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When a machine can be anything you want

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A simple concept that could transform computing lies at the heart of the complex “new” tech discipline known as virtualisation, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Imagine that any smartphone you use can be turned into that of any brand you want. It may sound absurd in a world of deadly rivalry between Apple, Samsung and the like. But then imagine that any auomatic teller machine can instantly adopt the brand of your bank the moment you slip in your ATM card. Suddenly, that doesn’t sound so absurd. In fact, the possibility is closer than we may think.

It is made possible by a relatively new and complex information technology discipline called virtualsation, which allows for “virtual machines” to be created in data centres, on central computers called servers. A server can house any number of these virtual machines, which are tied to specific user identities. Log in with the appropriate details, and your personalised machine appears, with very specific applications and content specific to your role in an organisation.

The concept goes hand in hand with cloud computing, which allows applications, content and processes to be accessed from anywhere, on any device, at any time.

These concepts lay behind the creation of WMware, one of the world’s largest providers of cloud computing systems and until recently a subsidiary of storage leaders EMC. When computer giants Dell announced last year they would buy EMC for a record $67-billion, VMware was described as one of the jewels in the acquisition, and remained a separately listed company, with the new Dell Technologies as controlling shareholder.

It’s not hard to see why: the company keeps pushing the boundaries of what is possible in both cloud computing and virtualisation. At its recent VMworld conference in Barcelona, it unveiled new releases of most of its solutions that help companies streamline their IT operations. In combination, these solutions make up VMware’s Cross-Cloud Architecture, which enables companies to run, manage, connect, and secure their applications across any device or cloud service – now including market leaders Amazon and Microsoft – as if they are in their own customised environment.

Because virtual machines are dictated by software rather than hardware, and consumers and corporations alike are seeing their high-tech worlds defined by that software, it becomes easier to envisage smartphones, ATMs or any other hardware adapted to the purpose or preference of the moment. It makes sense, but it also requires a new mindset.

“We are now the psychologists of information, because we have to transform the way people think about techbology,” said Ian Jansen Van Rensburg, VMware Southern Africa’s senior manager for systems engineering, speaking at Vmworld. Ironically, however, South African techies are harder to convince than their counterparts in the rest of Africa.

“In South Africa, if you tell a storage guy his business is going to be a software business, and he’s just invested heavily in storage hardware, he’s probably not going down that route. Yet, everything is becoming software-defined, and people need to wrap their heads around this.”

The real irony is that, in the rest of Africa, far less has been invested in hardware, and the leap to software-defined data centres is far easier from a mindset point of view. Even more ironically, employees who once depended entirely on the IT department for assistance and resources are now bypassing IT administrators so that they can get what they need, when they need it.

For example, marketers who want to share large files online for an urgent project are no longer waiting for the techies sitting in the IT department to approve the budget or set up the appropriate “architecture” for file-sharing. Instead, they log on to the Dropbox online storage service, whip out their personal credit cards and pay for extra capacity. The cost is then charged to routine project expenses.

It may not make a big difference when it is a Dropbox here and a Google app there, but it adds up when such habits graduate to serious business applications. The combination costs so much, yet is not going through the IT budget, that the company has a distorted picture of what is being spent where.

VMware previously called this kind of spending “Shadow IT”, meaning it lurks unseen in the shadows of the IT budget. VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger, in his keynote address at the conference, used a new term, “self-starting IT”, referring to the ability of any tech-savvy staff members to become their own IT providers.

VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger

VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger

But help is at hand, says Matthew Kibby, VMware regional director for sub-Saharan Africa.

Matthew Kibby, VMware regional director for sub-Saharan Africa.

Matthew Kibby, VMware regional director for sub-Saharan Africa.

“Users were frustrated because the IT department couldn’t deliver an application to them fast enough. Eventually they got fed up and went to Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure and quickly got it off the cloud. VMware’s vision is is to give that control back to IT and say, you are now in control of your IT infrastructure, whether it’s being rolled out on a company laptop or a personal smartphone.

“We not only need to give them back that control, but do it along with the look and feel of being able to access any device from any application anywhere in the world. That’s exactly what the Cross-Cloud Architecture will achieve. We want to make the IT department or Chief Information Officer the new hero of the company again.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Samsung unleashes the beast

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Most new smartphone releases of the past few years have been like cat-and-mouse games with consumers and each other. It has been as if morsels of cheese are thrown into the box to make it more interesting: a little extra camera here, a little more battery there, and incremental changes to size, speed (more) and weight (less). Each change moves the needle of innovation ever-so-slightly. Until we find ourselves, a few years later, with a handset that is revolutionary compared to six years ago, but an anti-climax relative to six months before.

And then came Samsung. Probably stung by the “incremental improvement” phrase that has become almost a cliché about new Galaxy devices, the Korean giant chose to unleash a beast last week.

The new Galaxy Note 9 is not only the biggest smartphone Samsung has ever released, but one of the biggest flagship handsets that can still be called a phone. With a 6.4” display, it suddenly competes with mini-tablets and gaming consoles, among other devices that had previously faced little contest from handsets.

It offers almost ever cutting edge introduced to the Galaxy S9 and S9+ smartphones earlier this year, including the market-leading f1.5 aperture lens, and an f2.4. telephoto lens, each weighing in at 12 Megapixels. The front lens is equally impressive, with an f1.7 aperture – first introduced on the Note 8 as the widest yet on a selfie camera.

So far, so S9. However, the Note range has always been set apart by its S Pen stylus, and each edition has added new features. Born as a mere pen that writes on screens, it evolved through the likes of pressure sensitivity, allowing for artistic expression, and cut-and-paste text with translation-on-the-fly.

(Click here or below to read more about the Samsung Galaxy S Pen stylus) Samsung Galaxy S9 Features)

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SA ride permit system ‘broken’

Despite the amendments to the National Land Transport Act, ALON LITS, General Manager, Uber in Sub Saharan Africa, believes that many premature given that the necessary, well-functioning systems and processes are not yet in place to make these regulatory changes viable.

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The spirit and intention of the amendments to the National Land Transport Act No 5  (NLTA), 2009 put forward by the Ministry of Transport are to be commended. It is especially pleasing that these amendments include ridesharing and e-hailing operators and drivers as legitimate participants in the country’s public transport system, which point to government’s willingness to embrace the changes and innovation taking place in the country’s transport industry.

However, there are aspects of the proposed amendments that are, at best, premature given that the necessary, well-functioning systems and processes are not yet in place to make these regulatory changes viable.

Of particular concern are the significant financial penalties that will need to be paid by ridesharing and e-hailing companies whose independent operators are found to be transporting passengers without a legal permit issued by the relevant local authority. These fines can be as high as R100 000 per driver operating without a permit. Apart from being an excessive penalty it is grossly unfair given that a large number of local authorities don’t yet have functioning permit issuing systems and processes in place.

The truth is that the operating permit issuance system in South Africa is effectively broken. The application and issuance processes for operating licenses are fundamentally flawed and subject to extensive delays, sometimes over a year in length.  This situation is exacerbated by the fact that it is very difficult for applicants whose permit applications haven’t yet been approved to get reasons for the extensive delays on the issuing of those permits.

Uber has had extensive first-hand experience with the frustratingly slow process of applying for these permits, with drivers often having to wait months and, in some cases more than a year, for their permits.

Sadly, there appears to be no sense of urgency amongst local authorities to prioritise fixing the flawed permit issuing systems and processes or address the large, and growing, backlogs of permit applications. As such, in order for the proposed stringent permit enforcement rules to be effective and fair to all role players, the long-standing issues around permit issuance first need to be addressed. At the very least, before the proposed legislation amendments are implemented, the National Transport Ministry needs to address the following issues:

  1. Efficient processes and systems must be put in place in all local authorities to allow drivers to easily apply for the operating permits they require
  2. Service level agreements need to be put in place with local authorities whereby they are required to assess applications and issue permits within the prescribed 60-day period.
  3. Local authorities need to be given deadlines by which their current permit application backlogs must be addressed to allow for faster processing of new applications once the amendments are promulgated.

If the Transport Ministry implements the proposed legislation amendments before ensuring that these permit issuance challenges are addressed, many drivers will be faced with the difficult choice of either having to operate illegally whilst awaiting their approved permits and risking significant fines and/or arrest, or stopping operations until they receive their permits, thereby losing what is, for many of them, their only source of income.

As such, if the Ministry of Transport is not able to address these particular challenges, it is only reasonable to ask it to reconsider this amendment and delay its implementation until the necessary infrastructure is in place to ensure it does not impact negatively on the country’s transport industry. The legislators must have been aware of the challenges of passing such a significant law, as the Amendment Bill allows for the Minister to use his discretion to delay implementation of provisions for up to 5 years.

Fair trade and healthy competition are the cornerstones of any effective and growing economy. However, these clauses (Section 66 (7) and Section 66A) of the NLTA amendment, as well as the proposal that regulators be given authority to define the geographic locations or zones in which vehicles may operate, are contrary to the spirit of both. As a good corporate citizen, Uber is committed to supplementing and enhancing South Africa’s national transport system and contributing positively to the industry. If passed into law without the revisions suggested above, these new amendments will limit our business and many others from playing the supportive roles we all can, and should, in growing the SA transport and tourism industries as well as many other key economic sectors.

What’s more, if passed as they currently stand, the amendments will effectively limit South African consumers from having full access to the range of convenient transport options they deserve; which has the potential to harm the reputation and credibility of the entire transport industry.

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