Monday, January 29, 2007

On SOA and Windows Vista

There have been a couple of headlines recently in a Computerworld "First Look" e-mail I receive at least once a day during the work week, that I found humorous in a "well duh..." kind of way.

The first (well, pair) indicated that IT Execs weren't sold on Vista, and questioned whether or not Vista presented a realistic ROI case for companies.

I'll save you some reading. IT Execs aren't sold on Vista because it doesn't present a realistic ROI case.

There's absolutely no compelling reason to dive into Vista and the accompanying support & engineering issues it will cause, much less Office 2007 (which completely and arbitrarily changed a very familiar user interface to one that is, well, obfuscatoryd at best), when 95% of corporate users don't use 10% of the product's capabilities. It's no secret that most people need simple formulas, a spell-checker/grammar-checker, maybe mail-merge, and that's about it.

OpenOffice is a technology looking at square miles worth of fertile black soil in which it can grow. Microsoft, just like Novell, have finally leapfrogged their customers by a significant enough distance to give it a real opportunity. Microsoft seem to think that people are so keen on SharePoint that they'll move heaven and earth to get better integration with it. I'm not sure they've seen the numbers contrasting Office seats to SharePoint seats, but I'm pretty sure it's a damned big gap.

Fortunately, Computerworld has finally been changing it's spin on the Vista story to one reflecting the skepticism that exists rather widely within the professional ranks, from one that had praised it (in nothing short of a biased manner) as the second coming of distributed computing. I almost stopped reading these e-mails because they were becoming an incessant Vista lovefest - something I don't think Don Tenant would particularly relish, but something I don't think he oversees directly.

The second article was buried as a "Tech pick", and was titled "What's holding back SOA?".

"Since about 2003, service-oriented architecture (SOA) has been touted as
the network-based, next-generation computing environment, replacing the
client/server architecture of the 1990s.

Industry leaders like Bill Gates have made brave predictions about a future in which their applications will live across the Internet, and developers will meet specific needs by combining functions from these networked applications on an almost ad hoc basis.

So what has happened in the past three or four years? On the surface, it might seem
very little. "Looking back, a lot of people were talking about this, and even among the vendors, you hear a variety of interpretations as to what SOA will be and what you will need," says Ettienne Reinecke, group chief technology officer at global IT solutions provider
Dimension Data."

Well, duh. SOA represents a remarkably esoteric theory for how you can keep developers from 'reinventing the wheel' - not just theirs, but any wheel. It's not anything you can buy, just a suggestion for stuff you should do if you develop a lot of web software. (Mainstream, eh?)

Ideally, if you're, you wouldn't need to write software that handled credit card transactions for your website - you could use someone elses (a bank, for instance), which they've offered as a "Web Service".

The problem is twofold - first, you have to ensure that just about everything you've ever written can be compartmentalized in such a way that software others in your company write *and* software others in the world write, can use the components of your code that they need without having to rewrite it themselves.

Secondly, you have to figure out how you will determine when someone makes a request of your service, what information you need from them, what you'll send back, how you'll secure the transmission of that information, etc. Of course, the methods you work out here will need to be the same for everyone who may potentially ever use them, and vice-versa.

So the question answers itself. It's not going anywhere because, much like EDI, there are only a fraction of companies and people in the world who can understand all of the details that go into making SOA work, and who can use SOA in such a way that the time invested in using SOA is significantly less than the time it saves future development efforts.

If you only develop software for your own company, why in the world would you care how reusable your components are using Web Services standards or protocols? If you do care, and you have the resources to understand and implement SOA principles (because SOA isn't a product, it's an idea), what are you waiting for?

Tech writers love to latch on to SOA and predict that it'll be "everywhere" and be "revolutionary", much the way Steve Jobs predicted the Segway scooter would change the way cities are built, and very unlike the way Bill Gates thought nobody would ever need more than 640k of RAM in a personal computer.

I guess boring, accurate stories don't sell magazines. Pity, that.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Why to sell NOVL

The 'break' over the holidays has been very refreshing, at least until this week. A half-dozen small issues & developments served to remind me that some things will never change. I typically speak out against the pessimistic mindset that causes people to stop challenging their environment, limitations, etc. Today, a little part of the optimist in me is dead.

At my own company, we've gone from projections of excellent financial performance across the board to a "batten down the hatches" mantra where any expenditure must be absolutely necessary - somewhat frightening for a company as static, mature, and large as ours.

Worse yet, at Novell, the message regarding the death of Novell Security Manager by Astaro as a product offering was bred with the announcement that the formerly deceased BorderManager on NetWare would be reincarnated. BorderManager is a notoriously bad enterprise firewall product - bad in that it had great potential that was amputated by horrible design decisions (not the least of which was running an IP-based appliance on a kernel to which IP is foreign). So now it's back, and as of 2/1/07, you won't be able to buy a Linux-based firewall product from Novell...the world's leader of Linux solutions. Eventually they'll have a Linux-based product that does some of what BorderManager/NSM does, but that'll be much later. Worse yet, as owners of NSM, you'll have to re-purchase Astaro should you choose to remain on that product.

Bind this with the as yet unresolved problems of OES Linux patches coming down in giant snowballs filled with new issues top-to-bottom (suddenly, things break, and YaST - the big SuSE differentiator - has to be mothballed if you use RUG); GroupWise's continuing decline in market share (now roughly 5%) and growing feature gap relative to the major e-mail systems (SharePoint anyone?); the utter inability for Novell to have capitalized on any of the positive momentum with which they were bestowed in the Linux space...and the piece de resistance - my sweetheart product, the cornerstone of my career as an engineer, is decoupling itself from eDirectory.

That's right - ZENworks will no longer support eDirectory natively.

You'll hear it referred to differently, but they're basically eschewing eDirectory, ConsoleOne, and iManager in favor of their own mini-directory and web-based management interface. It will presumably synchronize in some fashion from eDirectory, but will definitely present brand new challenges from the standpoint of delivering applications for those of us who have "followed the rules" for the past decade.

The culmination of these recent discoveries combined with the wisdom of hindsight have led me to the following conclusion. Novell is a company without leadership capable of governing and channeling their product development efforts. They develop methods and technologies, and run them unbridled to their logical ends at a pace 4-5 times faster than customers can adopt them. Their history is rife with examples (except for GroupWise). Novell Portal Services - dead before it had a chance. DeFrame (the ZEN component that seamlessly integrated delivery of terminal-server based applications) - similarly fated. (Sounds cool, doesn't it? Well, you can't have it anymore). SilverStream / exteNd - not exactly pushing this anymore, are they. Don't worry, you'd never have been able to do the stuff they showed at BrainShare anyway.

If you're still carrying stock, you missed your chance to bail out and take the tax break before 12/31/06. So you have two choices. Bail out now and send a message, or wait until your tax picture for 2007 becomes clearer and bail out then. But whatever you do, DON'T hold NOVL long hoping for a turnaround. It won't happen. Ever. Not Ron Hovsepian, Chris Stone, or Jesus H. Christ himself could change the culture significantly enough in Happy Valley to keep Novell from shooting itself in one foot as it sprints ahead of it's customers with the other.

It's a sad day when someone like myself - a former Novell employee, and long-time champion of their vision & product set - says to his VP (of our Novell products) "If you told me tomorrow to get rid of all this crap, I'd say 'fine'." You fight for the people who fight for you - the people who back you up and make you look good for choosing them. It's just not a fight worth choosing anymore.