Matthew Sekol

"The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words."

Month: April 2015

Chromebooks – Threat or Google’s Next Passing Thing?

I love reading an article I completely disagree with! Alastair Knowles wrote an excellent article about how Microsoft should be on the lookout for Chromebooks. This is absolutely a real concern for Microsoft. Gartner reported Chromebook sales will likely triple by 2017.  With the ongoing fight between Bing and Google Search, Office 365 and Google Apps, etc., this is an interesting comparison to call out because it does bleed into other areas.

Before we start, my career has been built on supporting and now selling Microsoft solutions, so I’m a bit biased. Still, I was one of the first to get a GMail beta invite back in the day and it was from Microsoft and Bungie’s ARG (Alternate Reality Game) for Halo 2! My wife is a pretty big fan of GMail, but I’ve gotten tired of them forcing me to keep all my mail (just swipe right on your ActiveSync device for GMail – Archive, not Delete appears! Ugh! Side note: Microsoft fixed this issue with the Outlook app).

Personal preferences slightly aside, let’s break it down from the Microsoft position with much respect to the original author, leaving just a little bit for Google.

There are so many ways to break these arguments down, but I think combining ROI, Academia and Hardware Revolution together is a good place to start.

Not everything comes down to cost. Chromebooks are popular and cheap, but conversely Apple products are massively popular and expensive. Microsoft is floating somewhere in the middle. With Windows 10, they will be (and have been since August) pursuing the sub-$200 PC market and tablets more aggresively while maintaining their higher end performance PCs through a consistent OS. This is a direct affront to the Chromebook (cue dramatic music).

Beyond that, Microsoft is bridging the gap with mobile and PC with the One Windows experience that allows any app on any device through Adaptive UX. Ubiquity and consistent experiences are the name of the game. Both Google and Apple are missing this point (Android/Chrome OS and Mac /iOS).

Google seems to be shoehorning Android apps into Chrome OS and even is potentially making a massive mistake in trying to interject itself into the web app process in general for the sake of additional revenue with something as innocuous as app notifications. Yikes!

The too-little-too-late argument defeats itself. Just like Google has a chance to compete, Microsoft absolutely does as well and Windows 10 is right around the corner! Consider Blackberry, the pinnacle of mobile information in its time. Apple and Google have both squashed them. As long as there is any refresh cycle on hardware or OS, a contender has a chance to change the game. Microsoft should be relying on this cycle to shore up their numbers from the Nokia purchase. Think about how many smartphones you’ve had in the past 10 years. Any of those refreshes is an opportunity for someone to come grab market share. The market itself is an agent of change! (Note: This is how Chromebooks likely got a toe-hold!)

With the Hardware Revolution, Google started out with a Acer and Samsung as their OEMs and has now grown across multiple OEMs, including themselves. For years now, Microsoft has partnered with OEMs to make PC hardware. They made a huge shift and started making their own hardware with the Surface. Initially this change was admittedly confusing with the RT and Pro versions. RT was likely an early attempt at a Chromebook competitor, but clearly Microsoft missed the mark. Microsoft has dropped the Rt, streamlined it after the Surface Pro 3’s release and has now really hit their stride. The story seems to be shifting upwards, especially in their education play.

Speaking of which, not only has the Chromebook made waves in education, but Google in general has been a choice for start-ups. I’ve seen them compete in this space, but I still maintain that once your startup grows up, you will need the Enterprise features akin to Office 365 and not Google Apps. We’ll get into that more a bit though.

In regards to education, the tide may be turning with the Surface. Like this article states though, you have to go beyond the hardware to the real collaboration features of Microsoft. Even Apple has been having issues maintaining their stanglehold on education lately.

Having said that, let’s lump the following together and see what we get: Productivity, User Friendliness and Innovation.

I’ve long been a proponent of Microsoft Productivity stack. There is a reason why Office is the number 1 productivity suite in the world, having crushed other contenders over the years. I’m not going to get into the all the reasons, but it comes down to usage, not features. You can check out my arguments here for How to Use 15% of Office or How to Use Google Apps.

I will say this though – I used Google Apps in an Enterprise for a year. We switched everyone from Office 365 when my company was acquired. One of our divisions was sold to another company and the first question was – will we get Exchange back? The answer ‘yes’ was met with resounding applause (true story).

From a user friendliness perspective, this is actually where Microsoft shines and the OEMs fail. The OEMs are the reason for bloatware, not Microsoft. Just wait, those same OEMs will hit up Chromebooks with bloatware if they haven’t already. Samsung started the trend with the Chromebook 2 and “premium apps.” Try a Surface Pro 3 or buy from the Microsoft Store – no bloatware in sight via their Signature Series!

To be fair, some people look at Windows and Office as complex and unweidly. In truth, Microsoft has made robust solutions for OS and business productivity so that anyone can use them. From my 5 year old kid to my grandmother, we all use Windows 8.1! Note: I’m not sure how battery life comes into play here as my Surface Pro 3 and Acer S7-192 last pretty much all day performing power user workloads. This has gotten much better in the past 2 years.

When it comes to innovation, Google is all over the place. They do continually innovate, if you consider innovation to be an ADHD like attitude towards bringing up new services and removing them (insert lament for Gtalk, Froogle, Google Buzz, Orkut, etc.). The fact remains though, their core services remain largely unchanged and unimproved from an end user perspective. Search has had some controversial changes lately, but the search UI and the UI for GMail look largely identical to how they looked in 2004 (insert further lament for Google X, which was one attempt at a UI change).

I could (and have) written articles just on Google’s lack of innovation, but let’s talk about patching. Microsoft has an extensive program to test for security issues and get them patched. Over time, less of their patches require reboots, but typically, they still do. Security patches are clearly overwhelming, but they do serve their purpose. I don’t think a monthly reboot is too much to ask, but I get it. Still, 1 in 5 Android apps have recently been announced to be malicious! This is the largest mobile OS on the planet. The point is – the bigger you are, the more complex these patches become.

Surprisingly, you don’t have to look to far to see recent examples of excitement around Microsoft patching. Windows 8.1 was well received. Also, it was free, like Windows 10 will be. Speaking of which, the patches for the tech preview of Windows 10 are going exceedingly well.

Where Google is really failing when it comes to user friendliness and innovation though is limiting their offline features to Chrome only! Microsoft’s version of that is any device, any platform. Look at that, I addressed Dependence on Internet Access (not!) also!

You might have heard about Google Fi, which seems revolutionary. But, it is only supporting Google Nexus 6 at launch. Google is going the wrong direction by forcing a certain subset of their users into their playground. Innovation requires real risk, not just capital.

I think Alastair is right when Addressing Limitations. You can’t be everything to everyone and I doubt even the low end Microsoft platforms and regular Chromebooks could handle heavier workloads. Whether or not Google wants to compete in this space though remains to be seen. Google’s modus operadi seems to be ‘good enough’ solutions.

I don’t say that lightly either, the failure of Google+ and the fact that it underpins all of Google’s authentication is a bit concerning. My hope is that they remove or downplay the social aspect more and just make it an authentication platform like Microsoft Live.

Certainly, Chromebooks have their niche, for now. They’re not in nearly as many countries as Windows and depending on how the Office 365 vs. Google Apps fight plays out, the Chromebook could ultimately go the way of the Blackberry or be folded into an Android OS platform for PCs, aligning Chrome OS with Android. Still, Google has a proven history of killing products that it can’t get it’s core business into. For Enterprise adoption, this is scary. For BYOD, not so much.

I do agree with the last point – Microsoft has a lot of fallbacks if their latest OS coupled with the latest hardware doesn’t sway consumers, but I think the Surface Pro 4 is going to be hugely successful. Perhaps Project Spartan will eventually become an OS itself, similar to how Chrome OS started. I can’t see it playing out this way though. Microsoft is a company in transition and the old stodgy ways are gone. For some reason, Google seems to have taken that burden up.

Bimodal IT: Creating Rifts or Opportunities?

As a result of consumer driven conveniences via applications ‘that just work’, employees are expecting more flexibility, capability and speed of delivery from their IT group than ever before. Enterprise IT can address these requirements with the cloud and the efficiencies it can bring to a business if they standardize and streamline processes. Never before has IT had a bigger chance to make an impact. With this new opportunity though, comes a lot of change.

IT needs to align with the business in a way they haven’t before and develop processes designed to enable agility and speed. This is evident from a recent CIO article called “What Gartner’s Bimodal IT Means to Enterprise CIOs,” which theorizes on what Gartner’s vision of the future of IT is. Supplement that with Kathleen Wilson’s “Enabling Azure Operations” session at Microsoft Ignite, and the story really starts to make an impact.

What is Bimodal IT?
Bimodal IT is a way to address the increased speed of solution delivery in an Enterprise brought on by the cloud. It posits that IT needs to be broken down into 2 groups to facilitate this, but also eliminates a 3rd IT group:

1. A traditional IT that deals with rack and stack installations and on-premises troubleshooting.
2. A new modern IT in which everyone is a generalist and they can quickly organize to deliver solutions that drive the business.
3. This has the benefit of eliminating (or lowering) shadow IT because now IT is equipped with the tools to move as quickly as someone with a credit card.

Traditional IT knows what the business needs from an IT strategy perspective (example: We need more storage for our designers), but modern IT understands the business strategy (example: If we had a more robust design environment, we could deliver designs 10 times faster to our customers, resulting in a quicker R&D return).

Is This the Death of Traditional IT?
Bimodal IT builds on the practices that some Enterprises have already been doing for years since the advent of virtualization and subsequently automation. The difference is that now, with the cloud, everything is sped up and even more immediate. Lydia Leong at Gartner wrote a great blog post that shows how the similarities between virtualization and public cloud aren’t close enough though, even through the software defined data center. Despite this assertion, Enterprise IT should already be on the way to towards a modern IT.

This phrase though is particularly troubling for traditional IT staff and shows that a mindset change is needed is staff are to survive.

The IT-centric individual who is a cautious guardian and enjoys meticulously following well-defined processes is unlikely going to turn into a business-centric individual who is a risk-taking innovator and enjoys improvising in an uncertain environment.

I’m not sure I agree completely as this does sound like a death knell for traditional IT. The software designed data center and Devops play a critical role in both and skills and processes likely can transfer. What I take from this quote is that communication between IT and the business units needs to be more immediate, but I don’t agree that you introduce risk by allowing the speed to delivery get in the way of due diligence and long-term planning. Doubt me? Check your data center for those legacy, yet critical applications still hosted on Windows 2003. We can’t let that type of development work continue without some amount of planning, certainly there must be a balance.

I’m hopeful that CIOs always understand the business needs, but historically, those needs haven’t been communicated to the IT managers and engineers. In an Enterprise where IT is split into traditional IT and modern IT, the issue can be exacerbated as both factions are fighting for power. Gartner seems to be suggesting that this model should be immediately implemented even if the CIO isn’t ready! Yikes! (check the Gartner agenda here).

Is that really what they are saying though? Well, likely there is little IT organizational movement now with still small IT budgets, so some IT departments are likely stuck with a structure put in place a decade ago. Certainly Gartner’s suggestion would be less than optimal because of the natural rift that it causes, unless they are building on the efficiencies that Enterprise IT groups might already have in place – infrastructure and business applications teams that work well together, taking the best of both worlds to move into the bimodal model. Traditional IT can offer standards and best practices while modern IT has the agility to deliver quickly.

For traditional IT, this doesn’t represent a death knell, but an opportunity to move into a more agile way of working.

The CIO Needs to Change Too!
Effective Enterprises should be on their way to solving this problem with tight communication between both traditional IT, modern IT and the business. The CIO (or some leader) needs to facilitate this relationship.

With the speed at which cloud moves, the CIO can no longer afford to sit back and be a funnel of business information any more to only one group, ie. the business applications teams. They need to facilitate that deep understanding between IT and the business to enable agile movement and not maintain ‘at arms length’ traditional IT projects. For those businesses that remain with fragmented communication levels, they’ll likely find competitors with an efficient edge squeezing them out over time.

There are hints that this is what Gartner is saying, but it also seems like they are just encouraging 2 nearly separate ITs just to deal with innovation. I don’t believe that the cloud is so transformative that existing processes and standards knowledge can’t be built upon to deal with this new agility. Certainly, communication can help bridge the gap.

A Surprising Way to Get There
If you are in an Enterprise and can spare staff to move into modern IT, you will likely want to pull from those with the broadest skillsets so that they can understand the complexities of a cloud based solution. Generalists that can understand an entire application’s stack are better than someone troubleshooting just one component.

If you don’t have the staff or if your IT group remains highly fragmented without effective communication with the business and you don’t know how to address it, an IT Partner can often help bridge the gap. Think about it, a good IT Partner has experience in talking to different levels of the organization and getting to the real requirements and the results. Their job depends on this skill!

CIOs should not fear bringing an IT Partner into business conversations. Partners have the added advantage of seeing industry trends specific to your vertical and can perhaps facilitate external references for large initiatives. Traditional IT should also embrace a partner as they can have two effective means to get your IT group where it needs to be:

1. A Partner can focus on traditional IT, allowing existing IT staff to start develop processes and skillsets around modern IT practices.
2. A Partner can be the modern IT practice, interacting with the business while existing staff deal with traditional IT issues.

Not all businesses are Enterprise class, and a Partner can also help smaller businesses understand and make this transition as well. Not everything is about the big players, there are cloud efficiencies for everyone!

Regardless of how you get there though, shadow IT can still come into play if you’re not careful, proving that communication is the key to this transition. Peter Sondergaard, VP and Global Head of Research for Gartner, wrote a great blog article about bimodal IT and mentions that companies ignoring this trend risk shadow IT, but I think he misses how shadow IT might crop up when applying the Gartner model.

If traditional IT is kept out of the business conversation, shadow IT moves from the end users into modern IT and the solutions implemented will ultimately become unsupportable and fragmented themselves (harken back to the Windows 2003 example). Just because the cloud makes it easy doesn’t mean you move at a breakneck speed towards it. This balance is the value traditional IT can bring. The CIO, on the other hand, must ensure communication is tight throughout the business and keep the bleeding edge reigned in just enough to be secure, while being agile.

The cloud journey is very complex and getting it started right is key if IT is going to shift from cost center to enabler of business agility. IT staff need to embrace the change too. From the engineer up to the CIO, each level now has new roles that can be exciting, but you have to embrace the change!

Why Cloud?

Before we start, here is a quick refresher on the 3 types of cloud solutions, just in case you need it!

Someone asked me the other day why any company would move their IT infrastructure to the cloud. They could see the benefit of SaaS platforms, like Office 365 and ServiceNow since those solutions remove the OS and software management layer nearly completely and are just extremely easy to setup and use. They couldn’t wrap their head around moving other workloads to the cloud, especially IaaS. For example, why would you move some proprietary internal software or Windows file shares to a cloud solution when you’ve built up your datacenter kingdom? Over the years, companies have invested a lot of money in on-premises infrastructure, why change?  Let’s dive right in there!

Heavy Capital Investments
Depending on the size of your company and the workloads that you run, your IT infrastructure could be massive. Networking, server and storage companies have done a fantastic job of optimizing workloads on-premises, but at a cost.

Let’s look at a robust virtualization environment.

Your company has experienced sustained growth for several years and has had an initiative to get over 80% virtualized. It is now several years later and you’ve reduced the amount of physical servers, thanks to blades, tiered storage, and advanced networking across datacenters that allows you to do some amazing things with DR. The environment is huge, but runs well with the latest automation tools.

Phew. That’s a lot of capital you have invested in. Accounting is less than thrilled because they are still depreciating all those assets, but you have saved money in consolidating physical servers. Your CIO has no idea that your current utilization is only 70% because you over-purchased, but at least you have capacity. Plus, there are 4 environments for every critical production workload – dev, QA, support, sandbox. Most of these servers sit online and idle for 80% of the time. If they were offline, your utilization numbers would be closer to 40%.

Every year, you look at these numbers, talk to business application owners and try to predict new capacity, but new unexpected projects always come up. You always try to plan 20% more just in case to handle the additional phantom workloads.

A Better Way
Here’s where the cloud comes in. Instead of all that infrastructure, capacity issues and depreciation, you could utilize a cloud solution for some of those workloads. While capital expenses are difficult to predict and more difficult to assign to business units across a shared infrastructure, operating expenses are extremely easy. With a cloud service, you have the flexibility to only pay for what you use and scale up or down depending on your needs.

Here’s a great example.

Let’s assume you work for a national company and your resources are accessed only 12 hours a day, 5 days a week. If you had on-premises infrastructure, it is likely online for 24 hours a day in a data center with constant power and cooling. That is 720 hours of work per month (not including all that other stuff). If you really only needed 12 hours of capacity per workday though, that works out to be around 264 hours, That’s 50% savings, plus potentially hundred of thousands of dollars in savings from hardware costs and depreciation. Lastly, all those non-production servers can also be moved up and only turned on when they are needed, saving you even more money!

The cloud gives you this easy scalability.

When is a Good Time to Start Your Journey?
There’s two ways to look at this. If you are considering a massive all in cloud solution, which to me sounds awfully scary, a good time to look is during your network, storage and server refresh cycles. I would imagine that this is very hard to plan around though. Is your company regimented enough that you swap your entire datacenter out every 3-5 years and gain immediate savings? Probably not.

There are other ways to start on your cloud journey. SaaS based applications are probably easiest and most often the entry point without IT possibly even realizing they are in play. For example, do you use ADP for your paychecks? That’s really SaaS payroll right there!

When we are talking PaaS or IaaS though, all those non-development workloads are a great place to start. Think about what you do when provisioning a development VM for someone. Typically, you give them a lower spec machine that just sits there on all the time. You can get these workloads easily moved into a cloud service, like Azure, allocate the full specs to match your production environment and have your devs hit it. There are two benefits here. First, you are freeing up on-premises capacity for production workloads and second, you can now spin up and down the VMs and only pay for the usage (down to the minute in Azure)!

Scalability is Key
When cloud solutions first came to light, there were a number of cost saving measures offered. Among those were lower staffing considerations, which is always a tough topic. Staffing savings might be there, but it is more likely that your existing IT staff will still exist, but need a different skillset.

There are other features that the cloud can offer for your workloads. The cloud can easily provide backups and recovery. Another way is how cloud providers have worked with ISPs to provide direct connections into their services. Now, this does come as a cost, but it does have a lot of advantages for performance.

Security is another consideration. All I will say is this. Consider what you can do internally and then compare it to a company whose business interest is in protecting your data because their revenue stream depends on it. Microsoft has even gone so far as to fight the US government over it.

Putting all this aside though, PaaS and IaaS cloud really helps IT organization plan and chargeback to business units much easier than it’s ever been done before. This centers around scalability, but also capability. Imagine being able to move and adjust quickly as your business demands it. That’s what the cloud offers.

What’s the Catch?
As easy as all this sounds, a sound automation and operation model should surround the non-SaaS cloud in order to take advantage of all the cost savings. It does require a strong partner likely to get you there. This is key to a successful cloud implementation, but should be a part of any successful on-premises implementation as well.

This is why Microsoft’s hybrid cloud solution is so compelling. It focuses on getting the pieces to automate and manage all workloads first and then leveraging the cloud for what you can using those same tools and principals. There’s no need to rip out expensive infrastructure and go all into the cloud, but it can help you save money as you refresh environments.

The cloud can be a gradual journey that allows you to streamline existing operations before you move any workloads. Develop processes around what IT does well – enable business success through technology and then determine if they cloud is right for your workloads.

Identity Theft – Through the Glass, Darkly

I read a lot, or at least I try to. My favorite author is Philip K. Dick. While a lot of Dick’s books deal with multiple level of identities (and puts them through the blender), I think even he would be hard pressed to imagine the world we’ve built around our identities and how freely we and others pass them around.

Dick wrote “A Scanner Darkly,” which is a fantastic novel, and one of Dick’s most insightful about identities. The story centers around a drug addict who is also the police agent that unknowingly is spying on himself. He looks at the himself through a glass, darkly (ie. a mirror). This dual self-identity without knowledge of ‘the other’ is almost as complicated as what happens everyday when we sign in online.

When we’re hacked, we feel personally violated at the electronic breach of something that isn’t us. Sometimes when we’re hacked, it’s only one account out of a multitude. Regardless, that piece of us, that identity for that account, has been compromised.

There’s something more sinister going on besides this identity crisis though. Your identities are being extended and stretched out of your control.

You Don’t Own Your Online Identity
Anthem was hacked. I still have received no notice that my account was hacked, but my son did. He is 5 years old and was a customer through me. I’m not sure how only he was hacked, but he has 2 years identity theft protection, so ‘Woohoo,’ I guess.

When I mentioned this to someone else, they said that they had received a notice as well. Surprised, I asked which of their employers had Anthem. He said he never had Anthem as his insurance, but somehow he was in their systems and his data was compromised.

Anthem is a fantastic example of how you are not in control of your identity. Even if you think that you are careful with multiple levels of authentication or a minimum amount of online presence, it doesn’t matter. There are always back room deals for your identity and data. While it might not be usernames and passwords, it is you, in your digital form, being traded back and forth.

The thing that scares me most about the Anthem hack is not the hack itself. Instead the fact that Anthem had non-customer data! How revealing a thing that is about our identities in this modern age.

What happened in the Anthem hack was that other non-customers in the independent Blue Cross and Blue Shield (BCBS) insurers that may have been serviced by Anthem at some point in the past were also hacked. I had no idea that if I was in an area covered by another BCBS company, your data could be shared with another provider. Yikes!

When you signed up with your company’s health insurance or direct deposit, you gave critical and vital information to another party (your company) and yet another party (the health care provider or payroll company) without a second thought. Who wants to prolong the onboarding process after all? But, now we’ve learned our identities are passed around to facilitate bureaucracy.

Why aren’t we more concerned about this?

Surely, my son was not at fault here, nor was my friend. In order to get essential services and get paid, I have to provide this information and to service me, companies need to share data.

Where does this leave us?
Well, people absolutely HATE government oversight, but at this point I’m not sure what else would do. Maybe an option would be a technology standard around social securities and /or identities – someone get to it!

Anthem and the BCBS network needs to be held accountable. Not so much that they were hacked, but because they don’t have a better process. Both are frankly, easily fixed with good IT solutions.

Online identity is a strange thing. Your electronic presence is something that you not only need to take care of, but something that is completely out of your control. For some reason, everyone is focused on the former and not the latter. The scariest thing to me is how my identity is being traded around without my knowledge.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly.”
1 Corinthians 13:12

At the risk of being possibly the only LinkedIn article with a Bible passage – When we look at our online identities, are we and those we’ve entrusted seeing them clearly or through the monitor, darkly?

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