Monday, February 26, 2007

User interface facade

What does user interface facade mean, and is it a good thing?

Like all good philosophy essays, let’s start with some definitions so that we know what we’re talking about. A user interface is simply what a user sees when they are trying to make use of a piece of technology. The interfaces are usually completely inflexible. A user interface facade is very similar to a user interface in that it represents the presentation layer seen by the user. It is a way of giving the user an easy way of interacting with more complicated technology – or more usually software applications. What can make a facade more than a simple interface is the ability for the user to combine other interfaces and to have some control over the appearance of the interface.

So why would you want a user interface facade? Well, you can mask almost any technology with almost any design facade you want. Typically they are used to isolate a user working from a browser from the underlying CICS or other mainframe SOA application. The business units of work that are available on the mainframe can be easily used by an end user with little or no understanding of the technology that is being invoked on the mainframe. So in many ways a facade is a good thing.

Strangely though, the definition of facade is often negative. For example, defines facade as, “a false appearance that hides the reality”; gives us, “an artificial or deceptive front”; and defines it as, “a false, superficial, or artificial appearance or effect”. The printed Chambers dictionary even goes so far as to suggest, “the appearance presented to the world, esp. if showy and with little behind it”.

These all seem to be rather negative uses for facade, the last implying that all those years of mainframe effort count for nothing! I guess it’s similar to the term “legacy”, which in computing terms tends to mean something old and unwanted, whereas in more general usage a legacy is something you benefit from. Rich Aunt Agatha leaves you all her money – that’s a legacy you’re pleased to receive.

I guess that the big problem with user interface facades is that the original user interface on the mainframe has grown over time to suit the users (both new and experienced), and now a completely new one is designed that starts again. All that has been learned over the years with regard to how people feel most comfortable when interacting with the application is lost – and will have to be relearned for Version 2.0 of the interface. This seems like a waste of time.

Anyway, these thoughts about mainframe applications and user interface facades were stimulated by an e-mail from Anthony Rudd.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Alternatives to Microsoft

I’m just buying a new laptop – I need it for work. I want one with a letter box-shaped screen and I think I’d like that screen to be 17 inches rather than 15.4 (or any other size). I definitely don’t want a sub-notebook. I don’t want to record TV programs (because I don’t want a TV card), but I do want to burn DVDs and have lots of windows open at the same time. Doesn’t seem too difficult a specification does it? But because of the date, I am unable to touch a machine like that running Vista at my local PC superstore – although I can touch a machine running XP media edition, or smaller machines running Vista.

Do you want Vista? That was the question the man in the shop asked me and I immediately thought yes. I thought of all the times in the past when new versions of software packages needed features in the latest version of the operating system to work optimally. But driving home (empty handed) afterwards I thought about the question and whether I wanted a Microsoft operating system at all.

If I don’t have Windows on my computer, what are my choices? Well, you know the answers as well as me – Mac OS X or Linux. Mac OS X is really a Unix-based operating system that is designed to be the iPod of PCs. It does everything very easily. I’ve seen it find wireless networks, and it’s good with audio and video files. It’s definitely a contender – especially as I have Mac software because I use a Mac OS 9 laptop some of the time at the moment. I know widgets work on Macs because that’s where they were first created.

Linux is a harder choice. Ubuntu seems to be the favourite at the moment, but very small distros like Puppy Linux are very popular with enthusiasts as well. Every one I speak to has their own Linux favourite for different reasons.

Going with Linux also involves finding alternatives to the well-known packages that Microsoft supplies. Again, this isn’t a problem – and it’s also not a problem on Windows PCs. I use Microsoft Office on my PC and Mac, but I don’t have to. OpenOffice is an Open Source alternative to Office that runs on PCs, Macs, and Linux machines. It comes, as you’d expect, with a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, and a drawing program. It also has a database program. It’s not totally compatible with MS Office, but in each version it gets closer and for all the standard stuff it does seem very compatible.

Of course, everyone who talks about Web 2.0 and AJAX is suggesting that these kinds of application don’t need to be installed, they can be used from a browser. The choices in that case are Writely and Freeform ( Freeform allows you to work on word processing files, spreadsheets, or presentations. Writely, which is now owned by Google allows you to use word processing files and spreadsheets. You just need a Google account.

I never use Outlook – although I know many people do – so not having an alternative is not really a problem. I never used it because it was vulnerable at one time (every one in your address book suddenly starts receiving viruses), and I had an alternative address book and to-do software. So I just never started. For e-mail, I did use Eudora for a while, but I prefer not to download e-mails. They sit on various accounts –like Hotmail, Yahoo, etc – where I can view them and delete all the unwanted ones that get through the spam filters. I can then access my mail from any Internet enabled computer – whether it’s running Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux. Yahoo mail offers a diary facility and I am sure that a search would find hundreds of freeware PIM software packages for every platform. I could use Google Calendar, which allows you to see other people’s calendars.

There are plenty of alternatives to Explorer as a browser. To be honest I find it quite OK. I use IE 7 with its tabs etc, and I also use Firefox, which I prefer because I have been able to customize it so it does exactly what I want!

There are also plenty of alternative to Media Player. Version 11 seems to think all I want to do is rip or burn or waste time creating playlists. It took me ages to find a way to find some music files tucked away inside a directory inside a directory. Once you’ve found your files it looks very elegant. iTunes, which obviously works on Macs, seems far more intuitive to use – but that is really the big difference between Apple and Microsoft! And there are plenty of other players like WinAmp and Real Player (which I have installed anyway to listen to some BBC radio programmes).

So, do I want to move away from Windows completely and never know the joys (/anguish) of using Vista? Do I buy a Vista machine and try using non-Microsoft applications until I’m brave enough to move off the Windows platform? I’ll let you know when I finally make up my mind. In the meantime, any helpful hints will be much appreciated – you can e-mail me at

Monday, February 12, 2007

z/VM virtualization

I blogged about virtualization a couple of weeks ago (see Virtualization – it’s really clever, 22 January), well a couple of days ago (6 February 2007) IBM came out with an interesting announcement about virtualization.

IBM said that with z/VM Version 5.3 they were able to set all sorts of new records for the number of virtualized machines. For those of you who tuned in late, virtualization is a way of allowing one set of physical hardware appear to be many sets of hardware. And just how many “sets” does the new version run to? IBM is claiming more than 1000 virtual images can be hosted on a single copy of z/VM V5.3 – which they claim (and who can doubt them?) is a record.

In addition, the new version of VM can support a larger number of processor units (that’s real hardware). It now supports 32, whereas previously the maximum was 24 – so that’s quite a big jump.

VM has had quite a chequered history because IBM has seemed to never know quite what to do with it. However, a strong and vocal user base has been responsible for getting it through the bad times in the 80s and again in the 90s. It has fought off the introduction of LPARs on processors and many other developments that seem to signify its death.

Currently, with z/VM, it’s possible to run z/OS images under it (which is how it has always worked) or as a very big Linux-only server. For people running Linux on other platforms, this gives you a single footprint, savings on just about everything like heating, cooling, lighting, electricity, staff. Plus, you should be able to run larger workloads, and it gives you better monitoring and management.

An interesting announcement – and one pointing the way forward. z/VM will be available on 29 June 2007.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Mainframe futures… (part 2)

Last week I was considering issues that CIOs and others might be concerned with for 2007. I talked about having to do more with less (less space, money, and fewer people), High Availability, licensing issues, and Open Source software. This week I will extend that list with some more things worth thinking about.

SOA (Service-Oriented Architecture) has definitely been the acronym of choice for most vendor presentations during 2006 and it is likely to continue throughout 2007. The simple idea behind it makes perfect sense in all management presentations. If I can summarize: mainframes contain all the best applications and most important data, and users like to work from anywhere using a browser. SOA is the acronym that puts the two together. Again, from a high-level view, it seems sensible and straightforward to chop up your CICS applications into business-related units and give users access to these units of work. The actual mechanics of doing this is much harder. Even so, CICS is now a consumer as well as a provider of Web services, which makes connecting the parts of the new business-based application easier. There are many companies whose main business seems to be in making CICS applications available as Web services. These include Attachmate, Attunity, IONA, Jacada, NetManage, and Seagull (now part of Rocket Software), as well as IBM.

Virtualization is something I talked about in a blog a couple of weeks ago. The importance of virtualization is not only the fact that it gives you a way to maximize the use of devices by applications, but it also allows more devices than you actually have to appear to be available to the virtualized machines. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it gives you a way to control the way the hardware is used. You can monitor and manage how the applications use the physical hardware you have. And here’s the third advantage, The IBM Virtualization Engine allows you to manage across platforms. It’s possible to link with other virtualization software like VMware’s ESX Server, Microsoft’s Virtual PC, and XenSource’s XenEnterprise. Users can then manage a multiplatform virtualized enterprise.

Another area that will take up as much time in 2007 as it did in 2006 is compliance. It is likely that most sites will not receive any more money for this extra work and will therefore be looking for some kind of automation software to ensure that they comply with the regulations. Companies that operate on more than one continent will have the added burden of finding themselves having to comply with more than one set of regulations.

One other area that CIOs will have at the back of their minds in 2007 is on-demand computing. The idea behind this is for the user to be able to call on extra resources when they are needed. All sites experience demand levels that vary during the course of the day and the course of the year. A way of cutting costs is to not have all the processing power necessary for peak periods available all the time. However, the resources can be called on when required. IBM has a way of pricing so that users should pay only for what they use.

Well, there are some of my thoughts about what is going to be important to in the world of mainframes this coming year. I’d be interested to hear your opinions. You can e-mail me on