Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Of Turkeys, Traffic and Testing: Cloud Computing Lessons from My Hometown

You've got backup systems and power in place. What else could you possibly need? Testing routines -- and maybe cloud-based backups for your backups.

Sometimes, blog posts almost write themselves. As an example, let me quote directly from a front-page story from today's edition of my local paper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The headline of the story in the print edition of the paper: "County's 911 system knocked out by turkey."

"A wild turkey that flew into power lines knocked out Sonoma County's high-tech emergency 911 dispatch system Sunday night and crippled operations at the courthouse and county jail Monday.

"The power blackout was compounded when the county's massive and expensive emergency backup power system failed.

"On Monday, with computers out, traffic court was greatly curtailed, court calendars and proceedings had to be recorded by hand and jail inmates missed morning court appearances."

"With the blackout, the [emergency services] dispatchers' computers and every computer connected to the county system went black, officials said. At that point, the county's uninterrupted power supply, or UPS, should have kicked in.

"'The UPS failed,' said Chris Hentz, who supervises tech support for the county's computer dispatch system. 'It's just that simple.'"

The Lesson Here: If your systems are indeed critical, consider renting and configuring some cloud-based computing and communications resources as "warm spare"backups you can activate quickly should your primary systems fail, for whatever reason. (A favorite company of mine, 2600Hz, is doing some interesting things around cloud-based E911 and disaster recovery, for example.) Regular testing of back-up systems, including supposedly "uninterruptible" power supplies, is also a good idea. But you're already doing that. Right?

Amazingly, in another section of the same day's paper, this headline: "Traffic control system crashes." The story, adapted from a March 30 post at the Press Democrat's "Road Warrior" blog, goes on to report that on March 23, both primary and backup servers running the software that coordinates Santa Rosa's traffic signals crashed. "This force signals at major intersections to revert to a dated program that isn't nearly as efficient as the current one," the story added.

"When the server that housed the software program crashed, the backup files were also corrupted, [city traffic engineer Rob] Sprinkle said. So instead of just rebooting the program on a new server, city staff have spent two weeks essentially rebuilding it, he said. He estimated that the fix is 95 percent complete."

The Lesson Here: At the risk of repeating myself (again/still), if you can't or aren't prepared to move a critical application to the cloud, at least put a backup version there. And test both your primary and backup solutions, especially the connections that are supposed to make that cloud-based backup readily available. (How many of you are using a cloud-based backup service such as Carbonite, Google Cloud Storage, iCloud or Mozy to back up your personal or business files? And how often have you tested the file-restoration features of your chosen solution?)

The Bottom Line: Don't be a turkey, wild or otherwise. Add cloud-based backups to your technology toolkits. And trust, but verify. Test everything regularly enough to let you and your colleagues sleep well at night.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Fishbowl Pipeline: A Big Step Closer to Consistent Customer Satisfaction in the Cloud

As I've opined previously here and elsewhere, I believe that inventory management is a critical element of making customers happy and keeping businesses agile and competitive, especially in "the mobile, social cloud." One of the companies that I think gets this better than most is Fishbowl, makers of the popular Fishbowl Inventory solution. Well, in response to widespread customer requests, the company has announced Fishbowl Pipeline Contact Manager.

It's Web-based, and it integrates directly with Fishbowl Inventory 2012. So users of that solution can add Pipeline Contact Manager's features immediately, with no re-entering of customer information required. Sales people can track tasks, leads and opportunities seamlessly and get the information they need to close deals in real time from anyplace they can get online.

And not to get too geeky, but Fishbowl Pipeline Contact Manager also supports an application programming interface (API) compliant with the widely used Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). This technology forms the heart of most of the popular Web services in use today, as well as their abilities to interoperate. What all of that means is that Fishbowl Pipeline Contact Manager not only works with Fishbowl Inventory but should be relatively painless to integrate with other Web-based applications and services as your business needs and goals expand. Think of it as a kind of "future-proofing."

Superior customer care requires the ability to deliver what the customer wants, when and where the customer wants it. By integrating core customer relationship management (CRM) features with its market-leading Fishbowl Inventory solution, Fishbowl is empowering companies with limited budgets and IT expertise to deliver "enterprise-class" customer care and fulfillment. And as it has done so successfully with Fishbowl Inventory, Fishbowl is offering Pipeline Contact Manager at "SMB-friendly" pricing.

Given the laser-like focus of Fishbowl management on helping their customers to succeed, I fully expect Fishbowl Pipeline to become the Fishbowl Inventory of CRM solutions. That is to say, an offering that rapidly gains broad user adoption and high levels of user satisfaction.

Not that I have any strong feelings about any of this…but I obviously do. And if customer satisfaction matters to your company, and it does, you should, too. And you should check out Fishbowl's solutions and ways of doing business. Drop'em an e-mail at VIP@fishbowlinventories.com. I think you'll be impressed and motivated to learn more.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Inventory Management and the Mobile, Social Cloud

I know, I know. "Inventory management" and "the mobile, social cloud" seem about as related as chalk and cheese. But hear me out (or whatever the literal equivalent is for readers of my blog).

It turns out that how well you manage inventories of the things customers buy is often the prime determinant of how those customers perceive that business. It doesn't matter how appealing it is to do business with you if you don't have or can't find what I want in a timely fashion.

It also turns out that how well your business leverages information technology (IT) directly affects how well it manages inventory. And that if yours is like many if not most businesses, 60 to 80 percent of your IT budget is being spent just to keep what you've got working. Which doesn't leave much room for innovation. Or even improvement to critical business processes such as delivering what customers want in a timely fashion.

Meanwhile, your customers, partners, prospects, competitors and purchase influencers are all increasingly inhabitants of that mobile, social cloud. Which means your company has to be there too.

So what you and your company need is a way to free up more IT resources and to be able to channel more of these to the challenges of better infrastructure management.

Turns out cloud-based resources can help in both areas.

Cloud-based infrastructure management solutions and processes can help your company to automate and offload much of that stuff on which your company's spending most of its IT budget. This will free up dollars and human bandwidth to do other things.

And there are a growing range of premise-based, cloud-based and cloud-enabled inventory management solutions. You can find a great rundown of several of these in an article published by Inc. in May 2011. My favorite: Fishbowl Inventory. It integrates with Intuit's QuickBooks and offers options that can take a company from better inventory management to more and better sales, fulfillment and resource planning and management, as recently covered by eWeek.

Inventory management may sound boring, and often is boring when done manually or using traditional tools. But if you think about and act upon it as the business-critical performance metric it really is, and look to the cloud for help, inventory management could be the coolest challenge you take on in 2012 and beyond.

A Special Offer:
If you're interested in Fishbowl Inventory, drop a line to vip@fishbowlinventory.com. I've negotiated a relationship with the company that guarantees that every one of my readers who uses that e-mail address will get priority treatment and help getting started with their free trial of the software. And if you promise to share your feedback with me for possible inclusion in future blog posts or research (anonymously if you prefer), you'll get undying gratitude from me -- AND a five-percent discount from Fishbowl if you purchase Fishbowl Inventory! A win for everybody!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cloudera and SGI: Hadoop for Geeks AND Suits

Some of you may be too young to remember it, but there was a time when business technology decision makers looked askance at open source solutions such as Linux and the Apache Web server. These and others are now common components of many business technology infrastructures.

What happened? Some pioneering companies such as Red Hat and Ubuntu began wrapping packages of supporting technologies and services around Linux and related offerings. And those packages began to overcome the fears and objections of the "suits" who approved the budgets of the "geeks" already sold on the technological advantages of Linux, et al.

Fast-forward to today. Apache Hadoop is a combination of a distributed file system and nifty behind-the-scenes software. Hadoop makes it easier and faster to build and run applications that require lots of data and the shared power of multiple computers. And so far, Hadoop has followed a trajectory similar to that of Linux in its early days as a viable business computing platform. The geeks already love it or are champing at the bit to take it out for a spin, but the suits are largely unfamiliar and wary.

Enter the alliance of Cloudera and SGI, the venerable Silicon Graphics International. Cloudera is doing for Hadoop what Red Hat, Ubuntu and others did for Linux and related technologies. Its Cloudera Enterprise offering combines a suite of management software with support services to make Hadoop adoption and realization of its benefits faster and easier. SGI, meanwhile, combines the strengths of its server hardware with its strengths in markets that have proven strong for high-performance computing (HPC) and are likely to be equally enthusiastic users of Hadoop. These markets have included government, research and telecommunications segments, according to SGI.

Providers of cloud-based business applications and services will become one of these key markets very soon. Hadoop-powered computing clusters as a service, and the kinds of applications those clusters can support, should prove irresistible to users with advanced requirements, and to Cloudera, SGI and their partners.

Meanwhile, the Cloudera-SGI alliance is presenting itself as equally appealing to technical and business decision makers. For the geeks, SGI announced yesterday that it had set new Hadoop performance records by running Cloudera software on SGI servers. For the suits, the companies announced yesterday the availability of SGI Hadoop Clusters with the Cloudera Enterprise Management Suite already installed. "The relationship will also enable the two companies to jointly build, sell and deploy integrated, high performance Apache Hadoop-based commercial solutions," the announcement said. I can't imagine that the two companies will take very long to turn their collective expertise and experience into packaged solutions and services designed for the suits and the geeks in specific markets and/or facing specific challenges.

If you work at an enterprise that you think can benefit from business-enabled, purpose-built Hadoop deployments, keep an eye on Cloudera and SGI, especially as they ramp up competition with Oracle's software and its Sun hardware. And whether your company needs or wants Hadoop or not, look at the Cloudera-SGI alliance as a harbinger of more such relationships to come.

Vendors understand that users prefer solutions that let those users focus on running their businesses, not any particular technologies. Responsive vendors will increasingly deliver combinations of purpose-built, pre-configured physical, cloud-based and cloud-enhanced "appliances" that are easy to deploy, require minimal user management and deliver benefits rapidly. And for the solutions that meet those criteria, the inner workings matter far less to buyers and users than how well those workings work. Whether those buyers and users are geeks, suits or geeks wearing suits, a rapidly growing demographic segment...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Cloud-Enabled Infrastructure Management: A Two-Way Need

Is the technology infrastructure upon which your business relies ready for "the cloud(s)?"

As with every meaningful one-on-one relationship, cloud-enabled infrastructure management (or "CEIM," as in "things are not always as they…") is definitely a bidirectional exercise. (Or, if you must, a "two-phase commit.")

Why? Because you've not only got to manage cloud-based business resources alongside any premise-based resources -- the computers at your facilities that are running the applications your business needs -- critical to your business. You've also got to figure out whether and how best to add cloud-based management resources to your current infrastructure management portfolio.

Whew. A step back, upwards and outwards seems appropriate here.

Your business relies upon its technology infrastructure to survive, let alone to thrive competitively. This is increasingly true given the growth of "the mobile, social cloud." Even if your business does no business online (yet!), people are influencing how your business is perceived online, likely even as you read this. Which means you need an infrastructure that enables your business to know and respond to what's being said about it online, in addition to all the other things necessary to make your business work.

Also, neither your technology budget nor your technology staff is infinite, if you even have any of either. Which means you've got to focus on solutions that maximize benefits while minimizing cost and complexity. Which means you either are looking at cloud-based solutions or will be soon. Especially if you own or work for a small or mid-sized business or "SMB." Which means you've got to be able to manage them at least as well as you're managing your current business technology tools.

And no, the tools and processes you've been using to manage premise-based resources are not adequate by themselves to manage cloud-based services too. And yes, there's a growing range of cloud-based infrastructure management services you need to consider. Especially if you're using or considering cloud-based business computing services as adjuncts to or replacements for any premise-based resources.

How to begin? Focus on what infrastructure management is supposed to help your business to do. Run better.

From that perspective, here are four things every infrastructure management solution and process must do, wherever it happens to reside.

Collect all relevant data on use and performance. (Process point: be clear on what's really "relevant.")
Refine that data into actionable information.
Optimize that information based on business-specific goals and processes.
Promulgate that information across all affected constituencies, via reports they can all understand and use.

Then, lather, rinse and repeat. Think of it as a "CROP circle" for the infrastructure that enables and empowers your business. Only less mysterious and controversial than other similarly named items.

Your business' need for an effective CEIM strategy creates a great opportunity to ensure that all of your infrastructure management efforts meet your specific CROP requirements and goals. Take full advantage of that opportunity, and make sure that Sales, Marketing, Operations, IT and all other directly affected constituencies have a seat at the table.

A Request and An Offer: If you'll spend fewer than 10 minutes answering six questions about cloud-enabled infrastructure management and including at least an e-mail address, I'll send you a complementary summary of the results and my analysis and recommendations. You can find the survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ZKSRM9M -- please take it and tell everyone you know to do the same. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Online Experience Optimization: The Next "Big Idea" in the Cloud

Every modern business does business online. This means that every modern business decision maker needs the answers to five key questions.
  1. Do we know what customers, competitors and competitors' customers are saying about our company online?
  2. Do we know that every online interaction with our company is equally compelling, fluid, frictionless and fulfilling, regardless of the user's device or connection type?
  3. Do we know what colleagues, customers, partners and prospects really think about doing business with us online, especially compared with other companies?
  4. Do we have solid, defensible evidence for all that we know or think that we know?
  5. Can we act on what we know in ways that help our business to succeed and grow?
To be able to answer these questions with confidence, business decision makers must integrate multiple previously separate initiatives ranging from content management and social networking to analytics and infrastructure management. Here's a high-level look at just some of the elements involved in every user's online experience with a company – such as yours.
  • The user's access device – whether PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone.
  • The network connection – whether wireless or wired, dial-up or broadband, etc.
  • The company's Web site or sites (and the equivalent portal or portals for internal users).
  • The content displayed by the Web site and/or internal portal.
  • The tools used to create, edit, curate and manage that content.
  • The tools used to measure and analyze all aspects of the online experience, from the performance of the Web site to who's accessing which content how often – plus more.
A holistic view of these and other relevant elements is essential to achieving a critical goal of every modern business: online experience optimization (OEO), for both external and internal constituencies.

The perceptions of those "from without," including competitors, customers, influencers, partners, and prospects, directly affect multiple human factors that in turn directly affect revenues, profits and competitive positioning. The perceptions of those "from within" affect things like employee job satisfaction, loyalty, referrals of superior new employees and overall business agility and responsiveness.

OEO touches every aspect of every type and size of company that does business online or plans to do so. Business stakeholders include advertising, marketing, public relations, sales, internal and external support teams and business performance decision makers, among others.

Technologies involved range from Web site construction and management tools to content management systems, analytics tools and support for “the mobile, social cloud.” Example relevant vendors include IT stalwarts such as Adobe, IBM, Oracle and SAP, disruptive upstarts such as Consona, Medallia, Nimble and Zoho and even so-called "digital agencies" such as 311 Media and Surge.

OEO is clearly a "big idea" that demands immediate and sustained attention from business and technology decision makers – and from the vendors hoping to sell to them. And based on the initial findings of continuing OEO surveys, that attention is needed now.

When asked to rate their companies' abilities to know and respond to what's being said about those companies online, only 18.5 percent of respondents chose "Excellent." Some 44.4 percent chose "Good," while approximately one-third said their companies were "Fair" (22.2 percent) or "Unsatisfactory" (11.1 percent) at this critical OEO element.

Respondents were also asked when they believe that decision makers at their companies will start to collect and act upon what's being said about them online. Approximately one-third of respondents expect this to happen within the next six months. But a quarter of respondents don't expect it to happen within the next year, and 41.7 percent said they didn't know when it might happen.

I'll have lots more to say about OEO here and elsewhere, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, you can take those surveys I mentioned in approximately three minutes each, anonymously if you prefer, and request summary findings at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/JJVTC6J and
https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/WFCM2KR. Thanks for your help – please tell everyone you know!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

SafePeak: Faster SQL Server Applications, On the Ground and In the Cloud

"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." -- legendary U.S. baseball catcher and malapropism master Yogi Berra (who also reportedly said "I really didn't say everything I said.")

What happens when a business application is a victim of its own success?
To deliver maximum business value, applications need users. But too many users, and applications can slow down or stop altogether. Which can mean anything from non-productive workers to suddenly former customers, depending on the applications.

For the millions of Microsoft Windows applications (including Web sites and SharePoint collaboration tool deployments) that rely upon Microsoft's SQL Server database software, there are a few alternative ways to speed up and scale out. One is to acquire more processing and storage capacity, but that gets expensive and difficult to manage quickly.

Another is traditional application caching -- extracting smaller, faster subset copies of the most-used data from larger, slower databases. But traditional caching methods can be difficult to implement without requiring changes to applications, databases or both. And analyzing and determining precisely where to apply caching and where not to apply it can take months. Also, some caching solutions are vulnerable to creating out-of-synch copies of critical data, especially in response to a system failure or disruption.

Another performance improvement method is called "database tuning." There are applications that purport to ease and speed this process. But there's no avoiding that it takes time to analyze current application performance, and money to engage the expertise necessary to decide precisely what to tune and how to tune it.

SafePeak (www.safepeak.com) offers an alternative with some compelling differences. First of all, it's software that runs on exactly the same types of hardware on which SQL Server and many of those database applications are running. SafePeak can even run on cloud-based virtual server instances or hosted servers. And SafePeak is designed specifically to be "plug-and-play" with all Windows and SQL Server environments, including custom-built, hosted and cloud-based applications.

Once SafePeak is installed and running, it basically "watches" and "listens to" an application for a couple of hours, and begins to learn and map the queries and dependencies that govern how that application accesses and uses data. SafePeak uses this information to cache data dynamically, in ways that speed performance significantly while avoiding inaccurate or out-of-synch copies of data.

SafePeak was also designed specifically to support business-critical applications that simply cannot fall victim to incorrect data. The solution is being used to make Web sites, SharePoint deployments and financial services, health care management and hospital knowledge management applications run faster and support more users.

The SafePeak management interface is Web-based and straightforward. In addition, the software generates considerable information about how SQL Server databases and applications perform "in real life." This information can help application and database administrators and their teams to identify and pursue additional opportunities to improve application performance, reliability and scalability.

If your company uses SQL Server databases and applications, including Web sites, SharePoint or Microsoft Dynamics, you should look closely at SafePeak. You can download a free trial of the software at the company's Web site, and begin test-driving it with your own applications. And if you're running most or all of your critical applications in the cloud or some other company's hosting facility, talk with your provider(s) about test-driving SafePeak for themselves. It won't solve all application performance challenges. But it can do a lot to improve performance of those applications reliant upon Microsoft SQL Server, rapidly, affordably and transparently -- wherever those applications may run.