Stories by Ephraim Schwartz

Where should Obama spend his tech stimulus?

Now that the excitement of the inauguration of a new president is over, the anticipation begins, especially in the high-tech community. Why? Because the new administration has promised to stimulate the U.S. economy by <a href="">spending billions of dollars on high tech</a>.

Is IT ready for mandated XBRL?

Given all the pressures IT is under, another compliance initiative may seem to be one too many. There is such a mandate: to submit financial reports using XBRL (Extensible Business Reporting Language) tags. How much will the XBRL mandate add to IT's burden? At first, the burden will be small, but it will increase over time &#8212; as will the opportunity to use XBRL for better internal operations, not just for reporting compliance.

Mesh wi-fi plus RFID gives traceability a boost

Call it the proverbial canary in the coal mine or a leading indicator, but what wi-fi chip designer AeroScout announced recently in cooperation with the US Air Force points to our future.
It does so because, as wi-fi becomes ubiquitous and combines further with mesh networks, RFID and GPS, we are sure to witness dramatic changes in our society.
And I'm not sure it will all be to the good.
Using currently available GPS chips, wi-fi, and high-gain antennas, AeroScout will give the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) the ability to locate any aircraft and any aircraft part left anywhere within the confines of its 110-million-square-foot desert facility, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Arizona.
When complete, AeroScout's technology will do this with GPS chips attached to thousands of pieces of equipment. Yet, thanks to the high-gain antennas, the system only requires 42 wi-fi access points.
Besides broadcasting the position of equipment to AMARG's wi-fi network, the battery-operated GPS systems include motion sensors and on-board thermometers within the chip design to enable AMARG managers to track the location, condition, and status of parts from a single network.
Add the increasing value proposition of mesh, and you just might see where this technology is heading.
What makes the mesh-network specification particularly unique is its bucket-brigade architecture, which passes data from node to node until it lands at its end point.
The significance of mesh is the lower cost of deploying a wireless network outdoors. Mesh does not require each access point to be hardwired to an Ethernet connection. In addition to cost savings, the time to lay out such a wireless network is also greatly reduced.
Once the price and ease-of-use of mesh comes down, the availability of the technology will increase a hundred-fold. We will surely witness more and more uses for this integration of technologies.
Cisco already has wireless access points, each with two radios. The wi-fi radio handles access, and the second radio is dedicated to wireless interconnectivity, or the meshing across wireless and wired access points.
Along with this hardware, Cisco also deploys AWPP (Adaptive Wireless Path Protocol), essentially its algorithm for selecting the best data path among the many access points laid out in a coverage area.
Combined with RFID, increasingly expansive mesh networks will describe a future in which nothing &#8212; or everything &#8212; is lost.
Already miniaturised to the size of a grain of rice, RFID chips will communicate over mesh networks, hopping from wi-fi-enabled device to wi-fi-enabled device until the end point. Every product will soon come with an embedded GPS or RFID chip so well hidden that a thief will never suspect it is there.
In 20 years, maybe less, it will be extremely difficult to steal anything. What's the sense of robbing a house and taking the flat-panel TV if you would have to take it apart to find and disable the locator chip?
In fact, the embedded chips in stolen goods would use the thieves' own wi-fi-enabled devices to hop across the network to reveal the location of the stash.
I'll take it one step further: How can you kidnap someone if they have a chip embedded somewhere under their skin? Chips are easily implanted under the skin by the equivalent of an inoculation.
Remember, an elite unit of the Attorney General's office in Mexico City had verification chips embedded in the upper arms of 160 officers as a means of securing access to its anti-crime datacentre.
And, according to a report published in the Washington Post, about 1,000 patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease have been implanted with an RFID chip.
It goes without saying that everything from losing your glasses or your passport and your wallet will be a thing of the past.
My guess is that the only thing that will disappear is cold, hard cash. If every person is tagged, it will be quite convenient for the cost of whatever you buy to be taken out of your bank account or charged to your credit card automatically because your chip will identify you as a unique individual.
We will live in a world where everything and everyone is accounted for. Product lifecycle management will have to move over and make room for people lifecycle management, tracked from birth to death with our location known at every moment.
The question is: Known by whom?
Tom Yager returns soon

Why XBRL is good, mandate or no

Like any government mandate, the SEC's requirement to use XBRL (Extensible Business Reporting Language) in public companies' financial reports cannot be ignored. However, along with the government stick comes a number of beneficial carrots.

Citrix to release Xen apps for iPhone

Next year, Citrix will make its XenDesktop and XenApp client and server software for remote access to Windows applications available for the iPhone.

Real-time business intelligence comes via CI

Sometimes changing the name of a product isn't just marketing sleight of hand; occasionally, it actually succeeds in giving potential customers insight into the true purpose of the product at hand.
And so we find Coral8 CEO Terry Cunningham, whose company sells what is traditionally called CEP (complex event processing) technology, telling me that he would like to see that technology called &quot;continuous intelligence&quot;, or CI, instead.
What CI attempts to do is to remove the divide between the transaction and query systems.
When you eliminate lag time between OLTP (online transaction processing), event analysis, and the automated execution of a subsequent event, you end up with a very powerful tool.

Does IT have a strategic stake in business?

Inspired by the first presidential debate where McCain and Obama disagreed whether the military surge in Iraq was a strategy or a tactic, I spoke to two technologists whose opinions I respect to find out what is strategic and what is tactical when it comes to IT.
Mathew Porta, vice president and partner for global technology strategy at IBM Global Services, and Josh Greenbaum, principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting, were kind enough to shed light on the differences.
As far as Porta is concerned, the idea that an enterprise can develop its business strategy without IT and then expect IT to execute it is just too simplistic these days.
&quot;For many industries, technology informs the art of the possible,&quot; Porta tells me.
The possible being in this case your vision or goal for your company.
Greenbaum, however, disagrees. In fact, he goes so far as to call Porta's strategic view of IT &quot;idealistic&quot;. Greenbaum takes a far more tactical approach, explaining that companies do indeed decide on their business goals first and then figure out how IT should go about maximising those goals.
&quot;It's not a question of, 'Can we take that hill?' We have to take the hill,&quot; Greenbaum says. &quot;We don't have a choice.&quot;
According to Greenbaum, taking the hill is the strategy, and it is IT's job to figure out how to do it. That's where tactics come in.
In contrast, Porta believes that IT must be used to help a company figure out what its vision should be in the first place. Whether a company wants to be a media company or a service company, for example, IT must be part of that decision-making process. In other words, do we have a realistic strategy?
Once informed by IT, there needs to be a roadmap of how to get there, with tactics filling in the steps along the way.
Greenbaum, however, says this is not how business works. As he sees it, General Motors says: &quot;We are going to be a surviving auto manufacturer. It is not IT's job &#8212; or the CIO's job, practically speaking &#8212; to say, No, you can't do that&quot;.
This is the fundamental difference between the two points of view.
And while I'm not sure there is one right answer, I have a gut feeling that, in the case of GM, for example, it might have to be the CIO who delivers the bad news.
&quot;You know what, we're not going to be one of the surviving auto manufacturers,&quot; the CIO might say, adding, &quot;Maybe we ought to sell before anyone realises it.&quot;
Porta sees the CIO in that kind of role &#8212; a business leader rather than an IT manager; a value creator rather than a cost controller; an innovator rather than an operator.
Greenbaum understands the differences.
&quot;IBM would love to have the voice of the CIO weighed more carefully at the decision-making point, but that is not the reality,&quot; he says.
More typically, the CIO is called into the boardroom when things go south and the he has to explain why.
Greenbaum concedes that for certain businesses, IT functionality is part of the competitive differentiator. At, say, Netflix, Amazon, or Google, IT is most certainly part of the strategy-making process. At most organisations, however, this is not the case.
&quot;In the CPG [consumer packaged goods] industry or luxury goods, it is brand, not technology, that is the competitive advantage,&quot; Greenbaum says. &quot;It is defined by your PR and marketing activities.&quot;
However, IT can make suggestions that help execute a company's strategy. If the strategy is to open your company to new markets overseas, for example, but your sales force in a particular underdeveloped country doesn't have laptops to use, it is IT's job to say, &quot;We can help the sales force do what it needs to do over cellphones.&quot;
If IT wasn't asked to be part of the vision-making process, the company might have had to change its strategy. I think that's what Porta means by technology informing the vision.
On this they agree: Strategy or tactic, IT is there to maximise business goals.

IT project failure is a matter of definition

When IT projects fail, who gets the blame? IT, of course. But with failure rates for projects often over 50%, the truth is, there's an awful lot of blame to go around.
I had a refreshing talk with Lewis Cardin, senior analyst at Forrester Research, about why IT projects fail, and he has a different point of view.

IT needs to get lean on manufacturing

IT a roadblock to progress? Never, you say. How can that be when IT lives and breathes innovation? Who else but IT dared to usher open source, XML, SOA and cloud computing out of the high-tech labs and into production systems?
Nevertheless, there is one aspect of technology where all of that daring doesn't seem to be in play.
Lean manufacturing systems, which turn traditional planning and forecasting &#8212; as found in the MRP (manufacturing resource planning) components of SAP and Oracle ERP systems &#8212; on their ear, are not something most IT people want to deal with, says Narayan Laksham, CEO, president, and founder of Ultriva. If you haven't guessed, Ultriva offers a software solution, Lean Execution System, that enables lean.

Prepaid software an attractive proposition

I'm writing about Aspen Technology not because you are likely to ever need its software (unless you own an oil refinery), but because the way the company allows its customers to purchase its smorgasbord of applications is unique &#8212; so much so that you may want to consider putting a little pressure on your vendors to consider the same.
As opposed to the traditional model, which includes a perpetual licence, and the newer SaaS (software as a service) model, which is pay-as-you-go, Aspen Technology offers a third way to license software, one more akin to buying a prepaid cellphone card.

How to avoid wrestling over SLAs

Service-level credits are a sore subject for vendors. Why shouldn't they be? They come right out of profits, after all. But credits should be a sore subject for customers as well, says Steve Martin, a partner at Pace Harmon, an outsourcing advisory firm.
&quot;Any company getting a service-level credit is probably in trouble,&quot; Martin says.
According to Josh Greenbaum, principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting, the fundamental problem of designing an SLA is being able to agree on success metrics &#8212; especially how they are measured and who will do the measuring. Without that, both sides will get no further than an argument over whether a credit is due.
SLAs remind me a bit of the old, very sad joke with the punch line: &quot;the operation was a success but unfortunately the patient died.&quot; So, what you may end up with is a company hitting all the SLA's marks, only to discover that the company's customers are extremely dissatisfied with the service. In other words, the SLA was worthless because it wasn't measuring what it needed to measure.
Clearly, there should be some form of penalty for late delivery of a poorly implemented system, but the real questions are: Why was the delivery late, and what caused the delays? Especially if the project is mission-critical &#8212; say, changing your entire accounting system. Yes, everyone should understand what the penalties are for failure, but if penalties are what you are counting on to prevent failure, you're in for some bad news.
An ironclad prenupt doesn't guarantee a good marriage, Greenbaum says.
The obvious truth is that all the service-level credits in the world aren't going to fix the problem.
While Martin doesn't advocate eliminating credits, which he calls a euphemism for penalties, he does believe the goal is to get back to steady-state operation rather than pointing fingers and demanding credits.
At issue is setting the right milestones, having everyone agree to them, and getting that knowledge dispersed throughout both companies.
When writing an RFP or negotiating a contract, you can ask the service provider to tell you the average number of credits it gave out in the past year. But good luck getting any of them to admit it.
When negotiating any contractual arrangement, it's good to remember &quot;it's an unequal fight&quot;, Greenbaum says.
Global service providers have armies of lawyers who can outgun almost anyone, including some of the world's largest corporations. Even Fortune 1000 companies with their own team of negotiators are not as experienced as the giant service providers in negotiating IT contracts.
Although I must keep all parties anonymous, I know of one case where, more than five years after the contract was signed, the company wanted to use a new vendor for just one small part of services received, and the service provider pulled &#8212; as if out of a hat &#8212; a clause in the contract that automatically kicked in a whole new set of higher-tier pricing for all of the services across the board, thus wiping out any savings from the project.
Success in outsourcing relationships starts with the contract and has to continue through to monitoring those SLAs, not to be able to say &quot;gotcha&quot; to the other guy when something goes wrong, but to ensure your company gets what it needs to be successful.
Frank Hayes returns soon

Cloud computing brings dangers as well as benefits

The idea of cloud computing &#8212; designed around an architecture whose natural state is a shared pool outside the enterprise &#8212; has gained momentum in recent months as a way to reduce cost and improve IT flexibility. But the use of cloud computing also carries with it security risks, including perils related to compliance, availability and data integrity.

Withstanding globalisation's impact on IT

A recent survey of enterprise executives has found that &#8212; not surprisingly &#8212; IT executives are more averse to globalisation than their peers from other departments.
The survey, summarised in &quot;The Benefits and Challenges of Globalization,&quot; was conducted by EquaTerra, a consulting firm that makes its living advising companies on how to refine their processes, a practice that often relies on some measure of outsourcing. With that in mind, I called Stanley Lepeak, EquaTerra's managing director of research.

Group to promote Macs in the enterprise formed

A consortium of five companies has announced the creation of the Enterprise Desktop Alliance (EDA). The aim of the group is to promote the deployment of Macs in the enterprise. The five founding companies &#8212; Centrify, LANrev, Atempo, GroupLogic, and Parallels &#8212; are all focused on integrating the Mac operating system and infrastructure with Windows and PC-based network infrastructure for large companies.

IEEE task force approves power boost over Ethernet

Convergence took on a new meaning last week when the IEEE 802.3at task force approved the third draft of the PoE (Power over Ethernet) Plus specification, which will converge power lines with Ethernet over an Ethernet cable.