Economist special report on social networking

If you’re a consultant, the place to make money is just before an idea / process / technology goes mainstream. Too early and you risk been seen as a nutcase. Too late are you get lost in the chorus of ‘me too’.

The best method of gauging when a technology idea is going mainstream is the Economist Magazine. When they publish an article about an emerging idea / technology, they’re doing it on behalf of their readers – the ‘informed mainstream, including the decision makers that you’ll be pitching you proposal based on that technology to. So far , they’ve called it right about the Internet, Agile Projects, Open Source and Cloud computing.

So, for all that have been calling for the last 18 months that ‘Social Networking is going mainstream’ , the Economist has published a special report on the issue.

Well worth a read, even if you think you know it all about Social Networking already.

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Security in your Software-as-a-Service (SAAS) Application

‘Credit Crunch’ might be the favourite buzzword of the moment, but ‘Security’ and ‘Software as a Service’ are not very far behind. Ok, they’re a long way behind ‘will I lose my house’ or ‘will I have a job tomorrow’, but you get the idea. So I’m proud to associated by this article by Max and Chicco, even in a very minor way (as a reviewer).

IBM Developer works logo

Here’s the 2 minute overview of Securing a multi-tenant SAAS Appliction, just published on IBM Developerworks.

  1. Software as a Service (SAAS) has a great pitch – let us host your software for you, cheaper and less hassle than managing it yourself.
  2. Most SAAS companies host multiple clients on one server = New security concerns.
  3. LDAP (Similar to Windows Directory) is a standard already in wide use for Authentication (making sure people who they say they are).
  4. Spring Security (aka Acegi) is a well used Authorisation toolkit – i.e. make sure those people only do things they are allowed to do.
  5. The article shows you how to bring SAAS , LDAP and Spring Security together to get secure, scalable , hosted applications using the very best in widely understood technologies.

Of course, I’m not going to spill the beans on how exactly they do it; for that you’re going to have to hotfoot it over to the IBM Developerworks website.

Business Rules without Java

I like this sample as it explains what Business Rules are, in a way that professional (i.e. non technical people) can understand. This one I originally posted on the O’Reilly Java and JBoss Drools blogs. If you were around in Dublin last month, you’ll notice that it’s also the sample that I talked through at the Irish Java Technologies Conference.

Like many countries, the Health services in Bangladesh can’t get enough doctors. Training more is not a solution ; Qualified doctors often leave for better pay elsewhere. Given the urgent need for trained medical staff in rural areas so save lives (often children dying of curable diseases), what are health workers to do?

The solution that the Health workers came up with was IMCI – or Integrated Management of Childhood Illness. It takes what the Knowledge in Doctor’s head’s and stores it as a simple guide that health workers can follow. When a sick child is brought into the clinic the health worker is able to follow the simple step-by-step instructions to make quite a sophisticated diagnosis.

I’ve no medical training beyond simple CPR (and if you’re relying on that then you’re in real trouble) but even I can understand it.

imci.jpg

Look at the pale blue box in the diagram above. It’s a set of medical rules: Are there any danger signs? What are the main symptoms? What combination of these symptoms are there? What is the age of the child? How long have they been ill? Depending on the outcome of the rules, go to the next set (the pink / yellow /green) boxes and apply the rules that you find there.

That’s Rules and RuleFlow.

  • Rules are ‘when something is present , then do this’. And not just single rules, but many of them. Together, loads of simple rules allow you to come up with quite a sophisticated diagnosis.
  • Ruleflow allows you to group your rules. If you’re a health worker with a sick child you want to do the most important checks first. Depending on the outcome, you then apply the next set of medical rules: Pink if they need urgent referral to the hospital, yellow if the clinic can cope , or green if the child can be looked after at home.

As gory as it sounds, everybody, including the doctors, are happy that their ‘brains have been put into a PC‘ (or in this case , a set of paper cards). The Doctors are happy because they can (guilt free) move to better paying jobs. The medical workers using the system are happy because they can help the sick children that they see every day. And the children gain because the better availability of medical knowledge (via Rules and RuleFlow) is literally the difference between life and death.

British Midland's – BMI – Dirty Little Online Checkin Secret

Flew Dublin – Heathrow again last week – this time with BMI (British Midland International). It’s what all Java consultants do – pop on the plane to London to see a client. Now I like BMI, not least because they provide a bit of competition for Aer Lingus. I like Web Checkin. A lot. See my post on how to use Web Checkin to solve Dublin Airport’s problems. But BMI have a (bad) secret about their online check-in that they don’t tell you until after you have paid for your flight.

BMI Logo
Online or Web checkin means you print your boarding card before you leave home. It means you arrive at the airport , walk straight through security and enjoy a coffee while waiting for your flight to board. For Aer Lingus it’s great on a day trip; print both boarding cards the night before you leave. For BMI there’s a glitch; you cannot print your return boarding card until after you arrive in London.

What? On your busy-day-with-client-not-one-second-to-spare you are expected to start printing pieces of paper. What is worse, you only find this out after you pay your money. Called the Flight Helpdesk ‘we have a lot of people complaining about that Sir’. Mail to BMI customer service, no reply.

The moral of this story is not to complain about BMI (although here’s my Ajax related Rant about Scandanavian Airlines if that’s your thing , or Mulley’s lost baggage saga if you prefer). And yes, I should be glad of a choice of flights to Heathrow (see Limerick Bloggerand Bock the Robber)

No, the moral of the story is that IT systems (yes the geeky bits) can have a huge impact on customers in traditional business (you know, the ones that pay you money). Being the helpful people we are, we’ll even show BMI how to fix this using Business Rules. Somewhere, deep in the bowels of the BMI system code, Someone, a long long time again decided ‘no one will ever want to check in before they leave’ . And now that it’s spaghetti code, it can’t be fixed, leaving a lot of unhappy customers.

SEO for Blogs – help Google find your older content

Richard Hearne writes (a bit) about Search Engine Optimisation for Bloggers. One point that he made in his review of Pat Phelan’s (Roam4Free) site was how to help Google find your older content. Taking this advice, I’ve installed the WordPress Page Navigation Plugin on this blog – it’s the widget giving the ‘Page 1..2..3..end’ at the top of this site.

Blog Page Views

Without this plugin , all wordpress gives you by default is a single ‘previous page’ link. A user (or Google) might have to follow 15 or so links to get all your articles. Now it is all linked from the home page of your blog.

Almost as important as the number of visitors to the site, is what they do when they get there. You can see from the Google Analytics above , that the average visitor reads one and half pages on this site. (Is this Good? Is this Bad? – let me know) This could be multiple articles (there are about 20 per page), but the number isn’t really moving over time. I’m hoping the plugin can shift these numbers (up) even a little bit.

(Almost) Related Update and links (via Damien) : If you want to know more about SEO optimisation for WordPress, Matt Cutts of Google had a very interesting talk. A transcript of the video and a summary are also available.

Java and those pesky Google APIs

Recently one or two people disagreed with what I had to say about the impact that the Google, Amazon (and other) API’s will have on Java. Considering the ratio of positive to negative comments (about 3 for and 30 violently against), I obviously need to express myself in a clearer way. The link to the original post is at the end of this article, read on before you consider flaming me.

Amazon Web Services Logo

So , deep breath , here goes.

Compare the the way you develop now , with the way you built software 10 years ago. Do you remember having to manage your own memory? Or the pain of trying to deploy your software on different machines without a JVM? Or the hassle of trying to write distributed software using Corba? Or using a text editor instead of the fine IDE’s (Eclipse, Netbeans or JDeveloper – take your choice) that we have today? Would you consider building your software without a tool like Ant or Maven?

(Shudder). Things have moved on ,and I am very glad they have. Likewise, the way we develop 10 years into the future will be very different. I don’t know what the future will look like, but here’s a simple guess.

The biggest trend today is the move from software running on your computer , to software being delivered over the web. I’m not talking about the buzzwords being thrown about regarding ‘Service Orientated Architecture’ or ‘Enterprise Service Bus’. I’m talking about simple API’s that are available for use over the web today. Like the API’s and products from Google – including their Documents and Spreadsheets, and their Authentication service.

‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler’ – Albert Einstein

‘You Ain’t Gonna Need it’ – Anon, XP Mantra

As a good Agile Developer you’d probably agree with these quotes. But what if the most simple way of doing things was not to develop in Java at all? Most people don’t build their own operating system – they use Linux, Windows or OS X instead. Most people don’t write their own Java Server – they use Tomcat, JBoss or your server of choice. The pattern is the same. A small, dedicated core of developers builds the product, and the rest of us say ‘thank you very much’ and use it to get things done.

This range of ‘off the shelf’ solutions is increasing all the time , even before the online services arrived on the scene. As a Java developer , you’ve said ‘thank you’ , downloaded the latest version and integrated it into your solution. The time you save means you deliver other cool features instead. Java is very good at this ‘download and integrate’ process – not only is it a key benefit of Object Orientated Software, but Java has the widest range of solutions available (if you don’t believe me , just check out Sourceforge).

Java can also let us build our solutions (either partly or fully) around the online API’s. Java has great networking and XML handling ability already. In time this will become as normal as the idea of using a JVM. Great – we use these API’s pretty much like we do libraries today, and we can continue developing pretty much as before, right?

Wrong.

Remember, what is the most simple way of doing things? What if the most simple way of doing things was not to use Java but to use a more simple language (like Ruby or PHP) instead? Until now there were a couple of advantages that Java had over these ‘simple’ (and that’s a compliment) languages. When using online API’s these advantages disappear, or worse, become a liability.

  • Scalability and Robustness. Enterprise Java is massively scalable (it’s one of the reasons for it’s complexity). But can even you outscale Google?
  • Security. Enterprises haven’t (yet) learned to trust the security of online applications. This trust will be hard earned over time. But already you can make the argument that you data is safer with Google / Amazon / other service provider than on your average virus-ridden home PC.
  • Language Ties. To use the Java libraries you needed a JVM somewhere in your solution. Once you had a JVM , you might as well write your own solution in Java. But when the product you are extending is hosted elsewhere, you are free to code in the (most simple) language of your choice.
  • Always on. As long as you have a connection to the web, your programs can use the API’s. Scripting languages like Ruby and Python can claim to be even more portable. Not only can they run natively in most environments, they can also be deployed via a JVM if that is your choice (under the guise of JRuby and Jython)
  • Features. Need a feature that you don’t have in your scripting language? Just borrow it from Java by running in the JVM. How can Java win a ‘features arms race’ against that?

So do we face a form of developer apartheid, where a ‘hard core’ of Java Experts develop web API’s that the rest of us use via scripts? Let me know what you think. Like the original blogpost said, it may not be the end of Java, but perhaps the end of Java as we know it.

Grabbing people's brains and shoving them into a PC

It didn’t go down too well when an elderly relative asked me over Christmas ‘what exactly do you do?’. After fobbing him off with the usual ‘something in computers’, he was shocked to find out that I spend most of my time ‘Grabbing people’s brains and shoving them into a PC’.

This kind of blog-related-violence is normally associated with Twenty-Major (Warning , Parential Guidance required , unless you’re over 80), so before you call the police , let me explain.

Look at your hands. Unless they’re scarred and calloused (from the weekend’s DIY) the chances are that you work in the knowledge economy. You could work for a Bank , Insurance company, Legal company or be a medical professional but most of your work consists of one thing:  You push pieces of paper around that have some magical value.
Or you would push pieces of paper around if it hadn’t all been computerised in the last 10 years. Now you swap files and emails to get things done.  And you swear on a regular basis when the computer can’t find the information you’re looking for, or someone doesn’t understand the email you sent them. But the important bit, the information processing,  still remains in your brain.
Red Piranha Logo

Which brings us to Red-Piranha (site update in progress) and the shoving of people’s brains into a computer. While we can copy an MP3 music file (with Adam’s and Bono’s imagination in it) and send it around the world, but we can’t photocopy your brain. We don’t want all of it, just the part that gets the magical value-added work done. The bits about drinking beer and playing volleyball on the beach we’ll quite happily leave with you.

So this is what Enterprise Web 2.0 is all about : getting the computer to take a load off your brain so that you’ll have more time to spend on the beach drinking beer. Chapter 3 (draft) of our Enerprise Web book has just been put online, which shows you exactly how to do this.