Been to Mars!

Virtually, at least.

If you followed RedPixie’s tweet last week, I went to the e-Infrastructure South business event at the Space Research Centre in Didcot. There, they have a large HD video wall made up of 24 monitors which showed a panorama from Curiosity. Standing in front of that was like being there, almost.

I did feel old by the end of the day, having listened to the talks on GPUs. I started my commercial career in 1988 at AMT, a company that made a parallel processor, the DAP. It was about the size of a desk cabinet. Now, much more power than that is available in an NVidia GPU. Furthermore, no-one had even heard of AMT and the DAP. In many ways my career has come full circle, which is not a bad thing.

Incidentally, I solved my Ctl-Alt-Del problem from the previous post by the simple expedient of changing the hot key combination in VMware Workstation. Simple.

PoC is easy

Working for RedPixie on a VDI PoC at a client recently, we were asked “how have you guys managed to get all this VDI working so quickly when everyone else has tried and failed?”

The answer is that installing software out of the box in a greenfield proof of concept environment is easy. Whether it be vCloud Director or Citrix Streaming Server, installing it is half a days work. But you can’t do that and then say “I’ve installed a cloud for the client”.

All the technical challenges in these types of professional services engagements are to do with integrating the product into the existing environment. Environments that have evolved over decades and are embedded with processes built one way and resistant to be change. I like the analogy of changing the direction of a supertanker. Every client’s environment is different. Understanding it, and the culture, is as important as understanding the product.

What is an application?

Working for RedPixie, I have recently been working on streaming applications. Or, to use Numecent‘s phrase, “cloud paging”. I see a slow but steady increase in interest in these technologies, going hand in hand with renewed interest in VDI (after some initial disappointment). At the end of the day, all most users want to do is run their apps. I don’t think they care how they get their apps, so long as they are fast, reliable and accessible. I don’t think they care what operating system it runs on: Windows, MacOS, IOS, or a gaming console.

It is helpful to define what an application actually is, as opinions may vary. A program, certainly. But not all programs are applications. “Program” is the most general term and in IT we like to be a bit more specific and separate our programs into types.

Most ITers would agree there are a set of programs called “utilities”, which may or may not mean “middleware”. To me a utility boils down to something which has no lasting results. It does not “create”. A utility typically converts formats or moves existing things around. Examples of utilities would be calculators, printer drivers, clocks (Look in the “Utilities” folder on a Mac).

Middleware, to me, implies glue which allows systems to talk to one another: a format converter and communication program.

Databases are a clear subset of programs on their own.

Operating systems are a subset too but are themselves subdivided into onion rings of kernel, drivers, user interfaces and a million other “algorithms”.

Compilers and Editors? Have we reached applications yet? Well I think we’re getting close because to me an application is a program used to create something. The obvious examples are Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Photoshop and newer kids on the block like Prezi.

Games? Browsers? They don’t create anything, but are normally considered applications. Perhaps it’s not so easy to define after all. But then, perhaps we don’t need to try so long as words such as those above evolve to allow us to talk about groups of programs.

What got me started on this post was trying to find out all the “applications” I used, so that I could convert them into streamable packages. This in itself turns out to be non trivial! Where do you look on a PC…Programs and Features? That’s no good, it includes patches, hotfixes and well, programs. And what about the web-based apps I use? There is software which is used in large organisations that sniffs the network and identifies applications  in use by their network packet profile. Hardly surprising that an organisation can’t determine what apps it has if one person can’t.

In summary, “application” is a bad word. It’s too vague, there is no agreement on a definition. Where is the International Standards Organisation when you need an RFC on program types? (I’ll look shortly).

While I’m fairly confident that we are going to be streaming a lot more programs in the future, what we’re going to be streaming remains to be seen.

Briforum 2011!

I’m looking forward to BriForum London Tuesday and Wednesday this week in Stamford Bridge.

If you are going and would like more information about RedPixie, our products, consultancy, the cloud or meet me for a chat, drop me an email at duncan.baillie@redpixie.com or duncan@p2vpro.com.

Can we make better use of USB flash storage?

I’m a big fan of USB flash drives. You can buy a 256G flash drive today which is remarkable given that until 2005 most personal computers were still shipping with 2.88MB floppy drives. The capacity will certainly grow and the cost will certainly come down. It is not too hard to imagine a flash device weighing a couple of grams with 1TB of capacity in the not-too-distant future.

The question is, what can we use them for? What existing IT problems can we solve with these devices and what novel applications may spring up?

A feature of modern life is almost everyone carries with them a mobile phone. In many cases this is a smartphone so it is not a stretch to say everyone carries a few Gig around with them. To most people that just means they can play better games or store more music. But there seems to be an opportunity there to combine mobility and massive storage to solve more general IT problems.

As I work for RedPixie, a technology company specialising in virtualisation, I have ample opportunity to get involved with leading edge IT. In an increasingly “virtual” and “cloudy” world, particularly with reference to remote working, moving data around quickly is key, particularly “personal” data. In a Windows world that would be referred to as the “profile”. I see that as the chunk of config which makes your computer usage personal. An organisation may well have 2000 identical computers for people to use in terms of hardware and operating system (even apps). But you can guarantee that after a very short usage period , no two computers will be the same just because of the way an individual configures settings to suit themselves.

This whole problem comes under the banner of “profile management” and it’s pretty big business with several products in the marketplace targetted at storing, moving, applying and changing profiles.

I have a theory that a portable mass storage device seems like just the ticket for storing large amounts of personal data. I posed this question to my learned colleagues over a beer one evening. I was told it was a question that only a Unix person would raise :-). The key point is that as much as possible needs to be as close as possible i.e. compute, data and profile. If your compute and data is on the other side of the Atlantic it doesn’t help you that you carry your profile with you, you still have a latency/bandwidth problem.

But, my point is, with a 1TB flash drive you take EVERYTHING with you: O/S, apps, data and profile. All you use at the remote location is the compute hardware and human interface devices. This strategy is made easier by virtualisation where the O/S you carry can be a VM running on a corporate virtual platform.

What do you do, I said after a couple of beers, if your base is on Mars? The maximum latency there is 20mins. You have to take it with you. Much hilarity ensued but that’s another story.

Haggis

“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face”, as the first line to Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” goes. I mention it because I have just given my annual addressing the haggis at the Friends of Heath House (school) meeting. And in case you haven’t guessed, this post has nothing to do with IT. At least, I haven’t thought of an IT angle for Burns night yet.

(As I mentioned before, I spend all my working day living an breathing cloud, which is great, but working under conditions of client and employer confidentiality means I cannot yet blog about all the good stuff RedPixie are doing.)

So I am taking another blog as my inspiration, that of Julie Kertesz who I/we met at a Christmas dinner party at our house (school connection again). I try to read her (daily) blog on the train in the morning after City AM. She writes about life in general, and is a great example of the blogging medium.

This is a great way to use an iPhone, even if the connection is a bit flakey on the train. Unfortunately, this gives me less time for my other past-time, reading (particularly sci-fi). I am eager to finish off “The Seige of Wonder” my Mark Geston, an author I stumbled upon completely by accident by picking up “Out of the Mouth of the Dragon” from a second hand book stall in Spitalfields Market. The latter only came about because of the RedPixie connection, thus demonstrating the perfect way my professional life fits into my lifestyle.

So I’ve gone from Robert Burns to Mark Geston in the space of a few lines which I hope demonstrates there is a life for this blog outside of virtualisation.

RedPixie!!

Back in April, when I started this blog, I explained my reasons for doing so: to contribute to the Virtualisation revolution (having been through two major changes to IT in my career as more of a spectator).

Now, I am happy to announce that I have found a much better way of being a part of Virtualisation: I have joined RedPixie, a Virtualisation specialist company.

This means I can work on virtualisation solutions all day instead of an hour a day in the evening!

What this means for the blog is that the flavour will change. I will still be blogging about virtualisation in a technical and vendor agnostic way (other than maybe the odd plug for RedPixie products!)

I look forward to new projects and challenges.

Home kit

So I am excited to have finally ordered some home hardware from my friends at Redpixie! What I have gone for is:

  • Silverstone SG01F mATX Cube Case
  • Intel® Core” i5 Processor i5-670 3.46GHz (with VGA)
  • 8gb RAM Memory DDR3 1333MHz
  • 3.5″ HD SATA2 1TB 7200RPM 32MB Cache
  • Intel E1G42ET Gigabit Ethernet Card – PCI Express 2 Port – 10/100/1000Base-T

This does very well for them as a lab system and expect it to be good for me too.

Desktop Virtualisation Forum (cont.)

So, on to Roy Illsey of Ovum “Market Trends: Is 2010 the tipping point for Desktop Virtualisation?”. This technology is new and small. The global market for desktops is 600 million units. Virtualisation has about 1/2% of that market. But it’s not just about the technology, it’s about the process too. This is where there needs to be a change in mindset. There is a convergance in thinking between Vmware and Citrix and a growing “ecosystem”, as evidenced by this forum and others.

Last, but not least Simon Bullers CEO of RedPixie presented “Implementing best practice for desktop virtualisation”. His bullet points about how to deliver a successful desktop virtualisation project included:

  • Create a culture of teamwork. Think about whether you need a dedicated team or do as BAU. Get the Data Centre involved.
  • Create a culture of end users. Build positive PR within the organisation and an appetite for change.
  • Technology – Client. There are various types of client to consider, there are various types of application to consider. Build a demo lab.
  • Technology – Storage. Measure and optimise throughout the course of the project.
  • Technology – Platform. Server hardware, blades v racks. Type 1 or type 2 hypervisor. Blend?
  • Size for the peak users.
  • Process: spend time information gathering and planning. Decide on scheduling.
  • Agree the appetite for risk.
  • Process: difficult decisions, don’t get involved in a blame game.
  • Financials – it’s a mine field! Does it need to show an ROI? User chargebacks?

A quick executive summary: Windows 7 is the best reason to adopt so far but don’t play the funny numbers game (a reference I guess to the potential cost savings).

Many points to consider there and the forum as a whole very worthwhile. After this talk there was a panel Q&A session before lunch. I regret not being able to attend the afternoon breakout sessions where no doubt plenty of discussion took place and many thought provoking ideas developed from the morning themes.

To re-iterate what I said yesterday, I think to be truly successful, a desktop virtualisation project has to deliver 100%.  The overheads of maintaining two or more desktop platforms are going to kill any efficiencies quickly. That is why I would seek to convince the sceptics first and not start with the users who were already fans.

I was interested in the “Zero Client” device. This for me is the “ultimate” solution, or at least the most evolved of all the solutions currently in play. In some ways it is a direct descendant of a dumb terminal of the type Wyse manufactured 30 years ago. A serial line delivering ASCII characters has been replaced by the LAN or WAN delivering rich media over optimised protocols. I would put my money on these types of device to be the most successful as the field develops.

As to the next generation of device after that, I think it will naturally be led by advances in user interfaces in the field of human computer interaction. That field seems to have been quiet in recent years after the revolution in mice, graphics and workstations. Maybe that’s my cue to go and watch some more Sci-Fi movies…there must be another HCI revolution due soon?