Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Ba Da Bing!

Microsoft has recently launched it's new search engine, called Bing, with a massive advertising campaign. Excuse me. It's not a search engine. It's “the worlds first decision engine.” Whatever that means.

Okay, I know what that means. At least what Microsoft wants you to think it is. The thrust of the marketing campaign is that you get better tools for deciding which sites to bother. Of course, that's not the real purpose of Bing. At its heart, Bing is about sticking Google in the eye with a pointed stick. Not unlike the purpose of Google Chrome which is to kick Internet Explorer in the groin. As good as they are, neither delivers the knockout that these companies would like to deliver. And so it goes.

Being the hopeless tech geek that I am, I couldn't help messing around with Bing and found a few interesting surprises. The unique features that Microsoft has created have led me to use Bing pretty much the way I approach Chrome – it is more useful in certain circumstance but won't change my everyday habits.

Google is still my go-to search engine for most everyday uses in the much the same way Firefox is my everyday browser. When I want something quick and dirty, Google is my engine of choice. That's not going to change. It excels at finding the usual stuff quickly. If what I'm looking for will pop up in the first three entries, Google is great. Its clean interface helps, providing users the basics like the site name and summary, so that it is easy to identify a site quickly.

Bing is different. It is really good at organizing result sets. Like Google, you can toggle between different types of searches, such as Images, Video or News, using links at the top of the page. Unlike Google, the information on the page is arranged into logical categories, specific to the search, with the best hits displayed in each category. You can see more of the them if you like but that's usually pointless. If what you want is not in the top five hits, its not anywhere in the results.

For example, in searching for Helen Kane (a singer from the 1930s that was the model for Betty Boop), I get general results, then categories such as Songs and Albums. Even better, on the left side are similar searches. In this case, actors and musicians from the late 1920's and early 1930's are featured. Makes sense.

Together, these two features make it easier for me to drill into just what I want without complicated queries. For more obscure information, Bing makes it easier to find what I need by guessing some structure and organizing the results accordingly.

Another feature that Microsoft is touting is the little popup on the side of each entry that gives a more intelligent summary of the site. It's fine for what it does but is more of an amusement than a useful tool. You don't get enough to avoid clicking through to the site and the simple summary on the page is usually enough to decide if you want to click through in the first place. Cool technology in search of meaning.

There is yet another advantage to Bing, though the same could be said for Yahoo, Ask, and any other search engine – different results. The dirty little secret of all search engines is that the same query often returns different result sets. The search algorithms are based on statistical equations that can return different sets even when run on the same data. You can sometimes get different results from the same data set by rerunning the same queries on the same engine. Since the search is kind of fuzzy, the result set is not absolute. This has long been one of the reasons that professional researchers will often use more than one commercial database provider even when the underlying data is the same. I saw this a lot in the patent search game.

All that is to say that using multiple engines for particularly difficult searches is a good strategy in any event. When the quick Google search fails to get me what I want, I can now turn to Bing. I get some different results and some better organization.

Technology-wise, Microsoft has come up with excellent search software. Unfortunately, that is not enough to move people toward abandoning Google and using Bing as the search engine of first choice. Instead, it will be where you go when Google doesn't cut it. Good technology but bad business. Bad business because Bing needs advertising and lower hits translates to lower revenue. Bing is not a Google killer. More of a Google annoyer.

Let me put it another way. It's not going to go Ba Da Bing on Google.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

FCoE is Rubbish

I'm beginning to understand the debate about the Fiber Channel over Ethernet (FcoE) concept and I don't like it. At first it made little sense to me. iSCSI delivered most of what we needed in terms of cheap SANs. It leveraged the IP infrastructure already in place in just about every organization in the world. iSCSI also made use of 40 years of experience, knowledge, and training. For high performance you went with Fiber Channel since iSCSI couldn't meet the very high loads of some systems. Otherwise, iSCSI was good enough for a lot of applications.

So why FCoE? The cost structure is likely to be higher than iSCSI or at best the same. The performance wouldn't be the same as pure FC. The idea that you need a gateway to the IP network doesn't really make sense to me either. Who really does that anyway? A few folks doing long distance SANs perhaps but there are tools for that and cost is not a big problem in those environments. You can always gateway to iSCSI if needed and the hardware for that already exists.

Then it occurred to me. It's marketing, stupid! When networking vendors such as Cisco go out and sell their SAN products, they are generally on the same footing as the FC players like Brocade. Brocade has more experience and knowledge about SANs which translates into an advantage for them. They also know the storage folks inside large companies that network vendors don't. Those storage guys like having their own flavor of network technology. It keeps the network admins out of their shorts.

Now, FCoE starts to make sense. You can sell IT on convergence or native integration or unified platforms or whatever marketing babble you choose. It is hoped that management will rally around the idea of having one networking platform even for two different types of network applications. Don't kid yourself, SANs and LANs are very different network applications with very different technology needs.

Best of all, as a networking vendor you have the upper hand in the sale. You can insert your champions (the core networking folks) into the process. You can sell expertise that the FC guy doesn't have. The worst case scenario has you on equal footing to the FC vendor where you can sell on the merits of the products. Of course, with 30 more years of experience in Ethernet, you will have a few tricks up your sleeve that the FC guy doesn't. Nice position to be in.

FCoE as a convergence/integration/unified platform play is rubbish. No one is going to run SAN traffic and LAN traffic over the same Ethernet network. It will still be two pools of equipment, much of it specialized to FCoE. Most of the real networking expertise in a company is in the IP space so no real advantage there. Once you start to install the specialized FCoE switches and NICs (or brand new unified platforms using a forklift I imagine) the costs won't be that much different.

iSCSI makes sense in so far as it provides a low cost SAN option for low to mid-performance SANs. Old fashioned FC makes sense because it provides a proven high performance storage networking capability for intense applications. FCoE does neither. All it does is give networking vendors a leg up against existing FC vendors.

Great marketing I must admit. Not convincing technology but a good way to position SANs as just another network flavor. If there is a technology advantage here it doesn't seem to create much of a business advantage for the IT folks.

I'm sure I'll get a bunch of hate mail telling me all the minor advantages of FCoE, many from corporate mouthpieces. Instead of wasting your time on that, tell me why someone will pay money for FCoE rather than iSCSI or FC. Tell me why we need to gateway SANs from FC to Ethernet which can't be routed and hence not good for wide area applications like remote backup.

Don't go down the road of the unified platforms either. Saying you need FCoE to create unified networks is not true and, at best, self serving. Unified platforms happen because of software not Ethernet.

Just don't say convergence, okay.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Software Collectivism

What makes great software? Better yet, why do some companies or institutions make great software for awhile then push out mediocre product? On some level, it might be because they simply run out of good ideas. As software companies become more successful they also become so focused on giving customers what they ask for that they no longer leave room for innovative and inspired ideas. I've seen that a lot. The accountants and the operations people get involved. All the creativity gets sucked out of the process and the result is boring, me-too, and incremental.

The bigger problem may be environmental. The best software organizations often started out as lose associations of people, more like collectives or communes then traditional companies. Microsoft in it's early days was a bunch of guys sharing an apartment trying to score a big deal. It was freewheeling, creative, and irrational. How could this bunch of kids think they could land a deal with IBM, then the biggest computer company in the world? It was nuts but no one told them that.

There is a reason so many tech companies get started in college dorms. You concentrate smart people with no preconceived notions of what is (or more important isn't) possible. No silly meetings, just creative action. Yahoo and Google both started this way. Google is desperately trying to hold onto that part of the culture even as it grows to enormous size and influence. The same is true of Facebook.

What these companies have in common is that they are formed within a commune-like environment with few rules. This is critical since innovation is inherently irrational. You have to be willing to suspend the negative beliefs and inputs common in business. There has to be an acceptance of small failures and forks in the road as part of the process of creating greatness. No one told these “kids” that what they were doing was stupid. The only thing stupid was the amounts of money they made. The open source community was like this in the beginning. A virtual commune if you will. All could participate and contribute whatever they could. Everyone could reap the rewards of the results too.

Collectives are common in the art world. Groups of artists get together in loose confederations to bring individual talents to bear on a project. Once the project is done, the artists move on to other projects and other associations.

Software is like art. It is unpredictable, creative, and inspired when done right. Like a group of artists, programmers need to keep a single and irrational (there's that word again) focus on producing something wonderful without being bothered by the corporate drones. A commune-like environment helps maintain that focus and keeps at bay those who would suck the air out of the room with negativity.

These environments can be recreated in the corporate world. Back in the 1990's I had the pleasure of working in a group like that. We were isolated from the day to day operations of the company, both physically and psychologically. What came out of that group was spectacular with a few failures that we learned from. It didn't last long but it was great while it did.

So, if you want innovation in software, if you want new, inspired, and just plain cool products, then create software communes for your programmers. Keep them away from the corporate vampires that would suck the life out of them. Recognize that software is art not science and approach development that way. It might seem weird to the rest of the company which is exactly the point.

I feel inspired. Maybe I'll organize a software collective to create something awesome.

Friday, June 12, 2009

People. People Who Need People.

If you ever saw Sesame Street then you know the tune to “Who Are The People In Your Neighborhood?” Sing with me...

So after complaining bitterly about people who kill innovation and products, I thought it made sense to talk about the people who do the opposite. The people who make innovative products happen. I'm not talking about the folks who are tasked with designing and creating new products like engineers. They can make a product but cannot make a product happen.

So, here I want to sing about the unsung heroes of the product development process. Cue the Bob and Muppets please.

The Visionary

Behind every successful product stands a visionary. The Visionary recognizes good ideas and has that irrational need to see them turned into useful products. They never lose faith even when the folks in Sales declare they could never sell it and the Finance people are totally freaking out with thoughts of bankruptcy burning in their heads.

It's not that The Visionary doesn't get the risks, they just see beyond them. They provide the energy that keeps people going in the face of setbacks and derision. Lacking The Visionary, the most innovative products die on the vine, starved for affection and direction. Without The Visionary, everyone on the product development team eventually wanders off to more acceptable projects with more predictable outcomes. In other words, incremental boring product development instead of the truly wonderful.

The Visionary provides the necessary moral support during the darkest days. Kind of a combination of mom and Yoda.

The Git-er-done Guy

Whereas The Visionary has the faith, they often don't have a clue how to make the vision occur in real life. That's where The Git-er-done Guy comes in. They can map out all the things that need to occur in order for the vision to be realized. The Git-er-done Guy makes sure everyone stays on track and actually makes the blasted product. If there is no Git-er-done Guy, product development degrades into naval gazing and staring at the stars. Nice recreation but rarely productive.

Let me put it another way – no one buys vision. Okay some VC's do but not your average consumer. The Git-er-done Guy makes sure the grand idea becomes a grand product.

The Plumber

Sooner or later, all product development runs into problems. This is especially true for the most innovative products. Often, it's the internal workings of the corporation that are clogging up the works and impeding progress. It's sad but true that there are a lot of people within a company that will not benefit from an innovative new product. It might be because it will take away resources or attention from their own products. Another likely culprit is FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. When a company does something it has never done before, it scares the heck out of a lot of well meaning folks. And there are the power mongers who see a new initiative as a threat to their own status and well being.

All of this negative energy has a tendency to hold up product development like a stuck drain. Enter The Plumber!

The Plumber knows how to remove obstacles. The Plumber knows the workarounds. The Plumber gleefully unclogs the corporate drain and lets the project flow normally. You can tell who The Plumber is because they are first person to say “ Let me see what I can do..” when some obstacle is holding up forward motion. They have the skills and, more importantly, the desire to roto-router the clog and get things moving again. They might only appear once during a project but boy are you glad they did.

Making products, especially the best, most innovative, and coolest products, is an act of faith. Lots of people lack that faith and actively suck the air out of the room. The Visionary, The Git-er-done Guy, and The Plumber make sure all the negative vibes (and action) don't kill or maim the wonderful and new. Find them. Foster them. Then thank them.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

When People Kill Good Products

People Kill Good Products.

That's right. Good products don't get ruined by circumstances or the “market”. They get trashed by people, usually long before actual launch.

It's sad but true. I'm not talking about the obvious mistakes. The classic ones, such as a serious defect or taking too long to get to market, often become predictable. With time a company can reduce these errors and eliminate bad product caused by them.

The bigger problem is the people in an organization who seem hell bent on insuring that innovation never see the light of day. Why do they do this? I don't know. It's the kind of thing I've never been able to understand in over twenty five years of product development. I don't get them but I can identify them. It's easier to recognize behavior than to explain. Here are the most common types of product killer. They all have one thing in common – the tendency to obstruct progress and trash ideas that are not their own.

The Prove Its!

These are the folks who have to have everything validated to the nth degree (where n is a very large number). Nothing satisfies them. They come in two flavors – the Prove the Impossibles and the Prove the Unknowns. The Prove the Impossibles always seem to ask for some form of proof that is simply impossible to obtain. These are the folks who demand that you show them 100 customers who want a feature when you only have 10 customers using the product. My favorite is where someone says – and I'm not making this up – that you show them some number of people willing to place orders for something that doesn't exist yet. This is chief in my pantheon of impossible situations. Who will order a product that hasn't been designed and built yet? No one and the Prove Its know this.

A subtype of the Prove the Impossible is the Outer Limits. These folks will ask for some form of validation that is possible to obtain but for which there are no resources. For example “Perhaps of you could survey 5000 people we could get the information we want?” Well since there is no budget or personnel for a survey of that magnitude and they know it, it's just an attempt to stop forward progress. Most of the time, these so-called “reasonable requests” are not at all reasonable.

Another form of Prove It is the Prove the Unknowns. They insist that you prove things that defy logic since you can't prove what you don't know, only what you do. They know this of course but that's not their point. One of my favorites – and I'm not making this up – is “can you prove someone else isn't working on this too?” Of course not! I might know that someone is working on it but not that they are not working on it. Just because we don't know that someone isn't doing something doesn't mean that they aren't. Only that we don't know. Another one “Can you be sure that there won't be a different technology that does this in six months?” How can I unless I can predict the future. That's why we know this is not a real question. It's only designed to obstruct.

The Irrelevants

This is a true story. I couldn't make this up if I tried. In a design review for a military radar system, an engineer asked “If the ship is hit with a nuclear weapon, will the software reset?” What?! Even as a very young engineer, I was struck by how silly this seemed. Silly because it was completely irrelevant. That's one of my favorite forms of obstruction – focusing on something that doesn't matter as if it does. It slows everyone down as they scramble to put aside an objection that has no right being raised. I find The Irrelevants especially irksome because they not only obstruct but also annoy. Most of the time they walk around with the type of smug expression that drives people nuts.

A fairly insidious form of irrelevancy is make outliers seem important. You talk to 100 customers about a feature. 99 love it and 1 doesn't. Truth be told, that one hates your sales guy but you can't say that. The fact that your meeting opened with a 30 minute diatribe outlining all the things he hates about the company starting with your tie is not important to The Irrelevants. Nope, the one person who will never buy from you again anyway (we told the sales guy not to date his daughter but did he listen?) is given the same credence as the 99. The fact that those 99 wanted to have you over for dinner after hearing your great idea doesn't seem to matter. So, you spend a month trying to dilute the nasty comments of one customer with an ax to grind. The Irrelevants love the first guy and hate the 99 others.

By the way, the answer to “will a nuclear blast reset the software” was “I don't know but it will probably reset the operator.” I loved that response.

The Ignorants

These folks are my Room 101. We are talking about the Pointy Haired Boss types who insist on commenting on something they know nothing about. Think about the engineer who tells sales and marketing what customers really want when they have never met a customer in their lives. Or the salesperson who tells a bunch of programmers that something is just a SMOP (simple matter of programming). You can see it coming when they start their sentences with “I don't see why we can't just...” The "just" is the keyword here.

There is a difference between the Ignorants and the Truly Ignorants. The latter are sad but well meaning. They are trying to be helpful but out of their league. The Ignorants are trying to demean. By being dismissive of ideas they kill them. Another indicator that there is an Ignorant in the room is how they resist explanations. The Truly Ignorant will listen patiently even if they don't understand a word you are saying. They are suffering because they want to understand and be helpful but can't. Be kind to the Truly Ignorants. The Ignorants on the other hand don't want an explanation. They want something and explanations get in the way of them getting it. These folks will dismiss explanations with a Dogbert like wave of the hand and a hearty “Bah!”

A combination of an Ignorant and an Irrelevant are the “Sky is falling” types. They fill up the discussion with both the ignorant and irrelevant points designed to paint a picture of the end of the world. If you are talking about Global Warming or Nuclear War, a certain amount of that attitude is to be expected. When the subject at hand is a new laptop then the Chicken Little routine is an indication that you have an Ignorant Irrelevant in your midst.

I still can't figure out these people. Is it a power thing? Feelings of inadequacy? Hubris? I don't know and stopped caring awhile back. What I do know is that when you encounter these folks they need to be neutralized quickly before they destroy a perfectly good product initiative.

Of course, once they wreck a good product, they will point to that as an example of the type of failure to be avoided. Bizzaro logic for sure but quite effective. If you run into these people stop them be for it is too late. Otherwise, a perfectly good and innocent product may die or be crippled. And you don't want that on your conscience, do you?

Monday, June 01, 2009

One of the things I love about social networks is how ideas can get bandied about and start you thinking. One question tossed about recently was (and I paraphrase) “What value does a reseller have?” Great question given the current rate if industry consolidation. Makes aggregation more of an aggravation. Besides it keeps getting easier to interact directly with vendors, so why not buy directly from the manufacturer? In theory that should save money, right?

My glib answer was that value added resellers will be valuable as long as there is value add. Small resellers can do that through superior service and trust. People buy from people they trust and it's easier to trust a small company you know then it is a giant faceless corporation. Even if HP will come out to your place of business to install a single server, many people would still prefer the local folks they know well. Small business also tends to trust small business more than big business. It's like a club.

So what about the big boys such as Ingram Micro? No one will confuse them with a small, local, value add reseller. They are a massive company. Large resellers arose from the need for an efficient supply chain in computer products. That need is fast diminishing. Vendors can handle logistics themselves and can run or outsource call centers and Internet operations to handle orders. What value can they bring that a large vendor can't match? In a word - Financing.

Money. Denaros. Cash. A lot of companies want the gear but can't afford to tie up their money. It's not the cost but the liquidity. If I tie up my money in computer equipment then I can't do other things like pay my people. Financing offers a way to get what you want but not pay for it all at once. Great option for a business with cash flow but low capital resources.

Only the big boys can afford to do that. You're friendly neighborhood reseller usually can't offer great financing. What they might have is a resale of a manufacturer's finance plan. A big reseller can offer awesome terms, move equipment, and generate cash flow. Nice plan.

Big resellers can also offer free (or cheap) advice. Not the stuff you get from a salesperson (such as “I think you should reach into your wallet and give me your money”) but hardcore technical advice. For free. That's right. A big reseller can afford a bunch of techies that dispense advice to customers just to maintain relationships. No salesperson will call – just yet anyway. Smaller resellers can do that too but it's harder. They simply don't have the folks to do it. They need those folks selling or delivering solutions, not handing out free advice. I didn't come up with this myself. Food giant Sysco does this all the time as a way of keeping their customers afloat and, of course, buying from them. We should learn from them.

So, if you are small you have to offer incredible service and be as trustworthy as an old hound dog. If you are big, you can offer financing and free advice to keep customers going and buying. Or you can just die. The third option kind of stinks so I don't suggest it.