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

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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 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

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