April 27, 2007

Sun Labs: Where Engineers Engage Their Passion And Have Fun

Yesterday I had the good fortune of attending the annual open house at Sun Labs in Menlo Park, California. If I had know that engineers could have that much fun or that network security/encryption experts could have the bandwidth of knowledge and sense of humor of Radia Perlman I might have stuck with engineering and not gone to law school.

The day was an intellectual holiday, free of the usual trappings and marketing hoopla surrounding vendor sponsored events. I learned about Project Live* (pronounced Live Star) a new virtualization technology; Project Sun spot – an experimental platform for developing wireless sensor, robotics and swarm intelligence applications in Java; new authentication schemas for web security and the Ephemerizer project which is designed to provide assured delete by employing public key cryptography and the planned destruction of keys as a means to delete access.

The environment was purely intellectual and the only sales type I ran into was from one of the major research houses. Engineers were indeed exercising their passion and zeal as much as any attorney representing their clients. They were hoping to enlist disciples who would help to move their various projects from the laboratory to reality. In many respects it was refreshing to engage in discussion about so many concepts in their product infancy. It was especially intriguing for me to address the issue of document control simultaneously from the technical and legal aspects.

I bought a copy of Whit Diffie’s latest book “Privacy on the Line” which he was kind enough to autograph with a personal note. Whit and I go back a long way – in fact to my first published market forecast at my very first research job. The day was not all joy, however, because Whit told me that one of our mutual friends had recently passed away. Paul Heckle was a good and gentle man who always concerned with the future of software, ease of design. A rare bright light in the technical landscape.

I’m grateful to Sun Labs for giving me a day away to see the future, but remember the past.

April 25, 2007

More Thoughts on Energy and Efficiency

The other day I was again pondering energy efficiency in the data center, as I am prone ot due with my own idle brain/CPU cycles. Virtualization remains a hot topic as many organizations seek to shift their physical server workloads onto virtualized servers supported by a smaller number of servers/blade solutions. One part of the rationale is to reduce ongoing operational costs and capital expenditure, but now another common reason is energy savings. Although perhaps a later entrant into this efficiency discussion, storage solutions are getting with the energy efficiency program as organizations are beginning to consider the ramifications of having “all those disks” spinning around all the time. The ever declining price points of SATA and other lower cost disk technologies have further highlighted the operational vs. procurement costs of storage especially in secondary and tertiary tier solutions. However for the most part, storage still tends to be over deployed, underutilized, and full of duplication as the management of it proves more difficult in some cases than simply throwing more empty disks at the problem.

One company that has been taking the new approach to reducing the amount of storage over deployment is 3PAR. The company is self described as a utility storage provider and uses an approach it has dubbed as “Thin Provisioning” with goal of delivering more storage capacity with less physical storage. According to a recent press release, 3PAR Thin Provisioning customers collectively have a worldwide energy savings of approximately $6.6 million annually. This savings eliminates 48,000 metric tons of CO2, the carbon emissions equivalent of roughly 9,000 cars. Hewlett Packard of course has been on a tear regarding energy efficiency in the datacenter and EMC has elevated the discussion to the power consumption of its large storage arrays. Sun Microsystems has a greener side to its servers and VMware has participated with PG&E, the California electric utility, to offer rebates on virtualized servers that displace older physical servers. EMC through its acquisition of Avamar has taken a big step forward in eliminating duplication in the storage network and reducing the amount of bandwidth taken up by shuffling around duplicate copies of files and backing them up multiple times. It would be cool to figure what the equivalent reduction in automobile emissions of CO2 would be for reduced delivery of files across the network.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the issue of power consumption will remain in the forefront of IT budgets especially as the price of oil of creeps back toward $70.00 a barrel with corresponding high price of electricity in many jurisdictions. Although for many this means a budgetary driven desire to reduce power consumption, the reality is that competitive advantage can be achieved by reducing power consumption and datacenter footprint regardless of the price for energy. Free market energy prices are dynamic, and in some cases government subsidies distort prices, however, the price is typically constant amongst competitors in a given region. Company A can’t buy electricity for less for Company B therefore regardless of the price paid if Company A reduces its overall consumption, it is in a better competitive position than Company B. Of course a corollary reduction in carbon emissions is also achieved by a reduction in fuel consumption and in some markets the carbon footprint and proposed taxes/mitigation fees may ultimately prove to be a higher economic penalty than the cost of the fuels being consumed. But at the end of the day, consuming less energy has a growing number of factors in its favor.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to tour Fujitsu Siemens Computers’ manufacturing plant in Augsburg Germany. It was somewhat surprising to see actual high tech manufacturing still taking place in the western European country. However what more enlightening was the comment from one of the tour guides that the price advantage China has in electronics manufacturing is predicated on the price of oil remaining below $90.00 a barrel. If the price of energy were to exceed this level, then the labor costs and other resource driven issues no longer work to China’s advantage as the cost of shipping trumps these other advantages. Thusly, it follows that $100 per barrel oil could make IT manufacturing competitive again in regions such as North America or Western Europe despite more stringent regulatory environments and higher costs of doing business. This illustrates how the price of energy may be a short term advantage but though reduced consumption of energy can translate into a long-term competitive advantage.

So while many will continue to be fixated on the dollar cost of energy consumption in the datacenter I think the ultimate winners will be the ones who can orient themselves to use less of any resource be it energy, server CPU time, storage capacity, or networking bandwidth, amongst others. All of these resources have costs in deployment, operations, and retirement. One of the current children’s songs by Jack Johnson, The 3 R’s, includes the phrase, “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.” We can all learn a lot from this approach. As consumers of IT, we have become spoiled with expectation of improved performance and decreased acquisition costs for equipment but have also become wasteful in how we deploy IT.

Historically many cultures have supported being good stewards of the resources they were blessed with whether they were crops, land, livestock or money. The notion of living well, but living efficiently and with a small footprint, was the way of life. Although many consider the 21st century to be far more advanced and civilized than past cultures, the reality is a life on earth has not changed all that much. Human beings still face the challenge of allocating resources efficiently and effectively. So while we may look to IT to be the silver bullet that fixes many of the business challenges organizations face, the reality is that IT is just another collection of tools and resources in the corporate competitive tool chest. By being as efficient as possible in the deployment and operation of these tools organizations stand the best chance to become the long term survivors, and hence the winners in the marketplace.

April 19, 2007

Mainframe Security Still High Card In Security Deck

I had the good fortune to attend a briefing from IBM on their latest security announcements for their Z Systems. It’s been a really long time since my last encounter with mainframes. In fact it dates back to my first iteration as analyst way back in the 1980s, the days of 35 MM projectors and 5 ¼” floppy disks. My first encounter goes back even further than that.

In those days there weren’t very many alternatives to mainframes and many of us cut our teeth on programming by punching holes in cards and eagerly waiting for reams of printouts on very large sheets of bar laden paper. The first computer I ran was an IBM 1130 for Chrysler. About the size of an attorney’s desk, it had three huge plastic discs, a card reader and a very impressive, loud, and dust generating 1403 Printer. It could do only one thing at a time with a Star Trek like cluster of green lights flashing away and one great big green light which, as I recall, said simply ‘run’. I remember sitting at the console doing some of my MBA homework when the Dodge Division Regional Manager came in – they were Gods in the Regions and this one in particular terrified many of my colleagues. “Larry why aren’t you working? Why are you just sitting there reading a book?” he bellowed at me. “Mr Robbins”, I replied “as long as this little green light is on, this little machine is working its little heart out and so am I.”

The mainframe was the workhorse for Chrysler and its safety net. When I accidentally erased all of the vehicle sales for a particular month by punching the wrong number in the month column, the IT guys and gals in Detroit came to my rescue and retransmitted the files. Ah yes, I’ve always been quite fond of mainframes.

In some ways it was gratifying to know that they are still cranking away and that IBM has evolved the mainframe architecture to be as relevant today as back then. The briefing was an eye opener for me. I was especially intrigued by the notion of a specialty engine and how this architecture contributed to optimizing the encryption process. End to end encryption in the IPSec world is important and may, over time, evolve to be the standard for sensitive data such as personally identifiable data. Consequently efficient encryption, without the sacrifice of bandwidth or thruput speed is essential.

I was also quite impressed by the attention given to Linux. I had always assumed that Linux was a creature of servers and PCs that had outlived their usefulness a generation or two ago. Ever mindful of new marketing approaches, IBM touts that mainframes are really green frames because according to them “the IBM System z9 Enterprise Class (EC) may provide up to 4 times the same work in the same space and may provide up to 12 times the work for the same power consumption.”

So as I sit here learning the ins and outs of my new Dell Vista laptop I take comfort in the fact that there are mainframes snuggling in their data centers just cranking away as they’ve done for 40 years.