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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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Earth 2050: memory chips for kids, telepathy for adults

An astonishing set of predictions for the next 30 years includes a major challenge to the privacy of our thoughts.

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By 2050, most kids may be fitted with the latest memory boosting implants, and adults will have replaced mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought.

These are some of the more dramatic forecasts in Earth 2050, an award-winning, interactive multimedia project that accumulates predictions about social and technological developments for the upcoming 30 years. The aim is to identify global challenges for humanity and possible ways of solving these challenges. The website was launched in 2017 to mark Kaspersky Lab’s 20th birthday. It comprises a rich variety of predictions and future scenarios, covering a wide range of topics.

Recently a number of new contributions have been added to the site. Among them Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Professor at Cambridge University and former President of the Royal Society; investor and entrepreneur Steven Hoffman, Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, along withDmitry Galov, security researcher and Alexey Malanov, malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab.

The new visions for 2050 consider, among other things:

  • The replacement of mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought – able to upload skills and knowledge in return – and the impact of this on individual consciousness and privacy of thought.
  • The ability to transform all life at the genetic level through gene editing.
  • The potential impact of mistakes made by advanced machine-learning systems/AI.
  • The demise of current political systems and the rise of ‘citizen governments’, where ordinary people are co-opted to approve legislation.
  • The end of the techno-industrial age as the world runs out of fossil fuels, leading to economic and environmental devastation.
  • The end of industrial-scale meat production, as most people become vegan and meat is cultured from biopsies taken from living, outdoor reared livestock.

The hypothetical prediction for 2050 from Dmitry Galov, security researcher at Kaspersky Lab is as follows: “By 2050, our knowledge of how the brain works, and our ability to enhance or repair it is so advanced that being able to remember everything and learn new things at an outrageous speed has become commonplace. Most kids are fitted with the latest memory boosting implants to support their learning and this makes education easier than it has ever been. 

“Brain damage as a result of head injury is easily repaired; memory loss is no longer a medical condition, and people suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression, are quickly cured.  The technologies that underpin this have existed in some form since the late 2010s. Memory implants are in fact a natural progression from the connected deep brain stimulation implants of 2018.

“But every technology has another side – a dark side. In 2050, the medical, social and economic impact of memory boosting implants are significant, but they are also vulnerable to exploitation and cyber-abuse. New threats that have appeared in the last decade include the mass manipulation of groups through implanted or erased memories of political events or conflicts, and even the creation of ‘human botnets’. 

“These botnets connect people’s brains into a network of agents controlled and operated by cybercriminals, without the knowledge of the victims themselves.  Repurposed cyberthreats from previous decades are targeting the memories of world leaders for cyber-espionage, as well as those of celebrities, ordinary people and businesses with the aim of memory theft, deletion of or ‘locking’ of memories (for example, in return for a ransom).  

“This landscape is only possible because, in the late 2010s when the technologies began to evolve, the potential future security vulnerabilities were not considered a priority, and the various players: healthcare, security, policy makers and more, didn’t come together to understand and address future risks.”

For more information and the full suite of inspirational and thought-provoking predictions, visit Earth 2050.

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How load-shedding is killing our cellphone signals

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Extensive load-shedding, combined with the theft of cell tower backup batteries and copper wire, is placing a massive strain on mobile network providers.

MTN says the majority of MTN’S sites have been equipped with battery backup systems to ensure there is enough power on site to run the system for several hours when local power goes out and the mains go down. 

“With power outages on the rise, these back-up systems become imperative to keeping South Africa connected and MTN has invested heavily in generators and backup batteries to maintain communication for customers, despite the lack of electrical power,” the operator said in a statement today.

However, according to Jacqui O’Sullivan, Executive: Corporate Affairs, at MTN SA, “The high frequency of the cycles of load shedding have meant batteries were unable to fully recharge. They generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category, and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge.”

An additional challenge is that criminals and criminal syndicates are placing networks across the country at risk. Batteries, which can cost R28 000 per battery and upwards, are sought after on black markets – especially in neighbouring countries. 

“Although MTN has improved security and is making strides in limiting instances of theft and vandalism with the assistance of the police, the increase in power outages has made this issue even more pressing,” says O’Sullivan.

Ernest Paul, General Manager: Network Operations at SA’s leading network provider MTN, says the brazen theft of batteries is an industry-wide problem and will require a broader initiative driven by communities, the private sector, police and prosecutors to bring it to a halt.

“Apart from the cost of replacing the stolen batteries and upgrading the broken infrastructure, communities suffer as the network degrades without the back-up power. This is due to the fact that any coverage gaps need to be filled. The situation is even more dire with the rolling power cuts expected due to Eskom load shedding.”

Loss of services and network quality can range from a 2-5km radius to 15km on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people. On hub sites, network coverage to entire suburbs and regions can be lost.

Click here to read more about efforts to combat copper theft.

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