Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The PDA Today

It's a little off topic but I've been using it so much these days I thought it worth a mention.psion

As mentioned in another post, I've used PDA devices since the late 90's starting out with the Psion 5 before I moved on to the very successful palm pilot, specifically the Palm Tungsten T. I switched to windows mobile with the purchase of the Palm Treo 700w a few years later and in the last year I have had an iPhone and a Blackberry and now back to an iPhone.

Tungsten_T My favourite was the palm tungsten with the great screen and huge array of very useful applications. It never left my side. It wasn't a phone at all but it was a very practical PDA device. I admit I've been struggling to find a replacement as genuinely practical as that little device since.

The Treo 700w running Windows Mobile I found frustrating. The tiny screen did not allow the lengths that I took the Tungsten to with, for example, running spreadsheets and viewing the calendar showing handy icons (in a third party application). And the little keyboard took ages toTreo700w learn effectively. I admit to reverting to Palm's hand writing characters as a preferred way of entering a reasonable amount of text.

When I got my first iPhone I was dismayed. I couldn't even find a spreadsheet - one of my most useful tools. There was no copy and paste which was screamingly annoying and it just didn't have the power and usefulness I was… well… used to. Then, surprisingly, over the next couple of months I grew to understand the iPhone. It wasn't trying to be a PC and it did have it's limitations, but accept that and you ended up with something, although not nearly as powerful as other systems I've used, was very practical all the same. The penny had dropped and I finally understood the iPhone.

The iPhone was supplied by the contract I was in at the time and when that was completed I handed that back.

blackberry The next contract supplied a Blackberry Bold 9000 as a standard device. Aha, I thought, back into the "blue suit" of devices. The Blackberry was the true workhorse. No time for nonsense like enjoyment. In my role controlling several development teams around the world and the fast push email processing I was getting emails all day and night. But the workhorse was solid and reliable ... Once I had ironed out the bugs.

Turns out that the very limited memory for applications meant that every application had to be specifically closed down or the memory would soon fill up. Filling up the memory would slow the system down so much the device would be totally unusable until you were able to either reset the Blackberry, or wait long enough for each painful command until you got to a point where you could shut down enough apps for the system to work again - and even then sometimes it still needed a reset.

This also prevented loading other applications so I was left with a pretty boring, yet (if I remembered to close each app regularly) a pretty effective one.

One feature with the Blackberry that took me a while to get used to was that it didn't have a touch screen. No stylus, no finger pointing, just a little trackball controlling a cross-hair cursor. I will taper this with the fact that I'm an experienced PDA user and was forever trying to "tap" a link rather than move the cross-hair to it and "select" the link. I never got used to that but passed it into a learning experience, like learning to drive an automatic without trying to depress the clutch; or learning to be a passenger without trying to use the brake pedal.

I did have a pretty major issue with it though. As I received so many emails that demanded my reply, I was annoyed to find that the Blackberry would "send me" every email I sent. In other words, not long after I fired off a quick reply I would receive another email. With so many emails coming in I would be forced to bring out the Blackberry again and check, only to find it was the email just sent and if I didn't open it to read it the Blackberry would forever show up that I had xx unread emails. Not something that endeared me to it after a while. I could not find a way around that issue.iphone

Recently I had an opportunity to purchase another phone so I looked at all the offerings.  Having a long and enjoyable relationship with Palm products I really wanted to get the Palm Pre but it's still not available in Australia with no signs of it ever being released here.

I opted for the simplicity and sheer "nifty-ness" of the iPhone. The new 3Gs version was out here which answered a lot of my earlier issues. I am so far quite pleased with it. It's taken me a while to learn to type on it (all my recent blogs have been written on the iPhone and transferred to the PC for spelling and formatting. It keeps insisting to replace Aus words with their American spelling so I have to keep an eye on it. World domination ain't here yet people and we spell our words using S's and there’s no such thing as a Zee, they’re Zed’s

But back to the iPhone and I find that the number and power of apps has increased dramatically in the last year. Yes there is even a spreadsheet now and clunky as it is, I can use copy and paste at last. I enjoy the wireless connection meaning the huge amount of data I paid up front for, hardly gets used at all as the danged thing keeps finding home, work, and free wireless connections to use.

Below, a few screen dumps of some of my more favourite iPhone apps.


Tuesday, 17 November 2009

More on Cloud Computing

A few posts ago I spoke on attending a Cloud Computing seminar put on by NetSuite. Since then I have looked into this a little more and curosityhope to dispel some of the misconceptions of Cloud Computing.

The idea sounds great, and it's certainly the buzzword of the week if we believe the hype.

"But hang on," I hear some of you saying, "Cloud Computing is just having apps on the Internet and we've had that for years. Why should it be different just because someone wanted to get their PhD by coming up with a new name for old technology?" ...and you'd be right in asking that, its a pretty legitimate question in my book.


So let's define Cloud Computing precisely, even more than we did in my post of a few days ago. To be considered a true Cloud Computing system, an application must satisfy all of the following criteria:

  1. Application on the Internet. It must reside on the publically available Internet. Publically available does not mean anyone has access to your systems, you will still need to log in. Now there is such a thing as an Internal Cloud, and even a Private Cloud, but for the purposes of this paper I'm going to limit this to full public access applications. That is: externally hosted applications where you can use and store your information on the externally provided system (e.g.
  2. Data on the Internet. The data you place into it must reside on the Internet, although obviously it must also be secure so that only you have access to your Data.
  3. No to little up-front costs. You are not purchasing software licences or additional hardware. Sometimes you may purchase consulting services to assist in converting your systems and data. In some extreme cases like perhaps a corporate wide accounting system, additional consulting and training may be necessary.
  4. Nothing is installed on your computer apart from a web browser and perhaps some browser additions like adobe PDF viewer.
  5. Costs are consumption based. In other words pricing is charged per hour; gigabyte; or hits per month. The less you use it the less it should cost you, and the reverse is also true.
  6. On-demand. The service should, in its minimum configuration, be able to be set up by the user for use that day. Of course in very large and complex corporate systems this may take planning and often highly specialised consulting services.
  7. Scalable. As far as the user is concerned they shouldn't have to worry about infrastructure at all. They should be able to increase from megabytes to terabyte throughput without having to organise storage or backups, extra staff, servers, or any of the other hassles.

Advantages of Cloud Computing

This definition of Cloud Computing shows up a number of areas of cost savings, reduced hassles, and sometimes increased functionality over in-house systems. These include:

  • Costs can be avoided or deferred. In most cases, increasing both functionality and capacity should be totally transparent  process. No server purchases or increased IT management. The regular billing cycles of the Cloud Computing model allow businesses to accurately forecast their IT budget based on known consumption levels.
  • Increases a business ability to change. The on-demand model inherent in Cloud Computing enables organisations to increase or decrease computing capacity without hardware, or IT management concerns resulting in no lag time while IT management orders the new hardware; installs the appropriate drivers; sets up the new cabling; tests the newly raided disks; increases the tape backup facilities; increases rack space; sets up active directory; and all the project work that comes with installing new capacity. The ability to then, just as quickly reduce that capacity without worrying about costly hardware lying idle is one compelling reason for the Cloud Computing model.
  • Faster ROI. The Cloud Computing model allows businesses to pay for only the resources it consumes and only as it consumes them. Businesses are able to see a faster return on their IT investment because there is no need to wait for the resources to be procured, provisioned, and managed.
  • Increased mobile workforce access. Your users will be ablesalesforce to access required business functionality without the overhead of network hardware, VPN software, and network management. Users will also be able to access their applications and data while at home, on the road, or in the office from any computer. Some Cloud Computing vendors (some through third party software vendors) allow access via mobile devices like the Blackberry or iPhone.
  • Additional expert IT staff. Highly-skilled professionals are available through the Cloud Computing SaaS (Software as a Service) company to operate and maintain their (your) service.
  • Increases business continuity by providing inexpensive disaster recovery options:. In some cases, cloud computing can be utilized as a viable disaster recovery option—especially for storage—thereby increasing business continuity.

On the definition of Cloud Computing given in the last section, businesses and individuals should never be concerned about backups, infrastructure, server space, firewalls, upgrades, storage, daily security patches or any of the plethora of other things that are nothing to do with running their business.

In summary, the ROI (return on investment) should be greater without the large up-front costs of infrastructure; software purchase and installation; and the manpower costs to manage it all. The infrastructure changes need no longer be a concern of the business allowing for both business growth and business reduction to occur without the penalty of either time lag and up front purchases or costly redundant and idle hardware. Also, business can plan their financial outlay with known, regular payments rather than up front large purchases.

It is also the nature of some businesses that sometimes additional infrastructure and computing power may be needed for short periods of time. Cloud Computing will be able to accommodate these bursts without the huge infrastructure and set up time costs required for something that will not be needed after the task has been completed.


All of this of course sounds like a utopian situation but to the consumer there are pitfalls that they should take into consideration before embarking down that path. These can be summarized as the following:

  • Be sure of the SLAs. It is up to the consumer to be happy that the SLA will cover their requirements and that they can survive any unforeseen downtime or lack of service. Of course this downtime may also occur even when they have the best server rooms and the best of staff so normal disaster management plans should always be in place anyway.
  • Consider the SLA that you provide to your customers. Will holding their data off-line hold up if a customer questions an SLA they hold with you?  This is often overlooked in the rush for the savings and ease of adopting Cloud Computing.
  • Vendor lock-in. Will the provider allow you to access your data and how soon can they get it to you if you ask for it? Will they work with another provider to transfer your data if you ask for it? How easy will it be to transfer? Even if you could download your data, will it be accessible to you or will it be in a proprietary format only available from the provider?
  • How secure is your data from other eyes. It is possible that your closest competitor is, or will in the future be, using the same service that you are using and perhaps even shared resources. How will you know if your data has been stolen or hacked? Perhaps one way is to review the audit trail - if there is one. This may be able to let you know if someone is using an old forgotten login to access your data or if someone is having too much access that should be investigated (it may be a very valued employee so care must be taken as others may have obtained their login). How can you tell if a sysadmin has copied your data? What security is in place at the SaaS provider to ensure this does not happen? Are they open to an external audit of their security?
  • Backups. What backups are taken? If your data is found to be corrupt, how far back can you go to obtain valid data?
  • Deleted data. If you permanently remove some sensitive information, has it truly been removed? On what other systems has it been stored?
  • Can you download your own data? Even if you can, will you ever be able to access it or is it in a proprietary format only available from your provider?
  • Security. Many companies don't even know how many computers connect to their data now, or what data reside on those computers and how and when they are accessed.

None of these items should stop you investigating Cloud Computing for your own organisation, however you should not abdicate your responsibilities to a third party provider. It is your data and your business that you are dealing with. It is up to you to not only obtain the cost savings that might ensure a good profitable business model for your company (or your employer's company), but to ensure business continuity in the event of the unforeseen.

Many nay-sayers cite a few instances of data corruption or downtimes, however these must be put into perspective of supplying the service in-house. If an external audit was performed on your current in-house systems, would it pass muster? Have you complete security that your systems are safe and up to date with all patches? Do you know (I mean really know) who access your data now? If you had a disaster or fire on your premises that totally destroyed your server room and office, from an IT perspective would your business survive?

Although Cloud Computing has been around for a number of years, only recently under that name, it is still seemingly in its infancy. The take-up has not been rapid in some cases. While customers can hand over CRM and email systems to the Cloud, handing over the full enterprise system to the Cloud may be a little hard for most of us right now.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Problem Resolution or Project Resolution?

Several years ago a large government department IT section was in almost total stasis with every person desperately running in circles at 110% capacity every day but nothing could be accomplished.

directions Each person would come to work each day and arrive to problem after problem as management wanted this or that done urgently and a plethora of every day issues like simple user requests kept the IT staff occupied.

It wasn't until the end of the day came and the staff crept away for the night before they were called to another crisis, that they realized that yet again, nothing tangible was accomplished.

I was hired as the process and change consultant to come in and, along with other things, find a way to get things done.

I was there for a number of months trying to find a way around this issue. I had other work which kept me occupied as I oversaw a large project so I wasn't simply sitting in an office (sadly, I'd like one of those jobs sometime ... or maybe not).

At first I looked at the normal things like task management and priority and while this gave a little more clarity, it still didn't resolve the main problem of too few hours in the day. I looked at the logic of hiring more people but already this team was larger than most other IT departments for the size of the department.

I tried several other "normal" and quite logical practices but this government department were set in their ways of abusing the IT staff, and in turn the IT staff were too used to stamping fires.
I was reminded of a saying as I explained the issue to a colleague one time: "sometimes, when you're fighting back crocodiles, it's hard to remember that the purpose of the exercise is to drain the swamp".
It was then that I came up with a fairly drastic idea. I worked evenings and weekends over the next few weeks to fully document my plan. At last I took it to the executive for approval and was pleased to get an OK with their full support.

Over the next few months the IT department were able to implement several major installations and other changes. Yes there were still the same number of problems coming up each day but now, despite these every day issues, major projects were being completed.

What I proposed and implemented was nothing less than a total change in the structure of the IS department. Almost every person had a change in their title and job spec. It was drastic indeed but it worked.

I changed the title of the teams to ""xx Project Team", I changed the titles of the team leaders to "Project Managers", and the team members to "Project Support" or "Technical Project Support".
So why would changing someone's title make that much of a change to the way they work? As it turns out, there are several reasons. Firstly it gives them an amount of empowerment over their work. They now feel that they themselves can make decisions on how they prioritize their tasks.

Secondly they now have a focus. No longer are they coming to work to answer phone calls and being pushed and pulled in every direction. Their direction is clear - the project!

By changing their titles and focusing them on project work they can still "stamp fires" as they occur but now can choose which fires need their immediate attention and which can be left to another time while they concentrate on the all important project.

These people were well qualified and good at what they did, it was just that they had allowed themselves to be rag dolls being pushed and pulled from one event to another and it wasn't until now that they felt any sort of control at all. It didn't matter what a so called "expert" said to them or what procedures he wanted them to do, they never felt they had enough control over what they did to even attempt to follow them. By changing their focus to project work, I had given them that control.

So next time you and your team feel harasses and finding it difficult to get things done, ask yourself if you are out to resolve problems, or projects. Look at the longer term.

It has been said that there are two types of team leaders: one would take their team into the forest and by support, moral-boosting and excellent project control, would cut down the most trees in a day; the other would arrive at the location, then climb the tree to look around, come down and say "guys, we're in the wrong forest we'll need to move before we cut down any trees".

Think about it, plan, and know you're delivering to the correct goals.