The cloud is more than just someone else’s computer

“The cloud is just someone else’s computer” is a common phrase in tech circles. An otherwise excellent article last week on opened with this line: “A personal web server is ‘the cloud,’ except you own and control it as opposed to a large corporation.” Let me be unambiguous here: that’s bullshit.

The context of the “someone else’s computer” saying is generally one of data ownership. Why let someone else own your data when you can own it yourself? I’m sympathetic to that point, but it glosses over a very questionable assumption. Namely, that people have the skills and desire to run the services themselves. That may be true in the tech sector, but it’s certainly not going to be true in the population at large.

What’s even more frustrating is the comparison of a Raspberry Pi to a multi-replica distributed environment. A Raspberry Pi has no redundancy, so if a component fails, you’re out of luck until you can replace it. If your house floods, sorry about your data. Granted, you can address these issues yourself by having redundant hardware and an offsite copy, but the effort goes up dramatically with each layer of protection you build in. Maybe it’s worth the effort to you. And maybe you have the skills necessary to do it. Good for you.

It’s absolutely a good thing to make sure people are aware of the costs and benefits of any technology solution. But one of the benefits of cloud offerings is that some portion of the stack is maintained by competent professionals that can aggregate the demands of individual customers to build a pretty robust and reliable offering. You know why it’s big news when Amazon Web Services has a major outage? 1. Because it’s rare. 2. Because their services are good enough that a lot of people have said “it doesn’t make sense for us to do this ourselves.”

I liken “the cloud is just someone else’s computer” to saying “the grocery store is just someone else’s farm”.

Putting the “F” in “FCC”

Ars Technica reported earlier this month that Comcast is bringing an app to Roku. Cool! Now people who want to use their Roku instead of a set-top box for cable can do that. Here’s the trick: once it exits “beta”, Comcast will charge users an outlet fee — essentially treating it the same as an additional set-top box.

What Comcast is doing, then, is charging its customers for the privilege of watching the content they already pay for. I can understand their reasoning: it could lead to additional simultaneous viewings, which means more bandwidth. But given the cable industry’s history of unfriendliness to the consumer, I’m not inclined to be sympathetic. Futhermore, given the trend toward cord-cutting, it seems to be in the cable providers’ best interests to not alienate an increasingly disinterested customer base.

Former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler favored a rule that would require cable providers to make such an app available for free. It did not pass and the new chariman, Ajit Pai, has no interest in pursuing it. Many in the tech community worried when Wheeler came on board (he had been a cable industry lobbyist), he turned out pretty well. Pai was a Verizon lawyer before joining the FCC in 2012, but I have less hope of him becoming a consumer advocate.

Pai opposes net neutrality, which is a philosophy that has been the foundation for the Internet. De-regulation of an oligopoly, which the ISP market unquestionably is, will spur entrenchment, not innovation. The FCC will likely become much more favorably to industry than to consumer, and that is a real disappointment.

Cloud as technology bookend

Public cloud services are well-known for hitting the middle of the bell curve. General purpose hardware can be replaced by virtual machines in any cloud offering. It makes sense to target this beefy middle. While the margins might not be the best, there’s an unbelievable amount of volume.

But Oracle’s recent earnings call got me thinking about the ends. Oracle continues to insist, despite a lack of evidence, that they’re a legitimate player in Infrastructure-as-a-Service. Oracle is cutting jobs in their hardware business, which has lead some to believe that SPARC processors will primarily  be used in Oracle’s cloud offering.

If that is indeed the case, that signals a surrender of sorts. X86 rules the CPU market these days, and Oracle must see the writing on the wall. As SPARC-based hardware reaches end-of-life, many customers will look to other options. A SPARC cloud gives Oracle a way to convince customers to stay on the platform, at least for a little while, and also helps drive IaaS usage.

This is similar to how I perceive the VMware/Amazon partnership announced last year. Customers are given a gentle exit ramp for a technology that is becoming less relevant, while the vendor gets to extract as much revenue as possible. Public cloud services can serve the tail end of the market, so long as there’s enough usage to keep a minimum offering.

But the cloud can also be where new hardware becomes mainstream. For example, both Amazon and Microsoft Azure have brought field-programmable gate array offerings to market. FPGAs are not new, but they’re certainly not mainstream. Amazon and Microsoft both see them as a worthwhile investment. With easy access to try them out, customers who might never have tried using FPGAs may soon find them indispensable. Once a new technology has a sufficient toe hold, a public cloud provider can give it the boost it needs to reach a mainstream audience. Or it may flop. That can happen, too.

In any case, the bulk of public cloud offerings will sensibly remain focused on the mass market. But don’t be surprised if offerings at either end become more numerous.

An alternative history of Microsoft

Microsoft released their latest quarterly results two weeks ago, and the news was good for them. They beat analyst expectations for the third consecutive quarter, but perhaps the more important part was the cloud revenues. Up nearly 100%, Microsoft’s cloud business continues to get stronger. That’s very important for their future growth.

You could say things are going pretty well in the three years since Satya Nadella took the corner office. The market certainly seems to think so. Microsoft stock is up 68% since Nadella took the helm. This is compared to the 38% increase for the Nasdaq composite index. His predecessor Steve Ballmer had a less stellar record. In 14 years under Ballmer, Microsoft’s stock price fell 37%. He did have to deal with both the dot-com bubble burst and the Great Recession, but the Nasdaq managed to recover, up about a percent and a half over the same period.

Microsoft stock price under Ballmer

Microsoft stock price (blue) and Nasdaq composite (red) from January 2000 to February 2014.

Microsoft stock price under Nadella

Microsoft stock price (blue) and Nasdaq composite (red) from February 2014 to February 2017.

There’s more to a company than its stock price, of course. Ballmer oversaw a 215% increase in net income. During Ballmer’s tenure, Microsoft launched XBox and the enterprise business (e.g. Exchange and SQL Server). The Azure offering that is driving much of the Nadella-era growth started during Ballmer’s reign as well. Of course, the Ballmer era also saw failed attempts to enter markets: the Zune music player, Windows Phone — as an OS as well as the Nokia acquisition.

An alternate history

As an open source software enthusiast, the “new” Microsoft’s good-faith entry into the open source world is the most interesting change. Whereas Ballmer called the GPL a “cancer”, today’s Microsoft is embracing open source (albeit under permissive licenses). Microsoft has opened .NET, ported SQL Server and Powershell to Linux, and has partnered with Red Hat and Canonical on various efforts. So what if Ballmer never happened?

…After moving many of their products to an open core model, Microsoft saw its dominance continue. Apple gained a toehold in the desktop market with OS X, but was never able to make serious inroads. When the iPod became a runaway success, they got out of the computer business altogether. Meanwhile in the server market, Unix was giving way to Linux. Microsoft saw this trend and developed a new server operating system based on the Linux kernel. Some of the UI improvments made it back to the Linux ecosystem and 2005 was officially declared the Year of Linux on the Desktop. Seeing the success of the Microsoft-backed Linux, Mark Shuttleworth disbands his young company and focuses on returning to space. He eventually partners with Elon Musk to help fund early SpaceX efforts. By 2017, industry analysts begin seeing Amazon’s cloud offering as a serious competitor to Microsoft Azure…

Back to reality

Okay, so maybe that’s not how it would have played out. Maybe Microsoft would have come to dominate the smartphone and tablet instead of Apple. Maybe they’d have a terrible CEO who would drive the company off a cliff. Cynics would say that Microsoft is only embracing (without extending and extinguishing this time!) open source because they’re struggling to remain relevant as technology paradigms shift out from underneath them. Maybe the cynics are right. As with all counterfactuals, we’ll never know, but Microsoft’s investors have to wonder “what if?”

Google Voice lives!

I’ve been a big fan of Google Voice for years. I first started using it when my office was in a sub-basement. Google Voice was a way for me to text with my wife without having to play submarine by going topside every so often. It also made it so that I could give people one number that would catch me in my office or on my cell phone. The ability to make phone calls with my computer (on the rare occasion I make phone calls) was also appealing. But as time wore on, Google Voice got no love.

Over time, people began including me in group texts or sending me pictures. Google Voice didn’t handle that well. I got the pictures in my email, but the group texts were basically individual messages. As Google developed new communication tools and Voice got no love, I figured it was always going to be that way. I gave in and started using Hangouts for my Google Voice messages.

This got me the ability to use group messages and MMS, but it meant always leaving myself signed into Hangouts on my phone (I could have messages forwarded to my carrier number, but meh). I had avoided this because I didn’t want to always be available, but it turned out to not be that big of an issue. Then last month Google announced an update to Voice. Holy crap, it’s still alive!

Once the new app reached my phone, I switched back. I’ve been using it for a week or so and I have to say that I like it. The new UI looks great and the mobile app is much quicker than Hangouts to find the person or number I’m typing.

There are three main drawbacks. First, it turns out that I really liked having my SMS/MMS messages trated like IMs in my Gmail window, but that doesn’t work anymore. Second, when using voice commands to send a text, it still uses my carrier number instead of my Google Voice number. This is apparently just a missing feature (it was a problem in Hangouts, too), but I hope Google fixes it. I don’t usually speak to my phone, but if it behaved the way I wanted, I might use that feature more. Lastly, the widget disappeared. Not a big deal, but a minor annoyance.

The “classic” web interface for Google Voice.

The new web interface for Google Voice.

Google Voice is perhaps the most valuable of all Google services to me. I worried for years that they would give up on it. I worry less after this update. Hopefully they continue to put more effort into it as Hangouts becomes the abandoned project.

Maybe your tech conference needs less tech

My friend Ed runs a project called “Open Sourcing Mental Illness“, which seeks to change how the tech industry talks about mental health (to the extent we talk about it at all). Part of the work involves the publication of handbooks developed by mental health professionals, but a big part of it is Ed giving talks at conferences. Last month he shared some feedback on Twitter:

So I got feedback from a conf a while back where I did a keynote. A few people said they felt like it wasn’t right for a tech conf. It was the only keynote. Some felt it wasn’t appropriate for a programming conf. Time could’ve been spent on stuff that’d help career. Tonight a guy from a company that sponsored the conf said one of team members is going to seek help for anxiety about work bc of my talk. That’s why I do it. Maybe it didn’t mean much to you, but there are lots of hurting, scared people who need help. Ones you don’t see.

Cate Huston had similar feedback from a talk she gave in 2016:

the speaker kept talking about useless things like feelings

The tech industry as a whole, and some areas more than others, likes to imagine that it is as cool and rational as the computers it works with. Conferences should be full of pure technology. And yet we bemoan the fact that so many of our community are real jerks to work with.

I have a solution: maybe your tech conference needs less technology. After all, the only reason anyone pays us to do this stuff is because it (theoretically) solves problems for human beings. I’m biased, but I think the USENIX LISA conference does a great job of this. LISA has three core areas: architecture, engineering, and culture. You could look at it this way: designing, implementing, and making it so people will help you the next time around.

Culture is more than just sitting around asking “how does this make you feeeeeeeel?” It includes things like how to avoid burnout and how to train the next generation of practitioners. It also, of course, includes how to not be a insensitive jerk who inflicts harm on others with no regard for the impact they cause.

I enjoy good technical content, but I find that over the course of a multi-day conference I don’t retain very much of it. For a few brief hours in 2011, I understood SELinux and I was all set to get it going at home and work. Then I attended a dozen other sessions and by the time I got home, I forgot all of the details. My notes helped, but it wasn’t the same. On the other hand, the cultural talks tend to be the ones that stick with me. I might not remember the details, but the general principles are lasting and actionable.

Every conference is different, but I like having one-third of content be not-tech as a general starting point. We’re all humans participating in these communities, and it serves no one to pretend we aren’t.

The tradeoffs of Slack for community projects

When my employer adopted Slack, we saw benefit immediately. Conversations are searchable, file sharing is easy, and oh how I ? /giphy. It’s a great tool, but I don’t like it for open communities.

Slack was designed to be a company’s internal communication system. For that purpose, it’s great. It was not designed to be an open platform. For example, it is basically impossible for users to manage harassment.

Most people have one employer at a time. That’s not the case for hobby and interest communities. I have five unrelated rooms on Freenode IRC that I’m regularly in. For the most part, I manage that in one place. But each Slack instance I’m in might as well be a separate universe.

That’s not to say Slack is all bad. It is much easier to learn and use than most IRC clients. This is a significant benefit to non-technical communities. Creative Commons, for example, saw a large uptick in community participation after moving to Slack. Slack allows for a richness of community culture to develop in ways that text-only formats don’t.

But for me, particularly with open source communities, the less-than-public nature of Slack teams is a negative. People can’t join the communities they don’t know about. And if they can’t lurk quietly (by reading transcripts or joining the server anonymously), will they feel safe jumping in? There are lock-in considerations as well (my free software readers have probably been waiting for me to get to this point) that I think I’ll address in a later post.

Each community has to decide what is best for them. Like any other technology, Slack has pros and cons. The important thing is to weigh them before making a decision.

How not to code your bank website

When is a number not a number? When it is a PIN. Backstory: recently my bank overhauled its website. On the whole, it’s an improvement, but it hasn’t been entirely awesome. One of the changes was that special characters were no longer allowed in the security questions. As it turns out, that’s a good way to lock your users out. Me included.

Helpfully, if you lock yourself out, there’s a self-service unlock feature. You just need your Social Security Number and your PIN (and something else that I don’t recall at the moment). Like any good form, it validates the fields before proceeding. Except holy crap, if your PIN begins with 0, pressing “Submit” means the PIN field becomes three characters and you can never proceed. That’s right: it treats the PIN as an integer when really it should be a string.

I’ve made my share of dumb mistakes, so I try to be pretty forgiving. But bank websites need to be held to a very high standard, and this one clearly misses the mark. Breaking existing functionality and mistreating PINs are bad enough, but the final part that lead me to a polite-but-stern phone call was the fact that special characters are not allowed in the password field. This is 2016 and if your website can’t handle special characters, I have to assume you’re doing something terribly, terribly wrong.

In the meantime, I’ve changed my PIN.

Snapchat sunglasses? Why they could be successful

Snapchat’s founder announced on Friday that the company is working on a new, non-software product: sunglasses. Set to go on sale this fall, these sunglasses will include a camera that, when activated, will record 10 seconds of video. Presumably, this video will be posted to Snapchat by way of the user’s phone.

Some of the reaction I’ve seen so far is pretty predictable: “it’s like Google Glass, but less featured!” and “what a great way to announce that you’re a d-bag.” Haters gonna hate, as they say, and I’ll admit that the design is not my style. Still, there are reasons to believe Snapchat’s Spectacles will have the sort of wide consumer adoption that Google Glass never did:

  • Price. At less than one-tenth the price of Google Glass, it’s much more affordable. The price is in line with normal sunglasses, for those of us who don’t buy our sunglasses off the spinny rack at the drug store (full disclosure: I buy my sunglasses off the spinny rack at the drug store).
  • Branding. Oh sure, Google had great brand recognition when Glass launched. But Google’s brand is more about utility. Snapchat is about social. And this lines up well with the respective eyewear, but I think the fact that Snapchat is a social media platform, not a “know everything” platform helps in this case.
  • Obviousness. Both Google Glass and Spectacles are pretty obvious externally, but Spectacles will apparently have an LED light to indicate when it was recording. The fact that Spectacles are sunglasses, not a fixture on general-purpose glasses, means that some of the more obvious privacy concerns (particularly bathrooms) are avoided because people probably won’t be wearing them inside. Plus the limited duration shortens the window for privacy violations. It’s more “I have my camera ready to go” and less “I am recording your every move.”
  • Simplicity. Yes, Spectacles have very limited use, but that also means they’re really easy to use. I haven’t used Glass, so I can’t speak for the ease of use, but it’s hard to beat “push this button.”

None of this is any guarantee that Spectacles will be a success, of course. It will be interesting to see how this affects Snapchat usage. Anecdotally, while I have many friends of a variety of genders, ages, and interests on Snapchat, it’s a small group of mostly twenty-something women that post stories (perhaps there’s greater usage 1:1?). There’s a lot to be said for being able to share your experiences from your own point-of-view, so now we’ll have to see what Evan Spiegel and company can do.

Thoughts on the Wunderlist outage

For most of Wednesday and Thursday, the to-do list management service Wunderlist was unavailable. They haven’t published a public post mortem, though I’ve asked if they plan on it. It has to be a hell of a problem since it resulted in such a long outage.

I think they handled it fairly well, though. Logins were disabled in order to prevent further problems and regular updates were posted to the status page. I’d have preferred that the login page were redirected to the status site. I took a guess at the address and it was right, but I’m not sure all users would have done that. It might have saved their support team some effort.

The status page promised updates in various non-specific time frames. I’d have liked “we’ll provide another update at $specific_time”. When the specified time rolls around, if there’s nothing to say, just say “no new updates, we’ll update again at $blah”. And speaking of times, having the current time on the page is helpful for a global service, since not all users know what your time zone offset is.

On a more personal note, I was pleasantly surprised with how well I managed without my outsourced brain. Wunderlist has become a critical extension of my brain. Fortunately, I didn’t have much pressing due during the outage. But it did make me miss my old days of using TuDu running in a screen session.