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Devices for the deviceless
FEBRUARY 28, 2008
There are an estimated half of a billion people in the world who surf the Net every day yet don't own a computer. They depend on the public PCs available in cybercafes, which in many cities and countries remain the centers of personal computing. Cloud computing is ideally suited to these so-called cybernomads, as it can provide them with, in essence, a computer to call their own - a virtual desktop, or "webtop," that exists entirely in an online data center and hence can be accessed from any PC. Cybernomads can use their password-protected webtops to run applications, store data, and share files with others. Webtops can provide an attractive alternative to the cheap laptops, like OLPC's XO and Intel's Classmate, in helping close the digital divide. Virtual PCs are more energy efficient than real PCs, they don't wear out or require physical maintenance, and they can often be provided free, through ad-supported or other subsidized programs.
As bandwidth costs fall and web apps proliferate, the webtop model becomes more viable in more places. The BBC today reports on a European startup, Jooce, that is emerging as a leader in the field. It's partnering with governmental agencies, NGOs, and local telephone companies and ISPs to provide its "Joocetop" to the deviceless. Currently in beta, the free service signed up 60,000 subscribers in its first month and it has the financial backing of Mangrove, which also backed Skype in its early days.
As the BBC notes, Jooce is far from the only company in this business. It's an increasingly crowded field, spanning not only companies serving the poor but also companies supplying virtual desktops to businesses to reduce PC maintenance costs and hassles. In fact, the people in cybercafes tapping into virtual PCs in the cloud may turn out to be the "lead users" of what will become, in one form or another, the dominant model of personal computing in the future. After all, aren't we all becoming cybernomads?
Posted by nick at 09:37 AM | Permalink | Digg | Comments (10)
Social networking goes to war
FEBRUARY 25, 2008
Call it Gruntbook. As part of its long-term effort to pioneer "network-centric warfare," the US military has rolled out a social networking system for soldiers in Iraq. Called the Tactical Ground Reporting System, or TIGR, the system was developed by DARPA, the same Defense Department agency that spearheaded the creation of the internet forty years ago. As described by David Talbot in an article in Technology Review, the system is built around detailed maps of the routes of army patrols. Patrol leaders can add photographs, videos, audio recordings and notes to the maps, building a shared intelligence database from the ground up:
By clicking on icons and lists, [patrol leaders] can see the locations of key buildings, like mosques, schools, and hospitals, and retrieve information such as location data on past attacks, geotagged photos of houses and other buildings (taken with cameras equipped with Global Positioning System technology), and photos of suspected insurgents and neighborhood leaders. They can even listen to civilian interviews and watch videos of past maneuvers. It is just the kind of information that soldiers need to learn about Iraq and its perils.
Talbot says that the system, an amalgam of fairly routine Web 2.0 technologies, is for some units "becoming the technological fulcrum of the counterinsurgency." Right now, soldiers can tap into the system only when they're at their bases, before or after a patrol. But the military is planning
to install it in Humvees and other military vehicles, allowing soldiers to download and act on new information in real time. Some of these vehicles already have some low-bandwidth connections, and [a spokesman] says DARPA is working on ways to make the software work using these thin pipes. In addition, the system may soon deliver new kinds of information. In the next two to three years, it could offer surveillance pictures from circling unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or other sensor systems. It could store biometric information, so that a soldier could see if a civilian being interviewed was a known insurgent suspect.
One thing that Talbot doesn't mention in his otherwise excellent article is the fact that cheap, simple web-based systems are also easily available to insurgent and guerrilla forces. It's clear, for example, that insurgents are already using online mapping tools, like Google Earth, to target attacks and missiles, and other web-based social-networking and data-management tools are well-suited to the kind of real-time information sharing that armies can use to plan and coordinate their actions. Because they're cheap and easy to deploy - and in many cases freely available over the web - the tools of what might be called social warmaking represent a two-edged sword for large, modern armies. They can provide a powerful new way to share tactical information, but they also tend to level the battlefield.
Posted by nick at 10:22 AM | Permalink | Digg | Comments (8)
Alan Turing, cloud computing and IT's future
FEBRUARY 21, 2008
The business computing site Internet.com asked me to write an essay speculating on what the corporate IT landscape may look like ten years from now. The result, "IT in 2018: from Turing's machine to the computing cloud," is available now as a free pdf download - though registration is required.
Here's how the essay begins:
In 1936, as the clouds of war gathered once again over Europe, a 24-year-old Cambridge University mathematician named Alan Turing invented the modern digital computer. At least, he invented the idea of the modern digital computer, which, as it turned out, was far more important than constructing any particular physical manifestation of that computer.
Turing’s theoretical apparatus, which he called a “universal computing machine,” was a simple one. In essence, it had the ability to read or write symbols – a one or a zero, say – on an endless roll of paper. It could only take one action at a time, reading or writing a single symbol, but it could remember what it had done, and over an infinite span of time it could take an infinite number of actions.
What Turing had created was, in the words of the historian George Dyson, “a single machine that can exactly duplicate the behavior of any other computing machine.” Any calculation, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a series of discrete, simple steps –an algorithm, or a code – and carried out by Turing’s machine. What that means, quoting Dyson again, is that “in principle all digital computers are equivalent; any machine that can count, take notes, and follow instructions can compute any computable function.” What it also means is this: “Software (coding) can always be substituted for hardware (switching).”
The only real constraints on a universal computing machine are the size of its memory and the speed with which it can carry out its calculations and transmit the results. With enough memory and enough speed, Turing’s work implies, a single computer could be programmed, with software code, to do all the work that is today done by all the other physical computers in the world.
And that is why the modern corporate data center, with all its complex and expensive stacks of machinery, is on the path to obsolescence ...
Mr. Turing also pops up in my column in The Guardian today.
Posted by nick at 09:39 AM | Permalink | Digg | Comments (11)
FEBRUARY 17, 2008
You can get away with a three-letter initialism as a product name, but if you try to stretch it to five, you're sunk. HD DVD? It never really had a chance, particularly when it was up against a snappy futuristic-sounding name like Blu-Ray. If the Jetsons had decided to get a second dog to keep Astro company, they would have named it Blu-Ray.
Can't you picture Elroy throwing the happy pup some kind of electronic chew-toy gizmo?
Fetch, Blu-Ray!
HD DVD? It sounds like the start of a confirmation code for a car-rental reservation.
Wal-Mart finally gave the thumbs-down on HD DVD a couple of days ago, mercifully driving a stake into the wounded technology's heart. Yesterday, Toshiba made it official: It betamaxed HD DVD. Sayonara.
Wired says the whole format war was meaningless, a pyrrhic battle over a phantom market. Plain old DVDs will suffice for most folks until movie downloading becomes routine.
That may be right, but I think the death of HD DVD gives Sony and its Blu-Ray bedmates a big opening. Having two different formats out there was confusing to most folks. It caused a kind of consumer paralysis. Now that Blu-Ray is the only dog in the hunt, people may, in large quantities, feel comfortable trading in their DVD players for machines that will make their movies look a bit better on their family-room-spanning flatscreens. It's going to be a while before the mass market is ready to get rid of the physical containers for films and entrust its entertainment to the bit-spewing cloud.
What Sony needs now is a marketing campaign that lives up to the Blu-Ray name. If I were in charge, I'd call in the Jetsons.
Posted by nick at 08:44 AM | Permalink | Digg | Comments (7)
Why S3 failed
FEBRUARY 16, 2008
Late last night, Amazon issued a statement explaining the cause of the problem that hobbled its S3 storage system yesterday morning. It was not a hardware failure. Rather, the service's authentication system, which verifies the identity of a user, became overloaded with user requests. As one person explained to me, it amounted to a kind of accidental DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack, and Amazon didn't have enough capacity in place in one of its data centers to handle the surge.
Here's Amazon's explanation:
Early this morning, at 3:30am PST, we started seeing elevated levels of authenticated requests from multiple users in one of our locations. While we carefully monitor our overall request volumes and these remained within normal ranges, we had not been monitoring the proportion of authenticated requests. Importantly, these cryptographic requests consume more resources per call than other request types.
Shortly before 4:00am PST, we began to see several other users significantly increase their volume of authenticated calls. The last of these pushed the authentication service over its maximum capacity before we could complete putting new capacity in place. In addition to processing authenticated requests, the authentication service also performs account validation on every request Amazon S3 handles. This caused Amazon S3 to be unable to process any requests in that location, beginning at 4:31am PST. By 6:48am PST, we had moved enough capacity online to resolve the issue.
Amazon promises quick action to ensure the problem doesn't happen again and that users are supplied with better information on system status:
As we said earlier today, though we're proud of our uptime track record over the past two years with this service, any amount of downtime is unacceptable. As part of the post mortem for this event, we have identified a set of short-term actions as well as longer term improvements. We are taking immediate action on the following: (a) improving our monitoring of the proportion of authenticated requests; (b) further increasing our authentication service capacity; and (c) adding additional defensive measures around the authenticated calls. Additionally, we’ve begun work on a service health dashboard, and expect to release that shortly.
All in all, I think Amazon has handled this outage well. The problem revealed some flaws in Amazon's otherwise highly reliable system, including shortcomings in its communications with users, and the company will make important improvements as a result, to the benefit of all its customers. These kinds of small but embarrassing failures - the kind that get you asking WTF? - can be blessings in disguise.
UPDATE: This post originally contained an excerpt from an internal Amazon email, with the subject line "WTF," which traced the source of the outage to a barrage of authentication requests generated by "a single EC2 customer." (EC2 is Amazon's online computing service.) I decided to delete the email because an Amazon spokesman subsequently informed me that it appeared to have been written before a full analysis was done on the root cause of the outage and hence did not accurately portray that cause. I apologize for supplying what appears to have been misleading or at least incomplete information.
Posted by nick at 09:18 AM | Permalink | Digg | Comments (9)
Google's footprint
FEBRUARY 15, 2008
In its March issue, Harper's publishes one section of the official blueprints of the site plan for Google's giant The Dalles data center on the banks of the Columbia River in Oregon. (The project goes by the codename 02 on the plan.) Some stats: The warehouses holding the computers are each 68,680 square feet, while the attached cooling stations are 18,800 square feet. The blueprint also shows an administration building and a sizable "transient employee dormitory."
In comments on the plan, Harper's estimates, roughly, that once all three server buildings are operating in 2011 the plant "can be expected to demand about 103 megawatts of electricity - enough to power 82,000 homes, or a city the size of Tacoma, Washington." The Web, the magazine says, "is no ethereal store of ideas, shimmering over our heads like the aurora borealis. It is a new heavy industry, an energy glutton that is only growing hungrier."
Posted by nick at 03:36 PM | Permalink | Digg | Comments (4)
EMC's "very massive" storage cloud
As Amazon struggles today with the first big outage to afflict its popular S3 data-storage service, it looks like it will also soon be facing a big new competitor. The storage giant EMC looks like it's gearing up for a major move into "the cloud." Like other traditional IT component suppliers, EMC sees cloud computing as both threat and opportunity. On the one hand, it could put a large dent into individual businesses' demand for on-site storage systems, EMC's bread and butter. On the other hand, somebody has to build and run the storage cloud, and EMC has the scale and expertise to be a big player in this new business.
EMC has already rolled out Mozy, a backup service for individuals and small businesses, but that represents only the tip of its ambitions. Indications are that the company wants to build a vast online storage system able to fill the needs of the largest companies. Yesterday, a top SAP executive, Doug Merritt, told Reuters that his company was partnering with EMC to provide its complex business applications over the Net. That would be quite a deal for both companies. Apparently, though, Merritt jumped the gun with his announcement. An EMC spokesman, quoted today by the Boston Globe, says that reports of the partnership are "only speculation." But whether or not the SAP linkup comes to pass, EMC's move into the cloud is, as Robert Buderi writes today, a matter of when, not if.
The clearest indication of what EMC has in mind came in a post by EMC blogger Chuck Hollis last month. He wrote:
Some people seem to associate this webby, cloudy stuff with some of the more popular offerings from folks such as Amazon and Google, e.g. web 2.0 storage is simply cost-effective storage over the web. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not particularly interesting ...
Cloud storage is massive. Very massive. We're routinely encountering new requirements where terms like "gigabyte" and "terabyte" are not useful, the discussion starts at "many petabytes" and goes up from there.
We tend to think of all this stuff sitting in a data center somewhere, but for this model, it just doesn't work. Nobody can afford a single data center that's large enough to put all this stuff into (no, not even Google). More importantly, no one can afford the network pipes that'll be needed in a single place to feed everything into, or out of.
No, what you'll need is the ability to place these devices in locations around the world, and have them operate as a single entity: a single global name space, and - more importantly - the ability to ingest content from anywhere, and move content to popular places depending on traffic and interest ...
The environment must be self-tuning, and automatically react to surges in demand. It must be self-healing and self-correcting at a massive scale - like the internet, no single scenario of failures can bring it down.
With the big IT vendors moving in, the cloud is about to get mighty crowded.
Posted by nick at 12:41 PM | Permalink | Digg | Comments (6)
Crash: Amazon's S3 utility goes down
There are reports that Amazon's Simple Storage Service - called S3 - suffered a "massive" outage this morning, beginning at about 7:30 am eastern time. At 9:03, an Amazon official posted a note in the service's customer forum, saying, "We can confirm the high error rate you’re experiencing. While we don’t have an ETA at this point, we’re working as quickly as possible to restore performance. We’ll provide updates as soon as we have them." A poster at Hacker News reports that the service is now "back up," but another poster says that service remains "spotty."
The outage, which may have spread to other Amazon web services, appears to be affecting many web businesses, including prominent ones like Twitter, which uses the service to store the images that appear on its site. Writes one blogger: "Amazon S3 goes down ... panic ensues." But another S3 customer, also posting in the service's forum, is more sanguine: "This is the first outage I have experienced since I joined the service nearly a year ago. Yes it sucks, yes I hope they get it fixed very soon... but, the sky is not in fact falling at the moment."
As someone who believes in the growth of the utility mode of computing, I feel compelled to point out the inevitable glitches that are going to happen along the way. How the supplier responds - in keeping customers apprised of the situation and explaining precisely what went wrong and how the source of the problem is being addressed - is crucial to building the trust of current and would-be users. When Salesforce.com suffered a big outage two years ago, it was justly criticized for an incomplete explanation; the company subsequently became much more forthright about the status of its services and the reasons behind outages. Given that entire businesses run on S3 and related services, Amazon has a particularly heavy responsibility not only to fix the problem quickly but to explain it fully.
UPDATE: As of 10:17, Amazon reports, "We’ve resolved this issue, and performance is returning to normal levels for all Amazon Web Services that were impacted. We apologize for the inconvenience. Please stay tuned to this thread for more information about this issue." An S3 user suggests: "A health monitor would be useful - something to show what amazon thinks the status of the services are and to post official information. Maybe even proactive alerts or something I could tie our other infrastructure notifications into so I could be proactive in alerting our downstream affected users." Another complains: "Amazon's response was substandard in this case. I should, minimally, see a message on the front page at aws.amazon.com when there's a complete outage." I would expect that Amazon will roll out additional tools for monitoring service status and alerting users about problems in fairly short order.
Posted by nick at 09:03 AM | Permalink | Digg | Comments (14)
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