Friday, 30 January 2009

The dangers of Web 2.0 for business?

It is hardly surprising that many businesses struggle to make effective use of the internet. The article on the beeb about the World Economic Forum below highlights some key aspects of their inability to do so.

I'm not certain using Web 2.0 technologies is really the right platform for, say, strategic business planning or idea generation and I hope this isn't what Davos people describe as 'businesses struggling with the web'. It is far too easy to have critical secrets whizzing about strangers screens in an uncontrolled way. I understand from Wikinomics that this is "a" new way forward (i.e. social networking for business activity), but it seems to me to be far too chaotic to be healthy as long term and secure business activity. Sure, to have an online place for customers to discuss products is a good thing (BT are quite advanced in this respect). If managed correctly it becomes a source of nearly free market research. BUT in the more chaotic WWW, what if an organisation becomes a target of subversive activity? Much like a denial of service limits connectivity of customers to a firms website, the targeted provision of mis-information could be just as damaging. I have no evidence of this occuring presently, but I can vision it happening.

Friday, 23 January 2009

The future IS super computing and the cloud

Web based technologies, whether called Cloud, portals or virtual research environments should provide us with fantastic opportunities for growth and development. My earlier post highlighted something of what lays ahead of us, but what are the opportunities. My own recent interactions with even the simplest technologies have deepened my understanding of how people can benefit from web based communication. As a statistical researcher I see a future where standard statistical analysis programs (e.g. SPSS, WSTATA) are embedded into portals as standard. This would be a big step forward for a number of reasons. Firstly, my present pet hate with SPSS (for example) is that I have to reinstall the package at least once a year due to upgrades or new lisence issues. In the portal world, this ceases to be needed. Providing the university has paid the annual fee to SPSS, and providing that I am a registered university employee or student, I would be able to access its functionality from any web browser. All upgrades or lisence updates would be handled centrally by university computing services. A much greater benefit to users and how they innovate would be the ability of the stats packages to embrace the 'Cloud' to handle GRID enabled multiprocessor computation.

Datasets (i.e the information that we collect on any matter we choose) have become larger often running into terescale dimensions. Our ability to conduct useful estimations on data of this size is greatly deminished. It is no longer uncommon to hear of very large corporations having difficulty processing data for this reason; limiting their ability to take advantage of the latest estimation processes, slowing innovation. A scientific example of this scale of data generation is provided by the Cern laboratory that will generate terabytes of data per experient. On a singe computer it is practically impossible to run models or run tests that would 'sift' this data to enhance knowledge. The cloud provides us a 'super computing' platform to reduce this issue as all data storage and computations take place away from the users machine, harnessing many computers simultaneously, dramatically reducing computational time for many user groups. This is multiprocessor computation. The issue however, is that many organisations may not allow their data to be stored and processed outside of their own IT networks due to data security risks; something we hear rumblings of already...for academic researchers this is likely to much less of an issue.

Move Right

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Future proofing university e-infrastructure?

The vision of the national e-Science programme and JISC is to develop and provide future proof IT platforms for universities. The question this discussion raises is which direction universities should take now that they face technological choices? The new way of thinking (from a JISC perspective) is that universities need an open standards platform or range of 'embeddable' open standard platforms that will support many university operations (e-learning, e-research, admin) that can be tailored to each institution or be applied using a generic tool stack depending on need. An example of this technology is the Sakai platform (there are others, e.g. Pluto). Although it is an observably advanced e-learning platform it can also be used to embed research tools developed by researchers as it offers open standards they can use to 'hang' their tools in (e.g. terascale computing tools, embedded model estimators, new forms of database handling/management, alumni management, student enrollment management, accounting). This provides a huge amount of flexibility. What this means is that a researcher can view online experiments and teaching resources under a single point of sign on from any internet enabled computer. The issue presently is that whatever the platform the university chooses now will determine how flexible we can be in, say, 5 or 10 years. For example, choosing Microsoft solutions will imply that researchers will be tied into the Microsoft tool stack in the future; and it would be very difficult to tie in bespoke tools that are now becoming common place in academia into the Microsoft closed source framework.

Much has been said about the potential of Moodle as a VLE, but there is no discussion of the development of research tools within this framework; yet teaching AND research is in need of support simultaneously. A great reservation that I have regarding Moodle (personally speaking and would like to hear your views) is that very little investment is coming in at its base, implying a reduced rate of innovation relative to other platforms. If the university were to choose Moodle for e-Learning, it would mean that independent e-learning and e-research solutions would be needed in the future which is far less efficient (e.g. two sets of programming skills, two servers, two databases, two sign on points, difficulty in transferring common data between the platforms etc.). Ideally, the university should have a Director of e-learning AND e-Research (one person, not two) so that issues of functionality and simplification across the work fields can be addressed simultaneously in an unbiased way.

Key to this discussion is that universities should have a core of 'skill set' simultaneously adept at both e-learning and e-research deployment and tool design that can advise researchers on these matters. To hand this to an external supplier misses the point about what Web 2.0 is all about (i.e. the flexibility to design content and tools to meet the need) as suppliers will find it very difficult to keep abreast of high performance research needs and cannot be expected to have in-house, bespoke, research focused software development skills. Once 'digitally native' researchers come online in a few years, this is what they will want from IT and we need to be in a position to hand it to them when they arrive. Therefore, we need to make the right platform choices now to provide them what they will need in their future. To make the wrong platform choice risks damaging the potential of our future researchers and therefore research outputs.

I look forward to your comments.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Thoughts on Portal Technology

During presentations that I have made over recent months I straw polled audiences on whether they had heard of 'cloud' technology. Very few have, which isn't really surprising. The cloud is the latest thing in internet development. Last year Google provided us first insight into cloud technologies when it launched Google Apps (word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package). In their essence, they provide applications that you use on your computer (like Office applications, stats packages, diaries) and provide them online. For the consumer, this means a simpification of the way we use computers is firmly on the horizon. By placing applications away from your computer, you'll never need to install software again, or worry about updates. All of this will be handled by the service provider. It also means that computer technology can be simplified as you'll only need a web browser to run these tools. This market is now mobilising quickly. Just yesterday Microsoft announced that it will launch its Office package online during 2009, and that there will be a free version we'll get access to at the price of a few installed ads. This is a major step forward (Microsoft free?) that will set the rules of next generation technology. Cloud developments highlight that the information age is only just beginning to dawn. Old internet (call it Web 1.0) provided us access to information, a great innovation back in 1995. New internet (Web 2.0) allows users to communicate among themselves in lots of different ways, and to rate other peoples web content easily. Now cloud generation technologies are coming we need to focus on new risks and opportunities that will arise. For instance, the Cloud unleashes increased secuity risk to users as their valuable data will be stored away from their computer. Although I would personally trust Google and MIcrosoft to provide great security, it'll take others a little longer to become comfortable with this new way of thinking. Full diffusion will take time, but it will occur. In any case, for organisations requiring more secure solutions more local cloud (cloudlets or patchy fog, what shall we call them?) providers will exist to meet their need, and what of the opportunities? Life is going to get much easier for users (hurrah), for small businesses web technologies will be provided that meet their needs flexibly and cheaply. They will have access to technologies that only large firms can afford to install presently. Of course, there is much more to the risks and opportunities of this technology than meets the eye. Look out for my next post as I unwrap the discussion.