Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Black Holes - Nature's first recycling program?

I'm getting ready to do a post related to IT-budgeting and the moniker, "Black Hole".  As I was thinking about what to say, I got a little side tracked on astrophysics.

Since I'm an engineer, I was taught in college that matter will always trend toward the lowest possible energy state.  My instructors called this concept "entropy".  They said that the Universe is destined to die a cold death some billions of years in the future.  Like a match, they told me, the Universe would burn brightly in the beginning only to slowly fade and burn out.

Fast forward 20 years - I was reading a number of articles about astronomy.  Apparently, at the heart of every galaxy (that we know of) there is (super)large black hole.  In a sense, these black holes help the galaxies to form and keep them held together through gravity over a very long time.

Looking at most of what these black holes "eat", scientists observe that majority of the matter is low-energy dust, dirt, and debris.  So it would seem that black holes help promote entropy by gobbling up all this stuff and turning it into nothing.

But wait!  Upon looking at black holes on the x-ray spectrum, these things are emitting an enormous amount of ultra-high energy particles.  In fact, they look like halogen headlights of Schwarzeneggar-like proportions!  So it appears that black holes are, in fact, actually recycling low energy matter into an extremely high energy state.  Mother Nature's first and most awesome recycling bin...

Maybe the Universe won't be fading away anytime soon...?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Solid State Hard Drives - Not your average Zenith TV!

For those of you old enough to remember the original use of the term "solid state", you might recall it being used to describe TVs that came out in the 1980s.  These units did not use tubes and did not have the two minute warm up period. (I remember having to turn on the TV five minutes before my show started so I wouldn't miss the intro!)  My family had one of these new TVs, a Zenith, and when we bought it I thought we were like the Jetsons!  Solid state now means something new in the world of IT.

If you are somewhat of a an aficionado when it comes to personal computers, you may have heard about the new hard drive technology called solid state drives or "SSD".  They are all the rage for people that play a lot of games on their PCs.  They are also being discussed by the hardware people in your IT department.  The buzz is that they are faster, more reliable, use less power, and generally look more sexy in the PC chassis. If you go to your local Best Buy, Fry's, etc., you will see them for sale.  When I first saw them I was comparing parts for my custom-built computer in July 2010. I could get a regular hard drive with 1TB (terabyte) for $129 or a 140MB (megabyte) SSD drive for $459.  I went with an SSD...

So what's the difference and why should you care?

Well, the "old" style hard drive is made up of moving parts, specifically a group of platters and a reader. In more common terms, an old style hard drive is made like a record player.  The platters, or "records", spin up and the needle moves across them reading data.  This technology has some limits.  First, the hard drive has moving parts that can break and wear out.  Also, the data access speeds are directly related to how fast the platters spin. Ultimately your hard drive speed is limited by speed and inevitable wear-and-tear.

A solid state drive (SSD) is almost exactly similar in function to a "thumb drive", or those little things you carry around in your pocket that hook into USB ports.  They have no moving parts because the data is read and written directly to memory.  They are so much faster because there are no moving parts - no need to spin up any platters to get to your data.  And since nothing is moving, the SSD hard drive is much less likely to wear out meaning that you 10,000th use should be just as fast as your 1st.

The price is very high right now because buyers are paying the "early adopter" rates.  As competitors get into the market, prices will come down quickly.  Pretty much every computer you buy in 2014 and beyond will be equipped with a solid state drive!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cloud Computing - the Simple version

If you're reading this post, you have already heard about how the "Cloud" is going to revolutionize technology and business.  Companies are talking about how to incorporate the "Cloud" into their strategies.  If you read CIO.com, you may have seen how the "Cloud" might even make your job go away.

So what is the Cloud? (no more quotation marks, I promise)

Put simply, the Cloud is nothing more than a hard drive that you can't see, somewhere in the Internet.  It looks and feels like part of your computer (or iPad/smartphone/etc) because you are able to send and retrieve storage and run your programs.  But instead of using your own gear you're getting the same services from someone else's hardware.

The cool part about this arrangement is that you don't have to lay out the cash to buy a hard drive and you (usually) only pay for what you consume.  If you need more, you can get it instantly.  Very attractive to a business that has been paying thousands (or millions) for storage growth every year.  It's a great way to save money and time.

Of course there is a downside.  You are completely out of luck if your Internet connection goes down.  Also, your stuff is on another firm's hardware so you are trusting that they have the ability to provide you the availability and security that you need (oops, Sony).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What is Virtualization?

One of the hottest new concepts in technology is called "virtualization".  You see the term in commercials, read it in magazines, and see it bandied around in magazine articles.  You might also hear about companies named "VM Ware", "Citrix", "IBM", "EMC", and probably the blue-chip names as well (IBM, HP, etc).  The pundits say that virtualization is the next big wave in IT, that it will save companies millions, and that it will change the footprint of the data center.

I know this topic is big because I am frequently asked to perform ad-hoc consulting to companies on Wall Street that are trying to find the next big "high riser" stock.  Many of the consultations I perform involve my having to give primers on the basics before getting to specific technology trends.

In a nutshell, there are roughly three different types of virtualization.  If you are an IT pro reading this blog, please refrain from correcting me! I know that the list could be described as much longer but, as per my handle ("Simple CIO"), I'm trying to keep it simple.

Server Virtualization -  Remember that IBM commercial where the guys in suits are freaking out because all of the machines in their server room are gone?  The tech guy smiles reassuringly and tells them to relax.  He has replaced all the numerous boxes with just one sitting in the middle of the server room.

In the old(er) days of IT, there was a one-to-one relationship between software programs (called "applications") and server boxes.  If you bought a new application, you bought a correspondingly server.  As you grew the number of applications the number of physical machines in the data center grew proportionally.  Fast forward 10 years and you've got a data center (or 2 or 3 or 7) stuffed full of servers.  These machines each need to be tended to like individual tomato plants - they need plenty of power, cooling, and human-rendered TLC.

With the advent of virtualization, an IT organization could buy one big (*really* big) server.  That server could be carved, or "partitioned", into numerous independent servers.  The catch is that all of this partitioning occurs within the brain of the big server.  So, 50 physical boxes are transformed into 50 "logical" boxes within the mind of the big server.  Lots of stuff is now happening on server administrator screens but to the outside viewer, 50 just became one...

Desktop Virtualization - This concept has a lot of similarities with server virtualization.  Again, in the old(er) days of IT, the brains for a PC or laptop would reside within the hardware sitting on or under your desk, or possibly on your laptop.  The problem with that setup is that each device has to be powerful enough to do everything you need, have "oodles" of memory, and a big fat hard drive.  And of course, with all of that dynamic hardware you need small armies of IT techs running around fixing machines, upgrading software, swapping computers, and convincing people not to download software from their favorite entertainment sites.

Fast forward to the past five years where desktop virtualization has become a hot item.  A virtualized desktop has had its brain, memory, and hard drive transported to a "big" server sitting somewhere in a data center that you can't see.  The look and feel, or "experience" of the desktop still looks the same.  However, what you see is being piped to your monitor/keyboard/mouse from somewhere else.  What you are seeing is essentially a web screen designed to look and work just like your old computer.  But IT is no longer having to maintain an ocean of equipment, software, and security.  Whatever you need is "granted" to you by a server administrator.  If you desktop isn't working, another push of a button gets you session automatically refreshed.  And by the way, since all of your files and programs are in the data center now, you'll never again lose any information when your hard drive crashes.

While the concept of desktop virtualization sounds a little like "Big Brother", there are all kinds of benefits.  IT becomes less of a black hole for budgeting and you get to start using the virtualization software to move your desktop functionality to an iPad.  Trust me, once you have your office computer ported to an iPad, you'll never want to go back.

Storage Virtualization - Remember the discussion on server virtualization?  Now think of hard drives everywhere within your company.  They are on PCs, servers, smart phones, laptops, everywhere!  Using equipment called a "SAN" (storage attached network) or "NAS" (network attached storage) companies essentially purchase big boxes full of very fast, very large, very reliable hard drives.  These SANs are almost always connected to your network with fiber-optic cables, which means that they can serve up data faster than McDonalds serves up burgers.

The whole concept of storage virtualization is that you can consolidate multiple, disparate hard drives from all over on to one centralized, turbo charged storage bank.  Really cool, really fast, really reliable, and saves a bunch of money over time.