Sunday, August 26, 2007

Hail Mary - Parallelism

iTunes is so cool! Now, in addition to music, podcasts, movies, even PDFs, you can check out university courses and programs, some of which deal with information technology. This morning, I took in the first in a series of lectures from Stanford University entitled, "Computer Architecture is Back: The Berkeley View of Parallel Computing". This specific lecture was given by Dave Patterson in January of this year and is part of what Stanford calls their Computer Systems Colloquium, a series of 14 lectures in "movie" format, available free on iTunes. If you have the 60GB "video" iPod, like me, then you can download these lectures and view them while traveling on the train or plane (uh, forget the car, please, if you're doing the driving!). To get more information, simply head over to SoiT, Stanford on iTunes U at

So, what about the lecture and what is the message for computing and information technology in a manufacturing environment?

Patterson's high-level message in this lecture is that everything is changing in computer architecture, that the conventional wisdom of doubling processing speed every 18 months is over, that both hardware and software design need to invest in parallelism, and that a multiplicity of perspectives in the computer industry is required to find solutions for the new predicaments we face. The message for IT in a manufacturing environment (at least a non-computer-related manufacturing environment) is that it looks like the near future will offer far less performance improvement than we might otherwise have hoped for assuming the conventional wisdom.

The metaphor Patterson used is the "Hail Mary", itself a metaphor in football for a desperate play in which the quarterback throws a long pass hoping that somehow somebody on his team will catch it and rescue the team in the end zone. In the computer industry, the same appears to be true. Everyone is betting the farm on parallel computing to solve problems like the power wall we read about daily in the computer press. The "hail Mary" part is that the industry itself doesn't seem to know who or how the pass will be caught. And if the industry doesn't know, how the hell are IT managers supposed to figure this out?

As the computer industry moves uniformly in this new direction, IT guys like me are trying to figure out the implications for designing our systems. Although Patterson tries to make it easier by talking about the "13 dwarfs" - the areas in which multiple disciplines see the future evolving - and the computing world "interest groups" (things like high-performance computing, machine learning, games, embedded systems, and databases) where the 13 dwarfs are mapped, guys like me may feel somewhat overwhelmed.

But I think viewing this material a second and possibly third time brings on the aha experience.

One take home is that programming will have to change dramatically in the next few years. No longer will performance improvements be relegated to hardware. Programmers and developers will have to figure out how to program for parallel processing (Patterson calls this the end of "La-Z-Boy Programming"). Programmers will also have to invest heavily in the psychology of programming, in other words understanding how people interface with computers and making adjustments to make those interfaces more appropriate.

Another take home is that IT managers will have to understand their environment and make changes necessary to find incremental improvements. We can't depend any longer on new servers providing us with huge performance dividends. For example, in a database-driven environment such as ERP systems, IT managers will have to push software vendors in the direction of optimizing database structures, algorithms, reporting tools, querying tools, and integration.

Yet another take home is that knowledge of virtualization will be critical for IT managers, especially as we realize that we need to deconstruct our bloated operating systems, adding only the functions and services necessary to meet a computing objective which is, in turn, linked to a business goal.

Dave Patterson says, "No one is building faster processors." So, given the end of Moore's Law for single-core processing and given the industry's "hail Mary" approach to parallelism, why should IT managers feel optimistic? I mean, after all, are we now relegated to incremental improvements and lobbying with database and ERP vendors?

Patterson admits that the future could be one of failure. But it might also be one in which 1000 cores could be manufactured on a single, economical chip. It might be one in which experts from multiple disciplines work together to design human-centric solutions. It might be one in which the open source programming movement transforms software development by fostering development of minimalist services and functions based on minimalist operating systems and made available to IT managers in a secure virtual package. In other words, there is reason for optimism.

View the lecture for more detail, and check out the innovative Research Accelerator for Multiple Processors (RAMP).

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Death and Digital Assets

When my brother died in 2002, he left behind some interesting digital assets. They were mainly in the form of artwork he created in his spare time, but also included a personal web site and samples of graphics work he had done for a variety of companies. At the time, his employer's web site design was primarily the result of his creative work.

I now wonder where those assets are. It would be interesting, purely for nostalgic reasons as we get closer to the 5th anniversary of his untimely death, to look again at what he created. But I strongly suspect they have evaporated much like the web site we created as a memorial for him did when the company hosting the site went out of business (it was called; thankfully, I kept backups of the finished memorial web site).

With my recent catastrophic loss of data, as well as my recent medical history, not to mention the approaching anniversary of my brother's death, I've been thinking about digital assets and what happens to them after death. Then today, as I unwrapped my copy of Smart Computing magazine, my eyes were drawn to an article entitled, "Death & Digital Data: What Happens To What You Leave Behind?". The gist of the article is that it's not always clear who owns personal data in an online world. Even the most obvious situations may require litigation to secure assets of a loved one who has died. The case of Lance Corporal Justin Ellworth is an example of an online email company - Yahoo - trying to prohibit the family from retrieving the young man's personal email.

In corporate settings, it's not only the death of an employee that can raise these issues. A simply resignation or layoff can be the occasion for a review of ownership issues, not to mention consideration of what is the humane thing to do. This is especially the case with knowledge workers with corporate notebook computers which act as a repository for both personal and company data. Smart phones, Blackberries, and Pocket PCs are also part of the picture. Even if a company is progressive, for example, and strongly affirms that employees should have the right to retrieve personal data from company assets, if the employee has died, who is responsible for reviewing and separating corporate from personal data, for storing the personal digital assets and getting them into the hands of heirs?

Part of the obvious solution is to backup data, but that can be difficult with online email, web sites, and blog hosts. In my own case, for example, I'm still trying to find and execute reasonable backup utilities to preserve online digital assets like my blog sites and my photo sites (HTTrack WebSite Copier looks promising; Adobe Acrobat Professional also includes a utility for web site downloads).

And then there's online email. What about your hotmail, gmail, Yahoo egroup correspondence, etc.? Not that we'll all be famous after we die, of course, but even the correspondence of the not-so-famous can be extremely useful to historians and cultural analysts, not to mention the families who wish to preserve as much as possible of a deceased loved one's correspondence.

This digital age of ours means not only that we have more assets that will survive us, but that we have to take greater care to preserve those assets for our loved ones.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Gadget Guy, Gadget Guy

So, I have a bit of a reputation as a geek at work. That's not entirely a bad thing, I guess, for an IT Manager. Some of my colleagues poke good-natured fun at me (for the most part) wondering whether there is any more room on my belt for the next gadget to occupy. How will I ever get the flat screen monitor to hang from my belt?

But if there is a refrain that IT managers need to listen to regularly these days it's this - being a geek is OK, but you need to be much more than that. You also need to understand the business and to provide strong leadership. And not just any 'ole leadership will do; it has to spring from a clear understanding of business objectives and a coherent alignment of IT with those objectives.

That's sometimes hard for geeks to grasp. Yes, there will always be a role for a computer technology chief cook and bottle washer, but that's not really what IT management is all about these days. No matter how large or small the company we serve, no matter whether our business context is survival, maintenance, or market breakthrough, no matter how many servers, printers, scanners, pocket PCs, and firewalls we manage, no matter how large the staff - IT managers need to embrace the business and understand the value propositions of their business.

Yes, there are only so many hours in the day. And while it is obvious that you can never have enough knowledge of specific technologies that could benefit your company, it is more important that the technology you do manage be put in service of the goals and vision of the business itself. In other words, technology should always serve business, never the other way around.

If you are like me, the lone-wolf IT person in your organization, then the refrain may be something you know by heart. The real question becomes, "how do I do this?" It's different in every company, of course, and if I had the answer, then it's very likely I wouldn't be blogging about it. All I know for sure is that we need to talk about this, not only with other non-IT colleagues in our organizations, but with our peers and friends in our professional organizations.

For example, in our IT Pro users groups and information processing societies, it probably makes sense to balance the occasions when we show off our technical competence with times of vulnerability when we plead for help in understanding the larger business picture. Sure, iSCSI and SANs and turbo-charged WiFi will get the engines firing on all cylinders in a room full of geeks. But perhaps when we gather together, we need at least 50% of our time talking about how to manage business process re-engineering. What tools and techniques and skill sets do we need to become the business leaders that are needed in IT today? The gadgets can wait...