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Archive for May 2009

Say goodbye to bad UI (thanks to the cloud)

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A typical modal dialog box with prominent &quo...
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I don’t think anyone will argue with me that the typical IT management tool user interface (UI) is just plain awful.  There are several reasons for this, but the most obvious one is that an enterprise software product is loaded with hundreds of features, functions, and configurations, all of which need to be accessible to an end user.

As cloud computing aggregates formerly disparate functions and resources into logical groups, it stands to reason that  user interfaces will not need as much complexity as is required today, simply because there is more abstraction of the resources that make up the application (code, servers, network, database, etc).  If there are less things that are user configurable in a software package, you can simply eliminate numerous menu items, configuration toggles, buttons, etc.

It will be hard for the incumbents to change their UI to fit this new model.  Customers who are used to a certain UI from a vendor or product are going to want it to stay the same (or close to the same) since they’re used to how it looks – even if it looks horrible :)

New entrants, however, have a great opportunity to leverage UI and user experience to make their management apps more sticky and to appeal to a broader market.  For example, the Bluebear guys have built a snazzy, intuitive multi-hypervisor virtualization management tool written in Adobe AIR.  If I’m an SMB who is dipping my toe into the waters of virtualization, maybe a tool like this makes it easier for me to get started.   Or take a company like Cloudkick, that is looking to “make the cloud easier to use an accessible to everyone.” That’s a great misson statement, and one that’s certainly achievable given the software development technologies available today.

Maybe (hopefully?) we end up in a world where the idea of sending one’s IT staff to “training” class for several thousand dollars a pop will be a thing of the past.  The IT guys will just be able to sit down and drive whatever software you put in front of them.

The UI will be that good…

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Written by John Gannon

May 29, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Planning for unplanned downtime

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Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
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Via D7: The Twitter guys speak | Beyond Binary – CNET News:

7:37 p.m. PT: They open it up for questions. Venture capitalist Roger McNamee offers a couple of comments. “Don’t ever do another planned maintenance in the middle of the day on a week day.”

I remember the day Roger McNamee is talking about, when Twitter posted on the homepage that there would be some ‘planned downtime’ in the middle of the day.

In datacenter operations language, ‘Planned downtime’ in the middle of the day is really  unplanned downtime.

I’m not privy to what went on that day at Twitter, but my guess as an ex-datacenter guy is that there was some production issue affecting some number of users which a) would have got worse over time or b) was not yet an issue, but would have become an issue had they not taken down the site at that time.

From a PR perspective and from a tech perspective (assuming my assumption from the previous paragraph was correct), Twitter did the right thing.  I can certainly appreciate a high growth site like Twitter having some growing pains (having been through that myself at multiple high traffic internet properties) and this was probably the best way to handle it.

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Written by John Gannon

May 27, 2009 at 10:09 am

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Don’t pitch the product

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Johan Santana on May 17, 2008
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Having seen this come up a couple of times over the last couple of weeks, I felt it was worth blogging it.

Don’t give the product sales pitch when you’re pitching an early stage investor.

An investor presentation, although technically a sales presentation (you want the investor to buy equity in your company), should not be a product sales presentation.

Yes, we want to understand the product you have built or are building, but if it’s 100% about the product (or even 70% about the product), it’s hard to tell the story that will convince the VC that this is an exciting team and market opportunity, with the right product at the right time.  Getting bogged down in features and functions is going to take the investor’s eye off the vision and into the weeds.

There’s plenty of time to get into the weeds once you have the investor’s interest, but not in a first meeting.

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Written by John Gannon

May 26, 2009 at 12:59 pm

A Yorkshire Man sounds off on virtualization

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The British Flag
Image by Chris Breeze via Flickr

My buddy Steve Chambers has started blogging at View Yonder.  Steve’s an awesome guy who I got to know pretty well while working with him at VMwareI think you’ll enjoy his take on virtualization, VMware, and fine beers :)  His most recent post debates the notion that VMware products are too “expensive“.

This is a refrain I heard frequently during my time at the company – it’s good to see not much has changed since I left!

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Written by John Gannon

May 22, 2009 at 10:47 am

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Cloud app store hype

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iPod 5th Generation white.
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With the rise of virtual appliances as a software delivery and deployment model, people are beginning to talk about the idea of cloud computing app stores (a la iTunes) where admins can find virtual appliances and then easily deploy them onto a cloud or a server in their data center.

Although this idea sounds cool (“Hey, I can search for apps like I’d search for songs on iTunes and then deploy them almost instantly!”), I’m not convinced it is something that is going to create a dramatic market shift within the enterprise.

Why not?

First let’s think about why customers would be inclined to use a virtual appliance or app store:

  • Easily demo software on their own environment or in the cloud:  The virtual appliance model is clearly a great way for an IT guy or developer to test new apps.  You can try before you buy, and you don’t need to requisition any hardware to test.
  • Pay-per-appliance instead of pay-per-physical server: A pay-per-appliance model makes more sense in the virtual world than does the old licensing model of per-CPU or per-server.
  • Choice: App stores are a place where the big vendors’ marketing muscle won’t matter as much.  Customers will be exposed to new vendors and solutions.

And some reasons why customers wouldn’t want to use virtual appliances or app stores:

  • Lack of Control: Larger companies will have strict standards on what kind of applications and OS’s go into their environment.  Typically, they are going to want control of the hardware, the application, and everything in between.  Using a virtual appliance means giving up much of the control enterprise IT is used to having on the entire stack.
  • Good config management and deployment tools beat virtual appliances any day of the week:  The virtual appliance value proposition is eliminated if you’ve got robust config and deployment systems (think Opsware, Puppet, etc) that let you deploy fully customized app stacks (w/custom OS) in minutes.  Why sacrifice the ability to customize when you don’t have to?

Why are the appliances and app stores good for vendors?

  • Lead gen: Download of virtual appliance = sales lead for appliance vendor
  • Makes software pre-sales process easier: Instead of putting a sales engineer onsite for a couple days to help setup a customer demo, give the customer a virtual appliance that they can get up and running in an hour or less.
  • Best practices:  The vendor can ensure the configuration of the appliance conforms with best practices.  This will prevent some folks from shooting themselves in the foot by not selecting manufacturer suggested default settings. (Although certainly the ‘suggested’ settings are a really bad idea for certain use cases – a longer story which I won’t dig into here)
  • Makes cloud more useful:  Helps cloud customers deploy apps faster.
  • Long tail:  Exposes lesser known or upcoming vendors to IT buyers.

Seems to me like virtual appliances are a great sales/marketing tool for vendors large and small, but not something that will fundamentally change how enterprise IT is delivered.  SMBs on the other hand…maybe there is a play there.


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Written by John Gannon

May 21, 2009 at 11:08 am

Why Do SaaS Companies Lose Money Hand Over Fist?

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It seems pretty clear these (, SuccessFactors) SaaS companies could be just as profitable as SAP if they were prepared to dial back significantly on their growth. SaaS companies spend money hand over fist because they’re engaged in a land grab. The big players like SAP are extremely slow getting to SaaS for various reasons. As long as these companies can grow like this, they should keep investing heavily in it. The likelihood an on-prem vendor will dig these customers back out again seems very low. Customers being taken this way are probably lost for good to the SAP’s of the world.

(excerpted from Smoothspan blog post)

Written by John Gannon

May 19, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Backup your data passively, or don’t backup at all

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A standard RJ45 Ethernet connector.
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I’ve finally come to realization that the idea of an end home/SoHO/SMB user being actively involved in backup of their data is a losing proposition.

Foundry Group just funded Cloud Engines, a company that makes a product (Pogoplug) which allows you to passively share data from your hard drive and make it available as a cloud-like service.  Certainly automated backups would be a logical next step.

There are also some other guys out there (whose names are escaping me – and by all means please add them to the comments) who take a similar approach of placing a device in the network path to perform backups with bare minimum user configuration or intervention.

If the backup service/software has to prompt a user for files and directories to be backed up, it has already failed.  The user will underutilize it, or won’t use it at all (sadly I’m in the latter bucket).

A device inline on the network will miss some stuff, but it’s certainly better than nothing (which is what you get with backup software which sits uninstalled/unconfigured).

I wonder if the network card makers could create a backup offload engine (BOE?) chip that would grab file related network I/O’s and replicate them into the cloud.  We have TCP offload engines (TOE), and iSCSI offload chips, so why not BOE?

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Written by John Gannon

May 13, 2009 at 5:56 pm

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