Category Archives: Cloud

Should IT have the Recession Blues?

Anybody looking for the tea leaves in how the IT industry is facing an uncertain economy that has now finally been given the R word will be disappointed by scanning the latest quarterlies from IT giants. While Oracle and IBM reported 20% gains, SAP was down.

A simplistic answer is that the winners – if one can actually use that term in a period officially termed a recession – may be services that help customers improve their elasticity in changing cycles, as opposed to software providers, where the bounds of a project are more firmly determined by the scope of the software. You just partially implement an SAP upgrade. But according to Forrester analyst Jim Kobielus, tough times favor application of business intelligence, and of course, few customers are likely to pull their maintenance contracts.

Of course, all this blurs the contribution of open source, the emergence of SaaS and, as independent consultant David Linthicum points to, the cloud, and surprisingly, after all the negative hype, the SOAS market.

This was all part of a broader discussion convened last week by Dana Gardner on the impacts of the recession on IT. Click here for a transcript, and here to download the MP3.

Ubiquity vs. Ubiquity

Firing the first shot that tells you the summer’s over, Google yesterday unveiled Chrome, their skunk works project for developing their own browser. Given the dynamics of the browser space (it’s not a market, but a means to an end, which is controlling the gateway to the web), it’s not surprising that reaction can be summarized as follows:

1. It’s part of Google’s grand plan to challenge Microsoft by adding the last piece to what would be Google’s enterprise desktop, app dev platform, and cloud.

2. It clouds the waters given that Google just extended its sponsorship of the Mozilla Foundation for 3 more years.

3. Chrome is ultimately intended more for the kind of “power” browsing that would be required for the enterprise desk or webtop. The obvious goodie here is completely independent tabbed browsing, where each tab is its own session – meaning one tab crashing won’t bring all the others down. It’s the kind of feature that came to Windows beginning with NT and Windows 2000, where a single window did not always have to crash the entire client session and it’s about time that the Internet experience become similarly robust. This obviously oversimplifies all the possible wish lists for features that could improve the browsing experience, with security being the obvious piece, but more robust tabbed browsing is an obvious missing piece.

4. Chrome originated because Google realized it had to own the entire stack and optimize the browser for the Google desktop if it were to present a viable alternative to Microsoft.

5. Google extended its Mozilla partnership because it couldn’t suddenly pull the plug and transition to a technology that is barely in alpha phase. Open source blogger Dana Blankenhorn contends both are complementary; that that Google will ultimately push a dual tiered strategy, pushing Firefox to consumers and Chrome at the enterprise.

Regardless of your take, keep in mind that whatever Google’s ulterior motives, consider the source. Google, much like Microsoft, is so gargantuan and has so much resource that its product, technology, and business development strategy is highly decentralized. The typical scenario is that there are multiple groups vying for development of the next great thing, and that the one with the best technology, market plan, and/or political skills typically wins out. In large part that’s how one can explain inconsistencies in Microsoft’s strategies, as recently revealed with Oslo, where a new workflow engine was developed in competition with existing BizTalk Server. So we’re not surprised that the group working to optimize delivery of Google Desktop on Firefox is different from the one hatching Chrome.

But our “aha” moment came when we recalled last week’s unveiling by Mozilla of its own Alpha, in this case, a natural language text search facility in Firefox that it code-named Ubiquity. In other words, Firefox was also treading on Google’s doorstep. So now you have a case of the ubiquitous search and advertising engine that is striving to become the ubiquitous enterprise webtop and compute cloud with a market cap of nearly $145 billion, and a tax-exempt not-for-profit corporation that racked up maybe $6 million sales in all of 2007 that has a respectable but hardly universal market presence, and the answer is obvious: Firefox is clearly about the consumer while Google’s dead serious about the enterprise. Or as Blankenhorn stated it in a prescient post filed just prior to the Chrome announcement, there are two Internets –- the locked down one in the office, which probably restricts you to the Microsoft IE browser, and the home Internet, where you can use Firefox or something else.

Our take is that Chrome’s prime target is replacing IE in the corporate Internet, leaving the home one as table scraps up for grabs. Our sense is that is where Firefox’s ubiquity is headed – if some third party mashed up that capability using a more graphical metaphor, it could provide a key enabler to monetizing the mobile web. But that’s another story.

Words and Pictures

Data is one of those things that tends to get hidden behind black boxes. Before data becomes accessible, somebody must jump through the hoops to either access the data, or make access intuitive for the rest of us. There’s been no shortage of tools over the years to do things like hiding the SQL, or making non-SQL data sources look like SQL, and so on. Data transformation and integration used to be an exceptionally thorny problem until, just over a decade ago, the emergence of data warehousing demanded a better solution, and Informatica invented it.

Informatica’s innovation was borrowing visual development techniques from 4GL RAD tools and backing it with a metadata engine to make data transformations visual and reusable. For his latest act, Informatica founder Gaurav Dhillon has returned to his roots, pushing ETL into the Web 2.0p world. His new venture, SnapLogic, exploits emergence of RESTful web services, a.k.a., Web-Oriented Architecture (WOA), which represents data, not as columns or rows in a relational table, but as web links that are searchable by Google. It combines that with a Microsoft Excel-like front end recognizable to power users, rather than the 4GL metaphors used by developers, and places the technology atop a commodity open source Apache Tomcat Java server. Using these technologies, you can connect to a growing array of data services, such as those provided by commercial providers like StrikeIron, or those that are already in the public or open source domain.

SnapLogic’s latest deals reveal its goals to make ETL available to SMB that previously judged the technology too expensive and complex. It has inked deals with SugarCRM to provide a high level front end that hides the complexity of its web services, and it has signed a deal to host its ETL services in Amazon’s EC2 compute cloud. The goal is to make the process as low-touch as possible.

Significantly, none of what SnapLogic is doing is totally new; providers like CastIron commoditize in an appliance the most popular data transformations that Informatica and others already perform; while Salesforce simplifies access to its web services with features such as Microsoft Outlook plug-ins. The difference is SnapLogic’s go-to-m,arket strategy and its leveraging of REST and open source, which makes the technology more platform-independent and more affordable than even Salesforce’s low prices (compared to Siebel et al).

It’s an auspicious start, but there’s no free lunch. RESTful services are certainly less complex and lighter weight than web services, as you don’t have complex headers and a bewildering array of standards to contend with. REST is simply about data access, retrieval, and updating – which is its greatest strength and weakness. If all you weant is data services, REST does the job far more efficiently than SOAP calls to WSDL services. However, REST is not extensible like web services, meaning you cannot make any of the safeguards, like authentication, authorization, or access intrinsic. In a risk-averse, increasingly compliance driven business world, where leaks of consumer credit card numbers have grown all too routine, you need to incorporate safeguards. Add the dangers of the unprotected cloud, as Computerworld’s Ephraim Schwartz reported in detail.

The good news is that the problem is so general and widespread as to lend itself to the same kind of open source commoditization that could spawn a new generation of partners with which the SnapLogics of the world could round out their vision.

Still Room for Billion-Dollar Plays: A Conversation with M.R. Rangaswami

On the eve of last year’s Software conference, Sand Hill Group principal M.R. Rangaswami spoke on the prospects for innovation in a consolidating software industry. Evidently there was some room left for innovation, witness Sun’s billion dollar acquisition of MySQL. According to Rangaswami, it points to the fact that there’s life – and value – in open source software companies beyond Red Hat.

In fact, 2007 was a year of second acts, with Salesforce joining the ranks of billion-dollar software companies. On the eve of Software 2008 next week, we just had a return engagement with MR to get his take on what’s gone down over the past year. The first point he dropped was breaking conventional wisdom that another software company could actually crack the established order, given ongoing consolidation. “People questioned whether there would ever be another billion dollars software company again, although of course Mark Benioff doesn’t call it that,” he noted.

But Rangaswami added that conventional wisdom wasn’t totally off, referring to the fact that a lot of promising break-outs are being gobbled up before they get the chance to go public – MySQL being Exhibit A. There’s plenty of cash around the old guard to snap up promising upstarts.

Nonetheless, there are invisible limits to the acquisition trend, most notably among SaaS (Software as a Service) providers. He ascribes the reticence to the fact that conventional software firms are scared of the disruptive effects that on demand providers could have in cannibalizing their existing businesses.

Going forward, Rangaswami expects some retrenchment. We’d put it another way – with last year’s 5 – 6% growth in IT spending, it was almost impossible for any viable ISV to not make money. Even if, perish the thought, we had been CFO for some poor ISV last year, it would have been in the black in spite of us.

But this year, with IT spending growth anticipated in the more modest 1 – 2% range if that, there’s going to be a lot of missed numbers. IBM cleaned up in Q1, but Oracle’s and Microsoft’s numbers failed to impress (Microsoft last year was coasting on Vista upgrades). Rangaswami advises ISVs to keep the lid of development costs (he expects to see more offshoring this year), but he also says that ISVs should be “smarter” with their marketing budgets. “Do a lot more with programs that are online and use Web 2.0 technologies as opposed to some of more traditional approaches,” he advised, pointing to channels like podcasts and YouTube. “Most people watch TV on YouTube these days,” he said, just slightly exaggerating.

Of course, Rangaswami says you can’t ignore emergence of social computing, for which Facebook for now has become the poster child. We admit to being a bit put off by the superficial atmosphere of the place, and of course not being under 35, why should we care what somebody did last night or who their favorite band is? But it’s become conventional wisdom that some form of social networking is bound to emerge for more professional purposes, like engaging your customers, that goes beyond the forums and chat rooms of user groups, the occasional regional or annual conferences, or the resume-oriented purpose of LinkedIn. In fact, one recent startup, Ringside Networks, is offering a “social appserver” where businesses can use Facebook apps to build their own communities on their own sites.

But Rangaswami says, why not use some of the less serious aspects of social computing to conduct real business. Like getting your New England customers together at the next Red Sox game (just make sure that one of your New York customers by mistake doesn’t slip onto the invite list).

The theme of this year’s Software 2008 conference is what Rangaswami terms “Platform Shift.” After the upheavals of the open systems and Internet eras, it appeared that the software industry was coalescing around Java and .NET platforms. But then on demand began making the Java vs. .NET differences irrelevant. For instance, if you want to write to Salesforce’s platform, it’s in a stored procedures languages that is like, but isn’t Java. On the horizon you have Amazon’s EC2 cloud, the Google Apps platform, and you could probably also consider Facebook to be another platform ecosystem (there are thousands of apps already written to it).

The good news is that tough times actually encourage customers to buy a couple of on demand seats for petty cash because it sharply limits risk.

The result is that barriers to entry for new software solution providers are lower than ever. You don’t have to ask customers to install software and you don’t have to build the on demand infrastructure to host it. Just build the software, then choose whose cloud you want to host it on, pay only by the drink, and start marketing. According to Rangaswami, the cloud might remove the hurdles to getting started, but getting your brand to emerge from the fog may prove the toughest challenge. “Sales and marketing in this new world will be totally different.”

IT Forecast is Partly Cloudy (II)

Last week, we opened the Pandora’s Box about the inevitability of the cloud. And we spoke of the tension between SOA and WOA camps as to which is the best means for getting services from or providing services to the cloud.

You can bet with the Web 2.0 Expo this week that there is plenty of noise about the cloud. For some, it’s so much noise that the whole notion of cloud computing, or the cloud itself, has become rather foggy.

One of the arguments over SOA is that the web services standards that are used for implementation have generated intimidating layers of complexity, and that web-oriented alternatives (e.g., WOA) are far more straightforward and far better fits for the web development skills that are already commonplace.

So there will be a flurry of announcements. A few examples: Kapow Technologies for instance, is launching an on demand mashup server, providing black box capabilities like Excel plug-ins for data services out in the cloud. Meanwhile Serena is teaming with Cap Gemini to launch a sandbox enabling business professionals to design and compose a mashup without the need for programming skills.

One of the more interesting announcements from a lineage standpoint is the emergence from its cocoon of SnapLogic, a startup with a WOA-oriented takeoff on RSS that it promotes as “Really Simple Integration.” Started by Informatica founder Gaurav Dhillon, SnapLogic represents a closing of the circle for simplified data access. Just as Informatica was the first to adopt a visual, component-based approach to developing database integrations, SnapLogic is doing same with resources that are accessible over the web.

It’s based on an HTTP server that supports RESTful services; a repository comprised of metadata written in HTML; generic resources for reading, transforming, and writing data; and support of Java and various dynamic scripting languages on the server, and multiple web output formats including HTML pages, RSS or ATOM feeds, and JSON (a JavaScript-based data interchange format).

Using RESTful style, each data source is treated as a resource. In turn, access to those resources can be managed, not through adding tokens or other entitlement technologies, but by making each individual or class of individual’s access a separate URI. Imagine, if you will, table, where the columns are data sources and the rows are specific users. Such tables could be fed by directories and internal access control tools, or the HTML metadata repository, rather than adding a separate layer of complexity for access and authentication.

Providing a clever way for RESTful services to become reusable, SnapLogic helps flesh out the vision of WOA, which is could be nicknamed, technology that is just good enough to get the data you need, wherever it sits out in the cloud. Don’t mistake the elegance of simplicity; although web-oriented approaches essentially take the user friendliness of client/server database apps to the web, the simplicity of the architecture rules out embedding properties or sophisticated capabilities such as federated identity, orchestration, security assertions that come with WS-standards. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if your app doesn’t necessarily involve processes involving high sensitive data or require high performance. But if they do, there’s no reason why they can’t be implemented within secured environments where all the necessary governance and performance are applied extrinsically.

But what’s interesting is that with emergence of the cloud, SnapLogic and StrikeIron offer approachable alternatives that let you have your data services without the reengineering baggage.

IT Forecast is Partly Cloudy (I)

While some of us have been busy sweating our taxes, the brunt of attention shifted to San Francisco this week where Salesforce.com and Google to publicly consummate their infatuation. Specifically, it’s with Google apps, which is being hyped as the Great White Hope against Microsoft Office as an on demand alternative. Specifically, Google Apps, Gmail, Calendar, and Google Talk will be integrated to the Salesforce.com platform, with the add-on being available to subscribers for as little as $50/per user annually. By contrast, Microsoft Office Live is far less along in its evolution and for now is perceived as more afterthought.

In spite of the odd-couplish qualities (Salesforce’s over-the-top marketing vs. Google’s Zen approach), the pairing makes sense for one basic reason – neither is Microsoft (thy enemy of thy enemy). And it adds a key pillar in Salesforce’s PaaS (platform-as-a-service) strategy, which is to become the de facto enterprise desktop and back office platform. Of course, there’s one critical little hurdle, Josh Greenbaum has been pointing out over the past year, which is that Google’s licensing terms are not exactly enterprise-friendly: specifically, Google gains worldwide license to reproduce your content for the purpose of promoting its services. What it illustrates is that, for its enterprise aspirations, Google is still very oriented towards a consumer-focused business model.

But such legal distractions are but a sideshow – Google could easily afford a smart enough lawyer to adjust its licensing if it could concentrate itself for a moment away from its sling everything up at the wall strategy. The challenge is that Google is still very much the hyperactive precocious child who has yet to get directed: he or she could either grow up to be rocket scientist, poet, or simply somebody who gets rich stuffing merchant fliers around the neighborhood.

Whether Google gets serious about the enterprise market or not, and whether you want your application future to live inside Mark Benioff’s wall garden or not, there’s no question that cloud computing has become more than passing fad.

While this does not portend an immediate mass migration, it points to the inevitability that enterprise computing must increasingly embrace the cloud. Not necessarily for everything (it will depend on the organization), but with finite budgets and resources, IT must, to paraphrase Geoffrey Moore, reexamine what exactly is its core, while dispensing with the context (supporting activities). While Mark Benioff splashes the “No Software” logo around, if you strip out the hype, it’s a matter for IT to not decide, not necessarily to outsource, but instead to decide where it makes sense to let somebody else run the infrastructure.

Dana Gardner, in a rambling post today, asked and volunteered some answers on how the cloud and so-called webby apps (apps that use basic web technologies, nothing fancy) might become part of SOA. In other words, do you really need to go through WS-religion and elaborate enterprise architecture exercises when there might be some services available in the cloud that are ripe for the picking?

Of course, if you really want to get religious, there’s the debate over whether what Dion Hinchcliffe and others have termed Web-Oriented Architectures (WOA), which they claim is a more doable alternative to SOA. “The left-hand turn that Web services took early on in the Internet story (circa 1999-2000) with SOAP, WSDL, UDDI, and WS-I Basic Profile turned out to be definitely not the right answer for the vast majority of integration scenarios,” Hinchcliffe wrote. In other words, while SOA has a finite set of well-defined endpoints, WOA is just the opposite: they consist of resources with assigned endpoints that can be located by search engines rather than UDDI registries; are accessed using RESTful approaches via HTTP rather than SOAP; and use service contracts that are implicit, rather than formally spelled out in a WSDL web service description.

Regardless of whether you are embracing SOA or WOA, Gardner explains that there is no free lunch to integration if you take the cloud seriously. Because much of this is happening outside the firewall, you’ll have to establish clear data governance policies to set rules of engagement and permissible use.

Gardner then ventures over to the precipice by declaring, “Perhaps it’s time to fully divorce data from applications, and wed it all instead to people and groups, guided by roles and permissions, and therefore no longer co-located with applications or even enterprises.” He drills down further, discussing the reality that data is growing more portable than ever, blurring the line between public and internal (private) clouds, and speculates about the organizational ramifications of all this. It’s the opening to a much larger discussion.

But for now, we’ll review the first of a couple interesting plays at virtualizing data services from the cloud. We had a chance to speak with Dave Linthicum, who recently took over as CEO of StrikeIron, a five year-old 25-30 person firm offering an online marketplace of data services that’s out in the cloud. The occasion is that this quarter, the company did what few others in the software business have done: grow its customer base 20%. We’d term the venture SOA without the religion, which is especially apt since Linthicum has not been terribly sanguine of late over prospects for top-down enterprise architectural SOA approaches.

Instead, StrikeIron offers a marketplace data services. Say you’d like to qualify customers for your CRM application or you want to feed demand data to your suppliers. Instead of hooking up to Dun & Bradstreet or your suppliers yourself, you get access to a syndicated feed from D&B (or other commercial sources), or you get a feed published yourself. You still have to perform some integration on your end. Unlike Grand Central Communications an ill-fated predecessor that Linthicum was previously associated with, StrikeIron is not masquerading as a self-contained enterprise integration hub. But at least you’re not looking at extensive enterprise architecture exercises. And priced using the subscription model, that eliminates the bulk of upfront design and architectural costs normally associated with SOA implementation.

In that sense, StrikeIron is an answer to WOA critics who contend that web services took a left hand turn towards complexity. Next week (after the NDA expires), we’ll spotlight a provider from the WOA side who gives their response.

Time in a Bottle

The IT and consumer electronics worlds have had a kind of chicken and egg relationship dating back to invention of the transistor. Following the Internet bubble, the flow of innovation has shifting from computers to gadgets. And in some ways, so have the excesses of hype, as we’ve read reports of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) undergoing the same kind of bloat that previously afflicted Comdex.

If there’s a single platform that’s considered a barometer for the pace of innovation, it’s the mobile hand device. From the plain vanilla voice (and more recently, text) phone, it’s now taken for granted that, depending on target demographic, your device should be able to take pictures, play music, provide web access, deliver email, enabler location-based services, or make electronic purchases.

This being the week of CES (and the week before MacWorld), we had an interesting conversation this morning with Sony Ericsson CTO Mats Lindoff, who gave us a midterm assessment on trends with mobile platforms. Maybe there was something gamey with our connection (we think not!), but what we thought we heard was more evolutionary than revolutionary.

“Your phone will tend to know more about you than you know about yourself,” Lindoff told us. Of course, that might sound startling until you consider the fact that the Japanese are already beginning to use cell phones as payment devices with mobile-enabled vending machines. From that standpoint, there’s relatively little concept leap that your Bluetooth-enabled phone could similarly exchange credit card or debit account data with any similarly-enabled point-of-sale terminal or RFID device. Within the European Union, there’s even research on whether phones could serve as electronic passports, a prospect that biometric advancements could make thinkable.

Part of Lindoff’s prediction is that your phone will get smarter in parallel with the network or cloud. And that’s not exactly earth-shattering either, given trends in on demand computing, social computing, and, if you’re an adolescent or Second Life vicarious personality at heart, serial social gaming.

When you slice and dice the global market for handsets, you wind up with a matrix delineated by demographics and region. In developing nations, the trend is strongly toward basic voice and text handsets that, with modest additions, add FM radios followed subsequently with entry-level web access, as (1) people don’t yet have cars or home computers, and (2) the market is not yet mature enough to calve off into lifestyle segments. In developed markets of course, you wind up with more familiar segmentation comprising young gamers and music fans; mainstream voice, text and camera phone users; and corporate PDA users. From speaking with Lindoff, it sounds like demographic markets themselves might not necessarily change (although some may co-opt features from others), but that the global distribution of those segments will.

There’s another fact of life that’s not likely to change either. No matter how smart the device and the cloud get, unless you change the laws of physics or double the size of human anatomy, there’s only so much you can do with a device whose screen maxes out at 3 inches. Additionally, much has been speculated about the imminent opening up of the North American device market. That will certainly spur new content, applications, and make life simpler for handset manufacturers. But of course, such a market is already in place in Europe and parts of Asia, so again, change here would be evolutionary.

Both trends point to a single given: Your phone might become an even more intrinsic extension of who you are or what you do. You might thumb-key emails, watch video podcasts on the plane, and enjoy or consume more applications on your handheld device. Yes, you’re phone’s becoming more important. But you’re not going to toss out your laptop anytime soon.