This Week in Modern Software: The Pentagon Comes to Silicon Valley
In our 11/20 This Week in Modern Software roundup, we look at Silicon Valley transforming the military, Microsoft rebuffing hackers, and why your cloud storage is still limited.
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Welcome to This Week in Modern Software, or TWiMS, our weekly roundup of the most important stories and events surrounding software analytics, cloud computing, application monitoring, development methodologies, programming languages, and other issues that influence modern software.
We didn’t post last week due to FutureStack15, New Relic’s big user conference in San Francisco, and we’ll be taking next week off (Happy Thanksgiving!), but our top story for this edition concerns the Pentagon’s embrace of Silicon Valley.
What it’s about: The federal government’s technology strategy has undergone aconsiderable makeover in recent years, borrowing more than a few pages from Silicon Valley’s playbook—and more than a few people, too. As Wired reports, the sprawling Department of Defense is no exception: Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter “is betting heavily on Silicon Valley,” writes Jessi Hempel. “He believes the hardware and software its engineers and entrepreneurs dream up have unlimited potential to help the military do its job. What’s more, he argues, Silicon Valley—and tech entrepreneurs more broadly—can teach Defense a lot about flexibility, speed, and new ways to work.” Carter’s ambitions are focused by the fact that he probably has only another year on the job before a new administration appoints its own Defense Secretary.
Why you should care: It’s another compelling chapter in the government’s grand-scale attempts to modernize its creaking technology infrastructure and knock down barriers between engineering talent and public service. The stakes are high, given the enormous gravity of military and intelligence operations—and the icy relations between the government and some tech leaders in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations. Carter wants to make the Pentagon more appealing to technologists, but he’s looking for a two-way mindshare. “Mostly, Carter wants more mixing,” Hempel writes. “Take career officers and place them in agile private companies for several-month stints. Expose them to new cultures and ideas they can bring back to the Pentagon. At the same time, invite techies to spend time at Defense.” Carter also vows to simplify the government’s notoriously bureaucratic procurement process, especially in areas like cloud services.
Microsoft Sheds Reputation as an Easy Mark for Hackers—The New York Times
What it’s about: Microsoft’s Windows platform rose to desktop dominance in spite of an enormous smudge on its brand: it has long been regarded as inherently unsecure, susceptible to all manner of malware and other threats because of exploitable holes in the code and other problems. Running Windows? You’d better be running good security software, too—and keeping your fingers crossed. (Apple made hay with these perceptions in its popular “I’m a Mac” ad campaign.) But times have changed, reports Nick Wingfieldfor The New York Times: No company’s perfect, but Microsoft’s recent security efforts are paying off, and its reputation as a playground for bad actors is diminishing. Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure, puts it most succinctly: “They’ve changed themselves from worst in class to the best in class.”
Why you should care: For anyone who’s worked in Windows environments—or even just on a Windows PC—calling Microsoft a “best in class” security organization would have once been laughable. But Redmond now spends around $1 billion annually on security, and this week launched its new Cyber Defense Operations Center as well as a new unit in the company called Microsoft Enterprise Cybersecurity Group. While cutting down on malware and improving endpoint security is certainly part of the picture, a tectonic strategic shift is driving Microsoft’s revamped security posture. Consider that Microsoft announced its new security facility and division at CEO Satya Nadella’s keynote at the recent Microsoft Government Cloud Forum in Washington, D.C. “Mr. Nadella’s speech coincides with one of his top business priorities: cloud computing,” noted Wingfield.
- Microsoft Gets Serious About Security as Apple Eyes the Enterprise Market—The Washington Post
- Nadella to Feds: Microsoft Is Building a Giant Intelligence Security Graph—Forbes
- New Microsoft Azure Cloud Security Tools Will Work On Prem, in Amazon’s Cloud Too—Network World
- Enterprise Security for Our Mobile-First, Cloud-First World—Microsoft Blog
What it’s about: While Microsoft earns plaudits for its improved security stance, the company has caught flack for another recent move: Its OneDrive service became the latest cloud storage platform to backtrack on the promise of unlimited capacity. OneDrive joins others in the crowded cloud storage field who’ve had to walk back similar “unlimited storage!” claims, including Mozy and Bitcasa. Fast Company’s Jared Newman asks: “Why does this keep happening?” The answer, it turns out, is far more complex than a deliberate bait-and-switch customer acquisition strategy.
Why you should care: As cloud competition has quickly lowered prices, many consumers have started to believe that “cloud” equals “free.” But as Bitcasa CEO Brian Taptich tells Newman: “The reality is that it’s not even remotely free.” Bitcasa and others bet that lower-volume users would pay for the data hogs: They lost. Turns out that the heaviest users overwhelmed the platform and wrecked the model. In a gluttonous mix of economics and psychology, unlimited storage plans turned some users into the digital equivalent of that guy stuffing shrimp into his pockets at the all-you-can-eat buffet. BackBlaze CEO Gleb Budman estimates that people use five to 10 times more data when given an unlimited plan; even modest limits on their data force users to make more conscientious choices about what they upload. But the “abuse excuse”—blaming the problem on the heaviest 1% of users who ruin the unlimited party for everyone else—isn’t well received by customers, Newman notes, further complicating things for providers.
All hope’s not lost for unlimited storage, but it raises serious unsolved pricing, engineering, and marketing challenges. Moreover, unlimited storage might be encouraging the digital hoarding: Mozy VP of Marketing Peter Smails asks Newman: “Is anybody trying to tackle the problem of getting rid of the garbage?”
What it’s about: Apple’s much-anticipated iPad Pro hit stores while we were on hiatus last week, and the reviews have generally been kind, praising a brilliant display and graphics, for example. Even the Apple Pencil—widely mocked because, well, it’s a $100 pencil, isgetting some love in early use with the supersized iPad Pro. But CEO Tim Cook’s claimthat the iPad Pro is a bona-fide laptop replacement might be D.O.A., with high-profile critics like self-professed “iPad man” Walt Mossberg declaring that he won’t be decommissioning his MacBook Air anytime soon: “For me—a person already using his laptop a lot less in favor of the iPad—the Pro is just not likely to eliminate my laptop use entirely.”
Why you should care: The giant iPad Pro is a big deal for Apple, which is hoping to boost sagging iPad sales. But along with Microsoft’s Surface 4, it’s also a bellwether of the convergence of mobile and desktop that has profound implications for both users and developers. As mobile continues to grow in importance, the dividing line between the two camps is getting fuzzy, challenging established notions of what kinds of hardware and software are most appropriate for different types of tasks. It seems that computing power is far from the only factor: operating systems and even software distribution models can also play a big role. As Lauren Goode explains in The Verge, the iPad Pro may suffer from an “App Store problem” where smaller devs don’t believe they are “able to charge users the amounts they normally would for a version of their software that runs on a desktop.” Bohemian Coding co-founder Pieter Omvlee, for example, tells Goode his firm won’t offer an iPad Pro of its graphic design app Sketch—which might seem to be an ideal fit. The Mac version of Sketch costs $99, but users can try it for free. The App Store prohibits such free trials, Omvlee notes, so “we would have to dramatically lower the price, and then, since we’re a niche app, we wouldn’t have the volume to make up for it.”
- The iPad Pro Has an App Store Problem—The Verge
- 6 Takeaways From Using the iPad Pro—USA Today
- iPad Pro Review: Big and Powerful, but It Won’t Replace Your Laptop—Engadget
- 10 Top Apps That Are Even Better on the iPad Pro—PC Magazine
What it’s about: Over at ZDNet, Tom Foremski revisits Nicholas Carr’s seminal book Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage to see if it holds up in the age of cloud, mobile, and related technologies. When it came out in 2004, Carr’s premise was both sound and revolutionary: If every company is running roughly the same applications on the same infrastructure, he argued, then IT can’t possibly deliver competitive advantages, rendering it largely irrelevant over time. Foremski argues that evolutionary change in the data center and elsewhere in IT is rewriting the equation: “The IT department is fast becoming transformed into a software organization, and into the most strategic and most valuable resource within every global enterprise,” he writes.
Why you should care: Well, if Foremski’s right—and we think he is—IT has never mattered more, and modern software is the reason why: “Software defined data centers will make possible the software defined corporation. All global enterprises will become software defined businesses because how else will they compete and survive in a data driven world?” he writes. “Software is the only scalable way to differentiate any and every business.” We couldn’t agree more.
Canary in the Code Mine—Backchannel
What it’s about: Lauren Smiley files a fascinating and encouraging dispatch to Medium’s Backchannel from Kentucky’s coal-mining region in the Appalachian mountains: As environmental concerns and other trends slash demand for coal-based power, local economies—“company towns” where the vast majority of jobs are generated by the coal-mining industry—are being devastated. Coal industry veterans Rusty Justice and business partner M. Lynn Parrish came up with an idea for revitalizing their local economy: Swap out the mining tools for software tools, and teach displaced miners to code. The result? BitSource, a Web and mobile development shop staffed by former miners who’ve turned themselves into programmers.
Why you should care: Smiley is careful to point out that BitSource has not solved all of eastern Kentucky’s economic woes—far from it. But Justice and Parrish have turned what seemed like a long-shot idea into fledgling reality, largely on sweat equity and a willingness to adapt and learn. In the process, they’re proving doubters wrong: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg infamously told the audience at a 2014 energy conference: “You can’t teach a coal miner to code. Mark Zuckerberg says you teach them to code and everything will be great. I don’t know how to break it to you … but no.” Perhaps it shouldn’t seem so surprising: As Smiley writes, “After all, coal was the backend code of 200 years of industrial progress — the fuel that bent the steel for Ford cars and train tracks and skyscrapers, and much of the electricity to light them.”
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