Citrix acquiring ShareFile

October 13, 2011

On my way down to London this morning and I saw that CRN appear to have broken the news of Citrix’s acquisition of ShareFile. The theory here is that using the ShareFile technology, your files will be able to follow you on to any device you use in the same way that your applications do via Citrix Receiver. Two points, really, from me:
Firstly – this approach makes a lot of sense and doing it right will help us accelerate towards device-independent, and therefore installed-OS-independent computing. I’m convinced that’s the direction in which we are eventually heading.
Secondly – this is going to be an interesting market segment, as competition hots up. The big players today are really DropBox (the darling of the technical community) and Box.net (who, rumours have it, were Citrix’s original acquisition target before ShareFile). It sounds like VMware are working on their approach here, with their announcement of Project Octopus. These two giants of virtualisation and end-user computing are again on a collision course. Interesting times!

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Is your IT a customer satisfaction issue?

October 12, 2011

I’ve been meaning to put some thoughts down about this for a while. My catalyst actually to get round to it was being asked to deliver a presentation on Softcat’s unique brand of employee and customer satisfaction at the recent Call Centre Focus conference. We were asked to present through our partners QGate, who support and develop our CRM platform. They know how seriously we take employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction, and felt we had something to share.

I spoke for most of the time about the crazy place that Softcat is – how we give everybody breakfast, arrange for their ironing to be done, and generally have a great time (whilst working really hard of course) – and how because our employees feel valued, empowered and rewarded they will absolutely go the extra mile for our customers.

One point I did make relates to a conversation I have been having more and more with IT guys recently. Many IT teams are concerned that lack of recent investment in infrastructure, coupled with the growth of the importance of, and demands on, IT, has led to systems that are under-performing and not delivering the user experience which their internal customers demand. I am convinced that this has a direct effect on customer service, in that customers don’t get the information or response that they need quickly enough.

Equally importantly, I think this has a serious impact on employee satisfaction; if your people can’t get their systems working quickly enough to do their job, they are going to be less happy in their work. Doubtless this will affect their usual sunny disposition in dealing with customers! We’re currently making a huge investment in our own infrastructure to ensure that we can deliver to our staff and our customers the performance that they need – I’ll tell you more about the details of what we are doing in a future post.

In the meantime, a few things you might like to think about relating to performance and user experience (by no means an exhaustive list, and I would be very interested in your feedback in the comments):

  • Look into virtualisation as a cost-effective (and cost-avoiding!) way of upgrading ageing hardware and of allowing you to move applications around your infrastructure to free up space
  • Look into storage – SSD is becoming more and more prevalent, and, needless to say, can assist where your applications are constrained by IO. Some storage vendors offer data tiering which means that ‘hot’ data will automatically be moved to faster disk…
  • Think about how your applications are delivered – a ‘chatty’ application might be better deployed on Citrix or the equivalent, close to the servers on which it depends, rather than on PCs where it has to pull a lot of data over the network
  • Think about your network – is it time to look at 10GbE in the server room?
  • Consider your cloud options – you might not be ready to go full-bore into the public cloud, but pushing out some of your less critical or less security-dependent applications might free up some space for the rest – and get you used to cloud for the future.
Any other suggestions?

Whither now, WebOS? Up the Amazon?

August 19, 2011

I’m really sad about HP shutting down WebOS hardware – I was hoping the TouchPad would be serious competition for the iPad. Looks like it hasn’t worked out that way. I guess it just took a bit long, and then maybe my hopes or expectations were too high.

Lots of speculation about where WebOS will end up and whether it will be sold or licensed. I don’t know any better than the rest of you, but I reckon Amazon are a decent contender. Why?

  • They are a consumer-facing and -focused organisation
  • They already build and ship their own (successful) hardware
  • Plenty of rumours about a forthcoming Amazon tablet
  • They have a content ecosystem – Amazon MP3 and cloud delivery, TV and film content, LoveFilm…
  • They have a cloud platform and therefore direct access to developers…
It feels to me like it could round out what Amazon have, maybe to challenge Apple in the tablet and content market. What do you think?

Transformer Man…

August 18, 2011

I got to take a look at one of our tech team’s new toy, yesterday – an ASUS Transformer tablet. Those of you who have read my brain-dumpings before will know how much of a fan of the tablet genre I am, and how much I love my iPad. I use a fair bit of Apple stuff, but I am absolutely not against all other vendors; however I hadn’t yet seen a tablet that I thought was the equal of or better than the iPad.

However, I was impressed with this one. It was fast, slick, seemed to work well. There was no discernible lag to the interface, which seems to be the case with many tablets. The keyboard/dock/extra battery worked very well, with hotkeys for certain functions and a really useable track pad. I was even able to play Fruit Ninja (badly, but that’s down to me not the device) using the track pad. And I gather the dock adds an extra 8 hours of battery, which is pretty awesome – somewhere close to 18 hours all in, apparently.

Downsides? Well, I’m not convinced the elongated (widescreen) form factor is for me – it wants to be in portrait whereas I tend towards landscape with tablets. It’s blooming heavy with the keyboard dock – unscientific measurement (holding apples in one hand, android in the other) suggests that the weight is roughly the same as my iPad and 11″ MacBook Air. I didn’t like the ouside coating, a plasticcy, sort-of carbon fibre effect. Although as Phill pointed out, it’s probably scratch resistant and does form a protective shell for the device when the keyboard dock is closed.

With access to a virtual desktop delivered by Citrix, VMware View or similar, this could be all the device you need…

I don’t think I will be replacing my iPad right now, but it’s good to see there’s some good competition at last!

Login issues with Mac OS X Lion

August 16, 2011

As a geek, I had to do it. I know you are supposed to wait for the first service pack, or at least until they iron out the bugs. So as soon as it was available, I installed OS X Lion. Pretty good overall to be honest. I’m not sure I have worked all the new tips and tricks into my workflow yet, but overall I like it.

Recently, though, I have developed an issue whereby I am unable to log in to applications – in particular the official Twitter app (probably a productivity advantage!) and Citrix (definitely not a productivity advantage!). I tried all sorts, including deleting the apps and reinstalling (nice and easy from the app store of course!).

I must admit I was getting a bit frustrated. However, tonight I decided to fiddle with network locations – not something I was actively using, to be honest. I deleted the network locations I had, and added a new one – hey presto, I can log in again.

Don’t ask me why it works (hey, if you know why, please tell me in the comments!), but it did. So you know what to try if you have the same problem!

Total Value of Ownership and ‘Martini Computing’

June 30, 2011

After the event with HP’s CTO I hosted, I was fortunate to be invited to an event in London with the President and CEO of Citrix, Mark Templeton. I was quite impressed with the guy, if I am honest – a really down to earth chap, which you don’t expect at the higher echelons of a large organisation. After the main event, which was a presentation and a Q and A, he was more than happy to have a chat over a cup of coffee, which was enlightening.

Some of the stuff he talked about resonated with me, as it was similar to the way we try to shape our own business. He was saying that while they are a public company and have a duty to their shareholders, they are more interested in building something interesting and powerful, which will deliver benefits to their customers – whilst having fun – than focusing short term on the needs of those shareholders. We try to do the same – focus on employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction, in our belief that the former drives the latter. If we treat our customers right, the rest will follow – I’m sure that’s an appropriate standpoint. We’re privately owned, but I’m sure Mark’s attitude will deliver for his shareholders in the long term.

Anyway, back to business… Mark was talking about the way in which IT calculate the return of spending money – or how business calculates the return of spending money on IT. This is generally based on TCO – total cost of ownership – and whether having a lower TCO will generate a return for the investment over a given time period.

The suggestion was that in this day and age, we should be looking at Total Value of Ownership – TVO – instead. This means concentrating more on the benefits an IT solution will deliver to the business rather than the pure costs.

I guess this is particularly appropriate in the virtual desktop space where Citrix play – it’s difficult to justify a VDI project on capital grounds over the cost of replacing PCs, but the benefits come in terms of, yes, lowered operational expenditure but also in flexibility of workspace, device independent computing (letting users choose their access device), home working, employee experience… We’re likely to role out VDI for our own users, and can see such benefits, as an employer which likes to be nice to its staff, as really important. I look forward to the day when all users can access IT systems securely using the device of their choice, wherever and whenever they want. Maybe we should call it Martini computing….

We live in interesting times…. Time spent with HP’s CTO

June 3, 2011

I was fortunate, yesterday, to get to spend most of the day with a chap called David Chalmers. He is HP’s UK CTO, focused on the infrastructure business – what is commonly referred to amongst the HP cognoscenti as ESSN (Enterprise Servers, Storage and Networking). I have seen him speak on a few occasions, and I invited him in to present to our management team and then to lead a discussion with a few of our customers on current trends in IT, and how HP are looking to address them. For the benefit of those who couldn’t attend, I thought I would summarise the discussion:

The major flow of the conversation was that we live in interesting times, and should feel privileged (I do!) to be working in IT at a point of the biggest change our wonderful industry has seen. There are three major trends contributing to this shift:

1: The underlying technology, and the speed with which companies like HP are developing it

2: Changing business models – we’re talking cloud, here, of course

3: Changing workforce – this is probably the most interesting area. We talked about the fact that those joining the workforce – and increasingly in positions of power – are ‘digital natives’ rather than ‘digital immigrants’, and work in a different way. They won’t be bound to one device, or forced to work in the way in which IT want them to….

The figured David quoted were that there will be 7.8 billion people in the world by 2025, and that whilst there are 2 billion online today, there will be 4 billion by 2020. Digital content is accelerating at a rate of knots, and this presents real challenges in how we deal with this data – how we store, move, manage, protect and deliver it. At the same time, this presents an amazing opportunity, as we can know so much more about the world around us. He referred to the ‘sea of sensors’ that HP have produced, which are used by Shell to monitor seismic activity in the search for oil, and on the Golden Gate Bridge to ‘listen’ for stress fractures and wear. Mobile will be a key technology, with vastly more smartphones sold than PCs – hence the Palm acquisition and forthcoming TouchPad launch (regular readers will know that I’m a fan of the tablet form factor!).

So how do we as IT professionals respond, in a rapidly changing world, where we ‘don’t know what we don’t know? Well, in two ways:

Firstly, we need to adapt our existing infrastructure. Heretofore, we have locked stuff down, kept it as fixed as possible to manage it. Now, we need to move towards ‘The Instant On Enterprise’ – agile, responsive…

Secondly, we need to prepare for and embrace the world of ‘cloud’ – it’s doubtful that companies will all of a sudden go wholesale into the cloud, but it makes sense to work towards a hybrid model, where core services are managed internally, but tier two applications are consumed in this model.

I’ll post in a forthcoming blog on how Softcat are following this model as we evolve our own IT to support our next phase of growth.

The overwhelming view was that business is starting to outpace IT, and that the old model of restricting access for control (cross reference Mordac!) will lead to IT being bypassed. IT need to spend less time building things, and more time acting as a procurer, service-delivery-manager and broker of cloud-based services. There’s a lot of work still to be done in making this hybrid model a coherent whole for the consumers of IT services – and HP feel they have a strong play in this space.

So where does this fit in to HP’s vision of Converged Infrastructure that we have heard so much about? The point is that by bringing together a coherent stack of infrastructure, and most importantly delivering the software to manage it, will enable this fluid and agile environment. HP’s commonality of components across the range will drive down cost for customers as well. Of course, HP will still interoperate with other products where customers require – but the message was that this will be more expensive and harder to implement and manage. Is that a message that rings true within your organisation?

An interesting discussion followed, amongst the customers who had joined us. We had one organisation, set up as a ‘green field’ about eight years ago, who were real consumers of cloud services, with really only the key differentiating services delivered internally. Another company consider themselves a theoretical convert, but in looking into infrastructure as a service, they decided they could do it cheaper themselves!

The regulatory landscape and security concerns were both hot topics. I felt that the prevailing view here was that companies are more likely to consume services from smaller, friendlier local providers who could guarantee the geographical location of their data, rather than the large-scale, worldwide providers such as Google and Amazon. I’m hoping that’s the case; as you can imagine that would suit Softcat!

I thought I would round off this post with a few interesting things I learnt about HP that you may not know:

Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter all run on HP servers

HP have licensed their inkjet technology to a pharmaceutical company – the precise droplet delivery enables exact doses of anti-cancer medication to be delivered without needles, apparently

HP sell 2 PCs a second, and a server every 11 seconds!

HP’s European datacenter is in, believe it or not, Middlesborough! It’s not under any flight path, and it’s one of the coldest and windiest places in the UK – so the cooling is almost exclusively fresh air! This saves £16m a year in power that would have been needed for the aircon.

Corporate SaaS app stores ready to go? VMware Horizon App Manager

May 24, 2011

Does your company consume any SaaS apps, yet? We do. Due to the success of Softcat and the speed with which we have grown, we recently invested in a new HR system – somewhere to track holidays, expenses, training and development etc. It’s great – I now have zero need to use a pen in a work context at last (still have to use them to sign birthday cards, but that’s it!). Unfortunately, the usernames and passwords are not (yet!) aligned with our AD – so there is no single sign-on. Being the awkward ‘user’ that I am, I of course forgot my username…

So I was thinking about this in readiness for this post, and you know what? We already consume a load of SaaS apps that I hadn’t really thought about in those terms. In fact, this is one of my ‘pet hates’ for this industry. Every vendor we deal with – Microsoft, VMware, HP, EMC etc – has a portal, full of really useful information, tech specs, knowledge bases etc. Really handy – but each one requires a different login – and usually a different password policy. Needless to say, there is no identity integration for any of these, so it is a management nightmare.

Over time, I think we will see more and more of this stuff – portals masquerading as SaaS apps (hell, the VMware one is driven by Salesforce.com) and pure SaaS apps, as organisations pursue a hybrid strategy – a mixture of maintaining infrastructure and applications for core services, and bringing in services from outside where that makes more sense.

VMware have for some time been talking about ‘Project Horizon‘, which was planned to address these issues. Well, the first stage of this is now live, with the launch of VMware Horizon App Manager. HAM, as I’m sure it won’t be abbreviated to, extends your corporate identity into cloud services, enabling single-sign on to services such as salesforce.com, Webex etc.

The end goal here, I think, is a ‘corporate app store’, a self-service portal whereby users can gain access to apps hosted both on internal infrastructure and delivered from ‘the cloud’. IT will be responsible for a service catalogue from which the business can select the relevant applications for their needs. Wouldn’t this be better than running around with a CD installing stuff?

There are a few future developments planned already, listed in the press release. There are a few extra I would like to see:

Workflow for requesting applications including line-of-business sign-off.

Metering – who is using what apps? This is an element of Software Asset Management, really – making sure that the software (or Software as a Service!) you have paid for is being used.

Automated de-provisioning of accounts triggered by an HR process – this strikes me as really important in the world of ‘cloud’. If someone leaves your organisation, how do you make sure they don’t still have access to your SaaS apps?

I’m sure we’ll see a profusion of identity services in this space, and I look forward to the day of any app on any device: secured, managed and catalogued by IT…

More from the always-insightful Brian Madden here.

Instant Messaging in decline?

May 6, 2011

Now this was interesting – and possibly a surprise! According to this article, instant messaging is in slight decline, in favour of email (I thought email had been declared dead some years ago) and social media. Initially, this came as something of a surprise, I think, particularly with all the excitement behind the release of LYNC and its inclusion within the standard Enterprise Agreement entitlement as of August.

Thinking it through, though, they might be on to something. I’ve changed the way I use our IM (we use OCS and integrate it with our Cisco phone system via CUCIMOC). I don’t use it nearly as much as I used to as a communications tool, mainly due to a personal drive to use face-to-face and phone methods of communication more. It feels to me like stuff gets done quicker that way, and communication is of better quality.

What I do use IM for however (and I would really miss this) is the presence aspect. This enables me to see if someone is around (and due to our telephone integration whether they are on the phone), and then pop round to see them. It also enables me to set up a quick informal meeting, usually involving coffee. So IM is more of an enabler for communication rather than a communication vector in and of itself. The main time I really use it for serious messaging is as a ‘backchannel’ during a conference call – which is incredibly useful.

What do you reckon? Have you deployed IM/ presence in your organisation? How do people use it? Would they miss it?

VM as a transport layer

May 4, 2011

At Softcat, we love server virtualisation – it’s been great for our customers in terms of cost savings, agility, increased availability. It’s been great for our services and storage business as well. I do think sometimes that virtualisation is considered a panacea- if we virtualise, everything will be OK and the infrastructure will just take care of itself. That’s not strictly true, however, out of the box.

The virtualisation vendors do a cracking job of protecting workloads from an outage of the immediate hardware on which those workloads is running. No longer is your application tied to a particular server; instead the virtualisation layer will ensure that the VM running that app restarts somewhere else with the minimum of disruption. Don’t get me wrong, this is fantastic, and loads better than what we had before. It’s just that the virtualisation layer is by default blissfully unaware of what is going on outside of the areas it controls.

I blogged about this before in connection with Neverfail’s vApp HA product, and I’m pleased to note that Symantec have released their version, ApplicationHA, which I think validates my view that the infrastructure needs to know what is happening at the application level and react accordingly.

Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours with APC looking at their InfraStruxure Central software. Rather than looking up into the application, this software looks down into the facilities element of your datacentre. This enables it to inform your choice of virtualisation vendor of what is going on so that decisions can be made on the placement of virtual machines.

Take for example a rack where a UPS has died, or a power feed is unavailable. That might not immediately affect the workloads running there, but it might breach SLA in terms of redundancy, or increase risk to an unacceptable level. At a more simple level, it would mean that the VM layer could spread workloads out to less power-constrained racks, or those running cooler- something you would have to do by guesswork really today. Think about initiating DR arrangements before power fails entirely, or automatically when the UPS has to kick in? To take it a stage further, this could automate the movement of workloads around the globe according to power availability and of course power costs. ‘Follow the moon computing’ anyone?

For me this could elevate the status of System Center or vCenter to the controller for the whole of your infrastructure – taking a feed from apps, infrastructure and facilities and making intelligent decisions about the placement and movement of workloads, without any human involvement other than setting the parameters when it is set up.

Sounds ominously like a cloud, doesn’t it?