Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Debate on Power, pollution and the Internet, Data Barns

There was a fascinating series in this Sunday’s New York Times that highlights the ugly byproduct of the digital age we live in: energy consumption driven by digitization. (“Power, pollution and the Internet” and “Data Barns in a Farm Town, Gobbling Power and Flexing Muscle”)

The author, James Glanz starts off by making an argument that "foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness." A viewpoint like this is bound to have strong critics and digirati and technologists are sharply divided over how to respond to this article. A few critiques:

Dan Woods counters the article with a Viewpoint in Forbes: Why The New York Times Story 'Power, Pollution, And The Internet' Is A Sloppy Failure. Primarily starting off with the utility argument: "Roads aren’t 100 percent utilized. The telephone system isn’t 100 percent utilized. They are there when they are needed."

Richard Fichera for Forrester Research makes a similar argument in “Data Center Power And Efficiency – Public Enemy #1 Or The Latest Media Punching Bag?” "The simple fact is that if we want to live in an information society, we need the plumbing to support it. That is perhaps the most salient observation that the New York Times has made — there really is no cloud, just more and more really big data centers."

The fact remains, most of us, even techies and geeks would be quickly out of out our depth when it comes to intricacies of calculating environmental impact of data centers. Some of the analysis is based on complex calculations and number crunching but a lot more on empirical knowledge, inputs from analysts and other closely guarded sources. I agree with James when he states “Improving or even assessing the field is complicated by the secretive nature of an industry”

Another key argument made by James in his NYT piece is on the risk aversion of data center managers. The article quotes a vendor saying, "A crash or a slow down could end a career."  Dan Woods counters "There are a number of problems here. Anyone doing a hard job that is mission critical lives in fear. The people operating the printing plants at The New York Times have the same fear as the data center operators. Data center operations don’t have a special fear, just the normal one involved in doing a good job"

It is true that most of us in hi-tech operate under the environment where "fear" of "business" in a sense afraid to say No! even to bizarre requirements. A case study from my consulting days:

A fortune 500 retailer had a disaster recovery (DR) contract with a tier-1 technology vendor. This was in addition to the contract to host their data centers in the vendor’s “cloud”. One year, the periodic DR test failed to meet the RTO, RPO objectives, and the matter quickly got escalated to the board of directors. It was decided that it was more than a business continuity risk, a market perception/reputation risk, that the retail giant couldn’t afford.

The solution? The retail giant decided to invest in their own data-center, exclusively to support disaster-recovery, while the vendor continues to host all business (IT) applications from their cloud-based data center. Power consumption and pollution be damned: Risk of failure was the driver, with the cost being just one additional constraint!

The offshoring, globalization angle

While on the topic of environmental impact of data centers, it would be interesting to review the redundancy global organizations are building while offshoring technology services and business processes. The western world has been steadily outsourcing manufacturing to China during the past few decades and is only now waking up to the impact of pollution and emissions from there. Similarly, large IT development centers and call-centers in the west are steadily being Bangalored to India, China and Philippines and elsewhere. Along goes power guzzling servers, network hubs, desktops and laptops that starting to suck scarce power from an already stretched infrastructure in third world countries. All this in addition to “production” servers to run live business applications out of data centers/cloud in native countries.

Ref my earlier post on power grid failure in India  and a recent article  One killed in Indian nuclear power plant protests Wonder how much of this is attributable to globalization, offshoring and power guzzling data centers?

Argument and counter-views aside, the discussion in NYT article is really about the environmental impact of server farms, internet data centers, corporate data centers and the cloud.  I love the way Richard Fichera summarizes “ Despite the NY Times’ sudden discovery of the problem, the IT industry has been working diligently on solving these problems for years and will continue to make progress long after the mainstream media has gone on to expose killer mimes and the hazards of the exploding population of Frisbee-playing bears. The simple fact is that if we want to live in an information society, we need the plumbing to support it. That is perhaps the most salient observation that the New York Times made — there really is no cloud, just more and more really big data centers.”

Tweets: #TalkEnergy, #"Power, Pollution and the Internet"

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Books and bestsellers: If indie eBooks are the future, why are we ga-ga over Fifty shades of grey and a soldier’s diary?

In recent months, two books caught the attention of digirati, bloggers and the media: The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and the No Easy Day: firsthand account of the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden. The two books are of diagonally different genera, catering to distinct audience. However, they have one thing in common: capturing airtime, making the authors instant celebrities and possibly wealthy beyond their expectations.

Bloggers and commentators have tried dissecting the various aspects of the books, the genius behind marketing them and the timing. I have only read reviews of the books. Fifty Shades is supposedly a "gripping modern story" with a lot of erotica thrown in. No Easy Day, on the other hand, is a biography of a solider with an elite team that killed Osama Bin Laden. The decade long “war on terrorism” is fresh in the western conscience and it is natural for folks to be curious about the slaying of a most-wanted man.

Even with the success of the books, one cannot conclude that the publishing industry will be invigorated and continue to seek fresh crop of writers. More than the stories in the book, what has fascinated many writers, and aspiring writers is the marketing of the books. The success of these books is all more interesting given how independently published (indie) eBooks are also taking off (ref blog: How Amazon Saved My Life).

The big question writers continue to ask: will self-publishing continue to be a “long tail” or replace traditional publishing? If the publishing industry continues to bring forth bestsellers like Fifty Shades or No Easy Day, there is probably No Easy Answer.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Book Review : Offshore: India's Services Juggernaut

I began reading the book “Offshore: India's Services Juggernaut” wearing multiple hats, reflecting on my prior experience in sell side of sourcing before finding myself on the other side of the fence.

Written by a couple of veteran Infosys employees, the book attempts to take a broad view of the offshoring industry. The authors draw on their Desi heritage with several anecdotes from Ramayana, monkey god Hanuman, references from Bollywood movie Sholay etc etc. I guess this comes from years of practiced self-deprecating humor that Indian offshoring salesmen have to adopt with western clients in order to dispel the notion that India, besides being a land of sadhus and snake charmers is also a land of cyber coolies (moniker used by authors). Interestingly, the cyber coolies are also prone to use such references in regular interactions with client managers when transplanted “onsite”

The first few chapters dwell on extensive context setting. These are perhaps useful for someone landing in Bangalore straight from the nineteen eighties, but for the rest of us providing and consuming offshoring IT services, it reads as summary of news clippings from the past two decades. 

The chapter “what makes a company Indian?” is an attempt to create a case for us to view Indian software sourcing companies (primarily TCS, Infosys, Wipro) as transnationals. While making the argument, authors highlight the increasing Indian footprint of Accenture and IBM along with a brief analysis of captive offshoring (do it yourself). While the narrative in the section is presented logically, one cannot be sure if the arguments are conclusive.
Why mess with Success? The chapter “why can’t India produce a Microsoft” contains a candid assessment of variances in business models of software services and software (product) development.  “An IT services company, on the other hand, takes far fewer risks with its investments….. even if your company is not in the top twenty services companies, you will still be able to carry on with your business profitably”  To see senior executives of Infosys admit that it is not in their DNA to be a software firm is refreshing indeed.
The section on “Hard Slog for Account” gives a good glimpse into the business of sourcing through the eyes of offshoring salesmen. I love the candid assessment of the growth story: eating the elephant one byte at a time (pun intended). Of course, the hard slog is rewarded with a magic of geometric progression. The authors admit a pareto’s law at work: about 80 percent of revenues coming from about 10 percent of accounts. Given this fact, Anyone who has attended a quarter end financial status call is bound to be left scratching their heads over why analsyst and CFO’s make a big deal of announcing “addition of x new clients” every quarter.
The armchair investor in me was also interested the future potential: any radical business models that can replace the linear growth required by GDM and offshoring? The chapter “Most of the New, New things” left me feeling like I was gazing at a crystal ball while occasionally looking at a rear-view mirror. I guess technology forecast is an imprecise art and practitioners rarely share such insights in a book till they have successfully executed (and milked their ideas). And it is not as if I expected to be exposed to Infosys (author’s employer’s) emerging strategy.

The section on “quest for higher bill rates” explores several ideas to address the challenge of commoditization. Great account management, exploring new geographies and a shift towards consulting services are obvious approaches. The section on solution perhaps has more questions than answers, perhaps the reason offshoring firms continue to struggle in the utopian quest to sell solutions.
The authors conclude the book my musing about the “juggernaut” showing signs of slowing down. In the few years since I wrote my book on Offshoring IT Services, I continued to observe and learn a few things about the offshoring industry: especially the challenges facing the industry majors: weighed down by their own scale, lack of agility and responsiveness, the “usual” logistical issues of managing a maturing, mobile workforce, grappling with protectionism and visa hurdles in western markets. All topics that keep industry leaders awake at night but few with easy answers.

Bottomline: The book gives sufficient insights into the inner workings of the industry and a few ideas on way forward and should be of interest to marketers and wannabe’s
Five star for research, content and narrative. Overall Four stars for new insights. (Repost on