Tuesday, 25 August 2009

What the heck is Cloud Computing?

The term 'Cloud Computing' takes its name from the fact that when representing the Internet on a computing diagram (such as a top level architectural diagram), it is represented as a cloud. The reason for this is to hide the technical details of the Internet from the diagram. As the Internet is really just a big network, containing servers, routers, virtual machines and so on, all of this detail is abstracted away behind a cloud for clarity and simplicity.

So the term 'Cloud' simply refers to the Internet.

So what is Cloud Computing?
There is no single, comprehensive definition of exactly what Cloud Computing is. In its most basic form, Cloud Computing is an architectural paradigm that relies on the Internet as its mode of delivery. It is a means of delivering services and applications through the Internet, independent of platform and hardware.

So rather than have applications installed locally, such as your word processor and spreadsheet, these applications would be delivered by the Internet. All your data files would be stored on the Internet too. All processing and computation would take place on a remote server.

All the local machine has to do is connect to the Internet.

This is not an entirely new concept. The idea of delivering applications and services via the Internet goes back to the early days of the Internet, circa the mid 1990s. However, there were too many technical problems for this to become a reality, such as the lack of available bandwidth. Whilst broadband may be common place now, a decade ago band width was nowhere near its current capacity.

In its simplest form, Cloud Computing has simply extended the concept of the thin client. The idea of the thin client is to free up the local machine by installing data and files on a remote server, typically on the same internal network. So a thin client is basically a client / server application, with all files and computation taking place on a remote server.

If you take this concept to its logical conclusion, the thin client becomes a dumb client, with the local machine holding no files or data whatsoever, and all applications and services are delivered by remote servers (the Cloud).

Application Virtualisation
Cloud Computing is dependant upon a technology called application virtualisation. This is a technology that allows applications and infrastructure to become independent of the underlying platform or operating system.

A fully virtualised application can run on any platform.

Virtualising an application means ensuring the application is completely self sufficient, and contains everything it needs to run. This self contained, virtualised application can then be deployed and run anywhere. If it can run anywhere, then it can be deployed to the Cloud.

One major benefit of Cloud Computing is not having to worry about the servers, hardware and infrastructure that is required to deliver the application or service. This runs in the Cloud, and is therefore someone else's problem to worry about.

There is now no longer a requirement to have to devote time and effort to developing and maintaining applications we are not expert in. As Cloud Computing applications run in virtual application environments, which are completely self contained, this is now no longer an issue.

The one size fits all approach typical of Cloud Computing applications, does not always work for large enterprises with complex requirements. They are general purpose applications for solving general purpose problems. For enterprises with specific problems, Cloud Computing may not be the answer.

For many enterprises and organisations, having data outside the firewall may pose a security threat. Remember, everything runs in the Cloud, and as we know all too well, communicating with the Cloud is not without its risks.

One of the major criticisms that has been aimed at Cloud Computing is the loss of control of data once it is in the Cloud. If the service provider is having technical problems, there may be delays in accessing your data. In the worst case scenario, you may not be able to access you data at all.

Many libertarians have stressed that Cloud Computing forces organisations and individuals to sacrifice their privacy and personal data to a third party. This is a particular issue for users of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Cloud Computing as a paradigm, has been built on top of more traditional models such as thin client computing, and simply taken this to its logical conclusion. One of the key underlying technologies used by Cloud Computing is application virtualisation, whereby an application is encapsulated so it is self contained, and can therefore be deployed on any platform, including the Cloud. While it has several benefits, the loss of privacy and personal data to a third party is a fundamental criticism that needs to be addressed if Cloud Computing is ever going to seriously compete with more traditional models of deployment.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Web has always been about communication

A Potted History
The World Wide Web was invented back in 1989 by the great English scientist Tim Berners-Lee. At its most fundamental, the Web is a system of interlinked hypertext documents that are accessed through the Internet. Just to clarify, the Internet is the underlying network of interconnected computers that provides the supporting infrastructure that powers the Web.

The Web is not synonymous with the Internet. The Web is an application that sits on top of the Internet.

In its infancy, the Web was initially used by scientists at CERN to exchange information with each other. This idea caught on quickly, and by the 1990s, the Web had grown into a huge information sharing and communications platform.

The Dot Com Bubble
Between the mid 1990s and early 2000, the Web had transformed into a transactional platform. This period was highlighted by the forming (and in many cases, subsequent failing) of many Internet based companies. The phrase 'dot com' comes from the fact that many Internet companies had the suffix .com on their Web addresses.

These companies were referred to as 'dot coms', and were building their empires using this new found technology. Many of them saw their stock prices soar, and the Web became the new silver bullet for every new venture and start up. The Web was seen as the new platform for commerce, and the main use for the Web at this time was for processing business transactions.

The Era of Social Media
Early 2000 saw a new breed of application enter the Web. These were sophisticated applications that allowed users to communicate with each other. Social media applications are intended to disseminate media through social interaction. Social media supports the need for humans to interact and engage with each other, using technology as the glue to bring them together.

Social media has surged in popularity, with a wide range of applications to choose from. These applications are all about engaging, connecting and communication. These are particularly popular with younger groups, including teenagers and young adults, but also popular among other groups.

Full Circle
So from its humble beginnings as an information sharing and communication platform, the Web evolved over the next decade into a transaction processing platform under the dot com bubble. Over the next decade, we have seen it transform into a social media platform. So in many ways, the Web has come full circle. Although it may have started out as a very rudimentary communications platform in comparison to today, it was, and still is a communications platform nonetheless.

The Web is a very versatile platform. It can be used for gaming, commerce and social media to name just a few of its applications. At its heart however, it has always been a communications platform, and this should not be forgotten by the entrepreneurs of the next killer application.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The future of the web with Web 3.0

The present situation
The web is changing rapidly. We currently have Web 2.0, with its emphasis on social media and all that those technologies imply. Since the dot-com era of the late nineties, with its boom and bust fluctuations, it has now settled down into a platform where users can interact with each other, and are in control of the information space. We have blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and podcasts. Content can be quickly shared, disseminated and updated like never before.

These changes have taken place over the last decade. Web 2.0 has been maturing and becoming a dominant feature of the web landscape. So what changes are we likely to see in the next decade?

Farewell specialist, hello polymath
One thing that seems certain is that the key players will need to change and react to the fluctuating demands of the Internet. This can be clearly seen in the recent output from both Microsoft and Google. We've seen Microsoft release a search engine (Bing), and Google release an operating system (Chrome). Each of these companies has released a product more usually associated with the other.

No longer can the big companies control the Internet by specialising in just one area. To become the dominant player means you need to control every part of it, and that includes both the search engine and underlying operating system. Microsoft and Google have both clearly understood this.

Structure and order
Web 2.0 is all about mashups, an abundance of information shared across various channels, using technologies such as RSS to share that information. This is unstructured and fragmented. Web 3.0 will bring integration, structure and order to that information. Tools and standards will be developed that lead to more uniform and consistent information sharing. Whilst mashups will almost certainly continue, they will do so in a more structured way.

Ontologies and taxonomies
Like the taxonomies used to categorise services in local government, and which allow the navigation and searching for services in a consistent manner across different councils, so search engines will move away from page ranking algorithms, to standard ontologies. This will make searching for information much easier and consistent. Information will be defined and categorised consistently, and search results will surrender information in a more egalitarian way.

Meta data is king
For this to happen, meta-data will become ever more important. A standard ontology by which all content will be categorised, will need to be developed. It will require independent validation and control, and so a likely candidate will be the World Wide Web Consortium, who currently draft many web standards already (including HTML and XML). The web will change from being document-centric to meta-data centric.

From anarchy to order
As inferred already, standards will come to dominate the web landscape. There will be a continual move from anarchy and chaos, to consistency and order. This will affect the underlying technologies used to provide content, to the search engines which index it, and all points in between.

We have seen major transitions in the web over the previous decade. The web will continue to change over the next decade, and shape into what will be known as Web 3.0. These are exciting times!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Developing a Web 2.0 strategy for local government

Following on from my earlier post about local government and Web 2.0, I would like to discuss in more detail about forming a strategy for implementing Web 2.0 in local government.

The two main factors to be discussed and agreed upon are what channels you will use, and what you intend to use them for.

However, more importantly, there needs to be a clear understanding of 'why' social media is being implemented. Without a clear appreciation of the benefits and uses of social media, any proposed strategy for its use will fail. What demographic group(s) are you trying to reach, and what do want to tell them?

As mentioned in my earlier post, social media gives local governments a very good vehicle in which to engage with harder to reach demographic groups, such as teenagers and young adults. It can give citizens a voice in decisions that affect their local communities. Social media can provide a two way communication channel, allowing citizens to be both informed (listen), and to have their say (talk). Social media presents local councils with unique opportunities that should be fully utilised.

Different social media channels work better than others for particular types of communication. For providing an 'online community', Facebook / MySpace may be suitable channels. For quick updates in real time, Twitter may be a more suitable channel. There are no rules, and each channel has its own particular set of advantages and disadvantages. Each social media channel should be used to its own particular strengths.

To summarise, any strategy for implementing Web 2.0 within local government should include answers to the following questions:
  • What do you want to achieve with social media? Why are you using it?
  • What social media channels will you use?
  • What do you want to use these channels for?
  • What resources do you have? Who will provide the content, who will post the replies, who will moderate the comments and so on.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Adopting Web 2.0 in local government

What is Web 2.0?
The term 'Web 2.0' has been attributed to Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media. He coined the term to refer to the applications and software technologies that promote the sharing of digital information between users.

Web 2.0 is very often used synonymously with the terms 'social media' and 'social networking'. Indeed, they are often so similar that in most cases they can be used interchangeably (and so will this blog).

Web 2.0 represents a group of technologies including blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, podcasts etc. Together, they provide a more socially connected web, where everyone is able to update the information space. This is obviously a much more egalitarian model, and so the web also becomes a good leveller.

Web 2.0 and local government
As Web 2.0 allows users to update the information space, irrespective of who they are, it is therefore more than ably suited to be used within local government, where social democracy is important to its constituents.

The use of social media is one way in which a local council can become more transparent, accountable and possibly even increase it's levels of trust amongst its constituents.

As stated earlier, Web 2.0 provides an egalitarian playing field, where every citizen can have their voice heard. In a Web 2.0 world, you do not need to be a celebrity, famous or powerful. However, having a web presence is not necessarily the same thing as having a voice, and the two should not be confused. This is where local councils can play a major part by giving their citizens a voice they may not have otherwise. This promotes the ideals of citizen empowerment.

Uses of Web 2.0 in local government
There are many examples of Web 2.0 being used within local governments. Lichfield District Council, in partnership with Jadu Content Management Systems, have implemented a Twitter feed for their planning applications, and developed an application called Twitterplan to allow citizens to receive more specific planning notifications.

Redbridge council used online polls to solicit feedback from its citizens in relation to the closure of Post Offices. Their web site is generally considered cutting edge, whether it is to your personal tastes or not.

One very important trend in the use of Web 2.0 within the local government space, is to engage with a wider, harder to reach audience, such as teenagers and young adults. Through the use of social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, local councils have a far greater ability to engage with these younger demographic groups. Such channels are also more cost effective than the alternatives.

Employee access to social media sites
There still seems to be a mis-conception that using social media sites leads to a lowering of productivity, and so in many places of employment (including local councils), there is a move to ban all such sites. So although the citizens may benefit from the adoption of social media, it seems that its staff seem to be losing out.

This position is misguided. To use social media effectively, you need to engage with it. How can you efffectively use Facebook or Twitter, unless you actively use them yourself.

Thankfully, there do appear to be some forward thinking managers working in local government. To quote David Wilde, Chief Information Officer at the London Borough of Waltham Forest 'For managers it can be difficult to know what exactly their employees are doing. But the organisation needs to be outcome-based, and I don't think we should be using technology to prevent access to social networking sites. If there are staff performance issues, we should address them directly'.

Some guidelines for using Web 2.0
  • Don't look at social media as purely about technology. Look at it as about being more effective, saving time and making cost savings. These are issues that citizens will greatly appreciate.
  • Think about what resources you have. There is little point having a Twitter feed, or a blog, if there is no-one to respond to the incoming tweets / comments.
  • A local government blog should be seen as a council wide communcations platform, not as a side project for a handful of keen individuals.
  • Consider a Web 2.0 strategy. What social media channels will be used, and what will they be used for?
  • Ensure you have a staff policy on the use of social media sites during working hours.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Debating with theists about evolution

In a recent discussion on the topic of evolution with a Christian (and a fundamental one by their own admission), the same tired agendas and dogmas were trotted out. I have no problem per se with having a discussion on the merits of the theory of evolution, but I have to say, I tend to find them rather uninspiring.

In my long experience of having these discussions, I have never so much as come close to an intellectually invigorating debate, which is a shame. The reasons are obvious. For a start, theists, by virtue of the fact they are proponents of faith, do not tend to let small things like facts and evidence get in the way of their arguments.

Evolution is a scientific theory, and so demands at least a basic understanding of science. How on earth do you propose to dismantle a theory with as much supporting evidence as evolution, without grasping the basics. This unfortunately is where most discussions begin fall apart.

To think you can undermine one of the most important, and far reaching scientific theories of the last century, simply on a whim because it doesn't fit with your faith-based view of the world, is staggering. Not to mention that it also has a vast body of supporting evidence.

Just because you don't believe a theory, doesn't mean it is false.

One of the most common objections I hear from theists is the "but evolution is only a theory". To any scientifically literate person, this must be the most telling. To clarify, the word 'theory' has a special meaning in science. To be called a theory means the following must be true:

  • It agrees with observation (fossil record, DNA samples, carbon dating)
  • It has been tested independently by other scientists
  • It has been published in the scientific literature for other scientists to make their own comments and criticisms

So a scientific theory has to undergo substantial rigour before it can be called a theory.

While I base my arguments using the language and rigour of science, such formal notions are never reciprocated by theists. Using science as your line of defence will by and large be ignored. Science is either not understood, or worse, undermined. This is in spite of huge advances in medicine, technology and space exploration, all of which rely on science. To undermine science is to display a wanton ignorance, and is one indicator I will use as to whether a discussion is worth pursuing. In all seriousness, you cannot have a worthwhile discussion about evolution if the other party doesn't have the faintest appreciation or understanding of it.

In my most recent encounter with a theist, they accepted they could not disprove evolution!

There is no “controversy” about evolution at all in the minds of intelligent, educated, scientifically-literate people.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Investment banking simply must change!

It has emerged yesterday that Barclays Capital is set to guarantee three of its senior staff large bonuses, irrespective of profit. This obviously flies in the face of the advice given by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) to curb the excessive behaviour of the banking sector.

It has also emerged that one Barclays director has been allowed an £800,000 overdraft, with another member of management to receive a £500,000 mortgage. While the banking sector squeezes the life out of small businesses by refusing to lend to them, or doing so with sky high interest rates and charges, they have no such restrictions when offering their services to each other.

In the last twelve month period, Barclays Capital have doubled its profits to £1billion. It's 22,000 staff are now set to receive bonuses averaging £200,000. Not bad work if you can get it.

This would all be bad enough, but the fact that these very same people who have caused the current recession beggars belief. While small businesses, families and ordinary people across the country struggle to make ends meet, have lost their jobs, or face losing their jobs, it is unbelievable that the banking sector seems set to continue as if nothing has happened. The repercussions of the current recession will be felt by ordinary people for a long time, yet the instigators of their misery have come out of it unscathed. Their disregard is staggering.

We need change, and we need it now. The current recession shows beyond doubt that a lassaiz faire approach does not work in the investment banking sector.

My recommendations would include:
  • Reward structures, such as pay and bonuses to be paid *only* from profits.
  • Bonuses to be based on long term, sustainable growth, not short term reward (although personally, I would be very inclined to remove bonuses completely).
  • More women to be placed in senior positions within the investment banking sector. There is far too much testosterone in such a male dominated environment. This has led to raging egos, and attracts power hungry and self interested men. Surely the very definition of the last person you want making your investments.
  • The FSA need to be granted real powers. Proposing voluntary guidelines and best practice will carry no weight to a banker when there is the chance of securing a big enough bonus to buy an apartment in Monaco on offer.
  • The larger investment banks should be broken up to devolve their power.

It is all far too easy for investment bankers to play with their investments, when they have little to lose. At worst, they will be fired. The personal risk to themselves financially for losing huge sums of money is nil. If you have nothing to lose, and the prospect of making life changing sums of money with little effort in a very short space of time, is it any wonder that we have seen such outrageous excesses in the investment banking sector.

One thing is for sure, very serious changes need to be made. The Government and FSA need to get their heads together, and impose rules that carry heavy fines for any banks that do not follow them. The banks need to be audited and investigated to ensure they are following these rules.

If we do not learn the lessons from history, we are bound to repeat them.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Warning! Health and safety can damage your health.

As reported in the Mail on Sunday this week, a man died in 18in of water as 999 teams were told it was too risky to rescue him. You would be forgiven for thinking this was some sick joke, but unfortunately, it is not. The full story can be read online.

Whatever the details of this case, it is clear that Health and Safety regulations need to be addressed. In this particular case, a man died as a direct result of Health and Safety. These are the regulations that are supposed to protect people from harm, not put their lives at risk. If the emergency services turn up to an accident scene, and then need to discuss and agree what action (if any) they will take, then clearly something is amiss. If a man is face down in a ditch, you help them, simple as that. The right and wrongs and bureaucracy can be discussed at a later date.

This is not the first time Health and Safety has been blamed for a death either. A teenager died recently when they got into difficulty when they attempted to swim in a local lake. The Community Support Police Officers that turned up refused to help as they deemed it too risky, and in breach of Health and Safety regulations.

Human beings should help each other whenever they can, and if Health and Safety bureaucracy prevents them from doing that, then clearly the regulations require immediate reviewing.