Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Seybold and the Cloud

Andrew Seybold wrote an interesting piece on Cloud Computing: Cloud Computing -- a new version of an old idea. He identifies a few similarities between the centralized nature of cloud computing and the mainframes from many decades ago. Andrew's comments are centered mostly around centralizing data and making it available to a variety of clients. One of Andrew's biggest concerns is that he might not have network access ALL the time.

Network access is a valid concern and while wifi and broadband coverage continues to grow every day it is still not EVERYWHERE. Google has made offline versions of several of its products, most recently GMail. However, I think Andrew's mainframe comparison is not quite right. The Cloud is much more web based email and web based document storage. Openness and Accessibility are the Cloud's key disruptive drivers. 

Openness: the programmable Web lists over 1200 APIs available for any software developer. Most of them are free or free to get started. These are 1200 intelligent services that can be mashed up together to create new applications. They are open to anyone in the world without the need of any high end equipment. Technologies like HTTP, XML, SOAP, REST, and JavaScript are making this possible.

Accessibility: The programmable Web is open to anyone with the right skills but you don't need to be a rocket scientist to benefit from it. Kids in high school are building mashups to share pictures and communicate with each other but so is the Federal government. This is unprecedented. Sure there is a digital divide but the gap can't be compared to the mainframe days. Furthermore, anyone from their home computer can have access to Google's massive computing infrastructure for free. And once they go beyond their free quota, they can still serve an application with more than 5M page views a day for less than $50 a month. These conditions will power unprecedented innovation over the next 5 years.

Andrew says that the Cloud is not being pushed by IT professionals. I don't completely agree. I see a lot of CIOs looking at Cloud based solutions where possible to reduce operating costs. But in my experience the real people pushing the Cloud are actual business users that are exposed to the innovation delivered by consumer services like Facebook and wonder why can't they have the same type of tools at work.

The Cloud is successful because it represents the ultimate democratization of technology: driven by end users and open to all.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

SAS, analytics and the cloud

SAS got a lot of press coverage when it announced it would invest $70M in a new data center. There is no doubt SAS is a world class company, clear market leader. In a 2008 survey by Rexer Analytics, 45% of respondents reported they use SAS. Almost 1 in 2 data miners? not bad.

I did not know SAS had a hosting service. As they said, their hosting business has grown with almost no advertising but late last year I heard they were pitching to one of the top media companies. I was surprised at first but it really makes a lot of sense and their recent announcement confirms the solid traction that business is getting.

After thinking about it a little more I'm very curious to see how their SaaS offering will play out. I believe the Analytics market is prime for a big disruption. The market is dominated by a handful of companies with relatively closed technology (at least in one direction) and significant profit margins. Open Source projects like R have shaken the game a bit but nothing earth shattering yet. I believe the Cloud -with its limitless storage and cpu power- will bring a more disruptive wave.  Will SAS take the lead? Can they embrace the power of Hadoop and in-memory databases to take their business to the next level? Or will they play conservatively, milking their current cash cow and using their market dominance to crush their smaller competitors? 

This will be a fascinating race.

Force.com thoughts, 2nd part

This is a short follow up to a previous post about Salesforce.com (SFDC) development platform. The more I work with this platform the more impressed I become: SFDC is fantastic. I have talked about their documentation and support in the past. Well, their technology is quite impressive as well.

The force.com platform has been built on a very consistent and predictable multi-tenant architecture. A highly efficient one by the way. Reports indicate that all of SFDC runs on 1000 mirrored servers, that is a total of only 500! This is quite remarkable.

Their development environment has all the features an enterprise developer can ask from a cloud provider. SFDC uses Visualforce Pages to render GUIs. These pages use a proprietary markup language that is quite similar to other frameworks like Django. By using this framework they enable/enforce a mainstream and efficient Model View Controller design pattern.

In addition to the Visualforce pages, SFDC recently added APEX, a Java based scripting language for data manipulation operations such as triggers or traditional stored procedures in relational databases. Java developers should feel right at home with APEX, it is strongly typed and the syntax appears identical to Java. APEX supports inheritance, unit testing and access to web services. Some other operations are restricted for security reasons; very similar to Google's approach with the AppEngine and Python's libraries.

Finally, the integration and customization features of SFDC are very useful and easy to use. Objects can be extended with new attributes, users can have different security profiles that apply specific privileges to different applications, custom applications can be packaged, managed and published with just a few clicks and their security requirements should put any corporation at ease. A winner all in all. What I find most impressive is how easy it is to see how all of these features are really customer driven.

Salesforce.com is definitely a role model for any other aspiring Cloud company.


Cloudera has created quite a buzz with its recent launch: great talent and great backers without a doubt. Business plan? I'm just not as excited as everybody else. I like Hadoop and what I have read about Cloudera makes it look like a solid business. Game changer? I find it hard to believe. This launch and press coverage reminds me of another startup from many years ago: e-pinions.com -and I'm sure there must be dozens of other examples. Great talent, tons of press, overblown expectations. I hope Cloudera has a better future.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Customer Experience and Analytics

Last year I spent some time learning about Customer Experience and Customer Interaction Management. I enjoy both topics quite a bit. More recently due to my work with predictive analytics I have come across a number of Text Analytics companies that are focusing on improving the Customer Experience. From my experience in the Automotive and Pharmaceutical industry I know there are vast amounts of unstructured data repositories buried in most corporations; and more is generated every day.

I have found however a bit of a disconnect between decision management, text/predictive analytics and customer experience management. I think the effective management of the customer experience starts with a clear strategy that defines what the desired experience should be across customer segments. This strategy needs to be aligned with the corporate goals and have corresponding financial indicators. Once a strategy is in place, analytics can be used to detect specific behaviors or recommend the next best action. These recommendations can be as a predictive score or an alert to a customer service, sales representative or customer touchpoint. But then there is the need for a decision management system that would take the analytics' result and act on it. These decision management system needs to have rules managed by those business users responsible for managing the Customer Experience strategy.

Today I see a chasm where vendors focus just on the analytics or just on the strategy or just on the rules management. It seems to me that there is a big opportunity to bring all those pieces together in a proactive, money making, recession proof solution.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Success story

Here is a short success story about how Appirio runs its entire business on the cloud.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Weekly roundup

The following announcements from last week caught my attention:
  • The New York Times keeps publishing new APIs, now for state legislature. Just like the Guardian in the UK it seems they are truly looking to reinvent themselves.
  • Google enables behavioral ad targeting. This is a brilliant maneuver. It is simple and powerful in classic Google style.


Earlier this week I wrote about the idea of using text analytics to parse and analyze citizen's sentiment along with government communications. Seth Grimes suggested that OpenCalais could be used to build this mashup. I had heard of OpenCalais not long ago but I have not had a chance to play with it yet. Coincidentally, I came acroos MediaCloud and it seems they are doing something similar but with a focus on Media coverage. I am not sure if I will have the time to research OpenCalais but it is certainly encouraging to see some of these ideas in action. The next natural step would be to combine OpenCalais with the Twitter API to enable the structured analysis of people's activity streams.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Text Analytics

Sid Banerjee from Clarabridge wrote an interesting post on text analytics. I don't know if Clarabridge has a RESTful API. If it does, I think it would be interesting to use it to create a mashup with the White House blog. The Obama administration has asked the public to submit comments and ideas on a wide variety of topics ranging from health care to the economy. I believe in some cases they have received tens of thousands of emails. I wonder how are they processing them?

With a Clarabridge mashup we could analyze each blog posting from the Obama administration but more importantly we could use it to analyze the citizen's feedback. We could then use this analysis to track the government progress and responsiveness.

In addition to the WH blog I would like to use the API to process the RSS feeds from Recovery.org. Talk about efficiency and transparency, I can't think of a better way of doing it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

News Roundup

The past couple of weeks have been full of interesting news and announcements. Here are the ones that caught my attention, in no particular order:
  • Vivek Kundra to the WSJ: "If I went to the coffee shop, I would have more computing power than the police department". Long live the cloud.
  • From Newsweek Magazine the People's Data, expanding on the idea of publishing government information through web APIs.
  • Martin Fowler had a couple of great blog postings. One on Contradictory Observations a simple and powerful thought about our common approach to information management. Another one titled Technical Debt and right on target with the current economic times.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Gmail and GFail

A few days ago Gmail was unavailable for a few hours and many people were outraged. I understand the pain of not being able to access email but was all the criticism really justified? Are people holding Google to unrealistic expectations? Are the standards too high? What is the actual impact of not having email for 2 or 4 hours?

I believe in the age of the cloud there will be many very public service interruptions. I would not consider Email a trivial service, particularly not for Gmail's size. However, there are already many more complex applications starting to become available. What can we realistically expect in terms of Service Level Agreements?

I believe these new applications will have to offer many alternatives to handle exceptions when something goes wrong, particularly when there is little control over the component that fails. Nevertheless businesses and individuals will have to put in place processes in place to mitigate some of these risks.