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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Look, I'll write about virtualisation. I'll contemplate business strategies. I'll even talk to your EMEA marketing manager. But please, no more football...

Monday 5/6/2006

VMWare is at it again, launching a bunch of tools to manage and distribute virtual machines across a network. I can't wait for virtualisation to become truly mainstream: not only does it have the potential to virtually (sorry) eradicate whole classes of security problem (run your online tasks in a virtual machine and vape it from the cosmos when you're done, malware and all), but it should provide a new and rather tasty distribution channel for open source software – one that does with ease and aplomb things that proprietary software cannot.

You'll all have tried live CDs – bootable images of operating system distributions that take over your PC but don't touch the existing setup. These are fine, if a bit clumsy: although burning CDs is immeasurably less painful and expensive than once it was, it's still a tedious business.

So, why not wrap the operating system up in a virtual machine? Then you can download the binary, spawn a new environment and run what you like, again without touching what's already installed. In fact, you don't even have to stop running the existing OS, which will calmly reside alongside its new neighbout without even realising it's there. At this point, we've got to the "try our new OS by clicking this link" stage of the game, which is hugely advantageous to operating systems that don't mind – in fact, positively encourage – being copied around the place.

It then gets more interesting. Many Linux distros come bundled with lots of applications, of course, but once you get into the idea that you can supply a complete OS along with your application then the whole idea of “a Windows version” or “a Mac version” of software goes away. You just pick your hardware – which will be x86, of course – and produce an application running on the OS of your choice, tweaked as much as you like to your advantage, and all bundled up in a nice ball of virtual delight. This sorts out all manner of problems that happen because your users are installing your software into systems of unknown health and configuration, and gives you much more control over all aspects of what the marketeers are pleased to call 'the user experience'.

Of course, you can't do this with Windows – you can't tweak the OS very much, and you certainly can't go shipping it online willy-nilly. That's naughty. So if you want to have the advantages of a more reliable, cross-platform application, you'll have to go the open source route.

Against the idea are the usual issues of operating system pluralism – too many different sorts of user interface confuse the consumer, different file types and filing systems create incompatibilities, it's difficult to mix and match utilities and other applications. These have all been real problems in the past and will be again. But these days, the emphasis on Web-based services, the much greater commonality between OS GUIs, and the existence of many more common file formats, should make things a lot easier.

Virtualisation will rewrite the rules in so many ways. I'm sure we haven't thought of the half of them.

 

Tuesday 6/6/2006

Intel continues to have baffling ideas. It is, as mentioned on Monday, an x86 world, with the amount of non-x86 processing – on the desktop, at least – rapidly approaching zero. So the news that Intel is planning to ditch some of its non-x86 architectures should come as no surprise. After all, despite a lot of effort, there's still no sign that the Itanium will make any money any time soon, right?

Only it's not the Itanium they're rumoured to be ready to cut adrift, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal. It's the embedded stuff – the Xscale and network processors. Now, these are perfectly good designs which have taken a lot of the useful components out of the x86 and linked them in to an ARM core. They work, they're nice and low power, but they haven't been fulfilling expectations. Why this is, I don't know – the embedded market is quite ferocious and has a number of established players, and Intel came late to the game. That may be enough in itself: it's very difficult to dislodge people with existing relationships to OEMs. And the embedded world has been more prone than most to dodgy dealings of the "If you want to buy this chip, you have to buy this other one" variety – which can lock people into families of components for a long time.

None of this changes the game Intel's beancounters are playing, which is undoubtedly ROI based. This business costs us this much and makes this much in return – is that the best use of our money? Can we assume useful growth? This sort of thinking, looking at yourself as if you were an external investor, is why companies divest themselves of profitable businesses: it's not a matter of making money, it's of beating the market. Hence IBM getting out of PCs, and hence Intel getting rid of parts of the company that look to the outsider like they're doing perfectly well where they are.

Financially astute this might be, but it takes little or no account of the people involved. Intel has a unique culture that inspires a lot of loyalty, and that translates to a willingness to go the extra mile when it matters. Of course, there are always disappointments in any job – projects get cancelled, bosses resign, divisions get reorganised – but throwing away a whole market segment with everyone attached is a bit like lopping off a limb. The shockwaves can affect all manner of people for a long time, especially among those who feel most strongly attached to the company.

But does anyone care?

Wednesday 7/6/2006

Reports are filtering back from Dell's bash yesterday in Monte Carlo where Colin Barker, our man in the Saville Row suit and the gold Rolls-Royce, has been dutifully taking notes. The bash was ostensibly to talk about Dell's plans for enterprise servers, but there was much more fun to be had off-piste, so to speak. “We walked the Formula 1 course going Vroom-Vroom!” said a disturbingly enthusiastic Colin afterwards.

But that was tame compared to some goings-on. One Brit from Dell's PR department demonstrated an admirable thirst and hunger for conviviality – so much so that when he finally decided to call it a night and leave the bar for some refreshing, reviving sleep he stumbled across some of his Yankee colleagues having breakfast. "Oh, Americans always have an early breakfast," was his less than convincing excuse for this sterling performance.

A less than sterling performance was evident from Scotland on Sunday, which was the only national newspaper to send someone along. Unfortunately, for 'operational reasons' they didn't send their technology correspondent. So who got the gig? Science guy? Business? European? No, they sent the wine correspondent. Still, he was keen to bone up on his new beat, however unfamiliar it was, and decided to ask Vroom-Vroom for a full briefing. "So, the head guy,. Patrick Dell, isn't it?" Oh dear. Still, we'll have to see whether V-V can tell his Cotes du Rhone from his clarets.

Finally, the waspish freelance Eric Doyle had the last laugh. One of the freebies Dell bestowed on all who attended was a little combined USB key drive and radio: nothing special, but a nice gee-gaw.

Eric unwrapped his prezzie, stuck the earbuds in, fiddled with the buttons and grimaced. "I say, this radio's broken!", he said in a disapproving tone. The nearby PR was mortified. "Oh dear," she said. "What seems to be the matter?"

"It only gets French stations", said Eric – and watched with some satisfaction as for five seconds the PR (and all around him) couldn't work out whether he was being serious or not.

And they say technology journalism is dull.

Thursday 8/6/2006

So, everyone's getting jiggy with the Slingbox. Big deal. Hackish Tivo users have been piping their telly and video over the Net for years. But you should get excited about the idea not because of what it does now but for what it will do next.

First, it makes a joke of TV on mobiles. You could pay a tenner a month for a choice of six channels on one network with their choice of handsets, or you could get all two hundred channels on your set top box relayed to anywhere in the world you can get 3G or WiFi.

Then, it means you don't need to stick to the telly anyway. You can watch your video library, stuff you've harvested off the Web, videoblogs, what have you, anywhere you like. In other words, you're your own universal TV broadcaster.

Then it gets really fun. Everyone's noticed that the headline speeds for broadband have been getting faster, to the point where ten megabits isn't that special any more. But the upstream speeds have been getting faster too: once, you were stuck at 256k. Now you can get up to 1.6 megabits. That matters a lot.

A reasonable video stream needs 256k – until recently, all you could get. With that only you can watch your video. With 512, two people can watch – and that's enough to change the world. If you find something good to see and tell two friends, they can both watch it – and if they each relay it to two of their friends, then seven people are watching. The next layer is fifteen, then thirty one... by the time you've gone through the same process just twenty times, a million people can be watching your video stream, and it's all done through ordinary broadband. Nobody's using up anything more than their alloted bandwidth.

As yet, the protocols to do peer-to-peer video streaming are still experimental. They work, just not very well. But they will. At that point, anyone can put together their favourite video clips, pick of YouTube, anything they like, and live TV follows Napster into the place where big business gets very scared indeed.

Everything's in place. Just watch it happen.

Friday 9/6/2006

And so it starts, this long hot purgatorial summer of sport. I regard football as I do most religions, a personal neurosis that spills over into group psychosis, and fine as long as it's kept well away from me.

This is now impossible. The chances of watching television, listening to the radio, reading a newspaper or talking to someone in the office without footbloodyball coming into it are, and will be, effectively zero. All the great pleasures in life – the quiet pint on a Sunday afternoon in the pub, the gentle murmur of Radio 4 in the background, a nice walk on the Heath in the sun – will be poisoned. Even bastard Google has changed its logo.

I had thought that I still had one surefire escape – amateur radio. Radio hams are not as other men: with few exceptions, they avoid sport in word and deed. While there are many subspecies of ham – insomniac octogenarians talking about their tomato plants, hyperactive Italians sending dodgy pictures by slow-scan TV, lugubrious Japanese discussing the finer points of aerial erection – Homo Radioactivii Sportiv is rare to the point of extinction.

So, picture the scene. I am locked away in my Swedish chicken shed, taking a break from the project. I fire up the ham radio gear, and try and find someone to talk to on the twenty metre band. Conditions are poor – as they have been for a while – and most of the contacts are between stations with kilowatts of power and aerials that resemble Blackpool Tower. I have a weak little battery operated transmitter and a few feet of wire, so it's tough going.

Then someone comes back to my call. We exchange signal reports, our impression of the quality of propagation, station details and so on, and then I mention that he's got a rather odd callsign. "Ah yes," he says, “I'm operating a special event station from Berlin. We're at the football stadium, to celebrate the World Cup.”

"Oh... lovely," I say. "Well, I really must be going"

But he's warming to his spiel.

"There are twenty six special district stations, and twelve stadium stations," he goes on, " and if you work enough of them you can get a special diploma."

"Sorry," I say. "Interference. Bzzz bzz bzz. Bye now..." (actually what I say is "Too much QR Mexico OM, thx fer contact, 73s, QRT", but that seems a bit silly in print).

So it proves. They're everywhere. I switch off the wireless and stare out of the window.

It's going to be tough.