Storage Informer
Storage Informer

Tag: Environment

The Internet May Cause Distraction and Inability to Learn

by on Jul.11, 2010, under Storage

Warning: The Internet May Cause Distraction and Inability to Learn

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If Nicholas Carr is correct in his recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, you will not read this entire blog post. The main idea of the book is that the internet causes our brains to be easily distracted and also makes us less able to learn deep ideas as we skim more and read deeply less.  The book digs into the science of how the human brain learns.  The brain has “plasticity” – meaning that it will adjust to the activities that it does often, similar to what our muscles do.  Carr lays out the history of communication from the first written world, through the mass production of books, to the internet age and analyzes the impact that these technologies have on society and the human brain.  As he points out in the book, for every new technology, there have been those that have said that it will doom the way that we think or take away the very things that make us human.  But this time, according to Carr, there are real issues.

The Internet Distracts People with…SQUIRREL

Like the dog Dug in the movie Up! (SQUIRREL!) – internet users can find it hard to stay focused.  While I agree that almost any repetitive activity can potentially become addictive, I believe that most people can take control of the tools that they use for communication rather than letting them control you.  Even in pre-internet days, the draw of interrupting technologies was there – do you finish the task that you’re working on, or answer the ringing phone or watch TV (or even read a book)?  The brain can get so used to a stimulus that it will make you crave it when it’s not there – this even affected Dilbert back in 1996.
The difference with the internet is that it is everywhere and people can become like a mouse pressing a lever for a pellet by constantly checking email, RSS, Facebook, or Twitter.  These activities can be properly worked into the flow of the workday rather than as a distraction from getting things done.  Personally I know that I have a tendency to want to stay connected and respond rapidly to messages. (Disclosure: Hi, I’m Stu and I’m an internet addict, see me on Twitter)  The more we allow ourselves to be interrupt driven, the more our brains will see that as “normal” and it will become harder to stay focused for longer periods of time.  Recent studies (including some in the book) show that the cost of context switching is larger than any gains for multitasking.  You have the power to take control of your environment: finish conversations without interruption, check messages when you’re done with a task, not when an alarm tells you that it comes in.

Reading vs. Skimming

If you’ve read this far, congratulations!  In the age of the internet, most people skim rather than read.  The book describes that people read in an “F” shape, that is that they read the first line or two, then partial lines and eventually just start scanning down the page.  As a blogger, I try and keep my posts short (500 words for most posts or 1000 for a deeper discussion) and also try and break up the text visually with some bolding, italics, headers and photos.  Carr also says that even the basic web format with hyperlinks is very distracting.  Each hyperlink that you reach makes you think about clicking it and if you do will you ever get back to where you started (for this article, I put some links at the bottom rather than throughout the text).  There is fascinating research in the book which explains how memories are created and the science behind short term and long term memory.

“How do users read on the web?”…”They don’t”

While in general I feel that Carr is a bit of a pessimist about technology, I do believe that he is correctly raising an alarm on this topic.  The argument in the book is that as we skim more and rely on the internet to store information rather than our brains that our brains will have less context for problem solving or deep thoughts and that we become shallower.  Mass production of books brought learning to everyone, the internet increases information flow, but potentially we understand and internalize less.

There are a few ways that we can still absorb information in the internet age.  Of course the first is to read deeply – I’d recommend picking up The Shallows if you’ve found this discussion interesting (I think that it should be required reading at colleges). Another way is to write; the process of organizing your thoughts and translating them into words helps your memory and critical thinking.  A third way is to have deep discussions with friends and family – nothing like a lively debate to get the brain going.  A final way is just to give yourself some free time to think – where new information isn’t flooding in so that you can sort and process what you’ve brought in.

I consider myself a pragmatic optimist on the new technologies.  Like some of the optimists in the articles listed below, I believe that the internet age brings proliferation of information and opportunity for a globally connected community.  It’s the core of the company that I work at now.

Where do you stand?  Are you an internet optimist? Do you believe that there is validity in Carr’s positions?  Will the internet turn people into shallow shells that can’t function without computers?

Here are some related articles that I’d recommend:

Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society by Adam Thierer  (Adam also reviews The Shallows)

I Know I’m Not the Only Internet Optimist… by Andy McAfee

Carr’s article from The Atlantic: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Does Multitasking Lead to a More Productive Brain? from NPR

A couple of posts of mine discussing similar topics after reading a book by Neil Postman

Nicholas Carr on The Colbert Report


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The People Behind User-Centred Design – and why they hold the keys to your future…

by on Jul.09, 2010, under Storage

The People Behind User-Centred Design V and why they hold the keys to your future…

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User-Centred Design was brought to my attention a few years ago when I was client-side in Ecommerce at Virgin Atlantic.  Our goals and strategies always focused on the business and IT efficiencies, so when the EMC User Experience team introduced me to the concept of a
user-centred approach it was a new way of thinking for me, but one that really made sense. 
I then had the chance to work on interaction design with Flow Interactive at tesco.com and it made me start to look at digital design with a new perspective… starting with an understanding of users and their goals, and solving problems with them front of mind.

I wanted to hear what the industry experts are saying on the subject and had the opportunity to attend a talk on The People Behind User-Centred Design V and why they hold the keys to your futureK at Cass Business School in Moorgate on Tuesday evening. I anticipated a creative audience of Art Directors, Designers and User Experience experts, so was surprised to see a mainly business and IT audience in a fairly sober environment.

The talk was held in a lecture theatre with a panel of speakers moderated by the editor of WIRED magazine, David Rowan.  His panel included the Creative Research Fellow at
City University, CEO of Electronic Ink, the
Lead Partner in IT Enabled Business Transformation at KPMG, Chief Enterprise Architect at Reuters and Operations Director of Nomura (investment information).

They each gave a three minute synopsis on what User-Centred Design means to them and the importance of design-led development, citing the new digital work Reuters has done at Reuters Labs to feed ‘the eco system’ that companies like Apple have created. They spoke of McLaren Automotive Group in-car system designs where systems have been optimized for the engineers to allow pit stop changes to be made in seconds, to working cross-industry with companies like National Air Traffic Control to find opportunities from others who are demonstrating good practice in this field.

They highlighted the challenge of embedding the mind-set and practice of User-Centred Design into the organisation and changing traditional ways of thinking that tend to start with system solutions, rather than the customer solutions. Company culture is key to this and enabling the business to work closely with designers and the technology teams is crucial.   Roles like business-minded architects, engineers and psychologists were also seen as extremely valuable, more so than a single role of Chief Design Officer since it could be seen as authoritarian. They felt it would be better to weave the principles throughout the company and focus on training.

I did find it a little disappointing that the obvious choice of Apple was cited as the best example of User-Centred Design, and it made me think about companies I believe designs with the user in mind; people like tesco.com where they design for external customers in online grocery ordering through to purely dotcom grocery warehouses with handheld devices designed for staff ease of use and efficiency.  Morgan Stanley are another good example where they are redesigning their trading systems with designers and User Experience Architects on the trading floor watching human behaviour and implementing efficiencies, with impressive financial results.

A question and answer session at the end raised points like, what do you do when it goes wrong? to which there was no clear response and a recruitment consultant was keen to know how to find the right people? and told us the challenges of recruiting the right people and getting these roles embedded within organizations.

It seems theres still a way to go for companies in making the shift to a fully
user-centred design mindset with a directive from the top, weaved throughout the organization and the business and technologists designing with customers in mind.

It did however, make me optimistic to see so many business and IT people attending an event at a business school in London and I feel encouraged that as more business-people and IT departments start to think in a user-centred way the potential is truly massive. It gives EMC the opportunity to help clients design technology solutions with customers at the centre.

Useful related reading:

The Inmates Are Running The Asylum by Alan Cooper

About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design by Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann and David Cronin

Wrench in the System, Harold Hambrose

 

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Storage Is Software

by on Jul.09, 2010, under Storage

Storage Is Software

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The title of this post is a variant on the intriguing "infrastructure is code" meme from the #devops community. I think it’s a useful idea to remind ourselves of — especially as technology transitions.

Even though some of you reading this might thing the statement is blindingly obvious, it’s clear that the vast majority of people think of boxes with blinking lights when you say the word "storage".

And I think this is going to be up for change sooner than later.

Things Change

Having now been directly involved in storage for over 15 years, I feel I can safely make a reasonable judgment when things are changing.

So let’s go look at the current landscape …

For starters, most storage hardware today is built out of the same industry-standard parts bin used by the server guys.  Yes, there are a few storage stalwarts trying to claim differentiation through this bit or that bit of unique silicon, but the secular trend is pretty obvious — parts is parts.

Now, I think there’s still room for useful hardware differentiation in areas like innovative architecture, or clever packaging, or using the latest merchant silicon chips, or perhaps more reliable manufacturing processes. 

All that being said, I think the opportunities for sustained differentiation through hardware prowess alone are becoming more rare over time.

And we all p lay in a very competitive market indeed  Much like customers won’t accept dated or over-priced server hardware designs, they won’t accept dated or over-priced storage hardware designs.

Thinking About Storage Software

At its most basic level, you expect to write information to a storage platform, and get it back again. 

You’d like to do so in a convenient format — more traditional block and file formats, perhaps something newer like objects, even maybe something like tables.  That’s a function of software, not hardware.

You’d like the integrity of the data protected from all sorts of bad things that can happen — hardware failures, software failures, human error, the list goes on.  That’s a function of software, not hardware.

You’d like to wring the maximum in performance and efficiency from the hardware you own: move the popular data to the high-perfrmance media, the less-popular data to cost-effective stuff, and wring the excess capacity out with things like compression and deduplication.

More software.

If you tend to think geographically, you’d like the right information in the right location at the right time if possible.  Whether that’s to better protect, or improve user experience, or something else — that’s all software as well.

I could go on, but — when you think about it — just about everything we talk about that’s new, interesting and useful tends to boil dow n to a software discussion. 

Sure, there are new hardware bits like faster processors, and enterprise flash drives, and newer 10GbE interconnects — but it takes software to make all that stuff really useful.

The Impact Of Open Source

Much like industry-standard components and architectures set the floor for cost-effective hardware, I think open source software sets the floor for cost-effective software functionality.

There’s still room to innovate in software, but you have to do it in areas that haven’t been well-covered by the open source community.  And — make no mistake — it’s a safe bet that open source software will be an ever-increasing part of our enterprise environments.

Resistance to either trend appears futile :-)

Separating Software From Hardware

We’ve just come to assume that storage software is inevitably woven to storage hardwa re.  But as the industry moves to more standard components and architectures, that’s becoming more of a business model discussion, and less of a technology discussion.

Examples are starting abound, especially within EMC’s portfolio. 

Our Atmos cloud storage platform is now available as a VMware virtual machine.  Run it on just about any VMware-supported hardware platform, and you’ve got a fully featured, next-generation distributed object-oriented metadata-rich policy-driven cloud storage environment

One could separately debate the meri ts of running Atmos storage software on a generic hardware platform vs. one that is specifically built for purpose, but that’s more of a discussion around implementation choices — and choice is good.

Many of you are aware that the Avamar client-side dedupe backup platform works basically the same way — your backup target can either be a dedicated hardware device running Avamar, or the same functionality running in a VM on generic hardware — it’s your choice.

Going further, there’s a much larger universe of EMC storage products just waiting to escape the confines of phy sical hardware: RecoverPoint, VPLEX, Celerra, Centera — the list goes on. 

Even some interesting open-source choices if you go looking: for example, the EMC LifeLine stack which powers the increasingly more powerful Iomega unified storage devices.

So why aren’t all these great things being done today?  Lots of issues, but the big one is — it’s hard!

Making storage software work predictably and reliably in a virtual machine takes substantial engineering effort.  And that incremental effort&#016 0; has to be balanced against other investment opportunities: things like adding new features, or supporting new hardware, or perhaps deep integrations with other environments.

It’s happening — it’s just not an overnight process.  Sorry to say, the future isn’t quite here yet …

Fast Forward Several Years

Imagine you’re in charge of storage decisions at your company, and you’re trying to put together a solution for part of your operation.

You might start by assembling a set of services you’ll need to provide for applications and users.  You evaluate different software stack options. for functionality, price, reliability, support, ease-of-use, integration, APIs, etc.

You do so by composing various storage software VMs, and putting the resulting stacks through their paces.  Basic presentation services (file, block, object, etc.).  Some replication stuff, maybe some auto-tier ing and or intelligent archival stuff.

You test features and functions, integration points and management interfaces.  All using virtual machines in whatever test bed you’ve got handy.

No need to consider storage as hardware just yet.

When you’re ready to implement, you’ve got more choices: you can stick with the storage-software-in-a-VM approach, or perhaps consider purpose-built hardware if your needs so dictate. 

Functionality first, implementation second.

Farther Down The Line

The migration of storage functionality from hardware to software will likely change how storage hardware itself is built.  At the low end of the market, all-in-one storage can learn new tricks simply by invoking new elements of a (presumably virtualized) software stack.

And at the high end of the market, it’s not hard to imagine larger, dynamic pools of virtualized storage capabilities that flex both resources and functionality much the way virtualized servers do today.  To be fair, though, that’s a reasonable description of what a VMAX and VPLEX does today.

Indeed, w e can easily see storage software functionality running flexibly where it makes the most sense — on a general purpose all-in-one storage hardware platform, or perhaps as a set of virtualized tasks in a server farm, or perhaps on an appliance dedicated to a task — or any combination as needs shift.

And that’s going to force some changes in thinking all around.

Final Thoughts

The runaway success of VMware has caused many of us to think of "servers" in terms of software images that are invoked as needed.  The hardware is still there, and it needs to do its job, but we think about it differently.

Will we learn to think of storage the same way?

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