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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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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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