Archive for November, 2006

If you haven’t spent any time in Pittsburgh, you can ignore this post. If you have spent some portion of your life there or know someone who has, have I got a great gift idea for you. “Chipped Ham Sam”, the first in a line of Yappin ‘Yinzers dolls is available for purchase at http://www.yappinyinzers.com. Check out the site and poke Sam in the belly for one of 9 witty Pittsburghese sayings.

Yinzers

This is a great gift idea for native Pittsburghers, CMU / Pitt students, or anyone in the Steeler nation who has had a chance to experience the flavor of the steel city. This product is the brainchild of a former colleague. Goes to show what 6 years of systems integration work can do to a person.

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Following up on my This Digital Life post last month, a couple of folks have sent me emails asking if I had some recommendations around other Web 2.0 tools. In the sprit of a recent podcast that defined Web 2.0 as “really anything that’s cool online nowadays”, I decided to post some Web 2.0’ish tools that I highly recommend. Some of these tools I’ve been using for a year or more (a mighty long time in the Web 2.0 world) and some I’ve been using for just a couple of weeks. Most are, with the exception of Central Desktop, free services. Enjoy and let me know if you find these useful.

Web-2-0-ish-Tools

  • scanR – Snap digital pictures of whiteboards or paper documents and upload them for processing to scanR. The images are cleaned up, PDFed, and sent back to you in an email. You can also upload images of business cards, which are then converted into vCards that can be imported into your favorite contact management program.
  • Vyew – I’m a recent convert to Vyew and have been nothing but impressed with its features and ease of use. Think WebEx; but it’s better and it’s free.
  • Zamzar – File conversion online. Format… you name it. Upload a file, identify the type of conversion you’re looking for and Zamzar quickly converts the file; returning the finished product to you via email. Zamzar supports over 200 conversion types. Some of my favorites are doc-to-pdf, ac3-to-mp3, and avi-to-flv.
  • Mediamax – So now that you have all of this digital media, what do you do with it? Enter Mediamax. You get a whopping 25GB of storage for free and the pricing plans for more space are very reasonable. This includes sharing and hosting of digital audio and video and a Windows-based tool for file synchronization and automated backup.
  • Google Calendar / Remember the Milk – With some recent integration efforts, this is a tool match made in heaven. The best calendaring tool combined with the best to-do list manager, all in one very intuitive UI. Although not combined, these tools both have great browser-based PDA versions as well.
  • Central Desktop – The Cadillac of the tools listed here and, as mentioned earlier, the only one that does not have a perma-free option. This tool is simply so awesome that it warrants mention. Central Desktop is software as a service at its finest. Portal based functionality, project management, full text indexing and search of uploaded documents, Web meeting and audio conferencing capabilities, IM and Skype integration, version control, and the list goes on. It’s not as lightweight as Basecamp but it has all the features you wish for in Basecamp and is even more intuitive.

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This weekend, I set out on the daunting task of trying to add an Apache Web server to my existing Windows 2003 production server installation. “Why would you go about doing such a crazy thing”, you might ask. The answer is that, in short, it’s the only way to host an HTTP-accessible instance of Subversion on a Windows box. I’m looking to consolidate all of my hosted software: .NET, Java, and infrastructure, onto a single platform. Since I use Subversion to enable my location independence with respect to computers I use, this application needed to be ported as well.

IIS and Apache Side-by-Side

I expected to learn a lot of new stuff about Subversion and Apache through this process. I didn’t expect (perhaps ignorantly so) that I’d encounter “learning opportunities” on Windows as well. As it turns out, Microsoft has gone ahead and made the assumption that if you’re running IIS on your Windows Server, nothing else should be running on port 80. That is, out of the box, IIS exhibits very greedy behavior, binding to all available IP addresses on the server, not just the ones that are explicitly assigned to Web sites.

It turns out that this is a case of socket pooling gone awry. To solve this problem, you must literally slap IIS on the hand and tell it to stop listening to all of those ports. After trying a couple of legacy solutions, such as setting the DisableSocketPooling property, I landed upon a solution that works in the IIS 6.0 post-Winsock era. This Microsoft Support Article provides all of the details you would need to manage the IP inclusion list in IIS 6.0 and solve this problem should you run into it. Also, should you need the Windows 2003 support tools referenced in this article but not have immediate access to your Windows 2003 CD, you can find the tools here as well.

I’m happy to report that I now have IIS and Apache running side-by-side on the same Windows machine; each on port 80 using different IP addresses. Getting Subversion up and running was another issue entirely…

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IT Conversations pushed out a great series of podcasts again last week. As always, good things seem to come in three. In this case, the three were IP telephony, transportation networks, and collaboration. The diverse range of technologies and topics covered in these three podcasts represent a microcosm of the IT Conversation offering; just reaffirming their commitment to appeal to an intellectual audience (myself excluded) with a broad set of interests.

Attenuation and Other Great Ideas

  • Moving Voice Apps to Pervasive Use – A quick and dirty overview of one man’s history of IP telephony and the applications that can be built on top of these services. It helps that the man in question is Jonathan Taylor, founder and CEO of Voxio. In a little over 15 minutes, Jonathan gives a quick yet fascinating personal tour of the evolution of the industry. One highlight for those that were unaware is that Voxio provides Evolution, a free limited scope infrastructure to developers looking to develop IP telephony solutions.
  • Transportation Networks – Although it is a bit longer than the voice apps podcast and tends to meander at certain points, the transportation network podcast provides an abundance of interesting information. From information on rail sizes to an etymology of the word turnpike, there’s some fascinating stuff here. Dr.Levinson doesn’t give too much away, instead leaving the audience to contemplate the parallels between communication and transportation networks and draw their own conclusions. In one quick response to a question, he compared the issue of net neutrality with the establishment of High Occupancy / Toll (HOT) lanes in several states. Pretty insightful.
  • Facilitating Collaboration – This was the best podcast of the group. Ryan Freitas from Adaptive Path pulled together a great piece with some really thought provoking ideas. It would not do this podcast justice to simply highlight a couple of elements. It’s absolutely worth your time listening to this one. While listening to this podcast on my drive to work, I found myself taking notes with one hand and calling people to tell them how pertinent the material was with the other. BTW, I commute to downtown Harrisburg, PA at about 8:00am; you might want to avoid the roads at that time. A couple of the notes that I took on my ride were:
    • Attenuation (4:25) – Used throughout the presentation, this word caught me at first. As a guy that used to do signals intelligence, this has a distinct meaning to me and it isn’t “pay attention to”. Despite the semantic incongruance, the concept that Ryan is illustrating here is awesome. By using certain signals and markers (sharing our del.icio.us bookmarks, blogs, or reading lists, for example), we can better attune as a team and understand what forces are impacting each other’s thoughts and actions.
    • Criteria for Evaluating Tools (15:20) – Ryan had some great suggestion for evaluating lightweight Web 2.0-like tools. Appropriateness, commonality, centralization, portability, uptake – all very good criteria. I liked portability in particular with an eye on exit strategy. 37Signals did a particularly good piece on facilitating easy exit in their book, Getting Real.
    • Alternatives to WebEx (34:30) – Expensive and slow, yes – yes. Passes at work but what about outside of work? Ryan mentioned Vyew. This is simply awesome free software that you’ve got to check out. My additional recommendation, for software development specific alternatives, are collaboration tools like Netbeans’ collaboration project that allow sharing, collaboration, and working with code online across time and space.
    • Wikis (37:00) – Ryan talks about some of the benefits and challenges of wikis. He also handles some Wiki hybrids. Once again, from a software development specific standpoint, it’s worth calling focus to Trac here. Wiki, timelines, RSS syndication, Subversion integration, bug tracking / ticketing, and FAQs – all in one tight pack.

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I’ve been kicking around some ideas in this area for a while, in hope of bringing them together in some coherent fashion. The image below represents the fruits of my labors. I’m not sure that it’s prefect or that I won’t look back on this as a sophomoric effort several months from now. The visual does, however, touch on several major observations I’ve made recently and allow me to illustrate them in a fairly clear and succinct fashion. Some of the terms are heavily overloaded and thus a bit more discussion of each of these trends is provided below for clarification.
SOA Directions in State Government

  • Information Monopolies – Several states have internal brokering setups in place. These information brokerages are found most frequently in the areas of law and justice, financial transactions, and health information. I believe these areas represent the first of several information monopolies. These monopolies were driven by federal data exchange efforts in homeland security and bioterrorism and, in the case of financial data exchanges, system consolidations on common ERP platforms. Expect to see more of these natural information monopolies in the near future with efforts such as Real ID, the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), Medicaid spend management, and the National Provider Identifier (NPI) taking hold. As these monopolies take shape, certain organizations within state government will be the logical choice as keepers of this data. These keepers should be building their systems in a service-oriented fashion to facilitate easy exchange of information amongst all systems requiring access to this data.
  • Increased External Brokering – Data exchanges with external business partners are a critical source of information for many state government systems. Many of these exchanges still function via standard mainframe flat file transfers that occur at predefined intervals. The federal government is working to transform their data exchanges to use service-based XML file transfers. Interestingly enough, the private sector is lagging behind a bit in this area. I recall a recent experience where we were notified that the 3 major credit bureaus had “upgraded” their data exchanges from automated flat file transfers to HTTP POST transfers invoked manually through Web pages (still using the same flat files). I would expect to see an increased push from both the public and private sectors to move towards HTTP SOAP-based Web services over the next several years.
  • Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) – The two most common patterns of Web service automation that I’ve witnessed in state government are service-based point-to-point integration and service façades. The point-to-point services represent a simplistic upgrade of existing point-to-point mainframe file transfers to use more current technologies. The service façades are usually the product of auto-generated Web service interfaces whose structure mimics that of the underlying components’.

Without going as far as to label these uses of services as anti-patterns, they are definitely crude uses of a Web service based infrastructure. Without publication in a registry or consideration of the consequences of how these services might be used outside of their intended scope, the service infrastructure can be considered anemic, at best. ESB promises to right some of these wrongs by acting as a central pipeline to enable access to these and other legacy services. Along with this access comes centrally provided infrastructure and transformation services that shield the service providers from some of the change and configuration management headaches associated with providing these services.

  • Robust Business Process Infrastructure – The current state of business process integration in most legacy enterprise applications is characterized by a complete commingling of business process logic, data processing logic, and other rudimentary services. In most systems, you’d be hard pressed to trace the progression of a business process from end-to-end, let alone measure the effectiveness of the process execution. Yet, business processes are the lingua franca of the business managers and business users. Show business people a UML sequence diagram and it’s likely to elicit blank stares. Show them a process flow, on the other hand, and you will probably receive all sorts of feedback on how to modify the flow to make it more representative or efficient.

It’s really a shame that it has taken the IT industry so long to come up with tools that meet this relatively elemental need of business application development (see article – State of Workflow). It does appear that these tools are finally beginning to materialize in the form of Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) compliant servers and tools. Support for BPEL is fairly widespread among the newest Java IDEs and application server vendors (Sun, Oracle, IBM, BEA, and JBoss). On the Microsoft side, Windows Workflow Foundation (WF) and Visual Studio support in the release of the .NET 3.0 Framework represents a major step forward towards standards-compliant support. BPEL will allow for the orchestration of services and the representation of this orchestration using common process flow diagrams that business analysts and business managers can use to effectively communicate process execution.

There are two other trends that are likely to follow the creation of BPEL-compliant processes. First is the introduction of Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) to measure the ongoing execution of the business processes and provide real time business intelligence. Second is some degree of standardization of business process models and potentially even the rise of business process outsourcing. In state government, this outsourcing is likely limited to the programmatic execution of the process as well as support and maintenance for ongoing process changes. Business processes that are codified in legislation (taxation and welfare eligibility, for example) are good candidates for automation and standardization of process commonalities.

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