Honey I Shrank the Database

Each day, it’s becoming clearer that WiFi is just the latest in a long list of back door computing technologies that have made it into the enterprise. Like PCs, mobile phones, PDAs, and Blackberries before them, WiFi is a grass roots technology that IT groups are reacting to, rather than planning for. Today’s announcement of Cisco’s acquisition of Linksys, the leading maker of consumer broadband hubs, simply confirms this trend.

Hubs are becoming the latest must-have device for anyone with cable modems or DSL. Although Linksys also makes conventional wired hubs, it’s clear that the wireless is becoming the preferred way for sharing broadband connections at home.

The corporate angle here is that, for a large proportion of white-collar workers, accessing back office systems at night or on weekends has long been part of the workweek. Admittedly, when access to the Internet was through a single dedicated connection, passwords proved adequate for keeping out kids under the age of 6, while VPNs did their job in rendering transactions invisible to the Internet.

However, the new wireless LAN technologies currently lack adequate encryption measures. Although these security holes should be patched within 6 – 12 months, in the interim, systems administrators must further refine access control policies. The bright side is that organizations that effectively manage security in environments rife with quasi- legal MP3 downloads should make them better prepared when wireless LANs take center stage inside the enterprise.

Extortion by Any Other Name

When we first saw the headlines about 5 or 6 weeks back, our first reaction was “You gotta be kidding!” But indeed, the latest incarnation of The SCO Group, a.k.a., Caldera, is threatening to pull the plug on IBM’s UNIX business over an alleged, obscure contract breach.

Litigation as a competitive strategy isn’t new to Caldera. A couple years back, they settled out of court with Microsoft for an undisclosed sum over allegations that that Redmond competed unfairly against DR-DOS, which at one point competed with MS/DOS.

The latest case, involving some ambiguous UNIX contract language, is an attempt to use the legal system to pick up where sales and marketing left off. Having failed in their primary market — Linux — they are attempting to pry earnings from UNIX, for which the company inherited intellectual rights from SCO, a company that it acquired. Put another way, we view this as an exit strategy for a failed company whose former president, ironically, was named Love. Significantly, the company has not tried wringing similar concessions from fellow UNIX licensees Sun or HP.

It’s a sad day when the court system becomes a competitive alternative. That’s why, regardless of the merits, we’ve thought that Sun should have dropped its Microsoft JVM (Java Virtual Machine) suit long ago. That episode redirected the spotlight from Java’s dramatic success on the server to its failings on the client — not exactly clever marketing in our book. In the tech business, competition-based lawsuits provide at best pyrrhic victories that reveal, more often than not, the incompetence of the plaintiff.

Hidden Successes

Last week, a colleague reminded us of the fact that failure often breeds success — reinforcing a similar point made during a VC briefing late last year. His point? The excesses of the dot com era yielded technology that is not only useful for businesses, but in growing cases, essential. In this case, it was the emergence of business intelligence systems that are opening up hidden islands of information and providing real enterprise snapshots to key decision makers. The point had unexpected impact on his audience: a group of senior executives from an old line financial services firm that traditionally shunned new technologies.

It doesn’t hurt that market prognosticators such as the Gartner Group have added their own buzzwords, such as “The Real Time Enterprise,” which have made enterprise visibility concepts respectable for CIOs. Nonetheless, in most technology-shy organizations, such buzzwords rarely get past the CIO.

We had these thoughts in the back of our mind while we were addressing a much different constituency: technology developers at this week’s XML One conference. The theme of our session managing XML web services — proved a few steps beyond the concerns of bleeding edge developers. Turns out, most are still trying to figure out how to justify such new technologies to their bosses.

For obvious reasons, the timing isn’t auspicious for preaching drastic new technology architectural visions. Depending on your viewpoint, web services represent (1) a strategic architectural shift or (2) a tactical means for extending the functionality of existing or new applications through standard XML interfaces. For now, we’ll pass on debating the merits of XML web services technologies because that is a detailed discussion in itself.

But the lesson we’ve learned is that the fruits of innovation often pop up in unexpected places. Yes, web services may eventually provide a grand new architectural vision for deconstructing existing monolithic enterprise applications with more flexible, integratable services-oriented architectures. In the short-term, however, we expect vendors and customers will pay little more than lip service to the notion of “services-oriented architectures.” Instead, we think innovation will creep out at the edges, with quicker, simpler, tactical integration tools are hardly strategic, but at least deliver short-term real benefit. Progress that comes slowly is better than none at all.