Monday, November 27, 2006

Christmas toy or useful tool?

I have been a Skype user for a long time – but, too be honest, I only had three names in my address book. However, just recently, I have been using Skype more and more. And I have been comparing it with the latest version of MSN.

So let’s start with MSN (or Windows Live Messenger as Version 8.1 beta calls itself). It allows you to type in conversations with your friends, and you can start a conversation using a microphone for voice and a webcam for pictures. This is the sort of thing you see in all futuristic TV shows and movies – where one person can see and hear another. It can’t manage the hologram representation as seen in films like Star Wars! In fact, I have used this facility with MSN to interview someone who was on a different continent. They sat in front of their MSN webcam so we could see and hear them, and they could see three middle-aged men staring at the screen. We passed the microphone from one person to another so that they could see who was asking the interview question (although there was no need to). And after 30 minutes of grilling, we gave them the job.

Skype, running on your laptop, also offers a typed conversational facility and there’s a webcam picture facility, but it was designed, and primarily functions, as a two-way telephony application. Initially I was using a microphone as the input device and speakers as the output device. I then upgraded to a headset – which I felt made me look like someone from a call centre. It worked perfectly well, it just meant wearing headgear. The next upgrade was to a plug-in “phone”. This device looked like a phone, but connected via a USB port to the computer. It worked equally well with Skype and MSN.

But now, I have just tested a stand-alone Skype phone. SMC Networks produce the WSKP100 wifi phone, which doesn’t need a computer, just a wifi network. The phone needs charging out the box for eight hours and then it’s ready to go. You turn it on and it searches for local networks. You select your one and enter your security information. Once connected, you can enter your Skype name and password, and that’s it. It loads all your contacts and you can call them, or the phone rings when they call you. I found the whole set up process to be easy and straightforward. The phone is about the size of a mobile (cell) phone, so not very big, not very heavy, and surprisingly thin. It’s big enough so using the buttons is easy, but no bigger. The phone gives 3-hours continuous talk-time and 30-hours standby time according to SMC (although I found it to be less), and can be recharged from a USB socket. (The full details about the product are here: The sound quality is excellent, which is quite important for a phone! If it was a mobile (cell) phone I would have expected more ring tones or the ability to add them, but it’s not a facility you get with landlines so I guess a choice of four is acceptable. The screen is bright and makes it easy to find contacts and call them.

Away from the office, it is possible to use the phone at wifi hotspots. SMC has a deal with The Cloud for this, but it does cost a small amount of money each month. Apart from this, it can’t join a wireless network requiring browser based sign on. However, I tested it round the office and found it had a pretty good range – I never tried taking it outside.

Which is better, MSN or Skype? To be honest, I am using MSN mainly for family and friends for short conversations, but I am using Skype more and more as a business tool. I notice that lots of business cards now carry Skype contact information. I certainly don’t want the salesman I met at a conference as an MSN contact, but I don’t mind adding him to my Skype contacts list. And Skype offers dial out and dial in facilities from standard phone networks – if you want to use it (and Skypecast and other stuff too – see for full details).

Voice over IP (VoIP) seems such as good idea – and one that was actually a long time coming from the first presentation I saw predicting its widespread use. Skype has gone passed the critical mass number so there are plenty of people out there that I need to talk to and using Skype makes that very easy.

Now, the question I posed in the title of this blog is whether a stand-alone Skype phone is a boys’ toy for Christmas or a useful tool. Well it’s definitely a great toy, but it’s also turning into a very useful business tool. Belkin and Netgear also sell wifi phones (and probably other companies too). I tested SMC’s and found it very very easy to set up. I have found it light and easy to carry around the office. It means I can accept calls when working on another computer (I don’t have to dash back and put on my headset anymore). If you use Skype now, I would recommend you definitely put it on your Christmas list. You’ll being using it all next year.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Oracle talks about the future

I was at the UK Oracle User Group conference last week. Now you might think that Oracle doesn’t have a lot to do with mainframes – but think about IBM and Oracle’s recently-announced strategic initiative to collaborate on the sales and marketing of a series of enterprise business solutions with Oracle applications and technology for Linux on System z. And, don't forget, PeopleSoft and Siebel applications are already available on z/OS.

Of course, Oracle is a major software player in the industry, and the attitude it has can be an important indicator of things to come for many other companies. Plus, of course, there are very few mainframe-only sites these days. Apart from PCs everywhere, there is usually a bewildering array of different (and some quite old) mid-range machines.

The user group meeting gave Oracle employees the opportunity to reiterate a lot of the announcements that first appeared at OpenWorld a month or so back. It also gave the user group an opportunity to share its view of Oracle’s performance with Oracle.

Interestingly, Oracle seems to have absorbed the Siebel, PeopleSoft, and JD Edwards customers very well into the Oracle fold. And they have done this to such an extent that they even felt comfortable saying DB2 and SQL Server during a keynote presentation (as you know, Siebel, PeopleSoft, and JD Edwards users may very well have chosen that particular product so they didn’t have to use the Oracle database). They were also keen to stress how much they have learned from taking over so many companies. In fact, Oracle has recently “merged” (the preferred corporate term) with Stellent, MetaSolv Software, and SPL WorldGroup.

To be fair, Oracle is now far more than just a database company. It’s also a middleware company and an applications company. And it was keen to show roadmaps for Siebel, PeopleSoft, and JD Edwards future products as well as its own. Sometime in 2008 it will have completed its Fusion middleware rollout and its Applications Unlimited. I assume, although no-one confirmed this, that gaps in the Applications portfolio identified by senior Oracle staff is what has lead to these recent “mergers” – and probably some future ones.

The other interesting thing was how, although they kept showing the roadmap to the future, all Oracle staff repeatedly said that users would only upgrade their software “when they are ready to” – so, no more vendor pressure to move to the latest release. In fact, people were keen to stress how a successful Oracle depended on having happy and successful customers.

The UK user group has a symbiotic relationship with Oracle. Ably led by Ronan Miles, it now has easy access to Oracle senior staff and is not afraid to tell Oracle where it is going wrong. And, with its new friendly face, Oracle is taking the criticism and doing something about it. For example, in previous years, Oracle support services has been criticized by the user group following its annual survey of members. Oracle has now addressed the problem and the survey shows more users are happy with Oracle support.

This could be the new way to do business: producing new products that offer customers benefits, but allowing the customer to choose their own timescale for migration; listening to users’ needs and doing something about it; and believing customer success equals vendor success. We’ll see how long they can keep it up and how many other companies adopt a similar approach.

Monday, November 13, 2006

AJAX and Enterprise Extender

I have seen the future and it works – so said Lincoln Steffens back in 1921 after a visit to Russia in 1919. But that’s exactly the way I felt after seeing a demo of William Data Systems’ new product called Ferret (

I’ll get to exactly what Ferret does in a moment, but what I saw that I believe to be the future of computing was the amazingly fast AJAX user interface. Let me explain… A user working from a browser loads the address of the monitor. There are then the usual security routines to go through (one screen linked to RACF etc), but while you’re typing in your userid etc, AJAX is downloading all the Javascript etc that is needed to make the thing work. The next thing you see are about half a dozen windows showing what’s going on – like any good monitor would – but what’s so futuristic is that all the “pages” as they would be on a 3270 screen are sitting there at one time. A user can shut down unwanted pages and re-open them later, but more importantly, they can drill down for more information. And, because it’s AJAX, the screen refresh is very fast indeed. Lists can be sorted – although that’s not that clever – but new monitor information also appears on your screen in the blink of an eye – and that is impressive. There are also a large number of organized drop-down menus to help users select what information they need to view. Because Ferret maintains its own records, it’s very easy to use the product to see trends and peak usage, etc.

So what actually is Ferret? Well it’s a separate product from Implex (which is perhaps WDS’s best known monitor product), and it monitors Enterprise Extender. Now many traditional IBM sites have clung on to their old technology because it works and have large SNA networks and old 3745 hardware, even though they now also have IP networks running. Enterprise Extender and APPN/HPR were introduced some time ago by IBM, but perhaps only in the past two years has there been much of a growth in their adoption. To find out what’s going on in this APPN/HPR environment can require up to seven VTAM commands and then a lot of cutting and pasting of responses. To be able to monitor over time means that these commands need repeating and records of the responses kept somewhere. This is a bit tricky, so many sites just assume because everything seems to be working, it must be working well – not a good assumption!

IBM introduced some SNA Management APIs with z/OS V1.5 that made it easier to get information about performance than using half a dozen VTAM command, but it is still not easy. That’s why WDS came up with their new product. The product carries out configuration monitoring, EE activity monitoring, and EE performance monitoring. There are diagnostic tools, and alerting capabilities. So, it’s interesting in itself because of what it can monitor, but, as I said above, what really makes it interesting is the incorporation of AJAX technology to make it work so quickly and effectively from a user’s browser.

I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of companies taking this route with their products in the near future, but here’s a product that does it now and it works brilliantly.

If you want more information, the product GAs at the end of this month. It’s certainly worth a look.

Monday, November 06, 2006

IBM’s new virtualization tool

With so much virtualization going on, it is very important that systems programmers have the right tools to configure, administer, and monitor both physical and virtual resources in the heterogeneous environments they now find themselves in. That’s why IBM has just introduced a new tool for them to do just that.

Virtualization Manager is a Web-based browser dashboard that can view and manage IBM’s Virtualization Engine’s virtual machines. It works across IBM’s server line, ie System i, System p, and System z (I got told off when I used their old names in my ECLipz blog the other week). Virtualization Manager can also access the x86 instruction set of Intel and AMD servers, and can manage virtual machines generated by Microsoft Virtual Server, VMware, and open source Xen. So, basically, it will discover and monitor virtual and physical resources from different vendors.

The software, which is an extension to IBM Director (a systems management tool), is installed on a management server and works with software already on managed servers and storage resources. The browser-base GUI is then used to configure servers, schedule maintenance, or work with other virtual servers.

Interestingly, IBM is making the software available as a free download. More information is available from

HP already has its Dashboard software, I’m sure other companies will be rushing out similar products very soon. Managing real assets can be hard enough, once you add virtualized assets the job gets even tougher. That’s why users need software to help, and that’s why this new software from IBM is going to be very well received.