STE VE CASSIDY
How do you keep steel factories running smoothly? Steve finds that 150 is the magic number, and reveals some home email truths about hybrid IT
How do you keep steel factories running smoothly? Steve finds that 150 is the magic number, and reveals some home email truths about hybrid IT.
Being a network person, I thrive on the numbers. Folk like me continue to worry about performance, because we’re unlikely to see a slow network that someone is entirely happy with; it’s far more likely that we see a huge volume of traffic being squeezed into a tiny network lead, or over a slow circuit. So when I was invited to attend an award ceremony at software giant SAP’s global headquarters, I jumped at the chance.
What’s that got to do with esoteric numbers? Quite a bit, actually. For one thing, the awards were being given to entire teams of people in SAP’s world-spanning customer base. Getting a person through a qualification, or scoring 100% in a test, is hard enough when it comes to vocational qualifications. Getting ten people from the local government of Cape Town to the finals of the SAP Excellence awards is a whole different level of effort. Quite apart from the implicit project budget that can cope with so many people being invited to a small town outside of Frankfurt, from a small town 10,000 miles away at the other end of two continents, I was intrigued: how were they evaluating these contestants? An initial fear that I might be the journalistic window-dressing on a company junket was blown away by a few instant impressions.
The first was from before the ceremony even kicked off. While waiting around, I went through SAP’s tour of its digital museum. Some cross-language hilarity ensued, because the lady doing the tour was in her early 20s and had to have it pointed out to her that, quite possibly, I’d used most of the devices and objects in the display in anger – and might know more about them than she did.
Actually, she wasn’t all that bad. It was bizarre to see that SAP believe people stopped using punched cards in 1980, just one year before I started in an IT job, and despite a little speech she had about how the punched-cards are for “eight-bit computing”, she didn’t know what EBCDIC was or why it was useful for punched-card storage (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EBCDIC). Far more sobering for me was to see the teardrop-shaped, first-generation USB storage key, in its own display stand and annotated as being a laughably small 8MB. That’s an “M”, not a“G”: I clearly remember dragging a client to a shop in Tottenham Court Road in the early 2000s to buy several such devices as the instant solution to not having to lug home huge laptops on the tube every day.
Having established that I was only a few years behind SAP’s founders in the IT fossil stakes, we moved on to the awards themselves. My question about appraising the contestants was answered almost straight away: probably 10% of the people at the ceremony were actually judges and sponsors, in the style of the singing coaches on a talent show. They hadn’t simply taken a quick look at a shortlist of projects and ticked off the one they thought most deserving: in this kind of software product, it isn’t over until the fat lady sings. Continual contact, getting to know the business and the implementation team, realising that a coffee morning is as important as a server upgrade: this is a different way of measuring whether software is doing the right job for people.
As I found when I had a sit-down with some lovely ladies from Tata Steel. Neither they nor I knew at that time that they’d end up as the award winners of the day. What I wasn’t expecting was a neat pair of my misapprehensions being blown apart in very short order.
The first came from Thomas Otter, owner of the system design of the product within SAP that Tata Steel is using. He was just my kind of interviewee: knew his product inside and out, without being burdened by that awful marketing person’s need to make every answer sound positive. We had a terse engagement while I puzzled about how to relate ERP – industrial stock and process monitoring software – to a steel plant, where all parts of the manufacturing process can be counted on a safety-gloved mitt. Iron ore, electricity, big equipment in; steel, out. I always think of ERP as being about thousands of parts, hundreds of types of screw – the sort of software that does best in a factory that makes washing machines. How could steel-making require big data, cloud service-based, highavailability software products?
Both Thomas and the Tata Steel ladies had the answers. The most important thing to know about the guy in the picture – who stands a few yards from liquid metal at 2,500 oC – is that he has the right qualifications, the right experience, the right safety gear, the right training and the right insurance. Keeping track of that isn’t about huge quantities of data or about the pot-of-gold promise of emergent properties from bland information: it’s about having an enormously flexible database model, and being able to keep information up to date – without subjecting it to chokepoints around trusted operators, mother hens, curators, or whatever you want to call them. To make that kind of data work for you, said Thomas, they found they needed 150 different types of external connector.
This isn’t a wry reflection on the physical, outmoded formats in their computing museum. It’s an appraisal of the immense variety of APIs now dominating business computing, each one allowing one piece of software to interrogate another. Even though the average steel plant might have a workforce whose entire database of skills, address, job history, performance and so on might fit on a microSD card in one person’s smartphone, that’s entirely the wrong place to be keeping it. When the query you run on your HR system could be a matter of life or death, because it tells you whether someone should be allowed to wander about with a ladle of liquid steel in a factory full of stamping presses, you don’t want it to be inhibited by poor or convoluted connections in any way.
This is when the penny dropped. I’m sure everyone thinks of databases as being pretty boring things; interest is added only by the analysis process, or by the volume of data being beyond human comprehension. But now there are other classes of information altogether, information that’s really only used by large teams of people. This isn’t measured by size, but by intricacy: in SAP’s case, that 150 connection count is a measure of performance that doesn’t relate to speed, but to quality of development, and the degree of market overview enjoyed by the designers.
I came away impressed by the understanding shown by these customers of the products with which they were engaged. Very often in networking, any attempt to show how a more fully featured product would make things better is met with the “oh, you computer people” dismissive reply. It was very cheering to see that not everybody thinks this way.
How hybrid IT backs up the cloud
If you’re trying to make sense of the blizzard of cloud-focused marketing blurb that every IT professional has to sweep out of their inbox almost daily, then the title of this section will fill you with dread. For one thing, getting a decision-maker to understand that cloud services don’t automatically or reliably come with backup included (or that, if they do, the backup won’t be more destructive than helpful) is a huge barrier to doing what they say they want by staying current, on-trend and up-to-date with peers.
For another, hybrid IT is defined as the hardest of technical challenges – the idea that you can’t start being hybrid until you have a fat, secure, exclusive pipe to the cloud makes it a whole lot tougher to achieve, because that’s the most expensive part of the process. Historically, IT projects with all the spend at the start are the hardest to sell.
Except, I just made use of my hybrid IT setup, to give myself
“In SAP’s case, that 150 connection count is a measure that relates to the quality of development”
“Cloud adopters are every bit as agonised, as dependent, and at-risk from losing data as all us dinosaurs”
business continuity in the face of an unpredictable cloud failure. No, really, I did. Even though I tend to log in to my email provider’s web interface when I’m travelling, when at home I use an IMAP collect email application. Not because I have perfect foresight that this day would dawn. Rather, that force of habit and an interest in diverse connection methods are both powerful influences on a basically lazy Cassidy.
So what’s up? As of this moment, it looks as if something has gone dramatically wrong, somewhere in the west coast of the USA. All forms of traffic-requesting replies from my email provider’s domain name are being dropped, about eight hops from me (normally, four hops from my email provider). I’d like to say I’ve talked to its support team and extracted lots of very specific diagnostics, but its contact web page is part of the same top-level domain, and attempts to connect to it result in the same plaintive errors I’m getting from IMAP. As a result, this looks to me like a routing mess-up or a domain and server address resolution problem – neither of which get fixed any faster by me remaining on hold to a number in California with a very busy person on the end of it.
But I’m okay, because I have a local archive. It’s just the mail software’s own store databases, but my point here is that it qualifies. It lets me pick and choose whether I’m online or offline, and I can go get messages that are otherwise stuck behind my mysterious provider outage. That’s hybrid IT. The fact that it’s on a machine I rescued from a skip, running a piece of free software on a consumer internet pipeline, doesn’t detract at all from what it lets me do.
This kind of pragmatism, in feeling you’ve passed the test of cloud mastery, reveals some strange flaws in the way people view the services they use. Email keeps being assessed as an inconvenience, or an affectation of pre-millennial office types, and yet the development of tools in this field goes on apace. I didn’t really think of my humble single email client as a business continuity tool until I was talking to Arcserve about its very recent addition of an email archiver to its UDP range of data protection applications.
Stifle that incipient yawn! It turns out that along with the strange need to talk down a technology we all depend upon every day, cloud adopters are still every bit as agonised, as dependent and at-risk from losing data as all us dinosaurs. Finding out you’ve lost messages from an online email account is a one-way process – generally, once they’ve gone, the online supplier has already run out of ways to make them available, and your call isn’t going to re-motivate them. It’s far more sensible to collect the messages you can see, while you can see them, and store them in a way that has no dependency on a user-account on the cloud, on a staff member’s passwords, or on keeping your internet link up 24/7.
All of that adds up to local storage, local compute, and some kind of local aggregation service, equipped to log in to all the cloud resources and sweep up all the unread messages – although Arcserve’s solution isn’t quite as low-key as mine. It arrives as a Linux VM, preconfigured with the look and feel of the rest of its backup application, for the sake of operator familiarity. Onboarding stuff from the cloud isn’t the only option, either: you can park your messages from almost every type of Exchange server. Even my old friend IBM/Lotus Domino is supported. Perhaps the most interesting idea of all is that you can leave users sitting in Outlook, clicking on the infamous, confusingly presented “archive” feature, and have them shown just their messages from the local archive server.
This has an unexpected spinoff. If you’re a packrat – and there’s no shortage of these in the email sector – then one of the forthcoming bumps in the road is the whole matter of GDPR (general data protection regulation). Some people think they can claim that personal email isn’t included, even if it does contain someone’s personal data as part of the payload of a message. Just leaving such a thing in an old email server is grounds for not passing a GDPR survey – because, paradoxically, it’s too easy to retrieve. The demands of GDPR extend to the architecture of the repository used for personal data, mandating encrypted transport and retention. While I’d support an exceptionally pedantic techie who could claim that an Exchange Message Store qualifies, simply because you can’t open it in Notepad and read the data back in plain, I wouldn’t want to rely on such a distinction when it comes to attentive government departments with fines to collect and scalps to chalk up.
Moving all those emails from cloud stores with unclear retention policies and untested restore capabilities, or from both distributed (PSTs) and centralised (.mdbs) message stores to a 2017 database repository in an enterprise-grade software environment, wipes out the issue of old software not meeting new regulations. And it does it inside the business, without having to fall prey to some salesperson’s smoke and mirrors about eventual and final costs.
I have an uncomfortable feeling that, in the past, I might have been overly fascinated by the technical challenges represented by Big Hybrid – by how you move VMs around from an on-premises hosting farm to a virtual, off-premises one, and how the bigger players have been solving this and other issues by laying fibre right to the customer’s door. That’s still a part of the bigger hybrid picture. But the fact is, you can start a conceptual demonstration with nothing more than a single-person email account, an IMAP collector, and some disk space – even to show what’s possible with bigger, enterprise-grade solutions.
Steve is a consultant who specialises in networks, cloud, HR and upsetting the corporate apple cart
BELOW People stopped using punchcards in the 1980s? Not in my experience…
BELOW Tata Steel was just one winner at the SAP Excellence awards – and well deserved, too
ABOVE What, you may wonder, does ERP software have to do with steel-making?
ABOVE What I did with a laptop rescued from a skip, Arcserve is doing with a rather clever Linux VM