by Steff Gelston

Trendlines from 5/15/08: New, Hot, Unexpected

May 13, 200813 mins
DeveloperEnterprise Applications

In this issue: Sesame Street and Open Souce; More demand for wireless; Xerox goes green; ROI vs. TCO; Starbucks seeks feedback; Hacking the election; BPM obstacles; and Unified Communication by the numbers.

Open (Source) Sesame

Noah Broadwater, VP of information services for Sesame Workshop, likes open-source virtualization tools for several good reasons—starting with green ones that have nothing to do with Oscar the Grouch.

Broadwater recently faced a budget crunch at the same time he needed new Web servers and more room in his data center. His solution: new HP blade servers based on Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise server software, which builds in virtualization software from Xen, a leading open-source alternative to VMware’s offering.

“We said, Let’s try it,” says Broadwater. “It saved us from buying new servers.” Happy with the results, Broadwater planned a substantial virtualization project to make over his other servers, starting with his test and development boxes, beginning about one year ago.

Sesame Workshop spent approximately $250,000 every three years on hardware and support for its Sun Solaris servers, Broadwater says. The new approach combined 25 virtual machines onto four physical servers within a blade center and reduced that cost to $24,000 every three years, he says. His team also consolidated 10 servers, including application, image and log servers onto four physical boxes. When the project is done, the company will reclaim two racks of space in its data center and reduce power consumption by 15 percent, Broadwater estimates.

Broadwater’s desire to save via virtualization is not unique, but his choice of vendor is. Today, the majority of enterprise shops use VMware’s tools.

Do many enterprise leaders even think Novell when they’re considering virtualization options? “On the technology side, Novell has made significant headway; however I think they need to up their marketing efforts to further build brand recognition for their virtualization offerings,” says Burton Group Research Analyst Chris Wolf. VMware has also built a more extensive lineup of partners, Wolf says.

So why didn’t Broadwater use VMware? “Cost,” he says. “VMware has a great solution, it’s just very expensive. Second, we’re a firm believer in and use a lot of open source. We actually work on open source projects and give code back.” Broadwater has long used open-source tools such as the Apache Web server software.

As for why he went with Novell SUSE Linux: “We’ve had Novell in the data center a long time,” he says. “With Novell, I knew what my support was, I knew how to work that system.”

Broadwater says the plan is to be off Solaris within three years, moving over as much as possible on servers to Linux. By June 2009, Sesame Workshop plans to virtualize its 10 noncritical, low utilization servers, some of which are running Microsoft Windows Server 2003. Some of these are one-application, one-server relics. Thanks to virtualization, such servers will soon be in the past for Sesame Workshop.

-Laurianne McLaughlin

Demand for Mobile/Wireless Skills Rising

A new survey of 3,578 IT managers suggests that proficiency in mobile technology for wireless and radio frequency (RF) will grow in importance over the next five years to become the most valuable IT skill.

Currently topping the list are security (74 percent), general networking (66 percent), and operating systems (66 percent), according to the survey by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA). The survey base was composed of at least 250 IT managers from around the world.

But the survey also found that mobile and wireless skills are expected to show the highest growth in demand. The survey didn’t specify what was meant by “wireless and RF frequency technology” skills. However, CompTIA spokesman Steven Ostrowski says the phrase includes all the ways companies use wireless, such as smartphones and handhelds, Wi-Fi networking and RFID implementations.

Those most likely to predict that wireless will be the most important skill in five years were IT managers in the healthcare industry (63 percent), followed by those in the education space (63 percent). Auto/manufacturing- sector IT managers were less likely to predict such strong growth in the importance of these skills.

Other skills expected to grow in importance over the coming five years include Web-based technologies, like Web 2.0, SOA, SaaS and Ajax, as well as Java and non-Microsoft programming languages, according to the survey. It also indicated that participants support sending tech staffers to external, professional training classes (42 percent) and offering rewards for those who enhance their skill sets (41 percent).

-Al Sacco

Saving Trees, One Printer at a Time

Want to reduce the environmental impact of your office’s printers and copiers? A new software calculator shows you how.

Xerox says its “Sustainability Calculator” uses proprietary algorithms and document assessment research to suggest ways to reduce energy and paper consumption from office devices. The calculator includes input fields to describe a printer or other office device, noting the kind of cartridges used; if the device is color or mono; how fast it produces pages; how many of those pages are printed per month; and whether the device uses the Energy Star power-saving guidelines. A second set of fields asks how an office manager would like to see the machines perform. The calculator then shows bar graphs covering energy consumption, greenhouse gases and the solid waste produced from empty ink cartridges through to retiring the machine. The calculator is “a response to customers who wanted a more tangible way of seeing what the impacts would be of some of the document management solutions that we were bringing to the marketplace,” says Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy.

Defense manufacturer Northrop Grumman test-drove the calculator. After using the tool, the company dropped the number of printers and copiers in one division to 1,100 from 2,000, Xerox says. Subsequently, energy consumption fell 27 percent, greenhouse gases by 26 percent and solid waste by 33 percent.

The Sustainability Calculator will be offered through Xerox Office Services. A more advanced version of the calculator will offer suggestions based on usage patterns, Xerox says.

-Jeremy Kirk and Nancy Weil


Return on investment (ROI) metrics drove more IT project decisions in the past year than did total cost of ownership (TCO), an exclusive CIO survey finds. Which metric is used more often signals how the IT department is viewed inside your company.

An ROI calculation quantifies both the costs and the expected benefits of a project over a specific time frame, usually three to five years. TCO includes only costs. “When you think TCO you don’t see IT as a business driver or an asset that can increase revenue, profit or customer value,” says Anthony Giannino, a business development executive at Cornerstone Solutions, a value-added reseller.

In an online survey of 225 technology managers, 59 percent said that ROI influenced whether they pursued a project in the past 12 months, compared to 41 percent who reported that TCO justified the decision. In the coming 12 months, the relative difference in importance between the two measurements is more pronounced: 62 percent of respondents favored ROI, compared to TCO’s 38 percent.

According to Wayne Sadin, CIO at Loomis USA and a survey respondent who chose ROI, “TCO only looks at one side of the equation.” TCO, Sadin says, works well for must-do infrastructure projects, such as upgrading an e-mail system. But e-mail doesn’t typically uncover new sources of revenue that ROI can measure, he says.

ROI or TCO may help companies choose how to spend their money. But Erik Dorr, senior business adviser at The Hackett Group consultancy, points out, “A lot of healthy business judgment is [still] involved. You can prove anything you want with a spreadsheet, but good managers have good intuition in judging how solid their assumptions are.”

-Kim S. Nash

Starbucks Would Love Your Input

Think Starbucks should offer free Wi-Fi in its shops and reward frequent customers with free coffee? Now you can tell the coffee giant exactly what you think, and they might just do it.

Starbucks recently launched a website that lets anyone post ideas about how the struggling coffee maker can improve its offerings. Visitors can vote on ideas and add comments.

The site puts Starbucks at the forefront of a growing trend of companies using social networking applications to communicate with customers. While companies use services like blogs and social networking for employee communication, some are beginning to use such tools in external applications.

Called “My Starbucks Idea,” the site is built on a hosted offering called Ideas from It is monitored by 40 internal “Idea Partners” with access to software tools that let them analyze the comments posted by running queries, using filters and running reports, says the company. They can add, modify and delete site content. The Idea Partners also choose ideas suggested on the site and work internally to recommend ways to implement them.

Such customer-facing websites can be a way for a company to try to control customer comments online. In Starbucks’ case, the site offers an alternative to forums like “I Hate Starbucks,” where customers post negative comments about the coffee company, says Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst at Nucleus Research. Instead of ranting on a site like that, a positive suggestion made on My Starbucks Idea can be considered for implementation by the company.

However, Wettemann advises against deleting negative comments on company-run sites because customers will be less apt to participate. In addition, companies must be committed to following up on such sites. “If there’s criticism and it’s not dealt with effectively, this can be more of a problem than a help,” she says. “If you give someone a megaphone and then you turn it off, you haven’t done any favors.”

-Nancy Gohring

U.S. Presidential Election Can Be Hacked

According to security experts at a recent RSA Conference in San Francisco, the U.S. will pick a new president using electronic voting machines that can be hacked.

As the November election approaches, the question before officials is not how to fix known bugs in their e-voting systems, but how best to check them for fraud, says David Wagner, an associate professor with the University of California, Berkeley’s computer science department.

Wagner was part of the team that audited California’s voting systems, and the problems his team found affect counties across the U.S. “The systems we looked at are three of the most widely used around the nation,” he said during a panel discussion at the show, which was held April 7-11. “They’re going to be using them in the 2008 elections; they’re still going to have the same vulnerabilities we found.”

County officials have spent billions over the past eight years on electronic voting systems in hopes it would take the guesswork out of vote counting. But panel members agreed they are insecure, and now states are being forced to make do with buggy equipment. “We have spent billions of dollars on equipment,” Wagner said. “We don’t have another several billion dollars.”

The California audit examined systems from Diebold Elections Systems, Hart InterCivic and Sequoia Voting Systems, ultimately permitting their use in 2008, but only under certain conditions. In testing, Wagner and his team found they could introduce a virus to any of the three systems that would then spread throughout the county and ultimately skew the vote count.

This year, most California voters will use paper ballots, which give officials a way to audit their machine-counted tallies for irregularities, but not all states have that option. About a quarter of the votes cast in the upcoming election will be on electronic voting equipment with no paper trail, Wagner said.

-Robert McMillan

BPM: Hot Tech Hits Obstacles

Business process management, or BPM, is a hot area. But BPM analysts say some CIOs and businesses are struggling with BPM initiatives.

Done right, BPM allows organizations to define, execute and refine processes that involve human interaction and manage dynamic process rules and changes, according to CIO’s “ABC: An Introduction to Business Process Management.” However, a 2007 Aberdeen Group report titled “BPM Convergence” says getting business integration and workflow software products to work together remains a challenge for companies. “The results have been islands of BPM functionality scattered throughout the organization, each serving a discrete function,” states the report.

According to the survey of more than 160 IT and business executives and managers, the main obstacles to deploying a BPM system have less to do with technology and more to do with people and processes.

“Part of the solution is technical, but another part is organizational, and this is where many companies stumble,” says the report. “It takes highly capable BPM products, a willingness to take a hard look at business processes to succeed and organizational maturity.” As such, the top challenges are organizational: justifying a BPM investment and getting business buy-in.

Aberdeen’s report makes several recommendations for improving BPM performance including:

Document processes. Understand your organization’s business processes and how information flows through the enterprise.

Plan for enterprise convergence. If your company is already using standalone BPM applications, explore bringing them together into an integrated system. “New development should be capable of integrating into the enterprise BPM solution,” states the report.

By the Numbers: Unified Communications:

Can You Make the Case for Implementation?

Unified communications (UC) is a hot topic in the corporate technology world. But the most informed CIOs know the market is still immature, says Forrester analyst Henry Dewing in his report Top Unified Communications Predictions for 2008.

According to the report, more than 50 percent of large enterprises are running, installing or considering UC solutions, defined as the combination of voice, video, e-mail and instant messaging to improve communication and streamline business processes. But Dewing suspects that the large enterprises and small and medium businesses he surveyed are actually deploying foundational UC infrastructure like IP-PBX or IM and Presence.

“The preparation of networking and computing infrastructure to support UC in the future seems to be the top agenda,” he says.

Before deploying a full UC solution, explore whether it’s right for your workforce. “CIOs want a solid business case before deploying,” Dewing says, noting that some IT groups are reluctant to take the leap as they are not sure employees will actually use the tools or that predicted benefits will materialize. And yet many CIOs recognize the value of UC and the fact that eventual deployment is inevitable, he says.

Dewing’s report predicts that in 2008, at least 20 percent of firms will buy hosted or managed UC services. “The newness of the solutions and the difficulty of integrating multiple features from potentially multiple vendors are making enterprises consider outside help in the form of hosted or managed UC features,” he says.

Installing and configuring UC is a major challenge for CIOs, Dewing says. But it will pay off big-time, he says: “Getting a critical mass using UC tools can often cause a firm to reach a tipping point, where business suddenly happens more efficiently.”

Best Practices

Link deployment to a business plan. CIOs need to show the benefits of smoother employee communication before they can sell the idea of a enterprisewide UC implementation.

Help users make the most of the solution. As UC is rolled out, make sure it isn’t causing problems. For example, UC solutions should not show that a user is available following a meeting until the scheduled meeting time has ended, or the user has done something like type on his PC or make a phone call.

Track and encourage usage. Nothing encourages collaboration more than having your brightest and most respected employees use the UC and collaboration tools. Where the leaders go, others will follow.

-Thomas Wailgum