On the future of the computing industry (part 1)

January 2nd, 2014

Over the course of the next few months, I will write much about where I see the industry heading in 2014, 2015, and over the course of the coming decades. This first post is about the move to verticalized solutions, but at the same time the potential for a truly Open commoditized Cloud computing platform of the future.

The world I see ahead is a future of inevitable, unpreventable verticalization, which can be steered (by a few good men and women) to retain an Open (enough) software platform. It’s not all about ARM. But let’s take ARM as an example (and only an example here). For a “few” million dollars, I can license an architecture and SoC component IP sufficient to build my own “Server-on-Chip” style design integrating all of the features that I want on-die and/or on-package. For a bit more, I can license the architecture itself and go build it myself. “It” isn’t a Computer Architecture. “It” is a Hyperscale server SoC exploiting integration advances to do everything on-chip that we used to build in giant boxes filled with air. There are plenty enough people out there you can hire to go do this. Some will succeed, other will fail, but the minds are available on the market today.

All of this integration is possible because Moore’s Law said we would reach this point by now (you think Moore’s Law is all about faster and faster because you’ve been drinking the wrong koolaid for years, it’s actually about circuit density). Meanwhile, his friend Dennard tells us that the traditional vendors have been fighting a war of MHz and building cathedrals that won’t scale as they try ever more cleaver tricks. My favorite quote on the matter comes from AMD’s Andrew Feldman, “you’re using a Space Shuttle to go to a Grocery Store!”. What we have is “good enough”. And the Innovator’s Dilemma tells us the rest. The future isn’t about architecture X vs. architecture Y. It’s about energy, integrated fabrics, Hyperscale designs combing good enough compute performance at obscene levels of density fueling the scale we need for tomorrow. Take a look around at the industry and see where some of the leading minds in Computer Architecture are landing (hint: use your eyes and ears) and you’ll see that this train of verticalization has left the station, and it won’t be returning. Those vendors you like today? There will be 20 more of them tomorrow.

Done right, we reach a point in about ten years from now where computing becomes a simple utility. Amazon spot pricing move over. In fact, Cloud Computing as we know it today is totally nonsensical drivel. In the future, units of computation are standardized on some level to the point that they are traded on open markets as commodities, with speculators trading on futures in much the same way that they do on crops and other commodities today (I believe this so strongly that I preemptively filed patents in this area several years ago). Workloads dynamically move around the world in response to many stimuli (instantaneous pricing, weather, energy availability, economic, security and political concerns, etc.). Nobody will pay for their Operating System per-se, but they will pay for complete solutions that provide all of the plumbing necessary to build the new “Cloud” (I hate that term) of tomorrow. And the company (or individuals) who build the technology that can power the exchanges and commoditized computing of tomorrow will be the ones cashing in at the end.

The coming decade will see also the rise of heavily integrated hardware and software solutions. As I noted above, these days “anyone” can build their own custom SoC. And many will. Many of these will follow the Apple model, building walled gardens running their own hardware, own firmware, own Operating System. So “done wrong” the future becomes a scary Apple-move-over Dystopia in which we long for the “good old days” of the Unix Wars when vendors produced such “compatible” systems. Some of the really big boys have all of the incentive in the world to go build these walled gardens, and we have very little time to steer them right.

libkmod replaces module-init-tools

December 20th, 2011

UPDATE: For more information, consider joining #kmod on Freenode. Development is using the existing linux-modules@vger.kernel.org mailing list.

The team at ProFUSION (and other helpful contributors) have done an awesome job at quickly turning the Plumber’s Wishlist for Linux kernel module loading library item into reality. libkmod is linkable into udev, will speed up module loading, and has a stated goal of remaining backward compatible with the existing behaviors already present within module-init-tools. Therefore, the average user should notice nothing other than an improved in module load times in switching to the replacement library. Those features not yet present in libkmod will be added over the coming weeks. The new library could do with some testing on non-x86, bi-endian, and will need some further thoughts around index cacheing (e.g. within long-lived processes), but is ready enough for wider use. To find out more about the library, visit the initial blog posting from the ProFUSION team:

http://www.politreco.com/2011/12/announce-kmod-1/

Jon.

On Citizen Journalism

November 30th, 2011

We are entering a very dark and dangerous time for humanity. The rise of social media and the mediocre web (in which everyone’s voice, no matter how uninformed, is equal) can be a very positive change for good. Connecting people in far flung parts of the world allows “iReports”, leaks, government suppression, and many other issues to come to light. But at the same time, those who seek the utter demise of traditional media represent some of the most uninformed malignants who will cause great harm to our country, and to the wider world at large.

Traditional news media, like the New York Times is under constant threat from those who seek its destruction and replacement with mindless crap written in 140 characters or less. Regurgitated opinion of the collective Tweeters of the world will not create media outlets in war zones, or fund researchers to trawl through years of government records. Wikileaks alone will not displace the need for professionally, carefully presented (fair) treatment of horribly offensive abuses of the governments of the world. RSS aggregation of news media and proliferation of links online has been phenomenal in disseminating news and readers such as those available from Google (and others) have presented it well. But all of these news stories ultimately come from somewhere real, somewhere tangible, somewhere less Web 2.0 and more “real world 1.0″. Take the Times (and a few others) out of the picture and you’ll quickly notice the dearth of good quality news sources available for others to regurgitate.

This is why I have two subscriptions to the New York Times. I pay for my quality journalism, and I pay double (or many times more) what some others pay because I care that the United States paper of record remain in business. Those of us who care must band together to disrupt and undermine others who seek to destroy quality journalism and replace it with mediocre populist nonsense of the kind favored by contestants on Reality TV shows. Is this elitist? Absolutely. It is absolutely the case that most people don’t care about the minitia reported in the Times, about the investigative undercover stories, and about the analysis that goes into them. Most care more about what some famous moron said today or which YouTube video is hot. And that’s ok. Let them eat cake, and let them enjoy it too. But don’t take away quality news from those of us who are interested in knowing what’s really going on in the world.

Jon.

Spotify desktop app

October 3rd, 2011

I bought a Spotify subscription recently. I like the concept, and the Android app is just about usable (though not an Apple-level application at this point). What is really driving me nuts is that, if you fall into the trap of registering with your Facebook account (they present it as a single-sign-on option, but really it’s to push the integration), Spotify goes into a special obnoxious mode wherein it insists that you always have the app installed in your Facebook account. Changing permissions on the app or removing its ability to post to your account only invites an error – especially in the second case, wherein it will bug you *every* time you play a track that you don’t have it in your timeline. Do my friends really care /that/ much about what I’m listening to that they can’t choose to follow my last.fm and leave it at that?

I’ve tried complaining to Spotify, asking how to switch my account to the non-Facebook mode (that hopefully just plays songs, like I paid for). I have heard nothing yet. My next recourse will be to complain to Facebook that Spotify have an app that is malicious and should be removed from the site. I suspect that would then get a customer service reply from Spotify. Not my preferred means to make contact and get this fixed, but certainly an option.

Jon.

City of Boston parking failure

October 3rd, 2011

So my girlfriend had a couple of outstanding parking tickets (actually, not her tickets or mine, but that’s a long story) and her car got booted. Excessive, but ok. What’s not ok is that they did this last thing on a Friday afternoon (4:40pm), right after their office closed for the week at 4:30pm, then gave her two tickets for failing to move her car over the weekend.

This kind of thing happens because busybodies run around generating revenue the City is too scared of generating using alternatively sane means (by increasing taxes) and so it has gotten the parking situation out of control. It’s ludicrous to hold someone’s car hostage and then charge them for failing to move that car without any third option. This isn’t the first thing Boston has done to annoy me along these lines.

It’s important to realize cities like Boston only understand things that impact tax revenues. Moving to Boston next year is very unlikely as a result – they don’t need to generate revenue from me, they’re waving neon signs saying “we’re unreasonable, don’t live here”.

Jon.

On standards – state car inspections

October 1st, 2011

So I was waiting this afternoon for my annual Massachusetts State Safety and Emissions test. This is mandated by this state, as well as most others. The precise details of the test vary, but the mechanics are identical, using an industry (and government) standardized connector and protocol, OBD-II. Thanks to standards, consumers don’t have the following little scenario that played out in my head as I was waiting:

consumer: “I’m here to get my car inspected”
mechanic: “ok, which model car do you have?”
consumer: “The frobulator 9000, second edition, build number 29785, release 27, from yesterday”
mechanic: “ah, yes, I remember it well. Unfortunately, that’s ancient history at this point. Yea. Last night, we got this awesome idea that we’d rewrite the whole thing…but don’t worry, in a few years it’s gonna be awesome!”
consumer: “dude, I just want my car inspected…”
etc.

This is a scenario that plays out all too often in the Linux community. Not ubiquitously. There are many of us who understand the true value of longevity, standards, and consumer demand. But there are also many who are losing sight of how consumers actually work, and what they actually want. What they want is not a moving target, they want rigid “just works and I don’t care” as their modus operandi. Let’s hope we can get more of our very own OBD-II standards, defined as an entire industry through pragmatic agreement between everyone involved.

Jon.

Open Hardware Summit 2011

September 17th, 2011

I attended the first OHS in 2010 and enjoyed it enough that I took another day off to be there once again this year. The event brings together folks from all different backgrounds and truly represents a melting pot of those with interests in the “Open Hardware” (open source designs, firmware, software, process) movement. In fact, I’d argue that the Open Hardware movement is more inclusive than Open Source software is at this point. There are far more women attending and speaking at these events (the conference is organized by women), combined with a lot less of the pretentious prima donnas you see in male dominated Open Source.

Having taken a super early (5am) train from Boston, I didn’t arrive until the keynote at 10am, so I missed the intro from Alicia and Ayah. The keynote was presented by the Arduino Team, who were part of “The Big Picture” track. As such, they addressed issues of scale and running a successful business – software can be entirely free, but hardware has an intrinsic cost and so there must always be a business model associated with it. Apparently, over 300K official Arduino Un* parts have been shipped (I assume the numbers don’t relate to clones – the total must be far higher, as even the statistics for software downloads exceed the total given), and at this point there are over 200 distributors in many countries, etc.

After the keynote, in the same track, Kate Hartman of OCAD University gave a talk on “Edges, Openings, and In-Betweens”. Then, Eric Wilhelm of Instructables (apparently recently acquired by Autodesk) talked about how the site allows “13 year old boys of all ages and genders” to submit an insane number of Open Source K’Nex gun designs as well as many other forms of Open Hardware. Finally, Bunnie Huang discussed how the “Best Days of Open Hardware are Yet to Come”. The talk focussed on how Moore’s Law is dead and in the coming years we’ll all have “heirloom laptops”, etc. A wonderful fiction, sure to get a lot of PR in certain media, but there’s more to life than the x86-centric view of Megahertz. The future will be around hyperscale, low power parts and tight integration thereof. Innovation may have to focus on areas other than raw performance numbers, but that has been true for most of this decade already. But there is some truth in the idea that Open Hardware will benefit from the demise of Moore’s Law. It will possible for some hobbyist hacker with an inexpensive FPGA to build some truly insane stuff in the coming years – but the playing field will never be as even as imagined in the talk. I enjoyed the theatrics and use of a Chumby prototype board to overlay tweets/SMSes on the presentation.

Next up came the legal track (“Open Source Hardware Legal Landscape”). Myriam Ayass talked about CERN’s implementation of an OHS inspired/derived Open Hardware License and how various changes will be made in the wake of the formalization of the Open Hardware Definition. Alison Powell talked about the “4 freedoms” (derived from Open Source) and how they relate to Open Hardware. Michael Weinberg of Public Knowledge discussed how his organization reaches out to those in Congress and educates them around technology such as the 3D printing movement of late. They have put on public demonstrations of the technology on Capitol Hill so that those in the House and Senate can understand the idiocy of imposing DMCA-style restrictions on 3D printing.

I ran into my (awesome) publisher at the event, and so I spent lunch discussing the current Linux book I’m working on. We both enjoy the same kinds of events and people and were able to reconnect with Alicia Gibb amongst others over lunch. I reminded Alicia that I’d connected her with Val from the Ada Initiative a few months back – need to followup on that front, since there’s a lot of cross over from Open Hardware into OSS.

First topic of the afternoon was “Open Hardware & Social Change”. Gabriella Levine of Protei spoke about an Open Design for an autonomous sailboat that can be used to deploy various oil spill cleanup technology (even in storms). Very cool. Next came Shigeru Kobayashi of the Gainer project, which is using Open Hardware technology to track nuclear radition levels across Japan independently of the government (there’s a lack of trust there after the apparent failure of Tokyo to admit to the severity of the incident). Finally, Zach Lieberman received several rounds of applause for The Eyewriter Initiative, which is using Open Hardware eye tracking technology to allow a grafitti artist suffering from ALS who only has use of his eyes to continue his art. Not only do they have an awesome platform for art creation using eye tracking, but they have projected the designs in real time from a hospital bed onto the walls of buildings in LA. Awesome.

Second topic track of the afternoon was “Forging an Open Hardware Community”. Eric Craig Doster of iFixit talked about how they got started and how they build community, and how they leverage teardowns for PR. I asked how many iPads they had to go through (for example) to get it right. He said the most units they have gone through is 3, but they usually get it in 1. Autumn Wiggins discussed “The Upcycle Exchange”, which applies Open Source concepts to Indie Craft. Upcycling is all about re-use of things other people might regard as trash. The Upcycle Exchange is in St. Louis, which was a nice reminder that Open Hardware isn’t limited to the East/West Coasts. It’s only been going a year, but hopefully will continue to grow! Finally, Bre Perris of MakerBot showed some hilarious 3D print designs involving Gangstas and other silliness. There was also a lot of seriousness – including the revelation that Makerbot has brought in over $10 Million.

The third track of the afternoon was on “From Small Scale Fabrication to Large Scale Collaboration”. First up, Haig Norian discussed work being done at Columbia using organic circuits to build Open Hardware ICs, and the challenges of applying Open Hardware to traditional fabrication (which uses a lot of NDAs and closed source processes). Next, Geoffrey Barrows of Centeye discussed their low pixel, low power miniature camera technology that can be used in all manner of applications. Portions of the technology are being Opened now, which is a big change for a company that has been traditionally very secretive (having government contracts, etc.). They will have a low-cost camera available for Open Hardware enthusiasts soon. The demos involved self guiding mini helicopters and autonomous drones. Next up, an Open laser saw from The Lasersaur Project. Addie Wagenknecht discussed getting funding (including dealing with the bank of mom – in this case an economist – thinking the project was insane to begin with). The demos were impressive. After that, Daniel Reetz (whose day job is with Internet Archive) talked about DIY Book Scanning using low cost technology built using digital cameras and fancy software able to dewarp images, etc. Next, Mark Norton of the Open Source Ecology project talked about their Steam Engine project. They’re building an Open steam engine for use by remote communities, and are enjoying the ability to use out of copyright books while also improving on very old designs. Finally Bruce Perens talked about the longstanding co-operation between NASA and Commercial space flight and Ham radio, including the deployment of AMSATs.

The final joint track was entitled “Starting up in Open Hardware”. Amanda Wozniak of Wyss Institute talked about the Engineering Process used in commercial operations and the importance of documentation. James Bowman
discussed how Gameduino went from the Kickstarter concept to a product in 90 days (and how they handled the scale of the initial orders). Justin Downs of Ground Lab talked about “how open development sustains small business and drivers innovation”. Then, Bryan Newbold of Octopart gave an insightful talk on “Economics of Electronic Components for Small Buyers”: scaling up to take advantage of price breaks is important, but it might not be necessary to go from 2,000 units to 10,000 or more. Then, Nathan Seidle gave an outstanding talk (including real numbers) on how Sparkfun got going for him right out of college with no previous experience as a business owner. Nathan is truly inspiring at the best of times and “Where does transparency end” made many good points – including that you don’t need everything to be open. Your customers don’t need to know how your internal logistics process works, as an example. Finally, Mitch Altman of TV-B-Gone (a personal favorite product that I keep on hand for emergency use) talked about making a business from your fun project.

The last track of the day was “Breakouts”, which was divided between a number of rooms. I attended the educational track, which was interesting, although I was suffering from the long day by that point so I didn’t get a lot from the session. The general demos afterward were very cool. I saw several 3D printers that I’d not run across before from Ultimaker as well as the Makerbot, etc.

Overall, I was very impressed with the conference. The format was a little different this year. Most of the day was in one large auditorium that was completely filled (standing room only), and consisted almost of an “Ignite” style lightening talk format. I suspect future events will need more rooms (a nice problem to have), and I hope they’ll handle the growth well. One piece of advice for the organizers would be to require presenters to submit their talks in PDF prior to the event, and then to have one laptop drive all of the presentations. There were enough people with Linux laptops having to adjust settings or reboot, and one person using Microsoft Office on a Mac had three crashes in a row on the same set of slides. A simple rig with one laptop per room, running a PDF slideshow would be ideal. No modeline fiddling, no reboots, none of that typical conference nonsense.