Archive for January, 2015:

The standardized PC served its purpose, but IT changes have rendered the approach obsolete

How to change the desktop paradigm in a large organization

I work in an international organization, with around 10,000 employees and offices in nearly 100 countries. We started rolling out PCs to our staff when they first emerged as corporate tools in the early 1990s. As in many organizations, in time there was a drive to standardize those tools because:

– PC hardware varied wildly by location. Purchasing a PC in Africa would cost two to three times as much as in Europe. We therefore began purchasing PCs at our Italy-based headquarters and shipping them to the field.

– Configuring PCs was far from plug and play and most configuration was done via scripting languages that required specialist knowledge.

– The emergence of corporate software required specific operating system configurations. WordPefect, was the first such package in our organization, and was quickly followed by a stream of other in-house or shrink-wrapped packages.

– The emergence of threats in terms of computer viruses led to the need for a controlled environment to protect against them.

Through this standardization, IT has also been able to reduce costs and realize genuine efficiencies. But, it also led to the IT mindset that a good PC is standardized, locked-down machine, and that the role of IT is to guarantee that all applications must work all of the time. Conversely, non-standard PCs and non-standard applications are risks to be avoided at all costs.

This mindset has been ingrained for nearly two decades, but it needs to be challenged today because major changes in IT have fundamentally rendered this paradigm obsolete.

From a technology perspective, the Web browser is now the de facto platform of choice for delivering corporate applications, and especially today, it is the only feasible way of delivering cloud-based applications. In a similar way, applications that used to be locally installed on each PC, such as Microsoft and Adobe productivity products, are now moving towards the Cloud. These changes have broken the long-standing critical dependency on the underlying operating system.

And then there is the people perspective. The workplace is beginning to fill with tech savvy people who are familiar with IT and have their own ways of working, often driven by social networks. These people are capable of using IT effectively – if they are allowed to. They are also used to having multiple IT devices – from Macbooks through to ever-more capable tablets and smartphones – and they want to use these devices for both work and in their private life.

To cope with these new realities we have made some changes: we introduced a formal BYOD policy for mobile phones last year, principally as a cost-saving measure, and we have recently enabled Wi-Fi access for personal devices.

While the latter has been helpful in enabling access from a wider range of devices, it still ignores the elephant in the room – the 10,000 traditional desktop PCs that are now considered second-class devices, running out-dated versions of software (and usually slowly), and limiting user productivity because they are locked down.

– We will set up the legal and administrative framework to encourage staff and consultants to use their preferred devices for work

– We will set up a virtualized desktop infrastructure, but in the long-term this is intended only as a fallback option for those who are unwilling or unable to use their preferred devices.

– We will avoid developing applications with any client-side requirement beyond a browser, and use technologies such as HTML5 to ensure applications can run on any client-side device.

– We will change the focus of information security; instead of attempting to equally protect every device in every location, the focus will be on protecting the core corporate applications

To move this forward, we have setup a pilot to rollout in the IT Division in the first quarter of 2015, purchasing hardware and licenses to expand an existing virtualized application infrastructure. The intention is then, in the second quarter, to seek funding for startup costs and flagging expected areas of savings. By 2016, we aim to be well under way in implementing this change.

As the first major United Nations agency launching such an initiative we will look to share our findings with our sister agencies in the United Nations system who may then be interested in observing our progress or launching similar initiatives of their own.

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As Box’s IPO looms, so do its challenges

The road to an initial public offering is rarely smooth for any company, but it’s fair to say that Box’s journey has been one of the bumpier ones. Though it filed plans to go public early last year, it wasn’t until this week that the milestone finally come into view. In the meantime, Box’s challenges have only intensified.

The share price for its long-awaited IPO is expected to be set late Thursday, with its debut on the New York Stock Exchange slated for Friday morning. Some 12.5 million shares of Class A common stock are expected to be made available at a generally cited price of $11 to $13 each, though word on the street suggests it will be higher.

“There are two things to take into consideration,” said John Fitzgibbon Jr., owner and publisher of “There’s the company itself, or the ‘steak.’ Then there’s the ‘sizzle’: the IPO.

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“It started out slow, but now I hear it’s sizzling,” Fitzgibbon said. “It’s expected to be priced above range and to start trading above that. For the tech sector, this is a gift from the heavens.”

Founded in 2005, Box offers a cloud-based platform for data storage, file sharing and collaboration. It offers both free and paid versions of its service, with varying levels of storage space and administrative control. Today, more than 32 million people and 275,000 companies are among its users, the company says, including roughly half of the Fortune 500.

“The document collaboration landscape is in the midst of a major shift toward the cloud and full mobile support,” said Rob Koplowitz, a principal analyst with Forrester Research. “The first and most compelling evidence of that is workers demanding easy, pervasive access to the content they need, when they need it, on any device.”

One result of that demand has been the considerable attention that has come to be focused on cloud storage and “file sync and share” solutions, he pointed out. Box has already benefitted from that early demand.

But the road to its IPO has not been easy. Soon after it filed to go public last March, the market went sour on cloud-based stocks, creating an unfavorable climate for Box to list its shares. It canceled its plans and focused instead on fresh fundraising.

The market looks better today, but Box by no means has the stage to itself. Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, EMC, Citrix and other vendors are all playing in this arena, and the collective effect is driving down prices.

Differentiation will be critical. “The promise of content in the cloud is much broader and deeper than just storage and sync and share,” Koplowitz said. “A true cloud content platform offers tremendous opportunity to redefine the role of content in all aspects of business.”

That, in turn, will require a robust development and integration platform and a large partner ecosystem—both goals Box has been working towards.

Looking ahead, the company’s real challenge, Koplowitz said, is whether Box can continue to add customers in a competitive market, while driving up revenue per seat by monetizing its broader platform and emerging vertical capabilities.

Box’s numerous competitors and considerable spending on marketing and data centers rank high among investors’ concerns, agreed Kathleen Smith, a principal with IPO ETF manager Renaissance Capital.

“They have got a lot of customers, but they spend a lot to get them,” she said. “The losses are high. The trick is for investors to see that spending as being worth it.”

Box already offers features to distinguish its platform from those of its competitors, she added; now, “they also need to distinguish themselves with profits.”

Time will tell whether that happens.

In the meantime, Friday will probably be “a wild trading day with huge volumes,” Fitzgibbon predicted. “Maybe twice the shares being offered will trade.”

There could also be a broader impact.

“All you need is a front-line company to really pop in an IPO market and you’ve got the floodgates opening up,” he said. “Everybody’s going to be running down the street in their underwear afterwards.”


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Quick look inside IBM’s snazzy new mainframe

What did IBM do to celebrate the mainframe’s 51st birthday? Reinvented the Big Iron basically.

Happy 51st
What did IBM do to celebrate the mainframe’s 51st birthday? Reinvented the Big Iron basically. The z13 models announced this week are the result of a $1 billion, five-year development cycle that resulted in the most powerful, feature-laden mainframe to date. Here we take a quick look at some of the more interesting features of the new system.

Legendary scalability
The z13 promises to build upon the mainframe’s legendary scalability: the big z13 is capable of running up to 8,000 virtual servers — more than 50 virtual servers per core and z13 is able to process 2.5 billion transactions a day – equivalent of 100 Cyber Mondays every day of the year, IBM says.

Real-time encryption
IBM says the z13 will make practical real-time encryption of all mobile transactions. The z13 speeds real-time encryption of mobile transactions to help protect the transaction data and ensure response times. The system includes 500 new patents including cryptographic encryption technologies that enable more security features for mobile initiated transactions. Support to allow a cryptographic coprocessor to be shared across more than 16 domains, up to the maximum number of logical partitions on the system.

Embedded analytics
The z13 is the first mainframe system with embedded analytics providing real-time insights on all transactions. This capability can help guarantee the ability of the client to run real-time fraud detection on 100% of their business transactions, IBM says.

Cascade of events
On the mobile front, each transaction triggers a cascade of events across computing systems. These events include comparisons to past purchases, data encryption and decryption, bank-to-bank reconciliations, and customer loyalty discounts. This cascade of events causes what IBM calls a “starburst effect” – where a single transaction can trigger as few as four or as many as 100 additional system interactions. IBM says the z13 in such situations can protect and watch over these threat points.

BM’s zAware program has been improved. The system uses near real-time continuous learning algorithms, providing a diagnostics capability intended to help customers quickly pinpoint problems. IBM zAware uses analytics to intelligently examine z/OS or Linux on z Systems messages to find unusual patterns, inconsistencies, and variations. Large operating system environments can sometimes generate more than 25 million messages per day. This can make manual analysis time-consuming and error-prone when exceptional problems occur. IBM zAware provides a simple graphical user interface and APIs to help customers find message anomalies quickly, IBM says.

Fiber channel connectivity
IBM significantly bolstered the Fiber channel connectivity for storage area networks. IBM said the z13 will support a new release of IBM’s Fiber Connection or FICON. FICON Express16S features a link data rate of 16Gbps and auto-negotiation to 4G or 8Gbps for interaction with existing switches, directors, and storage devices.

The z13 supports 10TBytes of main memory, up from 3TB on the previous generation. The z13 is based on an eight-core processor made in the same 22 nm process as IBM’s Power 8 processors. A fully configured system sports up to 141 of these cores, all running at 5 GHz. The z13 supports 10 TBytes main memory, up from 3 TB in the previous generation.

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Microsoft abruptly dumps public Patch Tuesday alerts

Layoffs and reorg have changed security at the company, say outsiders, and not for the better

For the first time in a decade, Microsoft today did not give all customers advance warning of next week’s upcoming Patch Tuesday slate. Instead, the company suddenly announced it is dropping the public service and limiting the alerts and information to customers who pay for premium support.

“Moving forward, we will provide ANS information directly to Premier customers and current organizations involved in our security programs, and will no longer make this information broadly available through a blog post and Web page,” wrote Chris Betz, senior director at the Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC), the group responsible for the warnings.

The change also applies to the occasional alerts that Microsoft issued when it gave customers a heads-up about an impending emergency patch. ANS will no longer provide public alerts for those “out-of-band” updates.

Security professionals torched Microsoft over the change.

“They’ve gone from free to fee, and for really no particular reason,” said Andrew Storms, vice president of security services at New Context, a San Francisco-based security consultancy, in an interview. “It doesn’t make sense.”

And Ross Barrett, senior manager of security engineering, at Rapid7, let loose with both barrels. “This is an assault on IT and IT security teams everywhere,” Barrett said in an email reply to questions. “Making this change without any lead time is simply oblivious to the impact this will have in the real world. Honestly, it’s shocking.”

The no-longer-available alerts from the “Advanced Notification Service,” or ANS, have been a part of Microsoft’s monthly security apparatus for the last 10 years, Storms estimated. Those alerts appeared on Microsoft’s website on the Thursday before the next Patch Tuesday, the tag for its monthly security update schedule.

Microsoft will still issue those updates next week — on Jan. 13, at approximately 10 a.m. PT — but only some customers will receive the pre-Patch Tuesday warnings, including today’s. The warnings listed the number of updates and what products they would affect, and described the severity of the underlying vulnerabilities.

Betz explained the sudden disappearance of a public ANS by saying that customers weren’t using it.

“Customer feedback indicates that many of our large customers no longer use ANS in the same way they did in the past due to optimized testing and deployment methodologies,” said Betz. “While some customers still rely on ANS, the vast majority wait for Update Tuesday, or take no action, allowing updates to occur automatically.”

Microsoft prefers to call its monthly security release “Update Tuesday,” apparently believing “Patch Tuesday” carries negative connotations.

Storms wasn’t buying Betz’s explanation. “I don’t get it. It’s the wrong economic model,” said Storms. “They say no one was using it, so now they’re going to charge for it?”
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“Privatizing ANS to Premier and paid support protection programs only reiterates that Microsoft wants all of the pie, and will force organizations to pay,” added Tim Byrne, product manager at Core Security, in an email.

Storms said that pulling the ANS plug was probably part of the reorganization that Microsoft has been implementing since 2013, but particularly since the large layoffs of mid-2014. For example, the Trustworthy Computing security group was shut down last September, with some staff let go and others beating a path to the door for new jobs. Others were parceled out to the company’s cloud computing and legal teams.

“We know that there are a lot fewer folks at Microsoft,” said Storms, referring to the layoffs and the shuttering of the Trustworthy Computing Group. “With X-percent fewer employees, I think they’re just trying to make ends meet.”

One result: ANS going from free to paid.

In hindsight, ANS’s vanishing act shouldn’t have been a shock. In November, for instance, Microsoft discontinued its long-running post-Patch Tuesday webcast, where senior security engineers and managers walked through the month’s updates in detail.

Jonathan Ness, senior development manager at MSRC, and Dustin Childs, group manager of response communications — who did the final webcast in November — have both left Microsoft, illustrating Storms’ point about staff reductions.

In a tweet today, Childs simply said, “Wow. #ANS now for premier customers only,” about the change.

ANS was valuable, Storms maintained, and not only to the large corporations that will continue to receive the alerts as part of their Premier Support contracts.

“ANS was very useful for preparation before Patch Tuesday,” said Storms. “It gave you time to make a VM [virtual machine] with the correct version of something so you could test the patches when they came out. There are definitely organizations that have relied on it.”

The ramifications of the new ANS policy are hard to gauge, said Storms, but he worries about the trend in Redmond.

“I’m really surprised,” said Storms. “It’s very uncharacteristic of the Microsoft we’ve come to know and appreciate. They spent years gaining a foothold in the security community, changing how they were viewed in the industry, and they continued to add information and make ANS more valuable over time.”

Others were more blunt. “Microsoft is basically going back to a message of ‘just blindly trust’ that we will patch everything for you,” said Barrett of Rapid 7.

“Microsoft takes some control away from the users [with] this transition,” argued Jon Rudolph, principal software engineer at Core Security, in an email. “By making this switch, Microsoft is … hiding their security report card from the general public.”

Microsoft left the door ajar in one aspect: While ANS won’t issue warnings of out-of-band patches, the company said it could use other unspecified ways to communicate with customers.

“The changes announced today apply to all Advance Notification Service (ANS) communications,” a Microsoft spokesman said in an email response to questions about ANS’s former role in distributing emergency alerts. “If we determine broad communication is needed for a specific situation, we’ll take the appropriate actions to reach customers.”

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IT 2015 predictions

If I am right, this will be a tough year for tech and everyone else.

With the year coming to a close, a lot of people are making their predictions for 2015. So naturally I had to join the party. A whole lot of issues seem to be coming to a head and will need to be addressed in the next year, and I think it will happen all at once. So heed the words of Patridamus.

1) Wearables continue to tank
This is yet another case of the industry looking for new growth opportunities and a chance to expand by driving something the public doesn’t really want. People don’t want another device to carry or remember to wear, they are often inaccurate, and the newness wears off quickly and they get tossed in the drawer.

2) IoT proves a hard sell
Take what I said above and multiply it by 10. I don’t know anyone screaming for an Internet-connected refrigerator. Then again, Steve Jobs did famously say “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” But with concerns about privacy by government and corporate snooping, security from all the hacks and general public tech illiteracy (the Silicon Valley is so myopic about this), IoT will be a hard sell.

3) BYOD chickens come home to roost

Many firms established BYOD rules when the trend first began, and they never revisited them. Eventually, there will be a reckoning where companies have to set down rules concerning data security and loss prevention, not to mention who pays the bills. It’s only a matter of time before we get stories of employees giving up on BYOD and telling their boss to just provide a device.

4) Stock market crash and burn
The stock market has been going gangbusters, but it won’t last. Every seven years, the stock market melts down like Chernobyl. We all remember 2008, and the recent “Cromnibus” budget deal in Washington has set us up for a repeat. In 2001, it hit the skids due to the Dot Bomb crash and 9/11. In 1994, the bond market went into the toilet. And in 1987 we had Black Monday with the massive sell-off. And if you don’t believe me, maybe this guy’s words will carry weight.

5) AMD finally bottoms out, Qualcomm acquires it for IP protection
AMD is in a real tough spot. Its CEO change caused a collapse in confidence and stock, neither of which has bounced back. Nvidia is gaining market share and is now over 70%, according to Jon Peddie Research. There are hints of big things to come but nothing concrete, and the company has been through endless rounds of layoffs.

Nvidia wouldn’t be allowed to buy the company, unless it was torn in half and it got the x86 business (and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang has repeatedly said he doesn’t want an x86 business), with the GPU side going to Intel. A more likely outcome is Qualcomm grabbing the company primarily for IP protection against Intel.

6) IT continues to dump its own data centers in favor of the cloud
The trend of shutting down an on-premises data center in favor of a cloud solution has been going on for some time, but it will take off in 2015 for one very good reason – Windows Server 2003 is reaching its end of life and there are 10 million 2003 server installations out there that need upgrading. Many companies may decide it’s easier to move to the cloud than buy new servers and go through a rip-and-replace routine.

7) Windows 10 is a hit, mostly
Windows 10 seems to have a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings around it, and it will likely revive PC sales, especially in the enterprise. The only thing that will mute Windows 10 at this point is declining interest in PCs. If the trend toward tablets as PC replacements continues, well, there’s nothing Microsoft can do about that except get the tablet experience right, which it seems to have done with Surface 3.

8) Big Data’s growth will be hampered by talent shortages
Big Data is an important new trend in tech, but it’s also a significant change in how computer science is done. It requires people with specialized, advanced degrees, and there are not a lot of them on the market. In fact, there have been repeated predictions of talent shortages of data scientists and other people to make Big Data work. The people who have that kind of experience, however, will make some serious money.

9) Tablets will crash and burn
Tablet sales are already slowing down and the trend likely won’t reverse in 2015. Some experiments have failed, like the Los Angeles Unified School District’s $1.3 billion tablet boondoggle. I expect as the batteries start to die on these things and they are not replaceable, that will also hurt. The main problem, though, is that tablets don’t have an advocate. Steve Jobs was the big champion of the tablet and no one has stepped forward to take up the mantle.

10) MMOs start dying off
My one consumer prediction. For some time now, every game company and a whole bunch of startups had massively multiplayer online games in the works. Then they all started failing. “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” “Final Fantasy XIV,” and “Elder Scrolls Online” all bombed recently, and when an “Elder Scrolls” game bombs, that’s a big warning. Many other MMOs have faded into nothing. And Blizzard killed its MMO codenamed “Titan” after seven years of R&D. The reality is these games demand too much time and people who play them frequently suffer from health problems for their addictions.



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Microsoft expands anti-MacBook campaign with switching tips

Microsoft expands anti-MacBook campaign with switching tips

Illustrates the underdog position of its Surface Pro 3 2-in-1

Microsoft recently expanded its campaign against Apple’s MacBook Air with a website that offers practical advice to people who have switched or are thinking of switching to a Surface Pro 3.

The site resembled other ditch-a-rival-OS efforts that have long been a part of the personal computing landscape, including those Apple has used to convince consumers that switching from a Windows PC to a Mac is not difficult.

Microsoft’s MacBook-to-Surface Pro 3 switching site includes general tips on using Windows, descriptions of navigation and operation equivalents of the former on the latter, an explanation of moving content from the Mac to the Surface, and advice on using Apple’s iPhone, iCloud and iTunes on Windows for those who own other Apple devices.

Microsoft has pitted its Surface Pro against Apple’s MacBook Air — the Cupertino, Calif. firm’s lightest and thinnest laptop — since the Surface Pro first hit the market in early 2013, early on arguing that the device is a replacement for both a MacBook Air and an iPad. Later, as tablet sales stalled, Microsoft dropped the iPad comparisons and focused solely on the MacBook Air, contending that the Surface Pro 3 is a better laptop both at the tablet-no-it’s-a-notebook May 2014 debut and in a string of humorous ads on television and YouTube. The Redmond, Wash. company has also run MacBook Air buyback and Surface Pro 3 back-to-school promotions aimed at owners or potential owners of the laptop.

The switchers’ advice website was simply a pragmatic expansion of those marketing efforts.

But it was also a stark reminder that Microsoft’s devices strategy operates from a position of weakness: Only an OS or device maker with a minority stake has reason to admit it must convince people to switch from a dominant player.

Apple, for example, has long offered tips on how to switch from Windows to OS X because its Macs have been a puny part of the overall personal computer market. If Apple is to grow its market share, it’s best bet is to steal customers from the Windows world.

Not surprisingly, Apple’s Windows-to-OS X switching site has the same kind of advice as Microsoft’s newer MacBook Air-to-Surface collection, including keyboard shortcut equivalents.

Yet until the debut of its Surface line in 2012, Microsoft had not seen the need to dip into the switchers market.

Microsoft has never disclosed unit sales of the Surface, but most analysts believe it sold fewer than one million in the most recently-reported quarter, its best ever revenue-wise. Nor does Apple reveal the numbers of its MacBook Air notebooks sold; instead, it publicizes sales of Macs overall, which in the September quarter totaled 5.5 million, a record.

Apple stopped disclosing the split between notebook and desktop sales in late 2012, but during the two years before that, the former accounted for 73% of all Macs. If that same fraction is applied to the September quarter sales, Apple sold approximately 4 million laptops. The MacBook Air is Apple’s bestselling notebook, so by that reckoning it sold more than 2 million, or at least twice the number of Microsoft’s Surface.

It’s unclear whether Microsoft’s pitch to MacBook Air owners is effective enough to tempt many to switch to Windows and the Surface Pro 3. Most analysts believe Microsoft will get few MacBook Air users to change. But some think that’s beside the point.

“Comparing yourself to something viewed as the premium device on the market is a good idea,” said Patrick Moorhead, principal analysts of Moor Insights & Strategy, in a June interview. “You want to pick on a winner, not a loser.”

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