January 2009 Archives

The New Digital Britain

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So, you're all probably aware of the report that was issued today by the UK government, titled: "Digital Britain - The Interim Report".

Having spent this evening wading through the report (accompanied, it has to be said, by the remains of a fine bottle of St Chinian red and some exquisite goat's cheese), let me skip to the conclusion, the very start of which states:

"For Digital Britain, the measurable goals are that by 2012 we should aspire to have:

  • Universal Participation in the broadband world.
  • Highly capable and robust networks.
  • A world leading position in the Communications and Creative Industries.
  • High quality digital delivery of essential Public Services."

Now, I may be being a little naïve here and, having not actually lived full-time in the UK for over 14 years, have lost the plot slightly when it comes to what is and isn't realistic about just what is possible in the kingdom of the united (apart from the north-south divide, Scotland and Wales - and, er, Northern Ireland) but, with reference to the above points about what is achievable by 2012, that being - in IT terms - a revolution or two away...

Let's just try and get all of the UK online AT affordable prices AND with something approaching the claimed bandwidth being paid for (regardless of whether this is ADSL, mobile data, whatever...)

There is ZERO excuse NOT to have highly capable and robust networks right now. I work with a number of UK start-ups who can provide ultra-affordable technology that makes any network capable and robust.

World-leading position in Communications and Creative industries? Well, the UK IS the leader in quality music, comedy and films. Just that the government refuses to provide the right levels of assistance to let the rest of the world realise this - Hollywood anyone? And who makes money out of delivering content at the moment?

Delivering public services - so, the paper makes a point about the significant increase in the use of the online tax declaration service. Well, it would, wouldn't it? In other words, what is an essential public service from the government perspective, as opposed to the public perspective (which, of course, might result in approximately 60 million different responses).

I'm not trying to be picky and anti-gov here; just that - as always - these reports just seem out-dated by the time they hit the front pages and naïve to boot? Who does the research and how long before the publish date?

Maybe if the government used blogging instead of commissioned reports...

What really appals me is that, here I am, testing fantastic UK start-up technologies that massively ease the delivery of high-speed Internet services into the home and office (note I'm not talking bandwidth here) yet this report appears oblivious of such technology on its own doorstep. If there is - fat chance - a government official reading this, then please do get in touch.

Anyway - more on this tomorrow, when I have chance to read the report properly but, thus far, I don't see anything that suggests the UK government will strive to financially aid the development of UK broadband delivery. Just ensuring that when someone pays for a 10meg kink, they actually get something approaching 10meg would be a start...

ProCurve ONE: Cream Laced With Alcohol

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Just back from a ProCurve press event in Chantilly, where we had dinner in the simply magnificent Chateau de Chantilly: http://www.chateaudechantilly.com/chateauchantilly/uk/galeriepeinture.html

So now you're beginning to work out the puns in the title. If you haven't read about it, the key announcement here, other than the astonishing headline: "British journalists get p****d in posh chateau" - was ProCurve ONE (check out for yourself the acronym) which is essentially much the same as them taking ownership of a domain name called www.lets-beat-up-cisco.com  - which is not necessarily a bad thing; I love competition and both are clients of mine so...

http://h40060.www4.hp.com/procurve/se/sv/one/index.html - for more info.

In other words, it's ProCurve going for the "best of breed" vendor mix alternative to Cisco's in-house Cisco-badged solution. Of course, most of that stuff is bought in too; just that Cisco flashes its wallet a lot more often than HP does, so it can put a Cisco badge on it. And, as my old Thingamy.com mate Sig Rinde would say, "Best of Breed prevents you from moving to the "Better" solution, "Better" being better than "best"; which is true - remember the game as kids when you had to think of the highest number you could and then your mate says "Mine's that number, plus one".

For me, the ONE concept (rather than the PLUS ONE concept) - still makes a lot of sense, so long as the IT manager is confident enough to believe the reseller/integrator/ex car salesman/ex broker/ex prime minister when they say: "ok, so there are several vendor parties involved in this solution but there really is a single point of contact, whatever happens, honest guv" - but really says more about the vendor partners involved than ProCurve itself. Bear in mind we are talking here about a networking company that has grown significantly year on year, despite HP, the parent company, being openly more concerned with supporting Cisco (as a partner) sales than its own networking division, but that suddenly IS getting real support from HP and has seen 30% growth in the last year, performing three times the market average in some product areas. So, who needs who more  - ProCurve its partners, or its partners ProCurve. Or do they simply see it as a means of getting closer to the marital bed that is acquisition?

Since it was pretty data centre centric, er - is that proper Yorkshire? - you might be interested in what Cisco's data centre (or center in his case) guy, Mark Weiner, thinks about it: http://blogs.cisco.com/datacenter/comments/hp_one_--_or_should_we_say_many/#more

While the choice of partners for ProCurve ONE was pretty obvious - mainly longstanding partners of other divisions of HP - Server, EDS etc - in truth, it's not exactly a ramshackle bunch - far from it; just that I know a set of UK start-ups who would bring much more to a real one:one partnership with HP ProCurve. And I'm making sure the guys at HP know who they are...

P.S. The great thing about having events in France rather than the UK? I don't have to drink Australian wine...

P.P.S. England, however, makes some excellent wines - jus that you're never offered them at events in England. If you're still not convinced, try this: http://www.waitrosewine.com/230551163/Product.aspx - I took some back to France with me for Christmas and it went down a storm (and this part of France I'm writing this blog in is well used to those).

2009 - A Virtual Year?

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I was alerted recently to an interesting conundrum that is VMworld 2009.

This is an exhibition, hosted by VMware, taking place next month in Cannes - and you can take a stroll around the virtual exhibition at www.vmworld.com - I managed to head to the bar and, in attempting to play the piano, won a free T-shirt by uncovering a hidden map.

At this point you're probably thinking I've had one over the eight, or been smoking something slightly stronger than a Marlboro Light. In both cases you'd be wrong - you really can do this stuff at on the VMworld website. The question is - in what is a virtualised world, hosted by a virtualisation company, why actually have a real, physical exhibition? That said, based on previous experience, not much in Cannes can be described as "real" - especially the people.

So, in a previous blog I somewhat jokingly asked whether 2009 was going to be the year of video conferencing (again) but a somewhat more serious suggestion is that it could well finally be the year of virtualisation (as well as of the Ox in China of course), with due apologies to all old IBMers who have been using VM for 30+ years. After all, if consolidation and cost-saving is the name of the game, who isn't going to give virtualisation some space on their servers? In the Broadband-Testing labs we've had VMware installed long before the company was even acquired by EMC - and that is in the dim and distant past now. And there was a real issue with it in the early days. Yes, it worked, but it ran like the proverbial dog. And the last thing you want to do is make some incarnation of Windows server go even slower...

However, recent testing with the likes of my mates Zeus (app delivery controllers) and Solarflare (10 Gig adapters) has shown that VMware, MS Virtual Server and Xen have got significantly more efficient, to the point that we were basically able to achieve line rate at 10Gbps running in virtual environments. That is on a server platform it should be said. At desktop level, virtualisation hasn't been quite so warmly embraced yet. However, Citrix and Intel have just announced a joint development of a new "bare metal" hypervisor that runs independently of the client OS, good for security, and should offer better performance than before, since it allows applications to run on the local client, not at a remote server. Very PC.

Back on the server front, this wave of virtualisation means a lot of re-testing is required, as well as finding new management tools to make sure everything is running as it should. It's one thing to monitor a single server instance, but when you have - say - three or four virtual servers running on one physical server, it makes life a lot more, ahem, interesting. My mates up at NNT - NewNetTechnologies - reckon they have a solution for this, so we'll be putting it to the test over the next few weeks. I'll let you know how it goes...

Down, Down Deeper And Down: The fate of Nortel

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Rock bands are incredibly good at re-inventing themselves.

Think of Led Zep's mega-successful O2 gig a year ago, Status Quo back on tour this year, the likes of Deep Purple, Stones etc , all still going strong. And when I say "re-invent" actually they're just churning out minor variations on an old theme, or no variation at all - just the original played 30 or 40 years after in a, ahem, somewhat more mature fashion.

Unfortunately, it's not quite so easy in the IT world, hence Nortel's fall from grace as it moves into Chapter 11 territory. And, amidst daily reports of thousands upon thousands of job losses by the major vendors - be they networking or mainstream IT - the obvious question is, who is next to fall by the wayside?

But starting with Nortel's demise, it's not over-stating the case to say that certain things in life are predictable - and I don't mean simply observing last month's stock performance, when they plummeted to as low as 37 cents from a recorded high of $17.17 - and that's a 52-week high for 2008, not an historical one - but more that I predicted this eight years ago.

Nortel was a really good client of mine, with excellent an excellent network product range - largely through acquisition - developed during the '90's. Then, around the start of the current decade, just as the first pops were sounding in the .com bubble, I wrote an article for a LAN magazine in Holland, where I studied the acquisition trends of the major network vendors, what they had acquired, what they had done with it and what directions there were publicly heading in.

For Nortel, the answers were very illuminating. Courtesy of a product matrix, identifying products against target markets/customers, I was disturbed to note that many products which had been developed for the SMB and enterprise markets - real customers in other words - were being matched-up against the Service Provider market space. Having, by this time, met many ISP top-level guys and noted how they were wasting billions of $$$ of US pension funds on the manic chase for physical networks ("real estate or land-grab") across the world and creating unfeasibly grand OpEx as a result, while having nothing to offer customers other than bandwidth and loss-leading Internet access, I didn't exactly see this an ideal long-term sales strategy by Nortel (and others). After all, how many global ISPs do you need?

So, in choosing to ignore the 93% of the global market that is SMB business, the warning signs were well and truly lit for me. Moreover, I then did a project for Nortel, testing a beta version of a very promising unified messaging system which promptly got canned before release. At this time I was working with both the LAN-oriented Nortel Networks (primarily the Bay Networks acquisition plus other acquisitions) and the traditional, voice-oriented Nortel of origin. And I could see the two halves a perfect circle did not make. And now, in looking at the Nortel product range - beyond what the company has OEM'd - it's fair to say that the product a tad off the pace. Interesting how the 'spin-off' Netgear seems to have been rather more successful through focus and a realistic product range.

And now we're back in full-on merger mode, as I described earlier in the week. Given the history of mergers (remember 3Com and US Robotics?) is this a sign of panic or truly the way forward? Only time will tell. Funnily enough, talks of Nortel merging with just about everyone on the planet had been rife for the past two years. Maybe folks aren't that desperate to form mergers...

Happy 2009 - Consolidate Through Acquisitions

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So, with all the news of budgets being slashed and people being made redundant in their droves (a kind of ancient farming vehicle) is it appropriate to wish you all a belated happy new year?

If the IT vendor world is anything to go by, then yes. While the likes of Sun, Dell and others may be reducing staffing count at a rate of knots, at the same time, the merger and acquisition game has started in full swing, a bit like Andy Murray's tennis season. My old mate Trapeze Networks (a WLAN company that was acquired by a cable company!) has gone on the acquisition trail itself, taking in Newbury Networks, a provider of location and tracking technology. So you will be able to register exactly who is hacking into your WLAN to steal free Internet access (who wants your data?) and exactly where they are doing it from and, er, still do sod all about it. Probably...

Meantime, another client of mine, Force 10 Networks has announced a merger with the Carrier Ethernet guys (a bit like a carrier pigeon but slightly faster) Turin Networks, which kind of looks like an alternative rival to the finally completed Brocade (SAN) and Foundry Networks merger. It seems that it's all about consolidating the data centre with the backhaul/last mile access. Maybe we will finally get an affordable giant Ethernet network that replaces the traditional LAN/WAN combo.

Or maybe not. But, if not, don't worry - interestingly enough, most of the products and vendors I'm working with at the moment are designed to enable you to extract every last drop of performance and application availability without spending any more on infrastructure (other than a few grand on the boxes themselves). The reality is that it's still more cost-effective to make more of what you already have, whether it's WAN bandwidth, storage or whatever. You just need to be smarter in the way you use it. I get stories all the time of companies splashing out serious £££s on 10Meg WAN links and beyond, then find they are using maybe 20% of the bandwidth, but the apps that ran badly before, still are. Guys, have you heard of "latency"?

And, talking of latency and applications that hate it, could 2009 finally be the year of Video Conferencing? Fans of Liverpool FC (not me) will be familiar with the "this is the year of..." syndrome, and I think I read my first "this is the year of video conferencing" headline back in around 1994. Or was it 1894? Either way, this year should be the year of video conferencing, if folks really want to save time, money and the planet (allegedly). So, I wanted to conf with one of my mates at a vendor client of mine, but he's flying to Helsinki today. I'm waiting to catch up with a guy from the test equipment vendor Spirent, but I have to wait until he flies back from the Far East. Strangely enough, I can't recall the last time I went on a flight that wasn't teeming with people. Actually I can - January 2000, Heathrow to Washington DC...

So, 2009 - year of the survival instinct maybe, which may or may not included increased Video Conferencing, but should definitely feature optimising. Speculate to consolidate...