Archive for October, 2008

Keshav in Switzerland: Part I

October 29, 2008

The decision was made somewhat impulsively. My wife, Pavitra, had to go to Switzerland on business, and me and my son Keshav, would have a full week to explore the country. Seemed like an ideal opportunity for a great summer vacation and to do some Father-son bonding.

Not that there would not be any challenges. Keshav and I would have to spend 15-18 hours traveling each way because there were no direct flights from San Francisco to Bern Switzerland, which was to be our ‘home base’. I was anxious, not only about how Keshav would take to the journey, but how my fellow passengers would react. The last couple of times we were on long flights with Keshav, he had worn the patience of some of our fellow passengers thin. In particular, he had the nasty habit of kicking the back of the seat in front in spite of our imploring him not to do so. Of course, part of the problem was that the portable DVD player did  not hold its charge as well anymore. And there was only so much that I and Pavitra could do to keep Keshav engaged without his disturbing the passengers nearby. This time, I was better prepared. I had a PSP with an innocuous golf game that I had shown Keshav before boarding the flight. He showed moderate interest in the game, and I was going to pray that the Li-ion battery in the PSP would last long enough.

We spent the last couple of weeks prior to the trip preparing Keshav for the trip. Keshav had taken a particular liking to some key classical music composers such as Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Mozart, and we told him we would go to see Mozart’s house. We tried to use this possibility as a carrot to elicit better behavior from Keshav in the days and hours leading up to the trip with limited success. Keshav was also very fond of cars, and in particular, german cars such as BMW, VW, and Mercedes. I promised him I would take him to see cool cars in Germany as well. So, I am sure Keshav was eagerly looking forward to the trip.

One of the reasons Switzerland was interesting was that it did not need us to get a visa to travel there. As luck would have it, the ticket that I was able to get required Keshav and myself to take a ‘local’ flight from Frankfurt to Munich in Germany. This meant that I had to go get a German visa. I did not anticipate any issues since I had traveled to Germany multiple times in the past for business, but the rules had changed recently, and the consulate wanted to make sure that I had medical insurance in Germany, and my United Health Care insurance card was no consolation. I had to buy medical insurance for myself for a period of 10 days on top of my existing insurance to convince the german consulate that I had medical insurance!

Anyway, we were all set for the flight on the 21st of August. Keshav was a pleasure to travel with, and the PSP’s battery held on for its dear life and we were able to get to the airport in Belp close to Bern without any incident. We were of course, helped by the fact that Lufthansa had personal entertainment systems at each seat, and Keshav was now old enough to enjoy some of the programming available there. The only challenge I had to face was to try to change Keshav into new clothes in Frankfurt airport after a grueling flight from San Francisco, and to get him to eat something reasonable. But cheese, crackers, chocolate, ice cream, and water the main items of his diet on the flight.

The only slight inconvenience was that Keshav fell asleep on the flight from Munich to Belp after having willed himself to stay awake all the way from San Francisco to Munich. The gentle humm of the turbo-prop plane was irresistible for me as well. After landing, I woke up and realized that I had quite a situation on my hands. I had two pieces of checked baggage, two pieces of hand baggage, and a sleeping 3.5 year old who weighed 20 kg to carry. Somehow, I managed to carry him and the hand baggage pieces, get a cart, and pick up the checked-in baggage and hail a cab. The Cabbie was a Sri-Lankan who was kind enough to lend me a hand with the luggage and we were off to Allegro Kursaal Bern, the hotel casino complex where we were going to stay.

I struck up a conversation with the cabbie as we drove towards Bern from Belp. My first impressions of the country were that this place looks as prettier in reality than in picture postcards. The small airport, the lush greenery, and the cute cottages strewn along the country-side bely the incredible influence this tiny nation has on world affairs. Pretty much any place you pick has both historical and economic significance. May it be the banks in Zurich, the Chocolate Factories in Luzerne, or the Pharmaceutical companies in Basel, to name a few. I asked the cabbie whether there were many immigrants in Switzerland, and whether they were assimilating well with the rest of the society. His response was amazingly positive. It seems, at least at first glance, like Switzerland has been able to gain access to labor/talent pools from around the world, while still maintaining its centuries-old traditions as of now.

We reached the hotel without any difficulty, and Keshav got up on the way to the airport. Once there, I picked up the keys to the room, and we freshened up and settled in. My wife returned from work in the evening, and we decided to walk across the Aare river and walk around the old-city. The Hotel gave us a Map of Bern that was very useful. The hotel was on kornhausstrasse, and we had to cross the kornhausbrucke and that led to the kornhaus where there were some great places to eat and drink. I presume in ancient times, this was the route that the peasants used to bring in their grain to be stored in the granary in the center of the city. The basement of the kornhaus, kornhauskeller, was used to store wine, and is now a lovely place to experience Swiss hospitality.

Now that Keshav had arrived in Switzerland, what would he do? Would he go and visit Einstein’s house? Would he visit Mozart’s house? Would he be able to go see some cool German cars? Find out in the next installment of Keshav in Switzerland.

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Cloud Computing

October 25, 2008

I have been following the cloud computing discussion group for a while, and even see some people with important sounding titles from important companies put up their “vision” about cloud computing, etc. with very little substance technical or business wise in their presentations. One then wonders why folks like Larry Ellison say that there is nothing new here.

What I do not see is a simple explanation of what is the change that cloud computing engenders for IT and what are some of the challenges for cloud computing to succeed in supplanting the current model of IT that is prevalent in the industry. People keep talking about how the existing business models will be busted, disrupted, etc. without necessarily having all the evidence. Just because one asserts that the current model will be broken, does not mean that it will.

I have been quoted in the past as saying that technical progress should be evolutionary, not revolutionary mostly because people who use these technologies want to evolve, not revolve. 🙂 (http://www.usenix.org/publications/library/proceedings/worlds04/tech/full_papers/karp/karp_html/index.html) I think the same is true of cloud computing.

Seriously, there is a real danger of us taking on the wrong problems in cloud computing and it will end up not achieving its potential. Some of these thoughs were spurred by my old friend Krishna Sankar’s blogs and posts on cloud computing (http://doubleclix.wordpress.com/2008/10/21/what-is-cloud-computing-and-do-i-need-to-be-scared/), and the active discussion on cloud computing group.

I wrote this piece for Krishna Sankar’s blog, but decided to make it my first stab at articulating what I think the axes are along which cloud computing claims to change the current model of IT, and what are some of the challenges that will have to be overcome, and what are the ‘limits’ of use for cloud computing.

I like to think of things along three dimensions for managing IT environments:
People (can be shared or dedicated),
Technology (can be standard or custom), and
Processes (can be manual or automated)

Now, you may say there is a continuum along all these dimensions, and you are right. But, go along with me for the moment..

Cloud computing implies: shared resources, standard technology, and automated processes. Amazon’s EC2 does not have folks dedicated to my account, it gives me a fixed set of standard technologies, and the provisioning/management is highly automated.

Most IT shops at an aggregate (there are clear exceptions, but I am trying to make a point here) are closer to the opposite end of the spectrum, i.e.,
People are likely to be dedicated
Technology is likely to be custom
Processes are likely to be manual

Many IT shops have some notion of shared services, but more often than not, there are dedicated teams per organizaitonal unit, even it the IT as a whole is centralized. The technology decisions are made wherever they are made, and often each IT shop has a variety of technologies through out the stack, and the processes are often not even standard, i.e, ITIL compliant, let alone automated.

Outsourced service providers maybe better than vanilla IT departments in some areas such as adherence to standard processes, but the people and technology dimensions are unlikely to be very different. Outsourced service providers would like to standardize the technology where possible, but, often they have to support what the customer currently has, and the cost of moving technologies to the ‘standard’ platform is often difficult to justify for both the customer and the service provider.

In theory, cloud is an enabler, for both in-house IT Shops and outsourced service providers to dramatically reduce the operating cost and move to the opposite end of the spectrum.

In theory, there is nothing ‘fundamentally new’ in cloud computing if you abstract it enough. However, the actual realization can cause dramatic difference on how IT solutions are created, delivered, managed, etc.

In theory, one analogy that I find interesting is the airline one, especially Southwest. It is not an accident that Southwest is more profitable than any other airline, in no small part because of standardizing on 737s. However, the flip side of it is that they dont do long-hauls, esp international long-hauls.

So, the point I want to make is that cloud computing may work well for some parts of the IT, and not so well for others. Parts that are likely to be standard across customers, dont have sensitive data elements that one has to demonstrate control over for compliance purposes, etc.

Here are some things to think about though..

1. If you are a company that already has a lot of investment in IT, you have many applications supporting many business processes, and you are looking to get the same ‘functionality’ but at a lower cost point. That is you have a ‘defensive’ strategy as it relates to IT, or to put it another way, the business and functional requirements dont change (or at least dont change a whole lot), but you want the technical and implementation components to transform to provide you a new cost point, while cloud computing seems to fit that bill very well, the challenge is in transforming the existing IT hair-ball that the customer likely has into the standards-based cloud platform. Of course, there are specific areas in your IT environment where this transformation is easier, e.g., messaging and collaboration, and maybe that is a good foothold for cloud computing to take hold. But, i dont think one should generalize to all of IT before we can at least get a clear picture of the problems we will need to solve.
(If you have only 737s, you can do only short hauls. If you want to do long hauls, maybe you need to have A380s)

2. If you are an outsourced service provider who has taken over someone’s ‘mess for less, and you think that you can do the same, you will have the same issues. The issue is transformation. And more importantly, who pays for it. So, unless cloud computing providers provide ‘on-ramps’ for migrating onto the cloud platform, they may severely limit the impact of cloud computing on existing IT solutions.

3. If you are an IT shop that is willing to invest in new capabilities, either because there are processes that you can ‘automate’, or because you can open up new revenue possibilities through technology, then the cloud platform is a platform definitely worth considering from the beginning. The problem in this case is only integrating this specific ‘cloud app’ with other things in your enterprise, and that is a relatively easier problem to solve. So, cloud computing folks should focus on creating the next generation of these apps. Anticipate the next gen of IT spending and enable the alternative economics on that.

4. If you are an outsourced service provider, one way you can ‘innovate’ is by enabling these new apps on the new platform, else all you will be doing is ‘your mess for less’, squeezing squeezed lemons, trying to make lemonade, etc.. )
Most clients expect outsourced service providers to expose them to the new platforms, and shield the client from technical disruptions. And it is indeed the responsibility of the service provider to do that.