I’d like to start with some cloud access please . . . .

My tendency is to write when I’m in the air. Thankfully for you, it’s not every time I’m in the air or I’d be writing a lot; a really lot! There’s something, I want to say, ‘thought provoking’ or ‘liberating’ about sitting in a plane for eleven hours, but that’s not quite the sentiment I’m looking for. More like ‘mind-numbing’ I think. There certainly is time to think when you’re staring out the window at the clouds and listening to “the cabin crew’s favourite music choice” (!!!). I suspect the propensity to think and write is also something to do with that dispossessed feeling you get travelling on business. There’s an imposed normality to it that somehow doesn’t quite match the reality; a desensitisation to the excess of walking down ‘The Strip’ in Las Vegas, realising that driving down 101 south of San Francisco in a Mustang is basically a rubbish experience and moving back and forth through so many time zones so quickly you neither know what day it is, nor what country you’re in. All this, I think, contributes to my choice of travel companions; three friends I wouldn’t be without.

The first two are obvious. Passport. There’s a year left on my current one, which is held together with security stickers thanks mainly to Virgin Atlantic. They never seem to come off so I just leave them. Nobody seems to object (apart from a ‘tut’ from the lady at the United check-in desk). So until I can ‘carry’ my passport on my phone I’m ‘sticking’ to the paper variety. Not even biometric, for the time being at least – old school, analogue, physical.

Wallet – again, obvious. Not going far without that. Specifically the corporate card. It really is my flexible friend. (Wait, wrong brand and twenty years out of date). Anyway, my flexible friend, except for right now. It’s just packed up, on the first day of a week of travelling. Log in and find out what’s going on. Wrong password. Ugh. Email me a new one, except of course the email never arrives, so I ring the helpline which is delighted tell me, having entered all my details, etc. that they are super busy (when aren’t they) and that the next available agent will answer my call, which is important to them, in a week or so. That’s all outstanding because fortunately I’m not busy of course, so let me know when it suits you for me to contact you, why don’t you. Clearly, said organisation is not alone in this approach. Ok well I have to get in a plane so I guess I’ll find out when I get there whether or not whatever the issue is, can be sorted quickly, or not, or whether I’m stuck in a foreign country with limited means of payment.

So, on to the third and final item. My phone. Again it’s the same for most people probably. I can pretty much do without a laptop, iPad, etc. if I have my phone but the interesting thing is that it isn’t the phone as such that I want to carry with me. Yes, ok so I have a non-cabin crew chosen selection of music on there should I need it on a flight, but the reality is that it’s largely a means of accessing my stuff that’s elsewhere. What I’m seeing as I stare out the window at the clouds is that ‘the cloud’ however you choose to define and use it is becoming ever-more pervasive and yet less and less visible. Less distinct. There’s an assumption on my part that wherever in the world I land I’ll switch on my cloud access device and be able to get to all my stuff. When it’s offline it’s basically a brick. The concept of amount of data, cost, location and all the other practicalities go out of the window. It’s not a ‘check-me-out, nice-to-have’ any more, it’s a need – an expectation. With the type of capability I can have at my fingertips now if I don’t have what I need with me I can typically get what I need (in a business sense, you understand) generally straight away.

All this presents me with a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is two-fold. From a personal perspective, who backs up the cloud? As I noted previously, there’s all sorts of apps connecting to all sorts of other apps and moving data around, etc. Is it all protected. The answer, presumably, is “no idea, but I hope so.” Facebook, for instance. The average user has over 200 personal photos uploaded. Given that there are now more than one billion Facebook users (apparently) there’s an interesting set of question buried in there somewhere, The second part of course is, who backs up the cloud from a business perspective. But it’s more than that isn’t it? Who keeps the cloud available – not the cloud itself but the stuff in it. There are so many variables. Availability isn’t just knowing its there. Surely it’s being able to get it wherever and whenever I want it. Today was a classic example. Rather than having an app to show my mobile boarding pass, today’s airline prefer to text me a URL which I browse to on my phone, except of course when you’ve had your phone tucked away and it has no signal so you’re boarding pass is, well, still in the cloud, so to speak. Interesting.  If I can get it to the cloud and secure it on its way to, and in the cloud can I also help to ensure its availability as and when it’s needed. Gone are the days of sitting in from of a PC and connecting to a fileshare.

So herein lies the opportunity. Is it feasible to have all that stuff backed-up, available when and where I want it, shareable with whom I want whilst being protected all the time in case I leave my cloud access device in a yellow cab? From a device, available to me on another device or to someone else I choose on their device. Here’s hoping the answer is yes but that it’s also possible just to rely on my other two friends. Passport and wallet. Neither of them are very ‘cloudy’ but then generally when I take them of my pocket, at least I don’t get a ‘no service’ problem!

Everything has gone cloudy. Can you see me?

Every second organisation and person is venturing into “cloud” at the moment it seems; this new technology that’s going to make everything right in the world. I have a couple of side issues with that anyway – its not actually ‘new’ at all and how many people understand what ‘cloud’ actually refers to? That’s not the point though. For the purposes of right now, I’m going to use ‘cloud’ to refer to any application which is hosted by, or which hosts my information, elsewhere – in another place or organisation. No doubt you’ll see the limitations and flaws of that definition, but for this piece, it servers a purpose.

What I’ve been looking for recently is a way of better organising myself. Not that I’m a total disaster, but it seems that with all these ‘i-devices’ there really ought to be a great way to share my information . . with myself (?) – not all information, but things like tasks, plans, and so on. I’ve tried a few apps recently because it seems that the in-built and standard Microsoft apps aren’t quite flexible enough or joined-up enough to really address my needs. A couple worthy of note are http://www.rememberthemilk.com which looks great and works well except for the fact that Outlook integration and real-time sync are paid for extras and I’m convinced at this stage that I can meet my needs for less or better still, my favourite price – free. The one I’ve really been trying to use and I think I have settled on though is http://www.wunderlist.com. There are apps for iPhone, iPad and Mac which is great because I find an app to be much more convenient than a web page on Mac and apps for the other devices. There’s a raft of things that it allows me to do and it too looks really nice. My ask to the WunderKinder folks is: please add location-based awareness to task lists – for those of us who create lists to remember things but forget to look at the lists, its invaluable if you’re iPhone pops up a reminder when you arrive at home, work supermarket. The inbuilt iPhone task tool does it averagely. Remember the Milk does it well because its easy to define your chosen locations for reminders.

But this too is beside the point – apologies for the foray into apps. What struck me as I was trying these things out was two things. The cliché question of “where is my data actually going” which I’m less bothered about, although its an interesting question. Should we be worried? Depends on the company I suppose but its hard to tell these days. If its Symantec that’s hosting your data then you’re safe. If its a small app-providing company, what do you think? Hard to tell how much infrastructure there is behind this stuff. Presumably a fair bit, even if the app is free. More concerning for me though is the ‘social’ side of all of these apps. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of social media. So many services and apps I’ve looked at signing up to recently have asked whether I would like to sign up using my Twitter or Facebook account and if not, whether, once signed up, I would like to share my activity within the app with those social media services. As an average user, how much do any of us actually know about who can view information that we’re creating in these apps or data that we’re storing in these place – are we inadvertently sharing that information when we assumed it was private. Seriously, who actually reads the fine print? Worse still are the default sharing sites – you will share or you can’t sign up for the service. There’s raising awareness of your app or service to gain new members and then there’s forcing users to share only for the benefit of the app or service itself. That’s an instant no-go for me.

So lots of thoughts there but here’s another – if my information is stored somewhere else and that’s fine with me, what happens if my information is lost, damaged or otherwise at the place its being held? I backup the data on my laptop and I have been doing so for years. If that information was being stored on a local server in your workplace chances are that its being backed up too, chances are by Backup Exec, in fact (note: “Who’s Looking After Your Clouds?” – check out further down my blog) but what about cloud? Cloud, as in public cloud – the one your app data is being held in. From my [work-head] perspective its no different. The backup of that data just happens somewhere else because the data is somewhere else. From another perspective you have to ask a couple of things: how much information am I sharing and with whom and if the answers could be ‘lots’ and ‘a lot of people’ because you just don’t know and therefore there’s a risk to that data, how well is it being protected in case something does happen in that ‘somewhere else’. Do you actually know (have seen face-to-face in the last couple of years) all of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers? What’s the risk and what’s the protection against that risk like? Security is one thing, but backup is always the last line of defence. So interestingly as everything is going ‘cloudy’ its possible that we can see each other better than ever – perhaps more than we’d like.

Apples and Toasters

Apple Toaster

Apples weren’t my thing a couple of years ago. It was all a bit too predictable. You could tell the guy on the train who was going to get a Mac out of his laptop case – it was ‘a certain type.’ Now it seems I have become one of those types. It’s ok these days because every second person has an Apple product of one type or another. I’m hopeful that fact prevents me from being part of that once-predictable crowd.

For me it started with a phone. I had two Blackberries over a period of two or three years and they served their purpose really well. I was a huge fan. Then one day, the whole RIM-outage-no-mobile-email-reboot-it-every-so-often thing just became too difficult. It turned out that in my job (for which mobile communication is important) having to do all those extra bits and pieces you have to do when you own a Blackberry, were getting in the way of actually doing my job. Landing in another country for a one day meeting and finding that I couldn’t pick up a local mobile phone provider signal and couldn’t get any email just wasn’t acceptable. The truth is not that there was anything desperately wrong with Blackberry. I’m still a huge fan of the physical keyboard – by the way, the original Bold 9000 had the best keyboard by a country mile. What changed was me. Doing email and making phone calls on the go is a by-product of what I do but an important one. As a result something like that getting in the way was just, well, getting in the way. So there’s Apple number two.

Yes, number two. iPad came to me before iPhone in fact, as Apple number one, but since I had nothing to compare the iPad to, as much as I like it (and am writing this now on it at 38,000 feet) it didn’t dawn on me what the difference with Apple products was until the iPhone.

It took me a while to get used to the iPhone over the Blackberry. Issues aside, I knew what I was doing with the Blackberry. I’d used them for so long day-in, day-out that I knew all the quirks and what had to be done when. Up to a point that worked, as noted. When I say it took me a while to get used to the iPhone, I’m talking a couple of days. There were a few ‘what is it trying to do now’ moments. I was trying to use it like a Blackberry – trying to impose the previous user experience on a new interface. The irony was instead of trying to learn what was going on, just becoming part of the experience and letting the thing guide me worked out fine. I’m as comfortable if not more so with the iPhone as I was previously with Blackberry.

Apple number three was the Mac. Much like Blackberry I’d always had a Windows laptop. Ten plus years. Yes, they’re slow sometimes and get slower as they get older. Yes, there’s a bunch of stuff you just have to know to get it to work properly and so on, but it was comfortable and so I clung on to my Windows laptops – a fair number of them. But once again, as I changed and the work I was doing changed so my needs changed. The value to me now of a laptop that weighs almost nothing and is there when I need it, with no extended boot sequence and with plenty of battery life is greater than the comfort of previous machines. And yes, it is awfully pretty as well.

They key to all of this for me, with all of these devices, is that they’re built to do one thing and do it well. In the same way, if you want to toast bread you buy a toaster not a grill. Yes the grill may be able to do a load of other stuff as well, but all I need to do is toast bread. The toaster is an appliance built to do one thing, do it well, and not require any real knowledge or talent (not that I’m suggesting that making toast is complex you understand.) What I’ve been getting my head around recently is the difference between the toaster and the grill. What makes an appliance an appliance rather than a bunch of things thrown together in a effort to make life simpler. Apple seems to do it pretty well. It also seems that the toaster in our kitchen does it pretty well – rarely is there burnt toast. It’s about making it easier when what we’re trying to achieve is not the primary thing we do. My job isn’t doing email on the move but it is something I need to be able to do, therefore, iPhone. I don’t toast bread for a living either, therefore, toaster.

You’ll know by now in this blog that I’m getting to the bit I do actually do – backup. More specifically backup appliances and more specifically still, Backup Exec Appliances. Not just a bunch of stuff we’ve thrown together in a box. Built specifically to do one job and do it well. Serving a purpose. Because if your primary job is doing backups every day, what else could you be doing more usefully if backups were easier to do. And if your primary job isn’t doing backups every day then you surely want ‘doing backups’ to be as straightforward and worry-free as possible, don’t you? So there it is; Backup Exec Appliances – rather like Apples and Toasters . . . ripe now and cooked just right.