January 3, 2007

Virtual appliances, virtual SaaS?

I chatted with VMware today about virtualization, virtual appliances, and so on. But first we covered some basics:

As for how this all plays with appliances and SaaS – that’s largely a future, but potentially a very interesting one. Here’s what I mean. Read more

December 27, 2006

Some thoughts from Blue Coat Systems

Another vendor I spoke with in my research into appliances is Blue Coat, who offer systems that help with caching (not a recent emphasis), proxy, “performance enhancement,” and/or “WAN optimization.” Details differ, but their story is generally consistent with what I’m hearing elsewhere.

*But then, the vast majority of enterprise computing appliances are in the security/networking space. Data warehouse appliances are probably the biggest exception, at least if we define “appliance” loosely enough to include Teradata.

December 27, 2006

Computing appliances — architected for network stream processing

I’ve been researching computing appliances quite a lot recently, including for an upcoming trade press column. As part of the research, I circulated preliminary thoughts and questions to a variety of appliance vendors. One, Barracuda Networks, responded at length via e-mail. Credit goes to Steve Pao, VP of Product Management. I’m posting the interchange below.

Q1. Stream processing is different from conventional business computing. Different hardware architectures are commonly appropriate.

A1. Stream processing is different, particularly for enterprise networks, because data in the stream should not back up during processing to create latency. In traditional business computing, total throughput is measured more often than latency. Minimizing latency requires careful attention to layering processing to handle as much as possible with the least expensive operations first, keeping the footprint as small as possible to minimize any virtual memory swapping, and minimizing I/O. There are some hardware considerations, but this is often over-emphasized. As applications delivered through appliances continue to grow in complexity, software architecture plays an often under-represented role.

Barracuda Networks has designed the architecture of its appliances with these characteristics in mind. For example, the Barracuda Spam Firewall’s architecture leverages 12 defense layers, focusing on those layers that require the least processing upfront. This layered approach minimizes the processing of each spam message, which yields the performance required to process email for tens of thousands of users in a single appliance.

CAM note: This kind of “it’s the software, stupid” response is typical of what I hear from appliance vendors.

Q2. For most kinds of appliances, custom chips are nice-to-have but not must-have. And by the way, if there are “custom” chips, they will usually actually be FPGAs.

A2. Custom chips are useful for very high volume/low cost appliances because they can help reduce cost of goods. That said, for most enterprise-class networking and network security appliances, off-the-shelf chips generally provide the performance and flexibility to deliver performance for today’s networks.

Q2A (followup): Looking into this further, I’m getting the sense that boxes are custom but components are not. That is, appliances with a stream-processing flavor commonly include networking cards that, while standards, aren’t common in general-purpose computers. Encryption also is commonly handled by specialized chips.

A2A. Yes, delivery of appliances often requires use of components that, while standard, are not typically used in general purpose computers. Even beyond hardware that vendors may use to enhance system performance, there are also hardware components that are included for the reliability requirements of networking appliances.

For example, the Barracuda Web Filter and Barracuda IM Firewall are network appliances designed to be deployed inline. On the Barracuda Web Filter models 310 and higher and the Barracuda IM Firewall models 320 and higher, the appliances include an Ethernet hard bypass that fails “safe” – allowing traffic to flow through – in the event of system failure.

As another example, the Barracuda Load Balancer is diskless and boots from high capacity flash memory.

Q3. Deliberately limiting the capability of the system makes it harder to hack. But this is important only in security appliances, and I’m not so sure it’s important even for them.

CAM note: The answer below confirms what I said, but with more accurate phrasing.

A3. It is common practice to minimize the number of traditional operating services in order to reduce the potential for vulnerabilities in the system. Every component that is used has the potential to open another vulnerability. That said, today’s applications require a level of sophistication that also requires more underlying services than ever before. As such, the important thing is to have a great internal development process for system design and maintaining a great relationship with the “white hat” security research community. Of course, while larger vendors are larger targets for exploits, they also have the advantage of having the notoriety to attract top security researchers to work with.

Q4. A huge part of appliances’ appeal is ease of deployment and administration. Applications used to arrive bundled with hardware very commonly, especially for smaller buyers (and for them it’s often true even today). Appliances offer the same benefit for system software.

A4. We agree with this assessment. Customers usually can get a Barracuda Networks appliance completely deployed in less time than it takes to load an OS onto a hardware platform – let alone install or configure software applications.

Q5. There’s a lot of grumbling about appliance maintenance costs, as appliance vendors charge percentage-of-purchase-price fees that would be appropriate for packaged software and apply them to the whole bundled hardware/software appliance.

A5. Interestingly, the appliance vendor often has to do more than a traditional software or hardware vendor. There’s a set of support issues that a traditional software vendor can simply sidestep because they don’t support the OS on the hardware. A hardware vendor can generally wash themselves of all issues not related to hardware. What the customer gains from support from a good appliance vendor is a complete solution and no finger pointing. All that said, if the appliance is overpriced, the customer may not get a good value. Customer should always look at the value and absolute dollars as opposed to percentages.

Barracuda Networks does not charge on a per-user basis. Customers pay a one-time fee for the appliance and a recurring yearly fee for Barracuda Energize Updates which include not only basic technical support and firmware updates but also, depending on the product, ongoing virus, spam definition, spyware definition, content filter, IM protocol, and intrusion prevention definitions. For a low annual fee, Barracuda Networks’ customers can deploy secure solutions with virtually no ongoing administration. Energize Update pricing is based on model number and starts at $499 per year.

Optionally, customers can also purchase an Instant Replacement service. In the event of hardware failure, Barracuda Networks products with active Instant Replacement subscriptions can be cross-shipped the next business day to minimize downtime. Instant Replacement pricing is also based on model and starts at $499 per year.

November 30, 2006

Anonymizer – penetrating the Great Firewalls of China and Iran

Lance Cottrell of Anonymizer is one of those rare guys who make me believe he started a company in no small part to do good. And so his cloaking-technology company is providing free services to help Chinese citizens sneak through their national firewall, and is doing the same thing for Iran on a paid basis, under contract to the Voice of America. I think this is wonderful, and he reports that it’s working well now. Even so, I think there are scalability concerns. Right now only 10s of 1000s of users are covered. If there were a few more zeroes on that, standard spam-blocking techniques, currently ineffective, might work. What’s more, the Chinese bureaucracy, currently not highly motivated to shut the service down, might bestir itself to be much more effective.

Read more

November 30, 2006

Anonymizer — internet privacy through anonymity

I chatted today with Lance Cottrell, the founder and president of Anonymizer. They’re a little 30-40 person company, but even so they do three different interesting kinds of things. In increasing order of importance, these are:

  1. Provide anonymity services to ordinary individuals.
  2. Provide anonymity services to enterprises (aka enterprise sneakiness support).
  3. Help people get through the national firewalls in Iran and China.

Read more

October 4, 2006

KXEN and Verix try to disrupt the data mining market

Data mining is hugely important, but it does have issues with accessibility. The traditional model of data mining goes something like this:

  1. Data is assembled in a data warehouse from transactional information, with all the effort and expense that requires. Maybe more data is even deliberately gathered. Or maybe the data is in large part acquired, at moderate cost, from third-party providers like credit bureaus.
  2. The database experts fire up long-running, expensive data extraction processes to select data for analysis. Often, special data warehousing technology is used just for that purpose.
  3. The statistical experts pound away at the data in their dungeons, torturing it until it reveals its secrets.
  4. The results are made available to business operating units, both as reports and in the form of executable models.

Each in its own way, KXEN and Verix (the imminent new name of the company now called Business Events) want to change all that.
Read more

September 23, 2006

Scathing review of Oracle’s pre-Siebel BI products

Stephen Few offers a blistering review of Oracle Discoverer, its portal integration, and its UI in general. This fits well with what I said last November:

Obviously, Oracle has the potential to be a titan in analytics. But it doesn’t have its act at all together yet.

And so I agree with a couple of comments on Stephen’s post, to the effect of “Well, gee, no wonder that Siebel’s BI tools look like they’ll be the surviving technology.”

EDIT: Mark Rittman offers a lot of screenshots of Oracle’s Siebel BI Suite. If you look at other posts on his blog, you’ll see Discoverer as well.

July 28, 2006

Would a Google PC succeed?

Richard Brandt asked me to look over his post on the oft-rumored possibility of a Google PC. I actually opined on this back in January, when the rumors were rife in connection with a supposed Wal-Mart sales/marketing agreement. I concluded that that would make a lot of sense for internet connectivity and student/homework uses (I didn’t consider work-at-home or gaming uses because that didn’t seem a good fit with Wal-Mart). The reasoning I came up with back then looks good in retrospect, with only minor tweaks (e.g., my new reason for not worrying about IE-only websites is the IE emulation capability in Firefox).

Richard, however, goes further, thinking that Google could succeed in PCs used mainly to run word processing, spreadsheets, etc.. His arguments include:

Read more

July 15, 2006

Appliances are not dead yet

Nick Carr and Jonathon Schwartz are predicting the death (or at least decline) of special-purpose computing appliances. Their reasons, so far as I can tell, are pretty much threefold:

  1. Vendors have economies of scale making general-purpose computers.
  2. Users have economies of scale running homogenous, general-purpose computers.
  3. Virtualization will work.

But when one thinks a little bit about what’s really driving the use of appliances, those arguments fall apart.

Read more

May 13, 2006

Burning issues in an analyst’s life

Below is an actual email I sent to my Computerworld editor, the incomparable Tommy Peterson.

So anyway, I visited Intersystems today, at the insistance of PR lady Rita Shoor, even though it seemed a phone call would have sufficed. Notwithstanding that this was a relatively longstanding meeting, Linda scheduled a dinner for us in Cambridge with my stepdaughter, which is basically good, because Intersystems is in Cambridge, but forgot about my meeting, and wound up scheduling the dinner for 9:30. Rescheduling ensued, but when I drove to Intersystems for a 2:30 meeting, it was still in flux. I was in an odd state anyway driving to the meeting, because I was already rather tired (my sleep schedule oddities), but psyched from having FINALLY posted the white paper online that represented my biggest writing project in almost a decade (because of the number of sponsors).

Despite several wrong turns at the tricky address of 1 Memorial Drive, I arrived in plenty of time, or even a bit early. I’d worn my hooded leather jacket due to the rain, but since I was in a parking garage, I decided to leave it in the car. “What can possibly go wrong that would make me need this jacket, I thought, except for a fire and building evacuation? And how likely is that??”

So I go upstairs to the meeting (after walking fruitlessly up many flights of stairs and then back down, in an error that seems common among newcomers to the building). But all is good, and there’s a very pleasant start to the meeting (as well there should be, given the GREAT column I wrote about them last year). Before long, however — you guessed it, there’s a fire alarm. After much noise and disruption, it turns out that it’s a REAL fire, and we evacuate, through the smell of smoke, that is stronger on the lower floors.

So I’m outside in a cold drizzle in my shirtsleeves. After a few minutes of stoic schmoozing, I’m reunited with the meeting folks, including Rita Shoor clomping over in 5 inch heels (her estimate) with somebody holding an umbrella over her. At my urgent suggestion, we decamp to continue the meeting in a restaurant, and they select the nearest one (with Rita commenting along the way about said heels). We’re evidently the first people to have this brilliant idea, and continue the meeting in quiet. But soon a flood of people has the same idea, and the place has techies hanging from the rafters, noisily. We continue the meeting over the din, but with some interruptions. We learn there had been a notice of substantial time before the fire department would let people back in (hence the exodus across the street). We further learn that the apparent cause of the evacuation is a fire in a red Toyota parked in the garage underneath the building, which concerns me, because I indeed arrived in a red Toyota. However, it is clarified that this car was on a different level of the garage than mine, and I relax, and we continue to discuss the glories of Ensemble.

A little while later a young man dashes in, wet from the rain, and inquires whether Curt Monash is present. I learn that one part of the prior information had been wrong; the fire had NOT been on a different level of the garage than the one I’d been parked on. In fact, it is my car that had burned up. More precisely, the engine compartment was burned, the sprinklers had suppressed it, the fire department had staved in the windows, everything was soaked, and the car was almost certainly totalled.

And that, Tommy, is why although you will get a column before I leave on my flight Monday, it may not be as long BEFORE Monday as you had requested, and as I had originally intended.

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