Musings on personal and enterprise technology (of potential interest to professional technoids and others)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Google Patent for Data Center Cooling Innovations - Data Center Knowledge

A diagram of an 'air wand' indicating the location of cooling vents in wand, a key feature of a patent application by Google data center engineers:

It's nice to see that Google is dedicating not only significant engineering but also legal resources, towards patenting innovative data center cooling techniques. Hopefully, this will lead to an affordable, reusable solution that can help organizations similarly optimize their cooling. As has been documented, cooling typically contributes to up to 50% of a data center's total energy costs (e.g. see for example The Greening of IT: How Companies Can Make a Difference for the Environment by John Lamb, p. 136), so of course cooling innovations can be quite significant towards reducing both carbon footprint and operating costs..

"Google Patent Reveals Data Center Innovations
November 30th, 2009 : Rich Miller

Google has revealed some of the secret technology inside its mighty data centers, but its engineers are busy cooking up new secrets.

An example: Google is seeking to patent an advanced data center cooling system that provides precision cooling inside racks of servers, automatically adjusting to temperature changes while dramatically reducing the energy required to run chillers.

The cooling design, which could help Google slash the power bill for its servers, reinforces Google’s focus on its data centers as a competitive advantage in its battle with Microsoft and other rivals for leadership in cloud computing. The company has customized much of the operation of its data centers, which serve as the engines powering its massive Internet business. Google builds its own servers and networking switches, and now appears to be customizing the racks that hold them.

Precision Cooling via ‘Air Wands’

The innovative rack cooling design features an adjustable piping system, including “air wands” that provide small amounts of cold air to components within a server tray. The chilled air enters the top of a rack through two vertical standpipes, which branch off into air wands – long, thin pipes lined with vents that release cold air.

The air wands can pivot to target cold air on specific components, or be swung to one side to allow equipment to be removed from the rack. Dampers on each standpipe can open and close to regulate the volume of air flowing into the pipe and air wands, while the vents on each individual air wand can be adjusted to point up or down, allowing for a highly configurable system..."

Full Article from
Data Center Knowledge:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Well-done quality improvement is not punitive; it’s educational: Dr. Brent James, NYTimes 8Nov2009

Seems doctors may have some meaningful insights to share with IT executives and project managers, regarding effective management of a quality improvement initiative. A fascinating NYTimes article by David Leonhardt explains how Dr. Brent James is standardizing certain healthcare procedures, thereby significantly improving certain types of patient outcomes. Even straightforward checklists seem to help a lot. Leonhardt also provides the successful example of

"...the Pronovost checklist. As many as 28,000 people in this country die each year from infections that come from intravenous lines. Several years ago, Peter Pronovost, a Johns Hopkins physician, developed a simple list of five steps that intensive-care doctors should take before inserting an IV line, in order to prevent the introduction of bacteria. The checklist reduced the infection rate to essentially zero at 108 hospitals in Michigan where it was adopted. Pronovost published the results in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2006. But most intensive-care doctors are still not using the checklist. To insert an IV line, they continue to rely on their own judgment."

Also helpful and relevant for IT in my experience, is the statement by Dr. James that

"quality improvement is a process, not an event. In part it works by finding variation and drawing attention to it... And well-done quality improvement is not punitive; it’s educational."

Full article:
If Health Care Is Going to Change, Dr. Brent James's Ideas Will Change It -

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why didn't Amazon Wifi-enable Kindle?

Don't expect Kindle sales to rival the iPod Touch any time soon... As has been reported, Amazon did not enable Wifi capability for the latest Kindle.

The ongoing delay of Kindle availability in Canada therefore seems (if not logical) at least somewhat understandable. After all, the complexity of finalizing such a deal clearly depends on some sort of Amazon negotiations with 1 or more Canadian wireless carriers. As reported in the Financial Post:

Amazon's Kindle goes global -- but not to Canada, Matt Hartley, Financial Post, 2009-10-07

" Inc.'s popular Kindle digital book reader is now available to literary enthusiasts outside the United States, but Canadians hoping to get their hands on the device are still out of luck...

On Wednesday, the Seattle, Washington-based Internet retail titan announced it was trimming the price of the Kindle ebook reader from US$299 to US$259 while simultaneously introducing a version of the device designed to work in more than 100 countries and territories around the world.

The new international version of the Kindle costs US$279 and will begin shipping on Oct. 19 to countries such as Bolivia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hungary and Japan...

Canadians, however, are still unable to purchase Kindle devices through Amazon or download Kindle content, such as digital books and newspaper subscriptions."

Additional observations re: Amazon Kindle vs. Sony's Reader in Canada [the latter is already available in Canada] via: Bonfire of the Banned ITs: Why you can’t get the Kindle in Canada, Omar El Akkad, Globe&Mail, 2009-08-08:

"...Part of the Kindle's popularity lies in the massive number of titles Amazon has leveraged to create the Kindle store. There are now more than 350,000 titles available at the store.

Other e-reader manufacturers are also getting in on the game. Sony, for example, has a product currently available in Canada. However, the Kindle's combination of name recognition and huge title support have given it most of the headlines – akin to the iPod and iTunes store for Apple in the world of online music. "

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

IBM/Lotus Enterprise Microblogging Debuts: What about Microsoft?

Is IBM onto something here, ahead of Microsoft? Indeed, Lotus-based organizations should see benefit from the secure enterprise microblogging as described below. Seems organizations based on Exchange would similarly benefit, if the upcoming Exchange 2010 release would include these "publish/subscribe dialogues" within the enterprise, similar to Twitter (but no indication of that from the Exchange 2010 Beta so far). Exchange's unified messaging since Exchange 2007 may be useful and have significant benefits, but IMHO not as simple and easy to use as a Twitter-like service could/should be, if integrated intelligently into the enterprise architecture. Here's further information courtesy of IBM Enterprise Microblogging Debuts - Technology For Change:

"Lotus Connections now boasts a Twitter-like service that lets employees establish and maintain publish/subscribe dialogues within their organizations.

At its Center for Social Software symposium being held this week in Cambridge, Mass., IBM announced the release of a microblogging and file-sharing facility bolstering the Lotus Connections suite of enterprise social networking tools. The Twitter-like service enables employees to establish and maintain publish/subscribe dialogues within their organizations.
Additional features added to Lotus Connections include support for iPhone and Nokia S60 mobile devices, including microbrowser access to Profiles, Activities and the Lotus Connections blogging tool..."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Measurement + Monitoring of Data Centre Energy Use Immature Through 2011: Gartner

As previously posted, "cheap" servers really aren't cheap at all (Infoworld 5/2008), since recurring server operational costs are often as large or larger than the initial hardware capital investment. Below is a related update from Gartner, reminding us that "you can't manage what you can't measure". Here is Gartner's explanation of the importance of metrics for reducing data-center energy consumption [emphasis mine]:

Gartner Says Measurement and Monitoring of Data Centre Energy Use Will Remain Immature Through 2011:
“...when asked which energy management metrics they will use in the next 18 months, 48 per cent of respondents have not even considered the issue of metrics. However, without metrics it is impossible to get accurate data, which is essential to evaluating basic costs, proportioning these costs to different users and setting policies for improvement.

'These metrics form the bedrock for internal cost and efficiency programmes and will become increasingly important for external use', said Mr Kumar. 'Organisations that want to publicise their carbon usage through green accounting principles will need to have their basic energy use continuously monitored.'

Mr Kumar also urged organisations not to rely on internal metrics saying that evaluating server energy needs to be done in an open and transparent manner...”

hat tip / source:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mashable: Carrier Pigeons beat ADSL, but Memory Card capacity growing even faster

'Winston' the racing pigeon after flying with a 4GB SD card in Durban, South Africa.(EPA/STR/Corbis, as per THE WEEK)

Mashable: "...Internet lines getting faster, but memory card capacity is getting bigger even faster. If you need your data to travel fast, use a carrier pigeon."

Of course, this is not the only situation where "low tech" wins over conventional methods... e.g. in some situations and for some audiences, email reliability (or lack thereof) cannot match the simplicity and immediate hardcopy accessibility of conventional fax transmissions. In any case, IMHO this is at least worth a smile :)

Full article from Mashable:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Gmail outage resolved thanks to flexible technical architecture [Official Gmail Blog]

Google's Site Reliability Czar: A clear explanation of today's gmail outage, as quoted below.

IMHO, as painful and widespread as the outage was (a side-effect of "routine upgrades"), urgent and ultimately successful action was taken towards resolution. And of course, the true "secret sauce" that enabled this resolution, is the underlying foundation of the "flexible capacity" which "is one of the advantages of Google's architecture".

Here is the full Official Gmail Blog post:

Official Gmail Blog: More on today's Gmail issue: Tuesday, September 01, 2009 6:59 PM
Posted by Ben Treynor, VP Engineering and Site Reliability Czar

"Gmail's web interface had a widespread outage earlier today, lasting about 100 minutes. We know how many people rely on Gmail for personal and professional communications, and we take it very seriously when there's a problem with the service. Thus, right up front, I'd like to apologize to all of you — today's outage was a Big Deal, and we're treating it as such. We've already thoroughly investigated what happened, and we're currently compiling a list of things we intend to fix or improve as a result of the investigation.

Here's what happened: This morning (Pacific Time) we took a small fraction of Gmail's servers offline to perform routine upgrades. This isn't in itself a problem — we do this all the time, and Gmail's web interface runs in many locations and just sends traffic to other locations when one is offline.

However, as we now know, we had slightly underestimated the load which some recent changes (ironically, some designed to improve service availability) placed on the request routers — servers which direct web queries to the appropriate Gmail server for response. At about 12:30 pm Pacific a few of the request routers became overloaded and in effect told the rest of the system 'stop sending us traffic, we're too slow!'. This transferred the load onto the remaining request routers, causing a few more of them to also become overloaded, and within minutes nearly all of the request routers were overloaded. As a result, people couldn't access Gmail via the web interface because their requests couldn't be routed to a Gmail server. IMAP/POP access and mail processing continued to work normally because these requests don't use the same routers.

The Gmail engineering team was alerted to the failures within seconds (we take monitoring very seriously). After establishing that the core problem was insufficient available capacity, the team brought a LOT of additional request routers online (flexible capacity is one of the advantages of Google's architecture), distributed the traffic across the request routers, and the Gmail web interface came back online.

What's next: We've turned our full attention to helping ensure this kind of event doesn't happen again. Some of the actions are straightforward and are already done — for example, increasing request router capacity well beyond peak demand to provide headroom. Some of the actions are more subtle — for example, we have concluded that request routers don't have sufficient failure isolation (i.e. if there's a problem in one datacenter, it shouldn't affect servers in another datacenter) and do not degrade gracefully (e.g. if many request routers are overloaded simultaneously, they all should just get slower instead of refusing to accept traffic and shifting their load). We'll be hard at work over the next few weeks implementing these and other Gmail reliability improvements — Gmail remains more than 99.9% available to all users, and we're committed to keeping events like today's notable for their rarity."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

HighlightCam Cuts Long Security Camera Videos Down to the Action

Mashable has a nice writeup today regarding :
HOW TO: Quickly Cut Long Videos Down to the Juicy Parts:
"...finding the important parts of these [security camera] videos is painful. That’s because there are hours of footage to sift through. Really, do you want to fastforward through a 12 hour video just to find out what your dog was doing? Yet if you don’t, then you’ve lost the point of having the camera in the first place.

Now a new YCombinator-funded company, HighlightCam, has built the software to take hours of video and compress it into just the minutes with the important stuff – you know, when the dog starts barking, the baby falls out of the crib, or the crook turns on the lights.

So how does HighlightCam pick out the juciest bits of long videos? The web-based software, which has both a free version and an $8.99 per month version, is able to detect movement, light changes, and any variations from the norm. You can pick out how far down the video should be cut – one minute, five minutes, ten minutes, whatever you’d like. You can even get the best parts of YouTube (YouTube) videos with the software, as was demonstrated to us today....

One hour of video, cut down to under a minute, with only the important stuff shown. It’s already caught employees stealing from cash registers, something you’d probably miss if you sifted through the full video. It’s cheap, accessible, usable, and from what we’ve seen, really accurate at pinpointing key events. And with a free version, you can start using it without spending a dime."

Also worth noting as per , in fact not only motion but audio is also used as a cue to detect the highlights:

"HighlightCam records your footage all the time, whether there’s motion or not. We then find the highlights using a bunch of different cues, including motion and audio.

A tiny mouse running across the floor, or a loud conversation held off-camera—if that’s the most interesting thing that happened in an hour, that’s what we’ll show you!"

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

3 Reasons a CIO Should Care About Twitter —

Senior IT executives / CIO's can also benefit from Twitter, according to . The relevant observations excerpted below are a nice complement to my recent post Re: Should Project Managers Twitter? . So here are some of the potential business benefits of Twitter which (when balanced against the known Twitter security/privacy issues) can make sense for many organizations:

3 Reasons a CIO Should Care About Twitter — "...If all the buzz in the mass media isn’t enough to get you interested in Twitter, here are three solid business reasons why CIOs should devote some time to learning more:

1. Get Targeted Insights Faster - ... Some of the smartest people I meet haven’t devoted themselves to publishing or publicity that gets them a high Google ranking. But they are willing to share their experience and make themselves available for legitimate conversations.
Enter Twitter. Anyone can post their 140-character question, idea or comment on any topic. While the stream is uncensored and unfiltered, it is highly searchable. And because responses come in real time, it’s a channel that is particularly suited for time-sensitive information.

2. Participate in Social Media Innovation - ... the availability of Twitter’s API may present a direct opportunity for you and your company’s brand and products. Is there a way to utilize Twitter to support customer service (see @ComcastCares), promotions, order tracking, etc?

3. Expand Your Professional Network: ... as Twitter participation stabilizes will a valuable professional community emerge? There are some early signs that a viable CIO community exists on Twitter. At this point, I’ve identified over 70 CIOs across 20 industries. You can keep tabs on the growing community at . ..."

Monday, August 10, 2009

MS Exchange2007/WinServer2008 compatibility issues

Seems that waiting for Exchange Server 2010 - rather than upgrading now to Exchange Server 2007 - may make sense for many organizations currently running Exchange Server 2003 [or earlier]. Although this seems somewhat inconvenient, I expect many organizations can deal with this successfully in several ways, given sufficient planning. This sort of constraint reminds me of the situation approximately 4 years ago, when some Microsoft shops wanted to wait until MS SQL Server 2005 became available for purchase, rather than immediately purchasing a SQL Server 2000 license. In fact, the Software Assurance up-front purchase (to purchase SQL Server 2000 with SA that would include upgrade to SQL Server 2005) might have seemed logical at the time for many organizations.... But of course, evaluating the full TCO of a subsequent upgrade to SQL Server 2005 would have involved more than the initial hard cost of purchasing Software Assurance. So perhaps the best decision (then and now) as to whether to invest in Software Assurance depends on the particular upgrade and change management capabilities for the specific organization.

The recent Exchange2007/WinServer2008 issue was explained in the recent Microsoft Exchange Team blog posting explaining that Exchange Server 2007 won't run on upcoming Windows Server 2008 R2. Further insights available from Dilemma: Exchange Server 2007 won't run on next Windows Server:

"...Customers upgrading to Windows Server 2008 R2, due later this year, will have to upgrade to Exchange Server 2010, which is also due this year. This news, disclosed in the fourth bullet point in a July 17 Microsoft Exchange Team Blog post, means Microsoft partners have to sell Exchange Server 2007 without the promise of support on future OSes and without Windows Server 2008 R2 interoperability with Exchange Server 2007... said Planet Technologies lead infrastructure engineer Mike Crowley: "If people stick with Exchange 2007 on Windows 2008 because 'it works,' I wouldn't expect them to want to upgrade the underlying OS just because a new one is available."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Latest Google Maps for Mobile v3.2 Rocks on WinMo6.1

On my Samsung Jack running Windows Mobile 6.1 [smartphone, not touchscreen edition], I found the My Maps new features of Google Maps Mobile 3.2 to be excellent. The upgrade from Google Maps Mobile v3.0 (Over-The-Air download, clocking in at 1.0 MB) went through perfectly on the first try, as did the new My Maps feature. Quick and simple access to one's "My Maps" info is a real enhancement to the user experience for busy smartphone users trying to get somewhere quickly. IMHO this - together with Google Maps Mobile ability to either read my GPS (when it finds satellites) or locate me via cell towers when the GPS chip cannot - makes Google Maps for Mobile version 3.2 a true killer app.

Official Google Mobile Blog: Layers of fun in Google Maps for mobile 3.2: "...the latest version of Google Maps for mobile allows you to view many layers of information on your map at the same time. Layers make it easier and more useful to find and interact with geographic content, like public transit, traffic (with incidents!), local search results, Latitude friend locations, Wikipedia and more. You can also see your own My Maps content as a layer on Google Maps for mobile. And finally, multiple layers can be combined at the same time to give you a content-rich view of what's around you..."

Hat Tip:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Gartner's 6/09 Magic Quadrant for IT Project & Portfolio Management

Source: Gartner (June 2009) .

Gartner have recently updated their "Magic Quadrant for IT Project and Portfolio Management".

As Gartner explains, "Project and portfolio management (PPM) applications can provide visibility into the current state of organizational initiatives, resources, and spending through the centralized collection of data from multiple sources and perspectives. Integration across multiple business and IT process domains through PPM system functions provides multidimensional views of this data for better visibility and understanding of resource supply versus project (and other work) demand in IT and other project environments.."

There seems to be some healthy competition among a group of strong leaders, visionaries, and challengers (including SAP, Innotas, and BMC), as detailed in this Gartner report. A related May, 2009 Gartner report (which unlike the aforementioned Magic Quadrant is not available to browse online for free) at , entitled "Market Share: Project and Portfolio Management Software, Worldwide, 2008", summarizes as follows: "After a banner year in 2007 with 24% growth, the worldwide project and portfolio management software market growth slowed to 7.4% in 2008 for a total of $1.2 billion. Among PPM vendors, Primavera, Microsoft, CA, Oracle and Agresso hold the largest market share."

As per my recent post regarding the US Federal CIO office, it is nice to see that PPM and related tools can be used in the real world with significant impact - e.g. to decide which projects should be permitted to proceed, vs. which should be halted in case they are significantly overrunning costs without yielding expected business benefits.

However, it is probably worth noting that even the best PPM tools do not add any meaningful value, unless the key business stakeholders contribute to its success by keeping relevant information and metrics up to date. Which is just another way of saying that even though the expected value / ROI may be large for a PPM undertaking, one should consider the full investment / TCO required: Not just the hard costs for licensing the software and related deployment requirements, but the full organizational commitment, training, and change required to make effective use of the PPM system and methodology.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Relaxed image preview restrictions in gmails from your contacts

A logical refinement IMHO** :

Official Gmail Blog: Now displaying images in messages from your contacts: "...Now, whenever someone you've emailed at least twice sends you a message containing images, you'll see them right away. Note that we picked this threshold of two messages to start with, but we may tweak it if it doesn't seem right going forward. And we only display images by default for authenticated messages (using SPF or DKIM)."

** although one wonders whether current or future malware exploits could even circumvent the authentication mentioned below... But at that point, perhaps we would have much larger information security issues to be worried about, and not just than the relatively simple question of whether to display images within a Gmail message ;-)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Google Earth Goes to the Moon - Celebrating July 20th, 1969

I doubt anyone could have foreseen this cool mashup 40 years ago...

But then again, I doubt anyone could have foreseen the amazing success of the first "Man On the Moon" back in 1929, either :)

Google Earth Goes to the Moon - Bits Blog - "On the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the moon, Google is offering Internet users a virtual trip to the moon. On Monday, the company unveiled Moon in Google Earth, which allows anyone to embark on Moon versions of the kinds of 3-D flyovers that Google Earth users are familiar with. Like the flyovers of our planet in Google Earth, the moon visits are enhanced with all sorts of content, including narrated tours, photos and videos.

“This tool will make it easier for millions of people to learn about space, our moon and some of the most significant and dazzling discoveries humanity has accomplished together,” Anousheh Ansari, a trustee of the X Prize Foundation and the first female “space tourist,” wrote on a Google Blog. “Moon in Google Earth enables you to explore lunar imagery as well as informational content about the Apollo landing sites, panoramic images shot by the Apollo astronauts, narrated tours and much more.”

The blog post includes a video with some of the highlights of Moon in Google Earth. A more detailed blog post goes further into some of the details. Google Earth already allows people to explore the galaxy and Mars...."

Hat Tip:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Project Portfolio Management in action: US temporarily halts 45 IT projects (budgeted @$200 million)

As per Demian Entrekin's excellent blog on , the US National CIO Vivek Kundra has embarked on an impressive and BIG IT project portfolio management and reporting initiative ( accessible via ).

Today (Friday July 17th), a formal announcement on the related blog confirms that 45 major federal IT projects are actually being temporarily halted. So the major USA federal PPM initiative is not merely a reporting tool, it is actually being used for taking meaningful and consistent action when project overruns are detected:

"Friday, July 17, 2009

Evidence-based decisionsVivek Kundra, Federal CIO

Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), under the leadership of Secretary Shinseki and VA CIO Roger Baker, announced that it will temporarily halt 45 IT projects which are either behind schedule or over budget and work to determine whether these programs should be continued. We’re not talking about a trivial sum here—the Fiscal Year 2009 combined budget for the 45 projects is approximately $200 million. The worst offender of the bunch was 110% over budget and 17 months behind schedule.

We were able to catch these contracts, in part, thanks to our new tool, the "IT Dashboard” which helped shed light on the performance of projects across the federal government.

During the next few weeks, the VA will audit these 45 projects to determine whether additional resources or new management teams can get them back on schedule.

If they can’t be fixed, the projects will be canceled.If you are just hearing about the IT Dashboard for the first time, it allows you to see which IT projects are working and on-schedule (and which are not), offer alternative approaches, and provide direct feedback to the chief information officers at federal agencies.

Given the size and complexity of the federal IT portfolio, the challenges we face are substantial and persistent. The dashboard is not a substitute for good management. Its value comes from leaders who use the information to make tough, evidence-based decisions on the future of IT investments.

The VA’s announcement is part of a broader effort by the Administration to make the federal government more transparent and to boost accountability and drive better performance. From IT accountability to personnel and contracting reforms, the administration is committed to providing better value, efficiency, and effectiveness for taxpayers’ dollars."

Hat tip:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Google's Gmail Tasks module graduates from Labs

A nice Google Tasks & Calendar tip in the YouTube demo, courtesy of Official Gmail Blog: Tasks graduates from Gmail Labs , namely:

When entering a new Google Task, simply prepend
and the date will be auto-entered. And changing the date in Google Calendar will update the corresponding original task record as well :)

IMHO, regardless of whether Tasks has "graduated" from Gmail Labs, it's reassuring to see the well-deserved attention that Gmail tasks is getting within Google :)

(PS - Related technosurfer posts accessible via )

Secure Enterprise Twitter-like microblogging from Socialtext - 14-July-2009

I recently discussed whether project managers should use twitter.

With the new Socialtext corporate appliance that runs a Twitter-like app behind the firewall, business use of Twitter (or a similar type of "microblogging" capability) now appears to be a simpler issue. This solution seems especially relevant for large organizations wishing to enhance their internal communication, messaging and overall knowledge management. Nice to see that the issue of backup / DRP is apparently being addressed as well:

Socialtext offers enterprise microblogging in a box | Web Crawler - CNET News: "As a follow-up to its free, 50-user microblogging product, Socialtext is launching a new paid service for large to enterprise-sized companies that lets them run the Twitter-like service behind the firewall, and with many more users.

Companies that want it can pay $1 per user, per month, alongside a monthly fee that pays for Socialtext's server appliance. This hardware runs the microblogging software locally, and can be connected to a company's backup systems for if something goes wrong, although it makes nightly backups of its own. The appliance fee also covers monthly software updates that will fix bugs and add new features...."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

35 Green IT Resources - IT Management

35 Green IT Resources - IT Management: "A number of IT vendors — from PC providers to software manufacturers — are now offering products and services to support environmentally sustainable business operations for companies of all sizes. Below is a roundup of the 35 most accessible, effective and promising green IT resources now available..."

This nice list from Lea Hartog of provides helpful links related to Green IT information related to:

Hat tip:

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Data Center Overload, Tom Vanderbilt, NYTimes 8-Jun-2009

Photograph Attribution: Simon Norfolk/NB Pictures, for The New York Times
Known for its bean and spearmint fields, Quincy, Wash., is also home to rows of servers in a 500,000-square-foot data center that Microsoft built in 2006

For those of us already keenly aware of the various business-related and environment-related benefits of reducing datacenter and related power consumption, Tom Vanderbilt's article is a must-read. Published in the recent New York Times Sunday magazine's Architecture Issue, Vanderbilt presents a refreshing and enlightening review of why we should continue to care deeply about these issues, and follow through with practical energy-reducing measures in managing technology and other infrastructure. This is one of the overall best articles on this topic seen by technosurfer in quite some time :)

The Architecture Issue - Data Center Overload - "...Much of the daily material of our lives is now dematerialized and outsourced to a far-flung, unseen network. The stack of letters becomes the e-mail database on the computer, which gives way to Hotmail or Gmail. The clipping sent to a friend becomes the attached PDF file, which becomes a set of shared bookmarks, hosted offsite. The photos in a box are replaced by JPEGs on a hard drive, then a hosted sharing service like Snapfish. The tilting CD tower gives way to the MP3-laden hard drive which itself yields to a service like Pandora, music that is always “there,” waiting to be heard.

But where is “there,” and what does it look like?"

“There” is nowadays likely to be increasingly large, powerful, energy-intensive, always-on and essentially out-of-sight data centers. These centers run enormously scaled software applications with millions of users. To appreciate the scope of this phenomenon, and its crushing demands on storage capacity, let me sketch just the iceberg’s tip of one average individual digital presence: my own. I have photos on Flickr (which is owned by Yahoo, so they reside in a Yahoo data center, probably the one in Wenatchee, Wash.); the Wikipedia entry about me dwells on a database in Tampa, Fla.; the video on YouTube of a talk I delivered at Google’s headquarters might dwell in any one of Google’s data centers, from The Dalles in Oregon to Lenoir, N.C.; my LinkedIn profile most likely sits in an Equinix-run data center in Elk Grove Village, Ill.; and my blog lives at Modwest’s headquarters in Missoula, Mont. If one of these sites happened to be down, I might have Twittered a complaint, my tweet paying a virtual visit to (most likely) NTT America’s data center in Sterling, Va. And in each of these cases, there would be at least one mirror data center somewhere else — the built-environment equivalent of an external hard drive, backing things up.

Small wonder that this vast, dispersed network of interdependent data systems has lately come to be referred to by an appropriately atmospheric — and vaporous — metaphor: the cloud. Trying to chart the cloud’s geography can be daunting, a task that is further complicated by security concerns. “It’s like ‘Fight Club,’ ” says Rich Miller, whose Web site, Data Center Knowledge, tracks the industry. “The first rule of data centers is: Don’t talk about data centers.”

Yet as data centers increasingly become the nerve centers of business and society — even the storehouses of our fleeting cultural memory (that dancing cockatoo on YouTube!) — the demand for bigger and better ones increases: there is a growing need to produce the most computing power per square foot at the lowest possible cost in energy and resources. All of which is bringing a new level of attention, and challenges, to a once rather hidden phenomenon. Call it the architecture of search: the tens of thousands of square feet of machinery, humming away 24/7, 365 days a year — often built on, say, a former bean field — that lie behind your Internet queries.

[etc...] As James Hamilton of Amazon Web Services observed recently at a Google-hosted data-center-efficiency summit, there is no Moore’s Law for power — while servers become progressively more powerful (and cheaper to deploy) and software boosts server productivity, the cost of energy (as well as water, needed for cooling) stays constant or rises. Uptime’s Brill notes that while it once took 30 to 50 years for electricity costs to match the cost of the server itself, the electricity on a low-end server will now exceed the server cost itself in less than four years — which is why the geography of the cloud has migrated to lower-rate areas.

The huge power draws have spurred innovation in the form factor of the data center itself. For its Chicago center, Microsoft is outfitting half the building with shipping containers packed with servers. “Imagine a data center that’s about 30 megawatts, with standard industry average density numbers you can probably fit 25,000 to 30,000 servers in a facility like that,” says Microsoft’s Chrapaty. “You can do 10 times that in a container-based facility, because the containers offer power density numbers that are very hard to realize in a standard rack-mount environment.”

The containers — which are pre-equipped with racks of servers and thus are essentially what is known in the trade as plug-and-play — are shipped by truck direct from the original equipment manufacturer and attached to a central spine. “You can literally walk into that building on the first floor and you’d be hard pressed to tell that building apart from a truck-logistics depot,” says Manos, who has since left Microsoft to join Digital Realty Trust. “Once the containers get on site, we plug in power, water, network connectivity, and the boxes inside wake up, figure out which property group they belong to and start imaging themselves. There’s very little need for people.”

“Our perspective long term is: It’s not a building, it’s a piece of equipment,” says Daniel Costello, Microsoft’s director of data-center research, “and the enclosure is not there to protect human occupancy; it’s there to protect the equipment.”

From here, it is easy to imagine gradually doing away with the building itself, and its cooling requirements, which is, in part, what Microsoft is doing next, with its Gen 4 data center in Dublin. One section of the facility consists of a series of containers, essentially parked and stacked amid other modular equipment — with no roof or walls. It will use outside air for cooling. On our drive to Tukwila, Manos gestured to an electrical substation, a collection of transformers grouped behind a chain-link fence. “We’re at the beginning of the information utility,” he said. “The past is big monolithic buildings. The future looks more like a substation — the data center represents the information substation of tomorrow.”

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The doctor in your pocket & Health in the palm of your hand

Neil Seeman is the director and primary investigator of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell, based at Massey College at the University of Toronto. He has recently authored two excellent articles in the National Post, which IMHO suggest some very important uses of mobile technology in relatively simple ways, than can achieve quite meaningful healthcare improvements around the world:

Just 1 excellent examples among the many mentioned:

"Last summer, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service started a protocol to transmit electrocardiogram readings of their patients to cardiologists' mobile phones. The approach--Winnipeg EMS is part of the Strategic Reperfusion Early After Myocardial Infarction, or "STREAM" study -- allows doctors to work closely with paramedics through life-saving decisions as patients are transported by ambulance. It is reportedly lowering mortality rates and speeding up treatment times."

You can read more great ideas from Seeman and his colleagues (and share your own!) on the new website, designed for those who wish to "share, vote, and say thanks for low-cost, low-tech health ideas".

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Safire: Who is a 'Straw Man'? vs. Brooks: 'Pilot System'

William Safire has penned an excellent piece regarding the phrase "Straw Man", in his New York Times "On Language" column, On Language - Who is a 'Straw Man'? -

"Accepting the Democratic nomination in a huge football stadium way back in the presidential campaign of ’08, Senator Barack Obama displayed his oratorical talent by using one of his favorite tried-and-true devices in argument: “Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t defend this country!”

Who was telling him that? To be sure, his opponents were claiming that a Republican administration would be stronger on defense, but nobody was telling him or the voters that Democrats preferred abject surrender. At the time, reviewing that speech, I noted the rhetorical technique: “By escalating criticism, he knocked down a straw man, the oldest speechifying trick in the book.”..."

Safire explains these fascinating origins of "Straw Man" in the context of political speeches. Those of us involved in technology and other business projects, know that a "Straw Man" can also be used in a business context, typically to refer to the first attempt at documenting a project's initial charter and/or requirements, or even a preliminary prototype of a proposed new or enhanced system's user interface.

As explained nicely on

"When you begin a project or start looking into a problem, you often have incomplete information to work with. So you can spend time gathering facts and data until you are ready to build a really strong argument or plan, or, you can get going straight away and jump in with a not-so-complete solution, with the intention of finding a much better one, as you learn more and more.

That's the premise behind building a straw man - creating a first draft for criticism and testing, and then using the feedback you receive to develop a final outcome that is rock solid..."

A similar, and very concise definition of "Straw Man" can be found in J. LeRoy Ward's excellent Dictionary of Project Management Terms :

"Working draft copy circulated for comments or suggested changes."

Finally, I would like to suggest a connection between the idea behind a "Straw Man" in business and technology, to the very similar concept in Software Engineering, as originally explained brilliantly in the classic Fred Brooks work: The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, Anniversary Edition (2nd Edition):

"The management question, therefore, is not whether to build a pilot system and throw it away. You will do that [anyway]."

Thus, Brooks suggests that one may wish to "plan to throw one away", since it is quite possible that you will, anyhow. And by building this "pilot system" into the plan as an explicit milestone, communication is simpler, and expectations are more realistic from the start.

So perhaps, although not identical, Safire's "straw man" and Brooks' "pilot system" are both trying to capture the same notion: That we sometimes need to start with something we know is imperfect, in order to be able to proceed from there to a truly excellent result.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Skyfire Loads Flash in a Flash - Gadgetwise Blog

If you've played with Windows Mobile's packaged mobile Internet Explorer, you know of its various strengths and weaknesses, many of which have been greatly improved in the well-known free Opera Mini browser (which has, among other things, user-friendly "Speed Dial" and bookmark sync capabilities).

However, relative newcomer Skyfire is definitely worth a look, especially if you are on a high-bandwidth data plan. As explained in the Gadgetwise blog excerpted below, Skyfire is outstanding for Flash content, and I have also found its ability to stream audio on my phone's speaker excellent. No wonder one of the comments on that post expresses an impatience to have Skyfire for Blackberry (which is apparently in the works).

Here is the excerpt from App of the Week: Skyfire Loads Flash in a Flash - Gadgetwise Blog -

"...Smartphones have become the browser battleground that the computer once was, and my hands-down favorite is Skyfire, a browser that is still in beta, but works on Windows and Symbian phones.

The main reason I like it is that it does one thing I haven’t seen any other phone browser do: it runs Flash video. Any Flash video. It opens sites I couldn’t access before.

Perhaps a better reason is its speed. Compare it to your phone’s built-in browser, or even the popular Opera browser, and you’ll instantly see the difference.

Finally, although I often find predictive typing bothersome, Skyfire quickly honed in on what I was searching for.

There were some glitches. Although it will work on any Windows 5.6 or 6.1 phone or most Nokia N and E series Symbian OS phones, it is most suitable for smartphones. On the Pantech Matrix Pro, a dual slider, Web-enabled phone that isn’t quite smart, I had some problems navigating to and around the Skyfire screen.

The speed may be a fair tradeoff for the few stumbles. And you can’t complain about the price. Skyfire, you had me at “flash,” “fast” and “free.”"

Friday, May 22, 2009

New in Gmail Labs: User-friendly Inbox preview

Just announced: Another example of the small but quite valuable enhancements the Gmail team keep adding to the Gmail experience.

As explained in Official Gmail Blog: New in Labs: Inbox preview:
"...we created a new feature in Gmail Labs called Inbox Preview. While Gmail is loading, a simple, static preview of your inbox with your ten most recent messages is displayed. Turn it on from the
Labs tab under Settings, and if you're on a slow connection you'll know from the start if it's worth the wait. "

LifeHacker observes accurately:
"As Gmail's engineers point out, it stinks to wait for Gmail to load up all its AJAX-y, gadget-loaded interface, just to find out there's no new mail."

IMHO, this and similar features (including especially gmail's cool Tasks-related enhancements) really differentiate Gmail from the rest of the pack (Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL etc.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Should Project Managers Twitter?

Some interesting observations from the gantthead blogs about the potential relevance of Twitter to Project Managers:

Why Project Managers Should Twitter: "How many times have you heard that project management is all about communication? Communicating with your team is important, but so is communication with the outside world... you should at least become familiar with Twitter..."

I agree that PM's should become familiar with Twitter... However, the decision for any specific project would of course depend on the audience, sensitivity of the information being transmitted, overall environment and expectations of the customer, etc...

For those of us (including current or aspiring PMP's and CAPM's) familiar with the Project Management Institute's PMBOK, this basic issue is addressed as part of the Project Communications Management knowledge area, e.g. the Communications Planning process, for which the PMI observes that it is critical both to:

  1. Identify stakeholder information requirements, and
  2. Determine a "suitable means" to address those requirements.
Twitter may not be the most "suitable means" to communicate for all projects, but certainly could be effective and appropriate for some. For example, it would be out of the question to even consider Twitter for sensitive projects/customers (e.g. military or defense-related). Tweets are fully visible to anyone (even without a Twitter account!). However, Twitter could be both appropriate and effective if the project does not focus on proprietary or sensitive information and customer staff are already familiar with Twitter (e.g. if the customer's core business is the communications / public-relations field).

Similarly, there could be situations in which the risk of not communicating by Twitter is much greater than doing so. Think of an emergency natural-disaster evacuation scenario in which affected parties need to receive extremely urgent information... Some of them may be accessing Twitter on a very regular basis, but their cellphone number for SMS might not be functioning at that particular moment.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

“If a computer can figure it all out, we can get lazy”

A cool application, connecting learning, nature, and mobile computing:

Full Article:

Novelties - Foliage Field Guides for Cellphones -

'The traditional way to identify an unfamiliar tree is to pull out a field guide and search its pages for a matching description. One day people may pull out a smartphone instead, photographing a leaf from the mystery tree and then having the phone search for matching images in a database.
A team of researchers financed by the National Science Foundation has created just such a device — a hand-held electronic field guide that identifies tree species based on the shape of their leaves, said Peter N. Belhumeur, a professor of computer science at Columbia and a member of the team.
The field guide, now in prototype for iPhones and other portable devices, has been tested at three sites in the northeastern United States, including Plummers Island in Maryland and Central Park in New York, said W. John Kress, a research botanist and curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, who is also on the research team. The computer program compares the leaf snapshot to a library of leaf images.
“We believe there is enough information in a single leaf to identify a species,” he said. “Our brains can’t remember all of these characteristics, but the computer can.”

With a nicely written conclusion:

"...Matthew Brown, supervisor of the soil, water and ecology lab at the Central Park Conservancy, thinks that ID programs can be useful. “If people are walking through the park and they come upon a tree that’s not in their field guide,” he said, “they can snap a photo, send it in, and get the name back and find out more information.”
But he believes in traditional education, too. “People don’t have to take botany for four years, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the value of learning information. If a computer can figure it all out, we can get lazy.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

PMP + Project Management eBooks included in PMI membership

The Project Management Institute ( ) is well-known for its PMP Certification (and other project-management related certifications).

For those who invest in PMI membership - even without trying to obtain PMP certification - there are some interesting and useful benefits, including online access to a number of eBooks. The titles include both PMP-specific (e.g. PMP: Project Management Professional Study Guide, Deluxe Edition
) and general business titles such as the 2003 edition of Harold Kerzner's
Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling

If you are a PMI member and have obtained member access to , you can access Kerzner and other of the PMI eReads & Reference titles via these steps:

  1. Login with your PMI login and password at
  2. Click on the link near the lower left-hand corner of the page labeled Go to eReads & Reference
  3. Click on the link near the upper right-hand corner of the page labeled My Home
  4. You can now search by title, keyword etc. as per the detailed summary below

And here is the official description as per : Resources
e-Reads & Reference
Powered by Books24x7

"An exclusive PMI member benefit, eReads & Reference provides online access to 250 complete and unabridged books from PMI and other leading publishers. Topics include project management, leadership, teams, cross-cultural business, knowledge management and more.

With eReads & Reference it’s easy to expand your project management horizons online, anytime. Powered by Books24x7’s sophisticated search engine, eReads & Reference lets you find books by keyword, phrase, title, author, publisher, or International Standard Book Number (ISBN).

Use eReads & Reference as an on-the-job guide, a research and study aid, or to preview books before you buy. For quick reference, bookmark titles of interest or build your own bookshelf."

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Is There a Sub-Subnotebook in Your Future?, NYTimes, 12/1992 :)

Dell's tiny-footprint Netbooks seem to be selling nicely... This, despite concerns as to whether a full set of traditional corporate standard software (including anti-virus, anti-malware etc.) can run and be managed efficiently on a relatively modestly powered machine. Some say the Netbook's success to date, is partially due to the current economic situation ( see for example, CNet's "Faltering economy boosting Netbooks" ). Hopefully for Dell, the success of the Netbook will continue regardless of the economy.

In case there was any doubt however, this is definitely not the first attempt at making a popular "Sub-Subnotebook"... One example was written up nicely by Peter H. Lewis of the New York Times in December of 1992:

Is There a Sub-Subnotebook in Your Future?:

"... Taking advantage of recent advances in miniaturization, computer makers are creating portable computation and communications devices that can easily be carried in one hand or tucked into a coat pocket. But at some point the usefulness of small systems comes into question: Most information is still entered by typing, and no one has yet managed to miniaturize executive fingers.

That hasn't stopped some companies... from creating personal computers that are about the size of a calculator..."

Monday, February 2, 2009

Official Gmail Blog: Tasks Continue to Evolve ( + iPhone demo)

An interesting update to Google's Tasks, focusing helpful improvements to mobile access*: Official Gmail Blog: Tasks: Paper vs. iPhone

A major step was already announced on the Official Gmail Blog in December , which explained the simple and intuitive capability to copy a Gmail message to a Task .

Still apparently not mentioned, are the wishlist features I had suggested last year, namely:

Will Google Labs provide something analogous to Microsoft Office Tasks, including workflow, assignment, tracking, prioritizing, alerting etc.

In any case, it is nice to see Google working on the Tasks mobile interfaces, which are clearly critical for making it easy for users to ensure their Tasks are kept up to date. Easy maintenance of one's "todo list" of activities and tasks is a basic concept of the GTD philosophy (see e.g. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity ).

**at least for iPhone and Android, though apparently not with the same full Task edit capability for other "xhtml-enabled" devices such as Windows Mobile... Here is Google's 46-second YouTube demo of the new iPhone Task interface, courtesy of the aforementioned Official Gmail Blog:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New Gmail Labs Offline Feature: How will it handle collisions?

Excellent, great to see the Gmail labs have added the offline capability via Google Gears:

Now it will be interesting to see how this mechanism will handle "collisions": e.g.

Suppose while working offline on computer A, I tag a particular gmail message with tag X, and then (before going back online from that computer A), I inadvertently access the same message from computer B [or perhaps SmartPhone B using mobile gmail] while online, and tag it with tag Y:

Will the Gears-based synchronization interactively detect the discrepancy (data "collision") when I go online again from computer A, and offer me the choice to accept either tag X or tag Y?

Or will it silently choose tag X or Y (and if so, which?)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Does IT really serve *internal* customers? [David Wright via Better Projects]

Thanks to for this excellent quote, a new approach to an old question:

"Don't buy into... that IT is a business within a business serving internal customers. There are no internal customers... Everyone within the enterprise is a part of a team that should be working together to satisfy customers and stay in business."

-- as explained by David Wright, in his book "Cascade: Better practices for effective delivery of information systems in a multi project environment"

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Implementing Business Process Management: Five Not-So-Easy Pieces

A nice common-sense summary of 5 factors, one or more of which "almost always" causes "failure to achieve results after attempting to implement a business process management (BPM) initiative":

Implementing Business Process Management: Five Not-So-Easy Pieces

My favorite (and the factor which I have noticed most often is the true culprit when these types of process improvement initiatives fail), is the last of the 5 items:

"5. Either shortchanging, or entirely skipping, the all-important task of documenting and analyzing the AS-IS process before designing the TO-BE process. I touched upon this in Reason No. 1, but it deserves its own bullet, because most enterprises have never fully documented their current processes. Typically, many things are done on a daily basis simply because that’s the way they’ve always been done. But without capturing and understanding the “why” for each of these, you are flying blind in determining what your future processes should look like. And take due caution regarding your new path: Often, as we fix one problem, we create another. Even if you’re clear on where you want to go, you need to know where you are to determine the best route."