Clouds v cartels

Interesting article by the erstwhile US government CIO Vivek Kundra, in the New York Times:

AS the global economy struggles through a slow and painful recovery, governments around the world are wasting billions of dollars on unnecessary information technology. This problem has worsened in recent years because of what I call the “I.T. cartel.” This powerful group of private contractors encourages reliance on inefficient software and hardware that is expensive to acquire and to maintain.

Kundra posits that an increased use of cloud computing as being the answer to this problem. As Andrea DiMaio points out though, that might not quite be the solution, after all…

Let’s take the cloud. Vivek and others have done a lot to move the federal government in that direction. On the other hand, if any significant economies of scale must be achieved, there will be only a handful of suppliers that can provide what is needed. When migrations will accelerate and thousands of workloads, application and data will be in some form of cloud – be it private, government or public – why should cloud suppliers not establish a cartel? What evidence do we have that they really want to pursue interoperability and portability – so that their clients really have choice about where to source their IT services – as opposed to sharing the market as usual?

Moving to Google Apps…and surviving!

Dave says: Paul is a director of Learning Pool, and thus my boss. When he offers to contribute a post to this blog, I don’t have to say yes, but it kind of makes sense to do so. As well as being someone who knows how to run a great business, Paul also has an understanding of big IT that I simply don’t, thus he is much better placed to write about this than me!

Everyone knows that Learning Pool is all about collaboration, sharing and saving money.

Over the last three years it has also been all about growing a busy and successful business too.

While most of us at #teamlovely just want to meet customers, sell business and do interesting projects, someone has to make sure the lights stay on and that our growing team can continue to work efficiently, no matter where they were.

A few months ago I realised that at least some of this responsibility was mine. I was sitting in an airport (can’t remember which one) unable to connect to our exchange server.Frustrated, I called our tech team and asked them what was up. They fixed the immediate issue but reminded me that the server we were using was

  1. old;
  2. underspecified;
  3. overworked.

Some joviality along the lines of ‘it should see my diary and see what overworked really is!’ later, I received a quote to replace our internal systems with the latest that Microsoft and Dell had to offer.

The response left me running straight into the arms of Google!

We implemented Google Apps in around five weeks and are using the service for email and documents. In the next few weeks we’ll also be moving to Google Sites, from Sharepoint, having trialled this extensively and successfully.

While the project was pretty straightforward, there were a few things to consider that we would have thought should be just easy:

  • How do you set up a LAN without an expensive piece of Microsoft kit and associated licencing? – Google have no good ideas about this so we’ve gone with a standard Windows Server workgroup (much to the displeasure of @ianmoran!);
  • How do you deploy updates to each PC? – answer is that you don’t so you’re expecting all your users to be diligent about keeping their kit up to date;
  • What about all that historical data? – there are a number of solutions for getting archived email data into the Google cloud. We found a real restriction with our upload speed which made this process a pain we could have done without.

And so to Google Apps…

The Good

  • Excellent support. The guys at Google listened to what we wanted to achieve and then in a very matter of face way did it;
  • You can save money. The total cost of ownership of a Google based approach is much lower than a traditional solution. We’ve spent around £6,000 on hardware and licenses. The alternative was a £35,000 project. While we will need to pay an annual subscription to Google, having to pay out less cash has been very welcome;
  • Collaboration – Google docs just works. Several people can collaborate on a document across the net in real time;
  • Google works offline – we didn’t really expect it to, but it does!
  • No more Sharepoint – while I’m sure Sharepoint is a valuable and well built tool, it became the subject of intense hatred at Learning Pool over the last few years. I guess we didn’t invest enough in the initial set up and training. Although my experience is that Google Sites is far better in terms of its ability to enable collaboration.

The Bad

  • Google is a work in progress. I can pretty much guarantee that if you see something you don’t like, the answer from Google will be “we’re fixing that”. On the one hand that makes me feel better about the approach we take at Learning Pool – I have no doubt some of our customers feel the same frustration. At least we know they are working on it I guess;
  • Collaboration requires a Google account – I think this will be a seriously limiting factor in the long run, particularly as we work with organisations who are mainly public sector;
  • We still use Outlook – much and all as we would love to get rid of this, we’re reliant on Outlook for integration with our CRM – something we just can’t live without. No doubt though that Google mail works best in the browser;
  • Managing PCs on our ‘network’ is now pretty difficult – over time this could become a real overhead but we’re working on it as best we can for now;
  • Google Spreadsheets – in my opinion this just doesn’t work right now – the functionality isn’t rich enough and its routinely too slow to use and so there’s no way we can leave Excel behind just yet;
  • Google sites don’t really support hierarchy – this means that all your sites exist at the same level and you need to stitch it together with some html yourself;
  • Search on Google sites isn’t security trimmed. If a user searches all sites they’ll get documents returned that they don’t have permission to. We did have a bit of a chuckle at how Google have mucked up the search function – they are working on it of course (release due in a few weeks!)

On the whole then I’d recommend Google Apps as a way forward for providing groupware for a small to medium sized enterprise like Learning Pool. We like the idea of software as a service and five weeks into the project, most things work just as well as before and some things work a lot better indeed.

Nice work Google (and the Learning Pool and Konnexion teams too of course!). Kenny, our Head of Tech, has written two posts covering the operational side of the big switch over on the LP blog.

Cloud computing during a catastrophe

DisasterIt often amuses people when they learn I was once a Risk Manager at a County Council. I have no idea why.

One of my roles at the time was to look after business continuity arrangements – in other words, what the organisation did when something terrible happened.

I was well into internet stuff at the time, and I was amused today when I by chance came across a blog post I wrote (in August 2007!) on the Communities of Practice on how a cloud based system like Google Apps could be used in an emergency by a local authority when corporate systems were unavailable.

Obviously Google has fixed a few of the issues I mention – Sites provides wiki functionality and a better way of doing websites than the old web page creator. They still haven’t integrated Blogger yet, though. Also iGoogle seems to have been dropped from the Google Apps inventory.

With G-cloud being a little way off, does anyone have any examples of public sector organisation using the cloud as a contingency digital comms setup? Would be good to hear about it.

Here’s the post:

Google Apps for Your Domain (or Google Apps for short) is a set of Google services which can be set up at a web address of your own choosing. You get fully customisable versions of:

  • Gmail (a web based email system)
  • Calendar (a web based group calendaring system)
  • Docs & Spreadsheets (web based word processor and spreadsheet applications)
  • Talk – instant messaging and voice over IP
  • iGoogle – personalisable web portal
  • Web page creator – does what it says on the tin

It’s free for the first 200 accounts and effectively provides you with a cost free, enterprise level groupware solution.

There are countless situations where Google Apps could be used within the local government context. But one opportunity where it could make a real difference would be within business continuity arrangements. Here are some examples of how it could benefit an organisation undergoing a crisis:

Safe Web Pages

The Shire Hall is burning down, and the web server has melted. How to get the required message out to web visitors? Use the web domain you get with the Google Apps account as a backup webspace, a simple site with emergency details already up which can be activated when required. Because it’s held on Google’s servers, the information is safe from the disaster. You should be able to get your .gov.uk web address forwarding to this one in no time, so visitors wouldn’t be inconvenienced.

The system used to generate the web pages is overly simple and you can’t do too many exciting things with them. But for getting a message across in an emergency, they do the job.

Communications on the move

So, if the web server is dead, chances are the email server will be too. Communications in an emergency can be a very tricky business and having as many possible routes as possible for different groups to talk to each other is vital. Email without doubt has a role to play and some Councils already have web based accounts created, with services like Hotmail, in readiness for such a crisis. These accounts can be accessed from any computer with a web connection, which makes it much more viable as a communications medium.

However, Google Apps provides email addresses @yourdomain.com which has obvious benefits in terms of presentation – it looks a lot more professional if you are contacting external organisations. But the real advantages lie in the power of the Gmail interface that you get. For a start, there are 2 gigabytes of storage space for each account – meaning that no emails have to be deleted for space saving purposes. Secondly, the email can be accessed using any mobile device, whether by downloading the client from Google or just by accessing it through your phone or PDA’s web browser.

Key Documents Always Available

Google’s Docs and Spreadsheets service provides a simple word processor and spreadsheet which run within the web browser. You therefore don’t need any other software installed on your machine and as the documents are stored online, you know you are getting access to the latest versions. It also makes it a lot easier to collaborate on documents, for example a spreadsheet giving status updates.

Another use for this service would be to have copies of key documents saved online in this shared space. Such documents could include procedures for vital tasks to be completed in an emergency, staff lists, property plans, contact details, contract records etc.

Instant Status Updates

Google Talk, the instant messaging client, is built into the email interface and provides another method of communication which could well be useful in an emergency for those times when email just isn’t quick enough. Messages appear instantly on the recipients screen. Would be most beneficial as a way of providing status updates to a central coordinator, for example.

Organising Time

The Calendar is an extremely powerful one, again web based making it accessible to anyone with the required privileges. With this system, however, calendars can be shared, merged and certain appointments made publicly available to anyone, should you wish to. In the time following an emergency this could become especially powerful.

Bringing it All Together

iGoogle is the personalised portal, which allows you to display various types of information on one page. This includes summaries of your email, calendar, docs and spreadsheets and talk. You can also add ‘widgets’ which contain updates on RSS feeds and other tools like to do lists and sticky notes.

What’s Missing?

There are two glaring omissions from the Google Apps toolkit. Firstly, and most importantly, there is no wiki function available. The use that a wiki could be put to in an emergency situation is considerable. The collaborative word processing functionality of Docs could be used in this context, but it wouldn’t have the immediacy and ease of access of a wiki. This is hopefully going to be put right soon, as Google bought JotSpot, an enterprise level wiki solution, some time ago and this will hopefully make its way into Apps once it has been Googlified.

Secondly, there is no integrated blog. This would be a pretty easy one for Google to achieve, given that it already runs Blogger, probably the most popular blogging platform there is. I actually have quite a strong personal dislike of Blogger, finding it slow, lacking in features and somewhat unreliable. But at least it would provide a means of providing regular updates without having to edit web pages manually with Page Creator.

Conclusion

These downsides apart, Google Apps provides a pretty good coverage of the tools you might need to manage and communicate in a crisis. And given the miniscule costs – just the price of a domain per year – it might not be worth not doing.

City of Angeles moves to Google Apps

Interesting!

Google Apps will also help conserve resources in the city’s Information & Technology Agency (ITA), which is responsible for researching, testing & implementing new technologies in ways that make Los Angeles a better place to live, work and play. Because the email and other applications are hosted and maintained by Google, ITA employees who previously were responsible for maintaining our email system can be freed up to work on projects that are central to making the city run.

By ITA estimates, Google Apps will save the city of Los Angeles millions of dollars by allowing us to shift resources currently dedicated to email to other purposes. For example, moving to Google will free up nearly 100 servers that were used for our existing email system, which will lower our electricity bills by almost $750,000 over five years. In short, this decision helps us to get the most out of the city’s IT budget.

The decision to move to Google Apps was not taken lightly. The city issued a request for proposals and received 15 proposals, which were evaluated by city officials. The top four proposals were invited to give oral presentations, with CSC’s proposal for Google Apps receiving the highest marks. This decision was reviewed and discussed by the Los Angeles City Council which, after a healthy debate, voted unanimously to move forward with Google Apps.

Here’s a video for more:

Backup! Backup!

Computing in the cloud is great: you get to keep all your data somewhere online, which means that you – and anyone you authorise – can get at it wherever you are.

But there can be problems. One is of finance – in these somewhat tricky economic timed, companies are burning out, and taking your data with them. There is also, however, technological problems. We all know we should take regular backups of our own stuff, don’t we? And surely those startups with whom we trust are stuff do the same…

Ma.gnolia users must be feeling pretty bummed right now. The social bookmarking service (think Delicious but, er, slightly different). At the moment, their homepage displays a rather bleak message in black text on a plain white background:

So far, my efforts to recover Ma.gnolia’s data store have been unsuccessful. While I’m continuing to work at it, both from the data store and other sources on the web, I don’t want to raise expectations about our prospects. While certainly unanticipated, I do take responsibility and apologize for this widespread loss of data.

Oh dear. All those bookmarks people had been accumulating over the years, with their descriptions and tags…gone. And it doesn’t seem like they are going to be back, either.

For those lucky enough to have backed up their bookmarks from Ma.gnolia, there might be some good news coming out of the open source project. Let’s hope so.

There are a couple of issues that this raises. One is around the efficacy of hosting data in the cloud. If Ma.gnolia weren’t backing up bookmarks, what about some of the webmail providers? Is Google properly safeguarding our documents? Can we trust PBwiki with our collaborative material? What about all the data inside social networks and Ning communities?

I’d think that we probably can, still, but don’t take any chances. Back up everything you have online locally. Most sites let you export content to a file, those that don’t might mean you have to undertake a tedious cop-and-paste exercise. I’ve started with my bookmarks, which are thankfully hosted with Delicious – if you do too, the export tool is here.

The second issue is whether there is much of a future in social bookmarking. Mashable questioned it last year. I disagree and still believe that social bookmarking is an inherently useful tool to have available. Not least because it is a great introduction to the core social web technology for newbies: tagging, sharing, RSS, mobility – it’s all there and is easily understood, especially in terms of its usefulness.

What appears to have happened at Ma.gnolia is an administrative cockup, which has broken the service irreparably. I don’t think it spells the end of social bookmarking as we know it.

Update: Wired notes that Ma.gnolia folk are using Friendfeed to try and repopulate their database!

Web based or desktop?

Just recently, I have stopped using the WordPress inbuilt editor, which runs in the web browser, and have started using MarsEdit – a piece of desktop software I have previously been rather unkind about – to write my blog posts. Since getting a PC, just recently I have continued in this offline blogging vein by using Windows Live Writer.

This started me thinking about the ways I use online services – through web based or desktop applications. As always, the first thing I did was to ask my Twitter buddies:

  • Me: What makes you decide whether to use a web app rather than a desktop one? eg webmail vs client, or google reader vs feedemon or netnewswire?
  • Simon Wakeman: functionality functionality functionality…it depends, I use a mix of each, although my multi-PC multi-site work life lends itself to a cloud-based apps (newsgtr excepted)
  • Nick Booth: experimentation or if someone shows me something I like – then I’ll use it.
  • Matt Kelland: web apps are a last resort for me – only if I need collab access to the data AND I know I will always be online when I need it
  • Kevin Campbell-Wright: I’m with Simon Wakeman
  • Steven Tuck: using desktop for things where I want alerts eg twhirl, feeddeemon and web based for portability google docs, email.
  • Andrew Beekan: Accessibility. When it comes to readers and mail I like to be able to access wherever I am. Docs, I use a mix of Office & Zoho.
  • Michael Grimes: Because I can access them easily from anywhere (with an internet connection).

The answer, it appear, is ‘it depends’.

Let’s have a look at some examples of what I use and where.

Email

I use webmail all the time – Gmail in this case using Apps for your domain. However, I have also set up Apple’s Mail client to download my email through IMAP for backup purposes, which I do roughly once a week. The main advantage of using the client application on my desktop is that it works when I’m not online… but that is rarely the case and my iPhone can be used for emails that just can’t wait. So, I’m happy with webmail. Unless anyone wants to convince me otherwise?

News reading

I started out reading RSS feeds late 2004, using Bloglines (Google Reader didn’t even exist in those days…). Then, as a Windows man, I discovered the wonder that is FeedDemon, a desktop application that really is the Rolls Royce of aggregators. When Google Reader came out (for the second time, the first version was rubbish) I toyed with it for a while before returning to FeedDemon.

When I switched to a Mac, I immediately downloaded NetNewsWire, the equivalent to FeedDemon. Sadly, I found that it just wasn’t the same experience, both in terms of ease of use and features. So, I switched to Google Reader, and that was that.

(It’s worth pointing out that both FeedDemon and NetNewsWire are part of the Newsgator family of RSS products, including the online RSS reader. All three sync together, so you could use NNW on a Mac, FD on a PC and NG at a third machine, and all would be up to date with what you have read and what you haven’t. Pretty neat.)

I really got into some of the features of Reader, like sharing items, with and without comments, which get automatically re-reported in FriendFeed. I also have got used to using Google Gears to download an offline copy of my feeds to read on the train. So, am also a web-based man when it comes to RSS. I have, though, just reloaded my latest subscription list into NetNewsWire to give it another go – along with the iPhone app and the fact that I now have a PC with FeedDemon on it – which could convince me to switch back…possibly.

Blog writing

A quicky this as I seem to write about it so much – I prefer writing blog posts offline. It’s irrational in these days of always-on broadband, but I feel rushed using the built in WordPress editor. There’s more on this topic here. On a Mac, the only sensible choice of offline editor is MarsEdit, whose lack of rich text editing is, frankly, a strength. The only time I use the built in editor these days is when I am using a different machine to my MacBook, or if I need to use a lot of bullet points (which are a bit annoying to do in MarsEdit).

Twitter

I use a client for TwitterTwhirl. Others may rant on about the benefits of others, like Tweetdeck (which is big and ugly and horrible in my view) but I have found Twhirl seems to do stuff just the way I’d expect and like it to. Which is more than can be said for the Twitter web interface, on the homepage. The brightest thing Twitter ever did was to outsource its UI, if the website is anything to go by…

Word processing

See blog posting. I just like typing into a desktop app more than a box on a web page. Even when the document I am writing needs to be shared, I’d still rather type it locally first, then upload to Google Docs or whatever. What are your thoughts on the online/offline decision? I’m clearly pretty confused about which I prefer and when!

Which do you prefer – doing everything in the browser, on the desktop or a bit of both?

Telegraph switches to Google Apps

Been busy at WorkCampUK so haven’t been following my feeds that closely, but my eye was caught by a post written by Shane Richmond, Communities Editor of the Telegraph’s web presence:

I’ve been testing Google Apps within the Telegraph for the last few months so I’m delighted that we’re now switching over entirely. The speed, accessibility and flexibility of Google Mail, Google Calendar and Google Docs make them much better to work with than the programs we used before.

Interesting news. After all, if an august institution like the Telegraph can make such a move, why not any other organisation?

I do have a few issues with the Google Apps offering though. For a start, the version of iGoogle that comes as standard is a seriously crippled version which, amongst other things, only lets you have one page of stuff. Also, sharing forms using Google Spreadsheets doesn’t work for people without an account on the Google Apps domain. It also doesn’t make sense to me that Google Reader isn’t a part of the package too.

But just in terms of email, as someone who has used various versions of Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, Lotus Notes and other enterprise email systems, Gmail is better than any.

Free software, or just go online?

Following some of the points made on my post about Kubuntu and Linux yesterday, I’ve been wondering a bit more about free software and how it might help people make the most of their equipment.

After all, software is expensive stuff. One of the great things about Kubuntu is that if I want a piece of software to a job, say editing graphics, all I have to do is call up the application manager, type in ‘graphics’ and it comes  up with a list of applications I can download and use straight away.

Things aren’t quite so easy with the Mac, of course, but at least that comes preloaded with the iLife suite, which means you can pretty much get on with most things out of the box.

Poor old Windows users are of course left behind in this. They don’t have any decent software pre-installed, by and large, and nor do they have access to a great open source application manager like Kubuntu comes with.

Having said that, an awful lot of the best open source apps are available for Windows users as well as Linux. But they are spread about on their own websites – though many are downloadable from sites like SourceForge – and how is the average user supposed to know they are there? If I want to create a podcast on my PC and need an audio editor, how do I know that Audacity is the package I want?

A great way of tackling this would be to create a simple CD, with all the main open source packages that people might want to use on a regular basis. You could burn and print a load to give away, and maybe make the ISO downloadable from a website.

Some of the software I would include on such a CD would be:

All of which are freely available (and more importantly, distributable) for Windows users.

But then… is this really the right way to go? In the age of Web 2.0, cloud computing, Google Docs and Zoho, do we really want to encourage people to be installing loads of desktop software? Or should we just point them to where they can download FireFox, and then giving them a list of bookmarks?

Maybe it depends on things like web connection speeds. Perhaps desktop software works better for some people than others

I’d be interested to hear what others think. Would a CD with preselected, quality open source software really make a difference to the way people use their PCs? Or should we be encouraging folk to use online tools, and to compute in the cloud?