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On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a fridge

Why can’t experts predict the weather accurately? That’s one of the modern world’s longest-running jokes and even Simon Gear, South Africa’s most popular meteorologist, often admits that even he gets it wrong.

But at the very least, it can help us pack a jersey or motivate for that extra round of golf by pointing at the forecast for sunshine. In some cases, such as the Capetonian drought, it’s even more relevant.

Suffice it to say, we talk about the weather a lot and, armed with modern weather apps, we have made it more parcel to our lifestyles than ever before – even if predictions aren’t always on the money. Yet recently the weather became a much more active part of my world when it joined my connected reality.

I have a rather substantial garden, one that demands its own levels of attention including watering. For that, I relied on a standard controller that would periodically open the taps to the sprinklers. But recently it was replaced with a new controller, one we’ve taken to call ‘Diamond,’ because my wife loves it so much. Diamond can do what my previous controller did, then goes much further. A true Internet of Things (IoT) gadget, it has smarts that changed the way I water my garden.

Once Diamond connected to my wifi, it asked for my location, as well as the type of plants found in the different watering zones, and the watering times. It then devised a smart metering schedule which can be dynamically informed by the predictions from Simon and his peers. That’s right, by using an online connection, Diamond is aware of any afternoon precipitation and will thus avoid doing any watering. While the rest of us murmur on about the weather, Diamond makes it a central part of its life without any instruction. Costing on the lower end of a few thousand Rands, Diamond will pay for itself in no time through water savings.

Diamond is a simple example of the IoT phenomenon. When you hear predictions about billions of connected devices and how they will change the world, Diamond is a contributor to that reality. From doorbells that send photos of the visitor to your phone, to industrial equipment that alerts operators that they require repairs: such devices will provide us with many new ways to engage with, and manage, our society.

Consider electricity consumption; I recently spent some time with Prof. Willie Cronje and his team from the Wits’ School of Electrical & Information Engineering. They are doing exceptional work on pico-grids, interoperable with multiple electrical sources; and storage devices such as solar panels, wind generators, batteries, and the like. They are also working on IoT devices that will regulate electricity consumption and spending. These make decisions such as switching other devices on and off at the optimal time. One example is a simple fridge unit that will cause fridges and freezers to “overcool” when electricity is cheaper.

Smart devices are getting smarter, and cheaper, by the day. In addition, their ability to make micro decisions in split seconds based on accurate information is mind-blowing. What the impact will be on our world is still impossible to predict. Some go so far as to imply a luxurious utopia for all. That’s far too naive for me, but there is no denying the massive potential hidden in this new era. That also implies new areas of uncertainty which is why we should debate and weigh the potential of smart devices around us. Whatever the future will be, rest assured it will be written through the influence of a smart, connected world. It’s not a topic anyone in a position to make decisions should ignore or take for granted.

What possibilities do these devices pose for tomorrow? That’s a topic all on its own. In the next instalment of this series, I will comment more on the prevalent economic and cultural dynamics of this convergence.

But in the meantime, my garden looks great, my water bill is lower, and my wife is very impressed with this new controller. In just a few swift changes it’s made my previous system look like a relic from prehistoric times. Pretty soon that experience will resonate in systems and services all around us. Your fridge will no longer be a fridge. It will be a connected decision-maker, acting in our interest. But online, it will be just one of the billions of IoT devices changing how we run the world.

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Time is running out for Microsoft SQL Server 2008

Companies are urged to update from the dated database management software as end-of-support looms, writes BRYAN TURNER.

The 11-year-old Microsoft SQL Server 2008 database management software is reaching the end of its support on 9 July. The applications that use databases running on this software will be at risk of security and stability issues.

On self-managed databases, upgrading to the latest database version comes with a lot of risks. Many IT departments within companies go by the motto: “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”.

Microsoft made it very clear that it would not be updating SQL Server 2005 after its extended support date and even left it vulnerable to Spectre and Meltdown by not releasing patches for the dated version.

Updating SQL Server versions may seem daunting, but the benefits far outweigh the effort it takes for a migration. In the last major version update, SQL Server 2016 introduced simpler backup functionality, database stretching, and always-encrypted communications with the database, to name just three features.

While backing up the database may be the last thing on the typical database administrator’s mind, it’s become increasingly important to do so. In SQL Server 2008, it’s clunky and causes headaches for many admins. However, in SQL Server 2016, one can easily set up an automated backup to Azure storage and let it run on smart backup intervals. Backing up offsite also reduces the need for disaster recovery for onsite damage.

Database stretching allows admins to push less frequently accessed data to an Azure database, automatically decided by SQL Server 2016. This reduces the admin of manually looking through what must be kept and what must be shipped off or deleted. It also reduces the size of the database, which also increases the performance of the applications that access it. The best part of this functionality is it automatically retrieves the less accessed records from Azure when users request it, without the need for manual intervention.

Always-encrypted communications are becoming more and more relevant to many companies, especially those operating in European regions after the introduction of GDPR. Encryption keys were previously managed by the admin, but now encryption is always handled by the client. Furthermore, the keys to encrypt and decrypt data are stored outside of SQL Server altogether. This means data stored in the database is always encrypted, and no longer for the eyes of a curious database manager. 

The built-in reporting tools have also vastly improved with the addition of new reporting metrics and a modern look. It includes support for Excel reports for keeping documentation and Power BI for automated, drag-and-drop personalised reporting. Best of all, it removes the dreaded Active X controls, which made the reporting in a webpage feel very clumsy and bloated in previous versions.

A lot has changed in the past ten years in the world of SQL Server database management, and it’s not worth running into problems before Microsoft ends support for SQL Server 2008.

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Local apps to feature in Huawei’s App Gallery

Huawei’s mobile app store, the HUAWEI AppGallery, will soon feature a multitude of apps and designs by local developers. The company says this is part of its drive to promote South African digital talent and include more useful apps for Huawei smartphone users. HUAWEI AppGallery and HUAWEI Themes are pre-installed on all the latest Huawei and Honor devices.

“South African consumers are increasingly wanting more apps that are relevant to their unique circumstances, addressing issues they experience regularly – such as load shedding or safety concerns – but also apps that celebrate South Africa’s multitude of cultures and this vibrant country,” says Lu Geng, director of Huawei Consumer Cloud Service Southern Africa Region.

Akhram Mohamed, chief technology officer of Huawei Consumer Business Group South Africa, says: “Huawei is committed to catering to the needs of South African consumers, but we also know that we do not have all the answers. For this reason, we aim to work closely with South African developers so that we can give our users everything that they need and want from their devices. At the same time, we also hope to create an open ecosystem for local developers by offering a simple and secure environment for them to upload content.”

Huawei Mobile Services was launched in South Africa in June last year. Since then, both the HUAWEI AppGallery and HUAWEI Themes – which features tens of thousands of themes, fonts and wallpapers that personalise user’s handset – have become increasingly popular with the local market. Even though it is a relatively new division of Huawei, there has been a great increase in growth; at the end of 2018 Huawei Mobile Services had 500 million users globally, representing a 117% increase on the previous year.

Explaining what differentiates the HUAWEI AppGallery from other app stores, Mosa Matshediso Hlobelo, business developer for Consumer Cloud Service Southern Africa says: “We use the name ‘HUAWEI AppGallery’ because we have a dedicated team that curates all the apps in terms of relevance and ease of use and to ensure that there are no technical issues. Importantly, all apps are also security-checked for malware and privacy leaks before being uploaded on to the HUAWEI AppGallery.”

Huawei recently held a Developers’ Day where Huawei executives met with South African developers to discuss Huawei’s offering. 48 developers registered their apps on the day, and Huawei is currently in discussions with them with the eventual aim of featuring the best apps and designs on HUAWEI AppGallery or HUAWEI Themes. The Consumer Cloud Service Southern Africa Team at Huawei plans on making Developers’ Day a quarterly event and establishing a local providers’ hub, where developers can regularly meet with Huawei for training on updates to programmes and offerings.

“We have a very hands-on approach with our developers, and hope to expand that community so we can become an additional distribution channel for more developers and expose them to both a local and a global audience,” says Geng. “For example, we regularly feature apps and designs from local developers on our Huawei social media pages, and do competitions and promotions. We want to do everything we can to make our Huawei users aware of these local apps and upload them. This will encourage the growth of the developer community in South Africa by giving developers more opportunities to generate revenue from in-app purchases.”

* Developers who would like their apps featured on the HUAWEI App Gallery, or designs featured on HUAWEI Themes, should visit https://developer.huawei.com or email Huawei Mobile Services on sacloud@huawei.com.

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