I could have set things up differently. However I suspect that most users don't even have a choice and just accept the risk that at some point in the future all their data may be lost.

Why? Well, in order have portability you need to know a small amount about networks and the terminology used. Unfortunately, to many novice users:

  • DNS sounds like the name of a governmental department.
  • CNAME and NS Records are probably something to do with healthcare.
  • MX is a type of car.
  • IP address sounds like some sort of public speech.

The language and terminology used create an artificial barrier to achieving a task. Whilst most of the concepts behind network administration, software engineering, IT architecture and databases are simple, we often dress them up in obscure terminology, poor documentation and unfriendly user interfaces.

Common arguments for doing this include:-

  • by the time you learn the terminology you'll know enough not to cause any harm.
  • well written code doesn't need documentation.
  • what do you mean you don't know what a subquery is?
  • int *ptr = malloc(50 * sizeof (int));
  • I understand it.
  • I don't like writing documentation.

Compare the sequential and ordered world of most computer programs to the complex biological systems of your average eukaryotic cell, let alone a nematode. Explaining gene expression to someone unfamiliar with the concepts is a fairly demanding task as it is complex and the processes are barely understood. DNS is only complex because we make it so.

There is a pattern here though.

At one point electricity was a completely novel and new field. To explain how to use it to, say, "boil water for a cup of tea" would have been a conceptually demanding activity. Today you can solve this problem with the instruction "plug a kettle in", and without having to mention impedance, inductance, conduction or discuss generator design. Power generation is a much more defined field than it once was and it is more amenable to use.

Many inventions and discoveries make this transition from uncertain and new to standard and commonplace. However, it is during that transition that we often find an awkward phase where the field is shrouded in arcane obscurity and the proponents of it are the proverbial rock stars of their time (cf. electrical engineers, railway men, shipwrights, aviators, leech farmers ... ).

This is where we are with IT at the moment. Some in IT are also in the grips of the grand delusion that we are somehow special and our field is an unique craft which will always remain so.

Software is merely the instrument through which other stories are told. The building of a software system is more akin to creating the first of any product, for example the first pen. Such a pen can be used to write all manner of different stories, some good and some bad, but as more pens are demanded we eventually end up with the mass produced biro.

The technology is just a commodity we use to achieve other goals. It's what you do with it that really matters. Do you choose which blog to read based upon its software features or because of its content?

We are not yet in the mass produced world of software services but we will eventually get there. Software systems and data will eventually become portable, mashable and amenable to our purposes. You'll also be able to change provider without metaphorically rewiring your house.

As Harry Kim would say "computer, display a holographic simulation of Krell Mosset ... transfer all reference medical files to the simulation ... install personality subroutines and voice approximation."

That's real programming.

It's only when something that is potentially widely useful becomes common, ubiquitous and amenable to use by everyone that it really becomes powerful.

I've been going on about portability issues for sometime. In reality the issue we should be looking at is wider than that - it's whether such a system is "amenable to use". This includes the concepts of portability which requires standards but also necessitates a lack of obscurity and an ease of use.

There are many ways I can create lock-in and I don't expect to get any agreement from the horde of arcane terminologists who make their living from this. Fortunately commoditisation is a powerful force and whilst it is inevitable it also leads to new opportunities for those willing to adapt.

In order to live in the future you have to be willing to leave the past. So with that in mind I've decided to take an old lost word, Gardeviance, as the new name for my blog. I wanted to say "Computer, new log name - Gardeviance - make it so" unfortunately we're in the arcane obscurity phase so I have to know my CNAMEs from my MXs.

Roll on 2008 and the further commoditisation of IT

"your old road is rapidly agein'.

Happy New Year.