Friday, June 19, 2009

Cloud Computing - all that's old is new again

Cloud computing is the buzzword du jour. What amazes me most is how little people realize that it's nothing new.

From about 1978 until ultimate cancellation in 1986, AT&T ran a project called "Net 1000" (codename: ACS or Advanced Computing System). This was the first product AT&T released as part of the deregulatory process.

Managing projects in telecommunication services by Mostafa Hashem Sherif describes Net 1000 as follows: "The service consisted in providing customers with the capacity to develop, install, and manage applications software to run on AT&T's owned processors. The architecture was based on having a large number (100-200) of dispersed data centers (caled "service points"). These were interconnected using an X.25 packet switched network from the regulated part of AT&T. Initially, data centers were built in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Greensboro, Salt Lake City, Camden, Kansas City, and San Antonio [...] A Network Operations Center was constructed in Somerset, NJ. [...] The idea of Net 1000 was for users to pay for what they use. They wer charged for network terminations (ports), disk storage, transmission bandwidth, connection time, and communications process." (Page 79)

Sherif continues on page 81 that problems with the business included "the absence of application software and overlook[ing] the time needed to develop, test, and deploy software applications, particularly in a new operating environment."

Later on, AT&T changed the direction for Net 1000, and it ceased to be an application hosting infrastructure. But that's another story.

AT&T lost more than $1B on Net 1000. Yes, that's billion.

Certainly there are significant differences between cloud computing and Net 1000 - AT&T was trying to sell both the network communications and the applications platform, while cloud vendors are using the existing network infrastructure. And of course computer equipment is much cheaper - at the time I worked on Net 1000, the VAX 11/780 computers used as the application hosting platforms cost about $200,000 each, and operated at a speed comparable to about 1 MHz (vs. 2+GHz for a typical laptop today). Databases are a lot more mature too - the Net 1000 product was built on a DBMS called "Seed", which I think was written in FORTRAN, with a COBOL layer built on top of that. (We looked at a startup called Oracle but their products weren't mature enough to use for a nationwide offering!)

I'm not predicting that cloud computing will go the way of Net 1000. Just saying that all that's old is new again.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Election Day 2009 - report from the trenches

What, it’s election day again? Yes, Virginia, there is an election this year (state and most local candidates are elected in odd numbered years). Today was the Democratic primary– it’s an open primary to select Governor and Lieutenant Governor candidates, and in some places to select candidates for the House of Delegates. (The Republicans picked their candidates at a convention last month – in Virginia, it’s up to the parties whether to select candidates by convention or primary. The third statewide office, Attorney General, only had one candidate on the Democratic side so it wasn’t on the ballot.)

My precinct in Fairfax County has 1975 registered voters (small for this county), of whom 146 showed up over the 13 hours the polls were open, and 6 others voted absentee. We had four pollworkers – a chief and three assistants (including me). We were using two AVS WinVote DREs, neither of which had an apparent problems (after the special election a few months ago with strange results, I checked the zero and end of day tapes carefully). I found the election interesting because it was so slow that I had a chance to observe all of the weird things that happen in nearly any election, but in a general election we’re too busy to notice.

1. One of the three candidates for Lieutenant Governor had withdrawn before the election, but after the ballots were approved. We had signs everywhere telling voters that, but he still got four votes in our precinct.

2. Several voters didn’t know it was only a Democratic primary, and wanted to vote for Republican candidates. I presume they undervoted.

3. One voter left without pressing the final “Vote” button. Local rules say that the vote is voided rather than cast.

4. Several voters seemed surprised that there were just two races on the ballot (as noted above, some areas also had a third race for Delegate).

5. One voter who didn’t have a driver’s license or similar ID tried to use a Visa card with a photo. Luckily, Virginia allows an affidavit as an alternative to an ID, so we didn’t have to decide whether a credit card is a valid ID.

6. One voter was listed as a permanent overseas voter who gets an absentee ballot automatically, so she had to vote a provisional ballot until the county can verify that she hadn’t already voted absentee.

7. One voter needed to vote curbside; the DRE was very easy to handle for that use. However, the rules in Virginia are such that I could carry it to the car by myself (without a second pollworker coming along), so I could have (theoretically) cast extra votes without anyone noticing – except that the count would have mismatched. We discovered when it was time to close the polls and fill out the final reports that we forgot to note the protective counter when the machine was carried out to the curb and back again – most likely because none of the pollworkers had ever done curbside voting before.

8. One voter said he had registered to vote in his high school in the past few weeks (which was probably after the deadline). I wanted to allow him to cast a provisional ballot (if for no other reason than to give him the feeling that his vote might be counted), but the chief for the precinct called the county which said they didn’t have him listed, so she sent him away.

9. One voter had trouble getting the touchscreen to respond to him. The problem seemed to be that he was balling up his fist and pushing the screen with his thumb, which probably caused his other fingers to touch the screen at the same time.

10. No one asked about the paper optical scan ballots we used in the fall general election, nor did anyone express concern about the reliability/accuracy of the DREs (other than my wife). Just a statement of facts, ma’am!

All in all, a thoroughly ordinary election, but one that reinforced the range of “unusual” activities.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Metric to English measurements - no more precision

Here's an excerpt from a CNN report about the airplane crash: "The part of the ocean where the debris and bodies have been found ranges between 19,685 and 26,247 feet (6,000 and 8,000 meters) deep. The search area covers 77,220 square miles (200,000 square km), an area nearly as big as the country of Romania."

Converting 6000 meters to feet doesn't change from 1 to 5 digits of precision, and similarly for the other numbers.

This happens in all sorts of reporting. Why isn't it taught as part of Journalism 101?