HICCS – Session Spotlight

DISCLAIMER: I am live blogging this from the conference, so please forgive any typos. 🙂

Today at HICCS I am attending some sessions in the cloud service science and systems track. I am interested to see some of the research in this area considering I have done research in this area (mostly related to adoption of cloud computing and cloud curriculums) and also have doctoral students doing their dissertations in this area. I was also a reviewer for this particular track.

The first paper being presented is particularly interesting to me. It is on developers preference on platform as a service.

Presentation at HICCS

The researchers here did a literature review to create a working definition for PaaS and performed a study to discern what developers preferred in a PaaS platform. They started with discussions with focus groups and experts and used that to create an online survey. The results of the survey were then analyzed using conjoint analysis and exploratory factor analysis.

“Must have” features such as availibility and standardized API’s were identified and excluded from the analysis. The researchers then identified 10 different attributes that would be evaluated via the survey. They had a total of 103 respondents that all had PaaS experience.

The results showed that developers preferred offline SDKs to online development environments, they wanted knowledge sharing features to be built in to the community, there was a preference for a marketplace that handled payments, and they preferred pay per use pricing versus other pricing models. They were relatively split on migration between PaaS providers where about half wanted migration to be included as a service and about half preferred tools for migration.

I plan on going into the proceedings and reading the actual paper in more detail and may have more to say about this, but at this time I can see where most of these results are coming from. The only thing that is a bit weird to me is the migration issue.

If you are developing on a platform (ex. Azure), what is the chance that you are going to migrate to another platform? I can see where cost issues might influence the desire to migrate, but if you are developing for a platform, you are generally developing an application based on the characteristics of that particular platform. That being said, would it be smart to try to migrate your application to a different platform that may have other characteristics? I’m not quite sure.

Anyway, that is my in conference update for today. I will try to post another update on a paper I find interesting for each day of the conference.


Getting Students to think Innovatively about the Cloud

We have been slowly but surely integrating cloud computing into our curriculum and as we go through this process, I have noticed a few things.  First of all, students are having a hard time thinking “outside of the box” when it comes to the cloud.  Sure, we can show them the business scenarios where cloud makes sense, but those are decidedly “in the box.”  While this is OK, I believe that the true potential of cloud computing lies in its undiscovered uses and not in the appropriate business scenarios.

We have been using the Microsoft Imagine Cup as a way to get students to make the switch from “appropriate” thinking as it relates to cloud computing to “innovative” thinking about the cloud.  The Imagine Cup challenges students to come up with innovative solutions to the world’s biggest problems and our students are increasingly including cloud computing as part of their solutions.

The Imagine Cup projects that we have seen are encouraging evidence that our efforts to get students to think innovatively about the cloud.  However,  I have noticed that they generally focus on using the cloud for storage and not for processing.

This makes me wonder if we are adequately informing students about the processing side of cloud computing.  Another possible explanation is that students are having a difficult time breaking out of the mental model of processing that is done in a client/server architecture.  This could possibly explain their reluctance to consider cloud computing for processing rather than just storage.

This is an interesting topic  that I plan on investigating further in the coming weeks.  In my opinion, it also has great value as producing students that can think innovatively about any technology will be much more valuable in the workplace than those that follow the same old paradigms.  I will keep you int he loop.  Additionally, if anyone has any insights on this topic, please leave a comment!

BI, the Cloud, and Mobility in Academia

From time to time academic programs go through what is called a “program review.” If you were to put this in business terms, it is roughly equivalent to a business examining its strategy to ensure that it still relevant.  However, in the academic sense, it is much more about making sure that we are teaching our students skills that will make them valuable to businesses when they graduate.

A big part of this process is sitting down with our industry partners that make up our advisory board and having a discussion on that very subject.  During this discussion we don’t ask about
what skills they need now, but rather the skills that they will need 2-5 years from now.  Given the diversity of our advisory board, we expected to get a wide range of responses to that question.  However, when we asked them, we pretty much received a uniform response.  Our business advisors said that they wanted, “business intelligence , on the cloud, that was secure, and accessible from mobile devices.”

This wasn’t necessarily a departure from what we had heard in the past, but more of an extension of it.  Our partners had always coveted those students that could develop web applications.  They also wanted graduates that had business intelligence (BI) expertise.  The addition of mobility was fairly new, but expected given that mobile business apps will be leading
type of software being developed by 2015

We have begun to act on this advice by including mobile development topics in our object oriented courses, examining business intelligence partnerships, and leading student projects in cloud computing using the Microsoft Azure platform.  However, I believe that our projections
for a 2-5 year window will be arriving sooner than we expected.  This was made even more  apparent when I read a recent blog post by David Linthicum on Infoworld.com.

In this post, Linthicum (whose blog was listed as one to watch in 2011 by Focus) discusses how cloud based BI is a game changer because it opens up BI to smaller businesses that would not normally be able to take advantage of it due to the high price tag.   While I might disagree a bit that the cloud won’t add any new capabilities (all that processing power has to open up the ability to process data in ways that was previously thought to be too processor intensive for traditional BI, right?), I was really delighted to see that he mentioned that the cloud will open up the accessibility to BI reports for mobile devices.

I think that it might even go farther than simply accessing reports from mobile devices.  In fact, I believe that mobile devices may even be used in place of a PC to create ad hoc reports and access other BI capabilities.  It actually even lends a little support to my post about mobile and Azure being the next client-server architecture.

If you are interested in examining these topics for your programs, please contact me and I will try to answer any questions that you may have.   I can tell you that we have relied heavily on technologies from Microsoft in order to integrate these topics into our curriculum.  I am not sure about the other providers, but I know that Microsoft is making all sorts of free resources available for business intelligence (MS Enterprise Consortium), mobile (MSDN Academic Alliance, Dreamspark), and cloud (free access to Azure).  We have found that these technologies are not a departure from what we are currently using and have made it easy to integrate these items into our curriculum.  Plus the students like the price tag!

The H-2-O Mobile Water Testing Application

I wrote a few days ago promising that I would let you know about the efforts of one of my teams competing in the Microsoft Imagine Cup.  Well, here it is in press release form (without giving away too much of the details)!

Little Rock, AR – Access to safe drinking water is a global issue.  In fact, less than 1% of the world’s water is considered safe for drinking  and 3.6 million people die each year from waterborne diseases.  The issue takes on even more importance in a disaster situation such as after Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti.  Many water sources once thought to be safe can become contaminated because of broken water lines, chemical spills, or other reasons.

Since the human body can survive much longer without food than it can without water, getting safe drinking water is one of the primary concerns of emergency responders.  A team of students from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock have created an innovative application to help emergency responders in this effort by using mobile pones to collect, analyze, and communicate water testing data so that safe water sources can be identified and resources can be allocated more effectively to those areas where the water is not safe.  The H-2-O Mobile Water Laboratory is the combination of a Windows Phone 7 smartphone, a portable microscope, a software application that resides on the mobile phone, data storage on Windows Azure Storage and SQL Azure, the cloud-based storage offerings from Microsoft.


The H-2-O Mobile Water Testing Lab

The H-2-O Mobile Water Testing Lab capturing an image of a sample

The H-2-O Mobile Water Testing Laboratory works by allowing emergency responders to easily collect and interpret the results of various water tests and to communicate them out to emergency responders.  For example, an emergency responder could use the application first to interpret the results of the tests of chemical properties of a water source such as Ph and nitrite levels, to identify malicious bacteria and parasites that may be present in the source through microscopic examination, and then geo-tag and communicate those results out to the response agencies so that they can get resources out to the areas where the water is unsafe.

The students chose to write a mobile application for many reasons.  One reason that mobility was chosen is because of its wide adoption.  Over 80% of the world’s population has access to cell phone coverage, and new technologies are only going to increase this number.  This means that the application has the ability to be used almost anywhere there is a disaster situation. Another reason for mobility was the capabilities that Windows Phone 7 mobile devices possess.  The students tie many of these capabilities (camera, phone, data communication, GPS, and processing) into a single platform through their innovative software design.

This isn’t just your typical contest entry.  The students are extremely serious about making an impact with this application.  They have already secured some funding in the form of a UALR Sustainability Research Grant and are applying to other funding sources to support the development of the application.  They have also worked with organizations such as Lifewater International to get technical assistance with the water testing aspects of the application and are seeking to partner with organizations that can provide better microscopic technology for the application.  Finally, they have applied for a patent on the H-2-O Mobile Water Testing Lab and formed a Limited Liability Corporation in an effort to bring this technology to market.

I wish the team much success as they compete in the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition this year!

Windows Phone 7 and Windows Azure: Foundations for the Next Client-Server Architecture?

I was having another conversation about my thoughts on adding Windows 7 Phone to the MIS curriculum with some friends of mine whom specialize in entrepreneurship.  When I mentioned that USA Today had reported that mobile business applications will be the #1 type of software being developed by 2010, they seemed skeptical.  “They don’t have the processing power required to run meaningful business apps,” was the comment that I received.  That caused me to really think.  Is the mobile device the next paradigm shift in computing?  I mean, these guys are very intelligent, they understand new innovations, and they are far from being Luddites.

I was feeling a little less secure in my convictions when, in the midst of a conversation with another faculty member on Imagine Cup projects we are involved with, the answer became evident.  It was all reminiscent of the shift to client-server computing from mainframe computing.  Clients had no where near the processing power of a mainframe, but they had some processing power and could connect to more powerful servers when they needed more resources for processing or storage.  In other words, mobile devices didn’t need to be powerful enough to run meaningful business apps, they just needed to be able to connect to something that could.  That something, in my mind, is Windows Azure.

In my opinion, Windows Phone  7 + Windows Azure  applications may be indicative of not just a shift to mobility, but rather a shift to the next generation client-server architecture.  Windows Azure can provide an powerful, scalable platform for the parts of mobile business applications that need to do the heavy lifting, and the mobile apps can provide the processing that is needed to localize and personalize the application or to locally manipulate whatever data have been retrieved from the cloud.  Windows Azure also, via SQL Azure,  provides tremendous storage capacity and analysis services not currently available in mobile devices.

The really funny part of all this is that my students are already doing something to this effect in our Imagine Cup project.  I just didn’t see it from the client-server perspective. The end result of all of this was that my faith was restored that mobility is something that MIS (as well as CS and IT) programs can’t afford to ignore, but also that a shift to mobility is going to open a lot of other possibilities for businesses to leverage IT for competitive advantage.  I even felt better about my Imagine Cup team’s project to boot…and that, my friends, is a good thing.


Practicing What I Preach

I was summoned the other day to a meeting about assessing the educational outcomes for an economics education course for high school students.  My first thought was, “why in the world would they have an MIS guy in a meeting about the assessment of economics education?”  However, since the request to attend the meeting came from my boss, I was really in no position to turn it down.

A few minutes after arriving at the meeting, I found out why I was there.  The meeting wasn’t just about assessment, it was about creating a information system in the form of an online test for assessment.  After learning this, it’s no surprise that my interest level was increased significantly.

So the people that are interested in this system want to have students take a pre-test on economics in the beginning of the semester and then a post-test at the end.  This means that there would be four times (two tests * two semesters per year) per year that the system would be heavily utilized and then a long lull in between.  After hearing this I was really interested.  I thought to myself, “So we need to design a system that can support periodic spikes in usage, that needs to be able to accommodate several thousand users, and has to store data that is accessible to multiple parties?”   This thing is just screaming for the cloud!!

So this blog is the first in a series that will chronicle the development of our cloud based assessment system.  As a person that has done some research in this area, it will be nice to actually dive into the practical side of the equation and put something out on the cloud. Sure, I assisted my Imagine Cup team last year with their cloud app, but I couldn’t actually get my hands dirty (so to say) and put something up there myself.  So, I hope that you will be entertained and maybe learn a thing or two from my experiences “practicing what I preach.”

Float with the clouds or freefall: What would you choose?

As an academic, I tend to look at cloud computing as a promising new computing innovation that can be leveraged by organizations to help them reach their strategic goals.  However, I try to maintain a solid connection to practice.  After all, how can we do research that is going to make a difference to business if we don’t know what business needs?  This connection to industry also allows me to get a feel for how practitioners feel about new computing innovations, and cloud computing is no exception.

So, how do many people in industry feel about cloud computing?  Well, let’s just say that if it went away tomorrow, not many tears would be shed. They view cloud as a threat to their job stability.   I’m not the first person to notice this.   William Hurley wrote about this back in February of last year in his post,  “IT needs to get over its cloud denial, or management will get over IT.”  Regardless of how IT practitioners feel about the subject of cloud computing, there is one simple reality.  The cloud is not going away.  So you can either float along with the cloud, or you can find yourself (and your career) falling without a parachute.

The issue here isn’t a new one.  It is the age old problem of getting IT and management on the same page when it comes to technology.  In my graduate information systems management course at UALR, one of the very first things that I preach to future MBAs is the fact that technology decisions can’t be made solely by management.  They also cannot be made solely by technologists.  In order for any technological decision to be functional and advance the strategic interests of an organization, it has to be made by both groups.  The business managers understand the business and the business strategy, the technologists understand the technology.

So it is imperative that IT get educated about the cloud so that they can help the organization to determine where cloud can help an organization and where it can not.  Otherwise, you will have a situation where business managers are making decisions based on metrics such as cost that may look good at first, but could wind up being a problem for the organization down the road.  In my opinion, I believe that cloud computing is an opportunity for IT professionals to strengthen their position in the organization.  In fact, instead of looking at cloud computing as a threat to our job security, we should look at it as a way to increase it.

Think about it.  How many organizations have IT departments with more work than they can handle?  I think it is safe to say that the majority of IT departments fall into this category.  In fact, I would say that much of the average IT professionals time is spent running around putting out fires.  Leveraging the cloud in a sensible manner can help to alleviate some of this workload and allow IT departments to focus more energy on the things that make sense for them to be spending time on.  So, do you want to float on the cloud or do you want to freefall?  To me, the choice seems pretty simple.

Overview of Cloud Computing

Here is a guest commentary that Dr. Janet Bailey and I wrote on cloud computing for Arkansas Business.  Hopefully it will de-mystify some of the buzz around the concept! Open-mouthed smile

Business in the Cloud (Guest Commentary)
By James Parrish and Janet Bailey – 6/7/2010

Cloud computing is the current IT buzz phrase being tossed around as the next "big thing" that will propel businesses to newfound success. But what exactly is cloud computing and is it right for your business?

Cloud computing is an umbrella term. Sometimes it’s used to describe grid computing, which is combining multiple computers to provide increased computing power. Other times it’s used to describe utility computing, a model that offers on-demand access to third-party infrastructure controllable and configurable only by the third party. This model is metered and similar to paying for electric service. 

Cloud computing has aspects of each of these concepts and others. Cloud computing provides access to powerful and scalable third-party computing infrastructure and is most frequently paid for on a usage basis. Customers don’t control or configure the infrastructure. 

Despite similarities, cloud computing shouldn’t be confused with grid and utility computing. So why is the term used generically? First, it’s much easier for a salesperson to sell his offerings because of the popularity and hype of cloud computing. Second, it’s easier than explaining how current offerings differ from the cloud. Finally, there are three different flavors of cloud computing: software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS).

Many businesses are already using SaaS, a cloud environment that allows customers to use a provider’s applications over the Web. If you are using Gmail, Google Docs, Office Live or many other Web-based applications, you are already using cloud computing.  Some providers have relabeled hosted applications as cloud applications.

PaaS allows businesses to develop and deploy applications to the cloud using programming languages and tools either provided or supported by the cloud provider.  While the business doesn’t have control over the infrastructure, it does have control over the application. Examples include Microsoft Azure, Google App Engine and Force.com.

Finally, IaaS is leased access to computing resources such as processing, storage and networks. In addition to applications, businesses also have control over the operating systems and, in some cases, networking components such as firewalls. Amazon Web Services, Joyent, Rackspace and VMware are examples.

As with any change to your information systems strategy, determining whether cloud computing is right for your business requires a hard look to evaluate whether cloud computing – in any form – will support and be supported by your business and organizational strategies. Here are some questions we recommend a business consider:

  • Does my business have a static or dynamic need for computing resources? A key feature of cloud computing is scalability. Computing resources can be rapidly and easily provisioned on demand. If you have major spikes in the demand for computing resources or you are rolling out a new initiative and unsure how much computing power will ultimately be needed, then the pay-as-you-go structure of the cloud may be advantageous compared with the maintenance costs of an infrastructure that sits underutilized much of the time.
  • Does my business need to provide access to corporate data outside of the company firewall? Cloud computing offers access to third-party hosting of applications and data and, depending on provider, links to the on-premise applications you deem necessary without the need to open a port or create a VPN, or virtual private network.
  • Does my business have the capability or desire to manage advanced computing infrastructures and the information systems they support? Since cloud providers maintain the computing infrastructure, you can reduce costs in four main areas: 1. cost of the infrastructure, 2. staff to maintain the infrastructure, 3. physical space to house the infrastructure and 4. electricity necessary to operate and cool the equipment.

Cloud computing will not and should not replace all your current infrastructure.

Many issues involved with choosing a cloud provider should be considered if and when you make the decision to pursue cloud computing, such as security, level of service, capabilities and flexibility. If used correctly, the cloud has the potential to save you money and provide a competitive advantage.

(James Parrish, an assistant professor of management information systems at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, was the mentor for the Imagine Cup team that won the Cloud Computing Award at the Microsoft Imagine Cup National Finals. Janet Bailey, an associate professor of MIS at UALR, is a leader in the cloud arena through her research and work with Microsoft’s cloud platform.)