Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Aren't We always Out of the Office?

Anyone that reads this post has used email at one point or another.  And if you've been in the business world for a length of time, say just six months, the odds are highly favorable that for at least one day you have not been in the "office".  You might have even used the Out of Office functionality of your email system.  Of course when I refer to the office I am thinking about some place where you have:
  • A chair
  • A desk
  • A phone
  • A computer (with peripherals)
Notice that I have not differentiated between cubicles, conference rooms, corner offices, etc.  I have simply referred to a static location where you, as a worker, are expected to be physically present in order to get work done.

But is that how we truly work today in 2012?  Let's shelve that question for just a moment so that I can refer back to a situation that I experienced a little over 10 years.  I was an IT director in a multi-billion dollar, United States based manufacturing corporation.  Our firm had been growing rapidly, mostly through acquisition and we had offices and people located all over the globe.  Yet, our culture had not adapted nearly as fast.  All of the true power was located in the corporate headquarters because, due to the acquisitions, "corporate" was making all the long lasting decisions on what to do with the newly acquired businesses.

My teams were scattered all over the world but I faced a constant pressure by my peers and supervision to "co-locate" them at corporate headquarters.  The reasoning at the time was that people could only be managed if they could be seen and their managers could practice "MBWA" (management by walking around).  In general, our corporate culture collectively believed that if you could not be seen, you were out of the office.  This drove me crazy because I knew that productivity was not tied to where a person worked but what they ultimately produced.  I don't know how many times during my tenure at that company that I heard people define how much value they were creating by "...being in the office 10-12 hours per day."

Now fast forwarding back to 2012, let's think about how work has changed.  The PC is dying out, laptops are not cool like they used to be, tablets and smart phones are everywhere, and we are constantly working.  If you're like me, you are never out of contact with your phone/tablet/computer for more than an hour (unless you're asleep and that doesn't count).  Like my colleagues, I am constantly "available" 24 hours a day.  Yes, I'm guilty of sending work emails, checking my messages, and plugging away at venues such as date night with my wife, vacation, and the playground where I should be throwing the ball with my boy and not tapping on an iPhone.

We have a whole new generation of workers just arriving on the scene who will be wholly incompatible with the concept of a static office.  This is the Facebook/Foursquare generation who generates content - work and play - on the go.  Technologies such as desktop virtualization, cloud-based email, and ERP delivered via a SaaS model will be a requirement, not a nice to have.  And this is just the beginning.  We will have workers that will create whole new venues for productivity that we have not even imagined yet.  Expect to see more of this as we see the gradual fusion of organic and silicon technologies progress.

For all you current and future CIOs out there, here is a word of advice.  DO NOT develop applications and IT solutions that are tethered to an office setting. Not only will your offerings be obsolete - you will personally be viewed as a dinosaur.  Business processes in the 21st century happen outside of the "office".  Your tools and offerings should be created to move along with their users, wherever and whenever they happen to be.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Missle Defense tech is finding the next LeBron

One of my recent posts talked about the advent of "Big Data" and how huge information stores would be driving business strategies of the future.  Before I lose you to boredom, let me shift into a quick Hollywood reference to give some mental adrenaline.

In 2011 a movie came out called MoneyBall and it starred Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.  It was a really interesting story about how the hero and manager of the Oakland As, Billy Beane (Pitt), used statistics to take a really average group of players and made them one of the most successful teams in baseball.  The plot centered on how revolutionary and heretical it was for a person to use Big Data instead of emotion, or "gut instinct" to put together a team.  As you would expect, the hero had to overcome all of the skeptics and odds.  But in the end, the data won out and the team of losers had set the MLB record for most wins in a row and even made the playoffs.

The movie was truly a window into the birth of the Big Data concept.  Billy Beane was able to use record sets numbering the hundreds and several thousands to make decisions on players.  These decisions included how to specifically match different pitchers to certain batters, who played better at night versus day, and many other things such as the likelihood of how many runs a certain combination of players would (not could) produce during a game.

As cool as the movie and the use of data was, keep in mind that at most Beane was only working with several thousand data points at one time.  Today, 10 teams in the NBA are using record sets in the millions and that's per player, per game!  I have to give a huge shout out to Fast Company, who published this article:

http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670059/moneyball-20-how-missile-tracking-cameras-are-remaking-the-nba

Unlike the MoneyBall scenario that used yearly statistical sets, certain NBA teams are using cameras originally developed to track ballistic missiles (!) to follow each player, home and away, during every game played.  For example, Kevin Durant (plays for the Oklahoma Thunder) is being photographed and analyzed 25 times per second by a SportVU camera.  Rather than paraphrasing, let me quote the article directly:

"SportVU can tell you not just Kevin Durant’s shooting average, but his shooting average after dribbling one vs. two times, or his shooting average with a defender three feet away vs. five feet away. SportVU can actually consider both factors at once, plus take into account who passed him the ball, how many minutes he’d been on the court, and how many miles he’d run that game already."

Big data is not just some corporate phenomena.  In the NBA the data being collected is so specific and powerful that it is completely redefining not only which players are the best, but all of the conditions, movements, and heretofore unknowable attributes that make some people successful while others fail.  Think of how sports teams will pay more or less for players when they can analyze every single aspect of each person's performance on the court, every game for a full season. 

I would hardly be surprised if computers are not quickly integrated into each coach's game plan.  Imagine the Thunder's coach, Scott Brooks, saying something like this, "Well, we're playing the Spurs tonight and the computer says that they consistently beat us in rebounding.  I'll counter that by playing Kendrick Perkins more tonight and scale back on Serge Ibaka's minutes because, over 50,000 simulations we will likely pick up six more offensive rebounds, draw four more fouls, and shoot eight more free throws."  I can see a scenario like that happening as soon as next year.  Then, imagine where SportVU integrates with an iPad application used by the assistant coach on the bench.  The cameras will be taking into account injuries, fatigue, physical capabilities, refereeing, and a hundred different data points as they occur during a game.  Can you imagine the computer doing the analytics and making real-time game strategy decisions for the coaches?  I can.

The sad thing about the advent of big data into sports is that it will take some of the mysticism out of the games.  Want to know whether Jordan was better than Doctor J and don't want to include the number of championship rings?  Big data will give you the answer.  Want to know if the Celtics of 2008 could have beaten the 1984 Lakers in seven games - yep, there will be an answer for that.  Want to debate the intangibles of why Tim Tebow is seemingly such a bad quarterback but wins so many games?  Just check the data and you'll get an answer.  Big Data is the forbidden fruit of the new information era...

Given that the NFL is the biggest sporting franchise/organization in the world, you can expect that Big Data will be a big deal there soon, if not already.  Big data is just now starting to equal Big $Money$.  Given their propensity for process optimization and use of data/statistics, I think I'm going to go buy some stock in UPS...*


*Never, ever, ever, ever, ever take financial advice of any type from SimpleCIO!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Big Data -- Big Problem or Big Opportunity?

The world of IT is filled with buzzwords and trendy titles.  I could show a list of ones that I use on a weekly basis but that would serve no purpose other than to fill up this column!

So what is "Big Data" and why should you care?  Think about several of these facts:
  • The amount of data that we store as a world community has grown exponentially over the past 20 years
  • Just as you got used to the term "megabyte", you had to learn the next, bigger size which is "gigabyte".  Now we are dealing with "terabytes" and will soon be dealing in a brand new size called "zettabytes".  There have been "petabytes" and "exabytes" in between but they were/are quickly bypassed.
  • As of today in 2012 the world creates approximately 2.5 quintillion (2.5×1018) bytes of data. (Thank you Wikipedia!)
The fact is that certain applications and functions need massive stores of data in order for scientists and researchers to draw reasonable conclusions.  This is especially true in industries like pharmaceuticals, genetics, financial fraud protection, and astronomy.  As an aside, before we had Big Data strategies and tools it took geneticists 10 years to decode the human genome.  Now we can do it again with modern tools in about a week.

In the near future, as seen in certain sci-fi movies, advertising will be targeted in real-time in personalized ways to each and every consumer.  How would you do this for nine billion consumers?  The answer is that you would track every aspect of their behavior at all times during the day, 24x7, 365 days per year.  How much data would that take to make the advertising effective?

In the energy industry, especially in the oil and gas space, a big part of the business is prospecting.  It isn't so much an issue of if the energy exists but where it can be found.  The oil & gas industry is going to be a signficant consumer of  big data applications as they turn to more and more sophisticated practices of Geo-locating and Geo-prospecting in existing and new areas. 

Even utilities will forced into Big Data management strategies as the advent of the smart grid finally matures.  With meter reads coming in every 15 minutes from tens of millions of customers, every hour of every day, we will be talking about some really big data sets!  And it won't just be enough to collect it - the utilities will have to do a number of things to make it available and useful.

There is a tremendous amount of information about Big Data that my blog won't cover.  After all, we are keeping it Simple here.  But Big Data is not something that any technological manager or practitioner can or should ignore.  Be proactive and learn how to develop your own BD strategy. 

Whether it's using mobile applications to gather data, RFID, Geo applications, or sales - you can help your company win strategically by embracing a Big Data strategy sooner rather than later.  And ask any computer game development shop out there - the more you know about your customers the better positioned you'll be to make them happy!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Can Microsoft Cross the River?

A few weeks back I lamented in a post that Microsoft had not done much to compete with Apple in the tablet computer space.  The problem, I stated, was that without competition, the costs (in my opinion) for the tablets available are too high.  Only Microsoft has the size, clout, and capital to compete with Apple at this point.  I want competition because it increases innovation and lowers prices.  If you don't believe that, email me and I'll show you how mankind has always made the most technological progress during times of war.  But getting back to the Microsoft tablet, here is an article in Computerworld referencing the big news release coming on Monday:

http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9228141/Windows_RT_tablet_built_by_Microsoft_to_be_unveiled_Monday_report_says_

In the interests of advancing the free market I really want Microsoft to be successful.  But history says that Microsoft will have to clear some hurdles in order to be successful.  Before I get into that, I want to write out a quick fable that I'll use as an analogy to this situation.  Called "The Scorpion and the Frog", this ancient fable has been told under many different variations.  In essence, here it is:

One day a frog was standing by a river getting ready to cross.  Just as he was about to enter the water, up walks a scorpion.  The scorpion turns and says, "Mister Frog, would you please carry me across the river to the other side?  I need to make it across and as you can see, I'm unable to swim."  The frog thought about that for a second and said, "Mister Scorpion, if I let you on my back you will sting me!"  The scorpion said, "Think about it.  Why would I sting you out on the river?  Then we would both drown!"  The frog considered the logic of that and, after deliberating for a bit agreed.  It seemed logical.

Halfway across the river the scorpion whips back his tail and 'Zap!', stings the frog right in the middle of his back.  As they both sink under the water, the frog wails, "Why, why did you do that Mister Scorpion?!?  Now we are both doomed!"  The scorpion calmly replied, "I couldn't help it; it's in my nature."

The point of using that fable is to highlight what Microsoft is, and is not.

Microsoft Is:
  • A software company that develops very useful applications, but rarely gets them right the first time.
  • A very cash-rich company that has the resources to do great things.
  • Strong management and an excellent talent pipeline.  Their human capital is one of the strongest aspects of Microsoft and seemingly one of their best kept secrets.  They've got great people spread all over the globe.
  • A company that, through its XBox product, is beginning to really understand the importance of personal user experience.
  • An international company with a vast supply chain.
  • A brand with one of the oldest, widely dispersed products in computing history (Windows brand)
Microsoft  Is Not:
  • A company that owns a multimedia channel like iTunes where it can create a partnership with customers that locks them in and keeps them from shopping elsewhere.  When you compete against the iPad the fight is as much against the iTunes App Store as it is the hardware.
  • A company that is typically cutting edge.  They tend to acquire innovation rather than create it. (Some would argue this point but look at the past 10 years of product development history)
  • A company that has a strong handle on quality control.  As an XBox owner, I have had no fewer than six (6!) consoles give out on me for one reason or another.  And I'm not the only one - several years back Microsoft had to take a one billion dollar write-off to deal with quality issues on the XBox specific to the "Red Ring of Death" occurrences.
  • A company with strong relationships with international governments and manufacturing partners.

Given both what Microsoft is and is not, there will be some immediate challenges for them to be successful in the tablet market at a level that is competitive with Apple.  They can't just show up with a tablet and essentially say, "Here we are - love us!"  That means that whatever they deliver has to be functional, "boot up" quickly, and be tightly integrated.  Consumers will in no way, shape, or form accept a product that needs several iterations or lifecycles before it reaches its potential (yes, I'm talking about you Windows ME and Office 2007).  Also, they will need to rapidly develop a strong, vibrant marketplace for consumers to find music and applications.  Microsoft will either choose to do its own thing or more probably look to tie into the Android universe.  And finally, quality must be paramount.  The devices that they sell should never break down and that means both hardware and software.  If they struggle here, Apple will eat their lunch.

For a consumer who likes choices, I really hope that  Microsoft makes it across the river.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Note to my Readers

I have noticed that the number of readers to the SimpleCIO blog has increased in recent months.  I would love to write on topics that interest each of you and maybe even start some debates. 

If you would like to see me write on anything specific, please either comment to this site or email me directly at ccbarron@luznet.com

I'd love to hear from you!

The Hard Drive is dead (and you shouldn't care)

I love good historical stories, especially because history seems to repeat itself.  My father told me about a conversation he had as a young man with someone who had lived in Germany during and after World War I.  The man told my father that after the war, Germany found itself in real financial trouble.  As part of the final end of the war, Germany was forced through the Treaty of Versailles to pay war reparations to the Allies - Britain, France, Belgium, etc.  The amount due was so monumental that there was literally no way for Germany to pay the bill.  So like many other countries of the past and future, it did the only thing it could - Germany printed up billions and billions of Deutschmarks and sent them off by the truckload to the Allies. (Before the war every Deutschmark was backed physically by silver, which gave it a high, fixed value).

While technically paying the reparations, Germany so completely devalued its currency as to make it worthless.  The man told my father that one day his mother gathered up $15 billion Deutschmarks in a white wicker basket and went off to market to buy one loaf of bread.  At the bakery she sat the basket full of marks down to tie her shoe.  When she looked up, a thief had just finished dumping the paper currency and was running off with the basket!  The one little basket at that point was actually worth more than $15 billion Deutschmarks!  Of course today the German mark is the real backbone of the Euro but that's now, not 90 years ago.

So how does this story tie in with hard drives?  Over the past 15 years something has been quietly but inexorably happening in the field of data storage.  Here is a quick set of facts; see if you can see the trend:
  • 1993 - a 30 megabyte hard drive cost $400
  • 1998 - a  150 megabyte hard drive cost $280
  • 2002 - a 400 megabyte hard drive cost $210
  • 2008 - a 1 terabyte hard drive cost $180
  • 2012 - a 2 terabyte hard drive costs $119.99 (check out www.newegg.com)
The trend is easy to spot.  The technology has matured to the point where the supply of "bytes" versus the demand has driven prices down to "dirt cheap" levels.  Just because you can buy a 2TB hard drive doesn't mean that you actually need one.  If it wasn't for all of my photos, which I back up to Carbonite anyway, I wouldn't need much more than 200GB.  Your usage may be different depending upon the size of your iTunes catalog.

But let's look beyond supply and demand for a second.  Most of the new technology that interests us: smart phones, tablets, "thumb" drives, SAP HANA, cloud applications, etc. do not use hard drives.  (Well, maybe the cloud does but you never see it).  These technologies use storage that is mostly memory based, whether it be flash devices or advanced RAM (computer memory).  The newest tablets and ultrathin laptops use only flash memory - otherwise they would be bulkier and use more power.  Yet, compared to the speed of a hard drive these flash memory devices seem to work infinitely faster.

There has been a stopgap technology in play for about two years called the solid state drive or "SSD".  These devices are shaped like hard drives but have no moving parts or spinning platters.  They were a fad for a little while but are not catching on because of their expense and the general trend towards flash devices

No, dear readers, the era of the hard drive is over and done.  I give it about five more years before the hard drive as we know it, with moving parts and platters, goes the way of both the dodo bird and the 8-track tape.  We are moving to a new architecture for technology that will be unlike anything we could have predicted in the 1990s.  There will be no place for moving parts that can break or devices that won't fit in our pockets.

To borrow shamelessly from REM: It's the end of (IT) as we know it, and I feel fine!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Is Cisco too big to fail?

From a personal perspective, I love my iPad and go almost everywhere with it.  At the same time, I think that I have to pay almost double for it versus what it should cost.  Why is the iPad overpriced, you ask?  I lay the blame squarely on Microsoft.  For years, Microsoft was so dominant in all things web, PC, and software that they went to sleep.  So when Apple blew onto the scene with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad Microsoft was asleep.  In fact they were sleeping so soundly that four years later they still can't come up with anything to compete against Apple.  (Zune, really??)  Microsoft's lack of competition has seemingly made them unable to compete against Apple.  It's a paradox, I know.  Does that mean Microsoft is going the way of the dodo bird anytime soon?  Hardly, but what it means for me is that Apple can charge me twice as much as it should be able to for its products simply because there is no competition and they know it.

So let's take a look at Cisco.  Unless you're in IT (or the world of financial investment), you probably don't spend much time thinking about networking.  If you did you'd find that the topic is incredibly rich - software, learning systems, hardware, fiber optics, and even quantum computing.  Cisco, for decades, has been the 800 pound gorilla of networking.  Today they have annual revenues of almost $50 Billion and a market cap which, at $90 billion, is about twice that of Hewlett Packard.  Cisco sells networking products on six continents and spends more on R&D than any of its competitors although IBM is a close second.  Given that Cisco is such a "heavy hitter", why then has their stock lost over 25% of its value year-to-date in 2012?  Granted, its stock had a good run towards the end of last year but that's not making investors and institutional holders feel any better right now.

The next revolution in computing is coming in the networking space.  Computers have become so powerful and storage is becoming so ubiquitous that the bottleneck has become the speed at which information can be moved from one point to another.  Also, where networks used to be "dumb", acting much like water piping in your home, the science is moving towards intelligent, learning systems.  These next generation networks are being created to evaluate data packets and route them like an omnipresent traffic cop.  When they fully replace the older networks, we will experience the next big revolution in computing.  Rather than measuring throughput in megabits per second MBPS and latency in milliseconds we will be seeing traffic move at giga and peta bytes per second at latency rates in the micro range.

The technology that I am referencing directly above has been commercially available for almost two years - from Juniper Networks.  The Juniper product is called "Q Fabric" and is so advanced that you could almost call it "creepy".  So where is Cisco's response to this upstart challenge?  Well, we might see something come out in 2013 from their project codenamed "JawBreaker".  Folks, I don't know what you think but a three-year lag against a competitor is either a brilliant move to let them iron the bugs out of the new technology or its the act of a company that has fallen asleep.

Unlike Microsoft, which has so many product lines that it's hard to find a beginning and an end (Windows, XBox, Office, Exchange, Visio, IE, etc, etc.) Cisco is really just a networking company.  As the stock market is showing through punishment of its stock, Cisco needs to become more nimble and agile, fast.  Will Cisco get crushed by a competitor overnight or even in a decade?  Not likely.  Is Cisco too big to fail?  Hardly.