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Another Perspective


Enterprising folk whose livelihood is derived from the applications of hydroponics technology to cannabis farming will find some excellent clues to opportunity in the October 10 New York Times or right on IBM's own Website.  In both places, IBM makes its pitch for what it calls smart cities.  One featured burg is Dubuque, Iowa, where electronic gadgets will soon replace all the municipal employees who read power and water meters.  Jump those meters and nobody's going to stumble onto your skunk farm.

IBM calls this brainstorm Smart Cities, and does it so deftly that even a good reporter who covers technology for the Gray Lady ends up appearing as incapable of discernment as the pampered potheads of Dubuque will be before very long.  Ironically, only three days earlier the very same reporter pitched in to cover IBM's latest adventure in antitrust, reporting on a U.S.  Department of Justice probe into Big Blue's probity in the mainframe segment.  That second article was not Pulitzer material, but at least it noted that there were two sides to an ongoing story.

Smarter Planet Icons
IBM Smart Planet Icons
Icons allude to the work of Keith Haring

The real issue here is not one lazy piece in the New York Times, or the occasional PR fastball strike IBM pitches past a major league press batter.  The issue here is how the biggest companies in the computer industry have spotted huge opportunities that have arisen amid the confluence of recently booming economies that are now on life support, a worldwide ecology crisis, and a collection of social and political developments that nobody is prepared for and to which few can readily adjust.

IBM figures it will be able to pick up a lot of business by hitching its presumably earth-saving and economy-boosting ideas to those that brought Nobel prizes to Al Gore and Barack Obama.  It is so enthused with its plan that it has completely failed to spot the irony of using icons on its Web that allude to the work of Keith Haring.  Haring was a popular, gifted, but medically unfortunate artist who died of AIDS before his 32nd birthday.  IBM's marketing effort is playing out in a world that has become infected with a potentially deadly financial infection that arose when America and its imitators in Europe and elsewhere neglected their regulatory immune systems and decided to party, party, party.

IBM is hardly alone in its hope that the ill winds will blow it some good, and its big thoughts are not restricted to its Smart Planet and Smart Cities initiatives, which are probably more attractive if less accurate names for its marketing theme than, say, Stupid Governments.

A big part of IBM's plan seems to be hooked into the software and services businesses, which bring Big Blue more than half its revenue and very likely an even greater share of its profits, compared to hardware.  The trendy part of services these days is of course called cloud computing, and that term has become so compelling it even seems to be shaping the hardware products dreamed up by IBM and various rivals, particularly a new generation of storage offerings.  IBM's plan for storage services includes facilities to store the volumes of data so large they are measured in petabytes.  Oracle (using Sun Microsystems hardware but willing to think about any other kind of hardware, too, if it has to) is on the same track and actually, through its Exadata offering, says it is far ahead of IBM, a claim that might turn out to be true.

Cloud Security
Cloud Nine
IBM's cloud services are the most secure available,
according to a study by Evans Data

Meanwhile, Google and Amazon have long since staked claims to storage and processing services in the clouds, but they are technical purists, offering all the storage and processing a customer might want but not the machinery that does the actual work.

All four of these computing giants would be happy to provide the infrastructure that new ideas such as an American national health plan might require, and so would many other players whose achievements to date in the cloud services area are not quite as impressive.  That group includes Microsoft, which always bears watching, particularly when it is very hungry, as it is these days after a couple of years on an unsatisfactory Vista diet.

In some ways, IBM falls behind Google and Amazon (and some other vendors, too) when it comes to cloud services, at least according to a study by Evans Data that has attracted a bit of attention lately.  Evans based its report on information provide by software developers, so the finding might not be the same as those it would report if it studied user organizations that wanted their cloud services provider to do all the development work, something IBM might be very happy to do.  While IBM is one among many and not first by many of Evans' measures, it does seem to come up on top when the survey audience was asked to pick a cloud services provider that has top notch security.

When cloud computing meets government, security is bound to be a very important issue, unless the services are all provided by a cloud system that is internal to the user organization, not external.  IBM, Oracle and many other vendors--but not Amazon or Google--will happily install a turnkey cloud computing system that is strictly for a user organization's internal use, one with no external access.  In that case, security might involve a bit of auditing, but it would not require firewalls, intrusion detection, and other technologies that a cloud actually in the cloud needs.

Still, some of the ideas that fall under IBM's Smart Planet rubric are not going to be inside systems.  In order to gather, distill and deliver information they will have to be made available to authorized users via the Internet.  That will be the case with health records, if they become part of a national system, so an individual's data can be made available to authorized doctors, hospitals and labs.  A national health database might be a dream for researchers and ambitious government agencies to say nothing of prospective vendors, even if it would be a nightmare for individuals who would rather not think that their private records could be viewed by unauthorized personnel or even by criminals and hackers.  There's ample evidence that presumably private medical records can be poorly protected.  Hospitals' and health insurers' data systems are good but imperfect.  And even where the systems are pretty good, personnel make mistakes that can compromise a patient's privacy.

All the companies chasing big idea government opportunities in an era when government seems to be the only growth industry are willing to take on jobs that have high security requirements.  Whether they can keep data under wraps is another matter entirely.  There are more than enough reports of security breaches to raise questions about the suitability of cloud systems (in the real cloud, not the ones locked behind closed doors) for many kinds of data.  Few people would lose sleep worrying about the sanctity of their electric bills, except if the billing data were tied to their bank accounts or credit cards, but many would prefer to keep a report on their dose of clap out of sight.

Even when people feel pretty sure that only authorized parties could see their data, the trend in computing is to gather many disparate databases into one place.  There are some people who like the idea of having data mining systems spot welfare cheats, but some of those same people might not be as happy about systems that automatically raise questions about their tax deductions, auto insurance records, or other matters that bring out an inclination towards larceny in even the best of us.  It's easy to like the police but still worry about a police state, particularly in times when government is not merely growing but spreading like kudzu.

All that worry is enough to give people some kind of a complex, such as a military industrial complex.

— Hesh Wiener October 2009

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