Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The birth of a Third Platform

The BCS South West region hosts a number of events; I like to go along to these as they usually include some very interesting topics, but it’s also quite useful to network with other IT pros from different backgrounds.

At a recent event, there was a guest speaker from Apple; Lawrence Stephenson talking about “The Birth of a Third Platform”. He was discussing the rise in use of iPhones and iPads, particularly by students at schools or in University / Colleges and proposed that this is a new form of computing. Although primarily about higher education, much of what he discussed was also relevant to business.

The basic argument was that the mainframe systems were the first generation of computing, and the standard client / server technology that we have become used to, is the second generation. The third generation is therefore the use of mobile computing devices as access points to process or make use of data; hence the “third platform”.

He illustrated his talk with some interesting facts about the growth in the numbers of smartphones and tablet devices particularly among students. He also compared how these are used; to access email, social networking sites, general web browsing etc. He also identified that there were some were using their devices to access relevant items related to the student courses, but this was still a relatively small amount and that there was potential for growth in this area.

He demonstrated by showing some apps that had been developed for a university in the States; and these were clearly items that a student would find tremendously helpful, particularly for those new to university life, such as campus maps etc. All in all, a really good demonstration of just what can be done.

There was one very interesting comment though; he showed some statistics that could be used to suggest that most people actually use their device more for accessing data than they do for making phone calls. As such, there could be an argument for saying that it is quite possible than some future device might not actually have a phone capability as such; you would be more likely to contact people using IM or calls would be routed through an IP based utility such as Skype.

Of course, these types of devices are not new; tablets have been around for some 10 years. However, the advent of the smartphone has encouraged the development of small apps that allow people to do specific tasks really quickly and easily, and that has made a huge difference in the take up of people using mobile computing. As people have found new uses, it encourages more people to make use of them, and more developers to consider writing apps for specific requirements.

Most companies have “road maps” that give a structure to their research and development process and show the customer what they are working on for future products. Apple are a bit tight lipped about their vision for the future, so it is difficult to be certain about what they have in the pipeline. However, I would suggest that they (and many others) are working on the basis that there will be more people wanting to make use of mobile devices.

Who knows; maybe in the not too distant future, we won’t be using PCs any more, but will just do all of the work using a mobile device.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Watch the pennies

..and the pounds look after themselves. So the old saying goes.

Yes it’s that time of year again; time to think about next year’s budget. Our company financial year runs from 1st Jan to 31st Dec. The FD needs to check it over and approve it and he needs some time to cook the books (sorry, prepare the COA), so we need to get budget plans drawn up a few months before December.

I tend to start by writing a list of the specific jobs that we intend to do, plans to replace major hardware such as UPS or servers, major software upgrades like the move to Windows XP a few years ago. It can also include work that we think we will be required to do; currently we are waiting for the go ahead on new offices and they will have to be cabled up. I try to get a quote so that we have a fair estimate of the cost.

We have a lot of specialist software for CAD drawings etc. and these have quite expensive support costs. Added to that is the support costs for CRM, ERP and so on. In some cases, I think that it would be useful if these were in a separate budget, but they are not so I just have to get on and deal with it. I also add in an amount for other software upgrades.

The next step is to think about smaller hardware purchases; monitors, disks, cables, replacement printers etc. I also consider consumables; toner cartridges, disks and batteries. I try to work out what we have bought / used in these areas, then use that as a benchmark for the next year.

We also need to plan for Business Continuity / Disaster Recovery. This requires that we keep some spare equipment, pay towards a BC / DR partner and take appropriate actions to make sure that we can be flexible enough (and secure enough) to put things into place at short notice to allow the company to deal with sudden problems.

Once all of these items have been assessed, I put them into a spreadsheet. I tend to leave details on the form so that the FD can verify it; the more detail the better as it saves him pestering me. It also means that he sees part of the justification for the spending which gives him confidence that I have thought things through.

In our case, I also try work out roughly what we are likely to spend on travelling to work at our other sites; hotel, mileage allowance, flights as appropriate. In addition, I also added an allowance for some training costs as we have had to learn a lot of new skills around our ERP system and the training is absolutely essential. As it happens, the FD generally accepts my figures (although he does occasionally make some changes to match his numbers).

After all that however, the big thing is to try to stick to the budget. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Generally, the smaller amounts are easier to offset within a budget. For example, someone managed to destroy a laptop a few years (he ran over it; he forgot to put it in the boot of his car!) and we needed to replace this at short notice. We could just put that down as a replacement and not worry about it.

However, it is also possible to get a requirement for much larger items – we had to buy an add on disk unit for a server which had not been budgeted for – not the end of the world, but it meant we had to be a bit careful about some other spending.

But all in all, it seems to work for us. The FD is happy, the MD is happy, the staff are generally supplied with what they need, when they need it. We get to manage things ourselves, which is a lot better than having to justify every single item of expenditure. I’ve seen places where this happens, and I would not like to have to be working under those conditions.

Friday, 3 September 2010

New Skillz

Occasionally, I think back to when I first started working with PCs in the late 80s.

At that stage, there were relatively few companies made use of these and it was very much a hobby, although one that I enjoyed. I managed to get hold of some second hand equipment and by trial and error, worked out what everything was and how it worked.

In the mid 90s, I had the chance to work with computers as a job; primarily in a customer support capacity, but I also looked after the company hardware, network and server (yes we only had the one). In those days, it was considered normal that someone working in IT would have a broad range of skills and be able to turn their hand to whatever task was needed.

But in the last 10 years, we have seen a major change in the way that things work. There has been a considerable need for people to become more focussed in a specific area, whether that be database administration, programming, networking, telecoms etc. In the very big companies, they even have teams of people within these disciplines.

For the smaller shops like ours, this makes life a bit harder. We only have a couple of staff, but we still need to provide the same level of support on the newer systems. There is still an expectation that each of the IT staff has all of the relevant knowledge to instantly know how a product works, what is causing a problem, and with a wave of the magic wand, can fix it.

In the real world of course, it is completely different. In most cases we have some good general knowledge of hardware and some good experience of using a couple of products. We’ve then developed particular skills in specific areas. For example, I have had to do a lot of work with SQL server over the last couple of years, and although I wouldn’t describe myself as a DBA, I have a pretty good understanding of it. I also have had advanced networking and routing training, as well as some extra work in security.

Among the staff, we have each developed key specific skills; and we can share the work out in a way that allows us to be most effective. As a small team, we work quite closely, so still get the opportunity to broaden our skills base, probably far more than those in larger teams would be able to do. But we still have to learn those new skills and there is no question that even within a team the size of ours, there is a definite division of labour based upon speciality.

There are of course many companies that suggest we should outsource some of the work: and I can see a certain value in that. But I have not yet seen any outsourcing operation that will provide the level of support at an acceptable price that meets what we currently provide. It’s also likely that if we did outsource part of the work we do all that would then happen is that the users / management would still insist that we try to fix things for them anyway, defeating the purpose of outsourcing.

So for the moment, we just have to try to learn as much as we can, as quickly as we can (and probably as cheaply as we can). I’m looking forward to the day when we can get the plug in brain nodes that allow us to download information directly into our brains, without the pain of going through the learning process!