Computer Speeds and Relativity

September 23, 2010

And yes! that is a deliberate play on Einsteins’ theory!

We are human, and when dealing with concepts that either we do not understand, or we have an inability to immediately visualize, we tend to try and make a mental comparison about that concept relative to a concept that we can understand or appreciate.

To illustrate, consider all of the press coverage of the massive Gulf oil spill after BP’s DeepWater Horizon exploded and started spewing oil into the Gulf.

If your press coverage was like mine, after numbing your brain with a massive amount of oil measured in tens of thousands of gallons (or Litres), there was usually a reference relating that massive number to; “the equivalent of X Olympic sized swimming pools”

Putting in this relative reference allows our brain to put a rough estimate, or mental framework around what would otherwise simply be a dizzying number.

It is not just gulf oil, how many times in your life have you heard relative comparisons similar to;

– the length of three football fields
– as high as two Empire State buildings

And Computer speeds?

I was asked to get pricing on a new computer workstation capable of very demanding, very heavy duty work. The tasks the machine would be doing included creating and editing of massive digital imagery, manipulating, editing and working with full screen quality video, and other compute intensive tasks.

I checked various machines and their specifications with corresponding prices, then supplied a recommendation.

It went over like a lead balloon

A week or so later, I was asked why a local Big Box computer retailer had computers with the same computer processor, the same amount of RAM (memory) but about one half the cost?

I had made a mistake.

I had forgotten this relativity.

In modern computers, the processor, or brain, of the computer is no longer the single key to how that machine will perform. Basically, a computers fitness for your purpose is driven by many other pieces of the machine.

So, how did I try and recover from my error?

First I told a story, then related that story to the specifications of the computer.

You don’t need to be a fan of auto racing to grasp the idea that taking the engine out of a racing car and sticking it into your minivan won’t let you win the Montreal Grand Prix. (or Brickyard if you prefer!)

Sure, the engine is a big part of a race car, but it has a stellar supporting cast in transmission, suspension, and brake components. And your minivan? well it does not have that all star supporting cast.

I then showed three computer specifications with exactly the same processor, and same memory. One machine was a consumer product, the second a mid range general purpose business machine, the third a high end engineering class workstation. I could then point out visually the differences in this supporting cast of components.

In our race car, the supporting cast includes the suspension and brakes, some of the computer related supported cast includes the electrical speed of the data bus (in MHz) that ferry’s data in and out of the processor. The speed and size of the layer 2 and 3 cache (that increases the predictive opportunity for the processor) The speed and architecture of the RAM chips.

These supporting pieces are what separates the race car computer from the minivan.

The SMB Takeaway

There is more to know than the type of processor and how much RAM is in a computer to determine if it is fit four your purpose.

If the workload is heavy and complex, look at the improved supporting cast. If not? you can get away with out it.

PS, did my recommendation get accepted?

Actually no! armed with that information an even higher powered machine was preferred- but hey – all is good.

Photo Credit Martin Pettit via flickr

On Designing Systems & Process

September 17, 2010

My thanks to Eric Brown, who graciously accepted a guest post of mine on his Technology, Strategy, People and Projects blog.

The post does a brief comparison of business processes with personal time management.

As individuals, things can fall through the cracks, ditto for business.

As individuals, rework and lost time can occur, again ditto for business.

Add Eric’s blog to your regular reading!

For many IT leaders in the SME space, thinking about technology is easy.

But thinking about how technology affects the goals and problems of other parts of the business, or external customers is harder.

Technologists tend to look only in the mirror. This type of business introversion is similar to the old adage; when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

To improve IT performance smash that mirror and start looking out the window. If you want to borrow another old adage; walk a mile in their shoes.Walk in their shoes

Can you describe the goals and problems facing your sales team? How about marketing? Now how about your customers?

If you can’t answer those questions, observe, research, and ask.

What if you can describe their problems and goals?

Congratulations on a great start, unfortunately that is the easy part.

Influencing and proposing methods to improve ‘the way we always do it around here‘ beast is the harder part.

But it is still the part that has to be done correctly.

Image credit ppphotographs via flickr

Unsecured Wireless

September 8, 2010

Like most office buildings, ours has a small custodial office located in a mechanical room off of the ground floor.

A few days ago I was having a brief chat with a building heating / ventilation contractor and commented that I have been seeing him here a lot – and that I hoped that there was nothing major that was wrong with the building!

His response?

He told me that the unsecured wireless network that someone in this building has was great for him to check his email.

The SMB Takeaway

If you have any wireless access points in your facility, and they are unsecured, it may not just be the HVAC repair guy that is accessing your network

Unsecured Wireless

Photo Credit verdammtescheissenochma via flickr

Chris Dancy of ServiceSphere (@servicesphere on Twitter) tweeted this excellent 10 page (PDF) Executive Overview of IT Service Management (ITSM) and ITIL.

The PDF contains a succinct, and brief overview of the benefits of improving IT Service Management, with some easy to understand demonstrations of visual signs of poor ITSM.

If you are an executive wondering what the fuss is about with ITIL and ITSM, this document is a great summary.

Note, if you have been following this blog for a while, you will note some terminology changes compared to what I have written. This is simply because my experience has been with Version 2 of the ITIL framework, and this document summarizes ITIL utilizing the newer process terminology contained within Version 3 of the framework.

If you are looking into ITIL, I highly recommend checking out ServiceSphere at the above link, on twitter too!

Process And IT Costs

August 30, 2010

Do you know if there is any value at all coming from your technology investment?

Unfortunately for many SME’s, they  don’t know. One reason for this disconnect is that we can have very little understanding on when money spent on IT is an investment, or well, just an expense.

One way to improve your value for price in technology is to look at where that money is being spent. And for many small to medium business, the primary two buckets your IT spending will fall into is supporting your direct activities or to increase their effectiveness. (note that more strategic use of IT for driving growth is beyond the scope of this post)

Process, IT Cost And Value

I want to demonstrate that taking a more holistic look at the way you do business can improve IT spending by ensuring that your IT spend is is being applied to those two buckets.

When there is work being performed, and that work is performed more than once, you can be sure that you are looking at a process. It may not be articulated, or formalized as a process – but it is a process.

As a SME business owner or executive, if you were to write down each step, and each event that happens when a new or existing customer calls looking for your product or service – what would that chain of events look like?

Many of us will make a mistake here!

We have the tendency to say; ‘Well sales gives that information to person ‘X’ who gets it out the door…’

I guarantee you – in most cases, you would be wrong.

I state wrong, because that statement is a generality, nice to say, but usually not the exact steps being performed.

If you look closer at what actually happens, it may look more like this;

a) phone call / email is received – maybe written down on a message slip?
b) if it is an existing customer, perhaps terms or conditions are looked up?
c) if a new customer – perhaps you collect information? even just in email?
d) is a message slip handed over to someone else to look at inventory or availability?
e) perhaps forward that message slip or email to someone else who can schedule or ship?

You get the idea. It is very, very rare that what you think happens in a particular situation is actually what is really happening.

Note: For a real example of a ‘process’ in action read this post titled; Don’t Automate Broken Processes

Once you have taken some time and drawn out each of these tasks and steps, you can begin to see where your technology investments can be made to support your direct activities.

In this case, any IT tools that can reduce manual steps and work in this process can be considered as directly supporting your activities.

To take a step further, look at how long each of the tasks you identified in the previous step take.

Any surprises?

Did you find one area where the majority of time is wasted before your product or service can actually be delivered to your customer?

Real World Example

A company I am familiar with is using an on-line sales force tool to track their sales funnel. In your sales funnel, I know that there are some critical numbers needed to gauge your success. Simple examples could include gross margins, cost of sales etc.

The automation tool that this organization was using had some sophisticated advanced metrics reporting, but as a higher cost option.

Because they wished to avoid paying for this reporting option?

From the president to the sales director, five senior people spend hours per month collating the data required for those metrics!

Looking at the time being wasted in their processes has shown them that getting the additional automated reports is more than worth the cost, in other words, to increase the effectiveness of their process.

The SMB Takeaway

Is a tech spend proposal supporting either of those buckets?

If not – why are you spending it?

How Can I Plan?

August 24, 2010

If you aren’t telling me what your plans are?

My research, and my recommendations have to be based on what your strategic goals and tactical plans are.

If you are the CFO / CEO of a small to medium business and you are responsible for IT, yet in my IT leadership role I have no clue what your thinking?

Then I can’t support those tactics or plans can I?

Would I research and recommend an IT infrastructure upgrade if you have already decided that you have outgrown our facility and are planning to move?

Would I recommend deferring a particular expense if your strategic plan contains a new revenue generation activity where that cost would actually be an investment to get you there?

A simplistic example

If your primary revenue strategy is moving boxes by the truckload off a loading dock, fancy IT tools may be just an expense.

But if your strategy is changing to become the go-to business that gets every box off of that dock and into the right customers hands in the least amount of time – those fancy IT tools may become a critical investment.

The SMB Takeaway

IT investment needs to support your business goals and your operational strategies.

If your IT team has no clue what these are – you are not going to get the IT support you should be receiving.

If you disagree? tell me why!