IP Expo 2011 Roundup

Freshly back from the second day of IP Expo, held at Earl’s Court, London, I thought I should share some thoughts whilst they’re fresh in my mind.

First up, general impressions. I attended UC Expo earlier in the year, clearly the “IP” variant is a bigger draw as the earlier event was held at the slightly smaller Olympia exhibition centre. But the buzz was the same, whether it’s the fact that they are free, or whether it’s the draw of the freebies, attendance has been very good. The formula appears to work. Frankly I hate being pestered by the salespeople, but others will appreciate the opportunity to size up a number of possible suppliers in one place. My reason for being there was mainly the free seminars but also to get a shop-floor feeling for the current mood.

And that current mood can be summed up as a potential battleground: cloud services vs virtualisation. Or public cloud vs private cloud perhaps.

You may know that I’m not a fan of the private cloud. I’m not against bespoke data networks, I’m not suggesting that every PC should plug into the raw internet. Broadband to the desktop perhaps. No, far from it – every organisation needs an appropriate infrastructure, and whether that means buying dedicated E1s, using broadband, MPLS or anything else is a matter for design at the time depending upon requirements. But I’m not terribly convinced by the idea of a private services cloud, I simply don’t see the point.

Many people seem to believe that if you own it, or control it, it’s better – a better service perhaps, or more usually the perception is of a better level of security. Surely a private cloud is more secure because it’s… well, private!? I’m not convinced.

A well-informed presenter, Gary Collins of Intercept IT, concisely delivered a geat overview of security implications for private and public clouds. He echoed statements I’ve made myself: that there is a trade-off between tightness of security and usability of a system; that if a hacker really wants to hack your system, he will; that people are often the weak link in security. What he didn’t say – because he doesn’t believe it to be true – is that private clouds are more secure than public ones. As a general statement, it would be hard to justify – security is about assessing risks, not about making blanket statements. So Gary get’s 10/10 from me for good common sense. His company offer a range of hosting products, with a strong emphasis on providing the best security possible for the situation.

Next I made it to the Google presentation on their new Chromebook. Here’s where the battle lines were drawn. As you might expect from Google, their message was clear and unambiguous – 100% web. One might ask what becomes of Android, an OS built around applications and not around the web at all, and in fact many people have asked. I think the answer is simple – the time is not right for a Chromephone. But the time is right for a re-invention of the netbook. I take issue with Tom Grey on the assertion that a netbook is a thing with an operating system with lots of apps on it, and therefore the Chromebook is not a netbook. This is just Google playing with words: shame on you, Google. Wikipedia suggests that “Netbooks are a category of small, lightweight, legacy-free, and inexpensive laptop computers. By that definition, the only thing that could cause the Chromebook to be anything other than a netbook would be the price – and the full-spec Samsung version is certainly pushing it in that regard.

Still, what’s in a name? The important thing is that the Chromebook is Google’s attempt to bravely declare the world an online one. If you like doing your homework halfway up a mountain, or more likely on a train, you’d better hope there’s some form of internet connection for you or you’ll be scuppered. The Chromebook has some onboard storage, but it’s only intended for temporary holding of files you wish to move from one place to another – and for caching. More to the point, although you can plug in memory sticks to boost space all you’ll be able to do is view .pdfs (though some HTML 5 web services, such a Googlemail, can be used offline). The Chromebook OS is so minimal that pretty much everything you do on it, you do through the Chrome browser. So it’s perfect if you’re a big Google Apps user (other services are available), because all your documents are already on-line and that’s where you expect to use them – not from local copies.

The Chromebook is not personalised at all, all user profile information is pulled off the web – so one Chromebook will work for you exactly like another will, or indeed a desktop with the Chrome browser on it. Apparently a desktop Chromecube (my name, not theirs) will appear soonish, which makes a lot of sense because if anywhere’s going to have an always-on net connection, it’s your desk.

So the Chromebook lives in a very binary world – it’s either on (the net) or it’s off (period). It could take a lot of getting used to, but it has clear appeal.

Contrast that with the virtual experience from the rest of the IPExpo floor, especially the folks at Citrix, Cisco, Wyse and VMWare. Next to the squeaky clean, simple world of Google the mess of protocols, buzzwords, architectures, and workarounds of the rest of the real world is strikingly unappealing.

Cisco’s Virtual Experience Infrastructure, VXI, attempts to resolve the mess into a product. A valiant idea, although it’s worth noting that whereas Google’s product is one box and a few licences (Google take care of all the service stuff in the cloud) Cisco’s is a lot of boxes. Switches, routers, desktops, applications – a real spaghetti maze of hardware, software and acronyms. It’s certainly not their fault, that’s just how the world is if you don’t change it. Google have said let’s change the world, let’s stick it all in the cloud, let’s sit and drink coffee and chat if the cloud is not available. Not everyone has that luxury.

The virtual desktop community believe that an organisation needs (or wants) tight control over its infrastructure, right down to the desktop. I know that many people believe that hosting a desktop environment remotely, and providing an inexpensive desktop device, is the way forward. It allows central control of what is on the desktop, tight security, controlled costs of local hardware and uniformity. To me, though, it very much appears like a way to perpetuate the old-world whilst trying to meet some of those security and cost challenges.

So that is the war that will rage for the next few years – pure cloud vs virtual desktops.

Which would bring me, if there was a link, to HP. Or, more specifically, to Autonomy (“an HP Company”). I’ve blogged on this unexpected acquisition already, and on how important I believe computer-based extraction of meaning from data is, and will become. David Jones from Autonomy gave an interesting pitch on their solution for data backup, a subject which needed far longer than the time allowed. But in a nutshell, in 2004 Iron Mountain acquired Connected Corporation and in 2011 Autonomy acquired the backup business of Iron Mountain. So Autonomy have the means to collect, store and retrieve vast quantities of data. Overlay that with an ability to find meaning within that data, and to make decisions on what to do with that data based upon meaning, and you have Autonomy’s USP. Their technology allows the system to understand how important each item of data (which could be a spreadsheet, a Word document, a database, or a growing number of other things) is. How to categorise it. Does it need simple backup, or does it need to be archived for many years? They can also mine audio files, for instance phone call recordings, to pull out speech patterns. Being able to apply meaning to data within a computer system is an astoundingly powerful capability.

I blogged back in May about how UC could be a vital tool towards understanding how the people in an organisation work together – who knows what, who talks to who, who is important and, yes, who is… not. Autonomy have gone a different way. My “Knowledge is Power” post doubted whether HP could truly apply their Autonomy know-how to organisational analysis due to a lack of UC technology. HP and Autonomy clearly disagree, and it all comes down to backups. The data collected during a backup also contains information about who talked to who, about what. Who wrote what, and when. Maybe even why. Basing organisational analysis on a communications tool rather than a backup tool to me is more elegant and logical, looking into the backups somehow seems like using a hammer to crack a nut. But it’s entirely sensible and practical. And practicable, because data is actually well unified – in that it’s all in the same place – when backup up. So go there, mine the data, extract the meaning. Simples. I like it.

So that’s it, my view of IP Expo 2011. It’s free, it’s informative, it’s full of freebies (which I largely managed to avoid, thankfully), and it’s over for another year.

About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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