The Cloud. The Sky Darkens.

I had an interesting conversation with someone the other day concerning my previous post, The Cloud. Virtual Computing Or Pie In The Sky. From their point of view, the cloud was a great idea. It gave them the opportunity to access their information from anywhere, plus, they could store huge amounts of data without having to go and buy expensive storage devices.

Point taken, you can’t argue with that. However, it’s important to understand just why the “cloud” was developed in the first place. In the good-old-days, IT companies used to manufacture hardware and this was the mainstay of their business. They weren’t too bothered about operating systems and software as this was someone else’s concern. Plus, all of the big “meaty” computers, such as mainframe and Unix based servers had their own operating environments. However, as PC’s that were once deemed as being for home use only, became faster and more reliable, companies started to turn to these instead.

As a result, computer server manufacturers started to see a squeeze on their margins. What were once their cash-cows, were now turning into money losers. As a result, the manufacturers turned to other avenues in order to generate revenue. They started to work closely with software integrators as well as develop their own in-house software. Maintenance and service plans were pushed with gusto. They soon started to realise that getting their customers to subscribe to products and services was the way forward.

The hardware became the loss-leader. The device to get a stranglehold on their customers in order to get them to sign up to an endless stream of products that were vital to the running of their everyday business. Software licenses, maintenance plans, disaster recovery services, asset management programs, etc., etc. The list goes on. If only they didn’t have to manufacture hardware at all! Genius!!

And so the cloud was born. One manufacturer in particular built huge data centres capable of housing and storing massive amounts of data. The investment was huge; millions and millions of dollars, but it didn’t matter. They were manufacturing the hardware anyway. The difference was, they would only have to do it the once. They could then sell “virtual computing” to their customers. All a company would need would be terminals on desks and a decent internet connection. You were then good to go.

What’s the problem then, I hear you ask. It’s the commercial world that are paying for these data-centres and we get to reap the benefits. Not quite. What happens when the data centres fill up, or it starts costing too much money to maintain them. Someone will have to pay. Imagine, all of your music, your films, your treasured photographs, not to mention your important data, all held remotely. Someone has the power to pull the plug on all your “stuff”, and guess what. It’s not you! If you get asked to pay, you’re not going to have too much of a choice.

If you think this won’t happen, then you’re wrong. It already is. There are a number of photo hosting sites that have scrapped their free option, or are at least looking at massively restricting how many photos you can store before you have to pay. You know how it works. Once one company gets away with it, they’ll all be doing it.

So, if your happy to keep your head in the clouds, then fine. Me, I keep everything backed up on hard drives, flash drives and USB sticks. I even have a ton of photos saved on DVD’s. Remember them!

The Cloud. Virtual Computing or Pie In The Sky.

You used to get asked, “Have you saved your work?” That’s changed to, “Have you backed up to the cloud?” As you know, it’s important to save your work, you don’t want to lose everything. But are saving and backing up to the cloud the same thing?

You would be forgiven for thinking they were. Until you actually start to consider what the “cloud” actually is. “Duh! Do you think I’m stupid”, I hear you cry. “The cloud is just a remote, virtual computer that allows you to log into your data from wherever you have internet access”.

Yeah, that’s kind of right, but there’s more to it than that. “There always is with you”, I hear you sigh! For those of you that have read some of my previous ramblings, you may have guessed that I am involved with the world that is the Technology of everything Information based. I have basically sold IT to the world for over twenty years and have seen many things come and go.

A while back, when the cloud was still in its infancy, I was asked to attend a meeting where my customer was being sold the concept of migrating everything they did onto the cloud. In that meeting, I sat and listened as we were told that the cloud was the future. Companies would no longer need to be tied into lengthy and expensive contracts in order to maintain their IT infrastructure. No more complicated maintenance plans. No more worrying about whether you had the right level of software, or whether you had applied the latest patch. All of this was taken care of for you. And, at the fraction of the cost of doing it all in-house. It sounded just too good to be true. It was.

I was sceptical. Whilst initially, there did seem to be cost savings, I was worried about the loss of control. Currently, if my customer’s system went down, they had a contract in place to ensure that had a workable solution within a given period of time. The cost of this service was fixed and if the provider tried to raise that cost, my customer could shop around for a better deal elsewhere. After much research, I advised my customer against going the cloud route. I felt for them, it wasn’t the right solution. The information they held and the customers they dealt with were too sensitive in my opinion. What do I know though? They chose to migrate everything to the cloud.

Fast forward a few years and I receive a panic call from my customer. They are having terrible problems accessing their systems and it has brought their whole company to a halt. It gets worse though. On contacting the company who now host their systems, they are told that they are experiencing “financial problems” and in order for my customer to have their systems turned back on, they would have to pay a fee. This was quite a considerable sum of money. Of course, my customer refused and they informed the relevant authorities.

Apparently the hosting company were in dire straits and in order to try and raise some cash in order to buy their way out of trouble, they had held a number of their customers to ransom. Eventually, the hosting company were prosecuted, the directors were heavily fined and the company was dissolved. The problem is, the impact that this had on my customer was huge. They did finally get their systems turned back on, but it took days. The loss of business that it caused them, almost took my customer down as well.

It could have been worse though. Worse! How could it possibly be worse though, I hear you cry. Well, the hosting company could have said nothing and just closed up and my customer would have lost everything. And it wouldn’t have just been my customer, it would have been countless other companies as well. Maybe even yours, or the company that you work for.

So, the next time you are backing up to the cloud, or flicking through all the pictures that you have stored remotely, just ask yourself this. Are you really happy to have someone else look after all of your data and personal details? But, more importantly, do you have the ransom money to pay when it all goes wrong!?

Now You See Me!

My phone keeps pinging me a message that my photos on my iCloud account cannot be accessed. Well that’s just fine, as I don’t want them to be accessed. And anyway, I don’t keep any photos in the cloud.

I remember years ago, when a certain smartphone producer announced that their phones would be able to “recognise” faces when taking photos. We were told that this would be help us to take better pictures and it would eliminate blurry images, not to mention the dreaded red-eye. On the whole, most people accepted this and thought it was a good idea. I was left scratching my head. Why would I want my phone to recognise faces, when I was perfectly able to achieve this task for myself. After all, I have been doing this all my life. My brain is programmed to recognise human faces and most importantly, I have one myself!

Then came face recognition software. Now, instead of coming under the close scrutiny of a border guard at the airport, we were asked instead to stare into a small camera. We would wait until some unknown entity decided whether we were a renowned international terrorist, or just an everyday citizen jetting off for a two-week holiday in Magaluf. I must be the former, as I’ve never even considered going to Magaluf!

Next, we learn that face recognition software has progressed to such an extent, that they are planning to roll it out in the retail industry. Not only will it be able to identify potential shoplifters, it will be able to recognise repeat shoppers and thereby predict that persons shopping habits and preferences. We are also told that this software will recognise us to such an accurate degree, it will be able to greet us personally on entering the shop. “Good morning Mr Smith and how are you toady?” Sound like some scary science-fiction movie. It does to me!

I recently had my profile locked on a well known social media site, because I refused to upload a photo of myself. Not a great problem, as I rarely use the site anyway. I did however contact them to say that I valued my privacy and I didn’t want “strangers” seeing who I was. They replied, reassuring me that it was fine, the photo wouldn’t be visible to all and sundry and it was only for their own security profile. I did point out that they were the very sort of stranger that I didn’t want seeing my picture. They failed to respond and my profile remains locked. Oh, well!

My point? I don’t want my image stored on various databases for other people to make assumptions and decisions about what I may, or may not do. Leaving aside the conspiracy theories that these images are being stored for nefarious reasons, it is conceivable that someone at some point could misuse people’s photographs. As accurate as they claim the software to be, it still can’t identify between twins. It can’t take into account someone’s face being partially blocked by a hat or a scarf and it still has problems with fixing points on a moving image. You also have to consider that there are only a certain number of face “types” and you can start to appreciate how easy it will be for mistakes to be made.

So, are we being watched? Probably. Is someone gathering as many images on everyone as possible? Quite possibly. Is it for the good of the population as a whole? Of course it’s not! No. As far as I’m concerned, the word-wide-web will just have to get along without any photos of yours truly. There is not a single image of me on the internet anywhere and that is how I intend it to remain. Anyway, no one would want to look at my photo. It would scare small children and curdle milk at twenty paces!

Stop The World, I Want To Get Off!!!

The world changes, of course it does, things evolve and develop and everything moves on. We keep what works, discard what doesn’t doesn’t and this is how improvements are made. But at what point do we stop. At what point is something at it’s optimal point of development. It can’t be improved any further.

The first steam engine was invented at the end of the 17th century and it took another two hundred years before we saw the birth of the internal combustion engine. Thomas Savery’s first incarnation in 1698 was fettled and tinkered with, improved and developed until it saw the birth of the industrial revolution in the 18th century. Fast forward two-hundred and fifty years, and we are developing our technology at a frighteningly exponential rate. In a generation, we have seen whole technologies come and go. The invention of things like compact cassette and VCR’s wowed us with their ingenuity, only to disappear into obscurity a few short years later. We were amazed at the addition of a fourth and then a fifth television channel, yet now we can choose from hundreds and watch them wherever we happen to be. Computers use to be gigantic whirring machines that were kept behind securely locked doors, used only by those who were expertly versed in binary and machine code. Now, we all carry a super-computer around with us in our pockets.

But surely this is a good thing, I hear you cry! Never have we been so connected to the world around us. We have a wealth of information constantly at our fingertips and we can contact our love ones at the click of button. No matter where in the world they may be. Those programs that we used to wait all week for, (before we were able to record them onto magnetic tape of course!), we can now download and watch whenever we like. You don’t even have to wait for the next episode, you can download the whole series and “binge-watch” at your leisure.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a technophobe, I’ve sold technology for over twenty years now and I’ve seen it from the inside out. But, I believe that we have gone too far. The very devices that were supposed to connect us and make our world smaller, only serve to isolate and enslave us. We are now glued to screens, almost oblivious to the world around us. We eagerly await notifications from our social media sites and constantly seek to enlarge and improve our digital world. We are slaves to the very things that were supposed to set us free. The faintest of chirps or chimes have us grasping for our phones, eager to see what new delights it brings. Additional followers, likes for our posts, or perhaps that vlog has gone viral. All the while, we are being separated from the real world. Corralled away from the herd, divided from what is really going on around us.

But that’s just a conspiracy theory. You’re in control. It’s all good. Right?

Of course it is.

That reminds me. I really fancy watching The Matrix again!


Rage Against The Machine……Or, At Least The Software Update.

Imagine this scenario. You’ve bought a house, moved all your goods and chattels in and have even managed a bit of DIY and decorating. It is finally starting to feel like home and you have that comfortable feeling of security and stability. Then one day, you come home from work to find that someone has painted your front door bright fuchsia and have replaced your perfectly manicured lawn for grey, hard concrete. On entering your house, you find that the hallway, kitchen and living-room have been re-decorated and someone has chosen a jungle theme with leopard print and zebra stripe everywhere!

After investigating, you find out that the company who originally built the house have come in and “updated” your home, as apparently, whilst you own the bricks and mortar, they still have rights over the decor and features. On further investigation, you find that this all part of the small print of your title deeds and they have the right to “improve” your home as when they feel is necessary or appropriate. You would be livid! Or at least I hope you would be livid. But replace the words house for computer and title deeds for license agreement and this is exactly what happens to all of us who own a computer, tablet, smart phone, or indeed, any device that requires software in order to for it to operate. In the good-old-days, you would buy your hardware, which would come with the necessary software preloaded, primarily the operating system and it would remain in this state until such time as the software company came up with a new version. But, at some point, in order to steal a march on would be competitors, they would release new versions ahead of all the bugs being fixed. The rationale being that they could release a “fix” in the form of a software patch at a later date as the bugs were fairly minor and would only affect a small number of people. This was back in the days of 56k dial-up when it would take longer to download a movie than it would to actually make and shoot the damn thing. With the advent of broadband, this all changed, suddenly patches could be downloaded in less than an hour in most cases and believe me, that was quick in those days.

The internet age has led us into a whole new era of half-arsed software releases and most people have their devices updated without even realising. Hardly a day goes by without being asked to update a tablet or smart-phone. I can receive notifications to update up to two dozen applications and a couple of days later I have to update another two dozen. This in itself wouldn’t be so bad, but how many times have we applied an update only to the detriment to the operating of the device itself. My daughter recently had an automatic update to her laptop’s operating system which led to her having no internet connection at all. My daughter was told by the retailer that it was due to a faulty wireless adapter, but I knew this wasn’t the case. After I fixed the bug and re-installed the operating system, the aforementioned laptop was back up and working. I recently updated the operating system on my phone only to find that I had lost almost 2,000 contacts, most of which were work related. These are just two examples of many and they are not just isolated incidences as any Google search (other internet search engines are available) will reveal a raft of people all experiencing the same problem.

My answer? I don’t really have one as the software developers have us by the short and curlies. Most of us rely on our devices to one degree or another and the last thing that we want is to ignore these updates, only to find that they don’t work a few months down the line because the software is too old and out of date. Most of us have a working knowledge of the IT that we use, but in the case of fixing bugs, this generally doesn’t stretch beyond the good old reboot, or “have you tried turning it off and then back on again!!” Aaaaarghhhhhh!!! But there is more we can do than you would think. Get on the forums that said software companies operate and start demanding better software, or at the very least working updates. Most people would be prepared to wait a little longer for an update if they were confident that it would actually work. Perhaps we should all threaten to start charging “rent” for housing their software on our devices – not quite sure how that would pan out, but it would be interesting if there were enough people to implement it.

So……rage against the machine? Most definitely! Or at the very least, rage against the software update!

The internet, vision of Utopia or hellish Dystopia. You decide, or perhaps that should be, you subscribe!

In a discussion the other day, it was suggested to me that the internet should be regulated and that all sites, posts, entries and content should be overseen, edited if you like, before being cast into the public domain. “Are you crazy, I never realised that you aligned your politics with that of a fascist dictator!!”, was my response.  The person that I was having the conversation with (the names have been withheld to protect the innocent) looked rather crestfallen at this as they considered themselves to be quite a liberal and enlightened individual who self-edited themselves for political correctness before speaking whilst at the same time read two broadsheet newspapers to ensure that they were constantly “up” with current affairs.

“So, you’re quite happy for your children to accidentally stumble across some of the filth and trash that is currently out there?”, was his response in an effort to parry my outburst. After reminding him that my children are now both in their twenties, not to mention that my youngest has a degree in journalism, I decided to also throw the old “freedom-of-speech” gambit into the pot. Now I must confess, this is a bit of a double-edged sword for the recipient, as you can either claim to not believe in free speech and thus confirm yourself to indeed be a fascist dictator, or you can utter the words, “Of course I believe in the freedom of speech….”, which is then usually followed by that small three lettered innocuous word that says oh so much……..BUT!!

What this really means is, of course you believe in the freedom of speech, but only if it agrees with your own ideology and sensibilities. Only if it appears on your own moral compass and most importantly, only if it falls within the confines of what society deems to be acceptable. But, surely speech is only truly free when you can say anything you like, no matter who you upset or disagree with. I make no apologies for paraphrasing Orwell, or was it Wells, as the sentiment of this statement rings as true now as when it was first uttered. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that should you say anything that is so defamatory, or derisory that it oversteps the boundaries of the law, then there should be consequences. But lets leave the police force, legal eagles and the judiciary to decide what is in and what is outside of the law.

I can’t deny, there is a lot of unsavory stuff on the internet and that’s putting it mildly, but I have always believed that the power of censorship lies with the individual. If I don’t like the look of something, I won’t click on it and if I disagree with something that I read, then I won’t visit that site again. I don’t need someone else to tell me what is and what isn’t suitable for me. Surely, the only people that are going to be looking at pictures of individuals with questionable morality in dubious poses with various farmyard livestock are those people who are actively seeking out these images. I can’t imagine that I will type, “release date of next Bond movie” into my preferred search engine, only to be directed to a number of sites that will show me how to make an explosive device out of kitchen foil, baking soda and a rolled up copy of the Radio Times.

Sure, I have thought how nice it would be to have an internet where there aren’t adverts popping up indiscriminately every three seconds. Or where you can get relevant results for a search that doesn’t require you filtering through umpteen pages of completely irrelevant sites that are just trying to flog you their wares or services. My concern is that this Utopian vision, will come at a cost, literally and that cost will probably be in the region of £19.99 per month, but the first three months are half-price! Another subscription!!! Arrrghhhhh!!! Add that to my phone tariff, broadband service, satellite television, Now-Flix, What TV and up- the-Amazon-without-a-paddle and I’m actually going to need to get a proper job to pay for it all. I can also see it leading to a two tiered internet service  whereby all the nice shiny and relevant stuff is available to those who pay for it and all the dregs and gutter-slop are left for everyone else. I can see a virtual world akin to that represented in the film Demolition Man – a squeaky-clean, polite and clinical internet on the surface, but scratch a bit deeper and what lies beneath is a stinking pit of grime and squalor.

But, do you know what, I’ll take that dark and dank underworld because it will be my choice. The ethics and morals that guide me will remain, but more importantly they will be ones that I have chosen for myself and not ones that have been given to me. Surely, freedom of choice and freedom of speech are not separate issues. but things that are intrinsically linked like the two sides of a coin. If you only have one side, you no longer have a coin.

So for me the choice is clear, no censorship, no overseers, no regulators, leave it as it is and let us judge for ourselves.

Social Media – Why, oh why?

Well, it’s finally happened and I have always said that it wouldn’t. I have always shunned the concept that is generally referred to as “social media” as I have never seen the point, or more importantly, I have never felt the need to engage with it. I have never been one to actively seek attention and prefer instead to watch others and join in when it felt appropriate. I was once told that you have two ears and one mouth and that they should always be used in that ratio. Besides, I have never felt that my life is so interesting that I need to share it with the general populous, and as such have never actively used facebook as a consequence. Twitter is another platform that I have chosen not to participate in and for very similar reasons. If I ever did feel that I had something witty or insightful enough to share, I wouldn’t want to feel constrained to keep it within a predetermined number of characters, or dissect it into a series of posts, sorry, “tweets” . Whilst I do see the merit of sharing milestone moments, such as marriages, births and deaths, I do draw the line at parading the minutiae of one’s life such as deciding to buy a red toothbrush this time instead of the customary choice of blue. (This is ludicrous of course as I could never change from a blue toothbrush, that would just be wrong!).

“Aha!”, I hear you cry. After making disparaging comments about social media, here I am about to exploit one element of it, and you would be right. On the one hand, a blog is no more than another means of expressing your likes, life and interests via the electronic super-highway that is the internet, but on the other it can be more structured and informative if you choose it to be. I have read (and viewed) some really great “how to” blogs that have helped me out with a myriad of things ranging from tricky DIY tips, through to how to get to grips with the finer points of Microsoft’s Access (now there’s a few hours of my life that I’m not going to get back!). As well as being helpful and informative, blogs can be witty and insightful, poignant and meaningful, not to mention hilariously funny.

Whilst I’m not going to claim that my blog will be any of the above, it will most certainly be mine. I don’t intend to have any theme, or follow any particular topic. At times I will try to inform, whilst at others I will just try and share my opinions in the hope that you will share with me yours. My view of the world is one whereby my head is quizzically cocked slightly to one side so that everything is at an angle. I am that ageless kid who is outside with his face pressed against the window peering in. My parents had me believe that my first word was “why” and I’m inclined to think that they might be right, as at the tender age of forty-eight I still ask it all the time. I think it’s a fundamental part of life to ask why, “why does that do that”, “why did he say that”. why did that happen” and most importantly, just why. For this one word will lead to answers and whilst they won’t always be the right ones, it will at least get you thinking. The more you think, the more you rationalise and from this, opinion is born. As someone once said,

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably why so few engage in it”.