Is the software spiral dead? By Scott Reeder

March 21, 2011

Several years ago, Intel founding member Andy Grove formulated a concept called the software spiral.   In this vision, a never ending spiral is created of faster computing hardware driving ever increasing performance in software.  In turn more advanced software drives innovation for increasing performance in hardware.   And the spiral continues with hardware and software continuing to push the limits of capabilities with each new generation.

In the early days of wide spread PC proliferation this spiral was very evident.  Applications as well as operating system changes were drastic and obvious.  The same was to be said for the leaps in hardware performance.   Each generation bringing significant performance and capabilities to the user experience.   Anyone remember the 386 to 486 days and DOS to Windows?

So in today’s technology realm, does the spiral still exist?  Yes it does, but I believe it can be looked upon in four distinct areas; semiconductor hardware, PC’s, Servers and Handhelds. 

Semiconductor hardware continues to push the performance envelope and is on a steady cadence to deliver new enhancements like clockwork.  At Intel, we still track to Moore’s law where the transistor density count and thus the performance double around every 12-18 months.   Continued hardware improvements open the door for the software community to create more feature rich applications.  Virtual learning, interactive learning, speech recognition and translation are just a few that are utilizing the performance gains in hardware.

PC’s, contrary to believe are not dead and still the leading platform for performance, innovation and software capabilities.    PC’s now and many years into the future will still offer the most capable hardware combined with the largest array of full featured software applications.   PC’s, whether laptop or desktop will continue to offer the widest range of form factors, performance capabilities and applications now and for many generations to come.

Handhelds are the up and rising platform in the computing world these days.  Tablets and mobile phones continue to rise in platform performance and capabilities.   More applications are being developed to enhance the user experience along with new usage models with this form factor.   The handheld space looks and mirrors the explosive growth that was seen in the PC industry 20+ years ago.  Multiple operating systems, multiple form factors, multiple manufactures and an army of software developers aimed at delivering solutions for targeting this exciting new platform.  It is anticipated that this segment will start to mature and stabilize around 2015.

Servers on the backend are often overlooked, but they are at the heart of the software spiral.  Data, services, infrastructure are all required to feed the hungry appetites of today’s PC’s and mobile devices.  Today’s servers are more than up to the task and growing at a rapid rate in performance to meet the increasing demands of data served to clients.  Advances in software deliver applications on demand, capture data and analyze information all driving the software spiral forward.

So is the software spiral dead?  I think not, if anything it is accelerated more than ever in today’s world with the rapid pace of innovation.  

What does this mean for education?  An increasing complex array of hardware, software and services to extend the capabilities of teaching and learning platforms beyond today’s standards.  Form factors will continue to change and evolve as some of the technology matures and stabilizes.   When planning it is important to understand current and future teaching, learning and administration requirements to choose the best platform for the task at hand.


Risk assessing mobile devices

February 22, 2011

Securing mobile devices.

by Scott Reeder 

As I travel throughout the country visiting education institutions I am seeing an increasing mix of mobile computing devices enter the classroom.  Most notably the main staples of mobile learning and teaching devices are notebooks and netbooks.

Along with this upward trend in mobility in the classroom comes the increased security threats to these new devices.   The increased areas for security threats fall into two buckets; asset theft and data protection.   Let’s look at each in a little more detail.

Asset Theft;  Device theft tends to increase with the introduction of mobile devices into the classroom just by the physical nature of the platform.  Devices that roam around inside the walls (and sometimes outside as well) of a school are a much easier target for both the casual and expert thief looking to score.   Physically securing the devices via chains, cables and locks becomes much more difficult, and often defeats the mobile nature of these new devices.  Physically tracking the devices becomes a challenge as they are no longer assigned or associated to a physical location like desktops and workstations of the past.

Data protection;  Now that devices have the ability to travel around, what is stored on that system has the potential to become a security and liability issue in the event that PC is lost or stolen.   Confidential data, lesson information, personal data, student ID’s, and contact records are just a few examples of data that can land on mobile devices both inadvertently and with purpose.  Teaching and administration platforms are most often at a higher risk due to the confidential data, but I have also experienced learning devices with varying levels of data at risk on the hard drive.

Now that we have identified that mobility can bring some increased security concerns, what can be done to address it?   First and the most important part is to analyze, analyze and did I mention analyze the environment!    I cannot emphasize enough that a thorough overview of the environment must take place without any pre-existing assumptions or misconceptions of what is secured.  Something as simple as a spreadsheet with student names and telephone numbers saved onto a hard drive can be more than enough cause for alarm if a PC shows up missing.    A complete security assessment of all devices (not just mobile) will paint a clear picture of where the biggest and highest risks reside.

Once a good understanding of the PC platform security and risk assessment is understood a formal plan can be developed to prevent or reduce asset and information loss.

In today’s computing world there are very solid and complete solutions available to mitigate the risks associated with mobile computing.   The best of these solutions combine a mix of hardware and software features to build a rock solid tamper free solution for devices identified at risk.

One such solution is offered by Intel and Absolute.   In many of the mobile solutions available from Intel, there is a hardware feature known as Anti Theft (AT) and when combined with a software package like Computrace you get a new level of device security.  By combining these two solutions together, you now have increased device security outside of the operating system at the hardware level.  Not only does this increase the ability to stop and deter theft, it also starts to open up new use case scenarios for education.

A brief example of a new use case scenario we are seeing in K-12 is a model we are calling “brick to ship”.   In this use case, IT staff set’s up and configures a working mobile device.  With the use of Computrace and the Intel AT feature, IT staff “bricks” the device after integration.  This renders the device disabled at the hardware level.   It can only be reactivated with a custom key to unlock it, there is no way around a bricked system!   The IT staff can now safely ship this device to a school or student knowing that it will be securely delivered to its destination.  Once the device is powered on, a customizable hardware screen will display pointing the user how to contact IT staff to activate the new device.  Again pointing out that device is useless until unlocked, even if the hard drive is removed.

This is just one of many use cases for AT, with many more being developed as educators understand the benefits of security software combined with hardware features.

In my next blog, I will post some more use cases for this unique technology, but for now I would like to hear some of the security issues and concerns that are occurring as mobility increases inside our schools.

Virtual servers provide benefits to schools

December 22, 2010

Virtual servers provide benefits to schools, by Scott Reeder

 The virtual server explosion that has taken place the last several years has found its way into our school IT services and for good reason. Before virtualization, the mentality of deploying solutions on Intel (x86) was a one to one model. That being for every server application, software stack or required service, one physical server was deployed. In some school environments this led to massive server sprawl. This created very complex IT environments from a hardware, services and management standpoint. Closet and classroom servers became the standard and created additional management points for staff to maintain in both hardware and software.

Virtualization to the rescue! The trend started several years ago with virtual software solutions being offered by VMWare, Microsoft, RedHat, Citrix to name a few. These software products created an environment where multiple Operating System instances could coexist and share resources on a single hardware box. In the early days of virtualization it was most often deployed in development and test environments as the technology was new and un-proven. Software developers and IT personnel quickly realized the value of the virtualized infrastructure and it led to a computing revolution in the enterprise server market. The days of dedicated server hardware were ending and the onrush of virtualized servers had begun.

Inside the realms of education, server virtualization has taken some time to accelerate from an adoption standpoint. Long IT lifecycles, proprietary education workloads, limited IT staff and the risk adverseness of education institutions contributed to the slower growth than that seen the private sector IT organizations. In 2010, the trend started to change and the increase in mainstream virtualized servers within education grew substantially. Cost saving pressures, multiple software choices, widespread adoption and solution stability were key to the growth in education deployments for virtualized servers.

In my travels during the past year, I have seen a much more aggressive approach by school IT administrators to utilize virtualized servers as a mainstream solution. It is often stated in my conversations with schools and districts throughout the US that all new deployed servers will be virtualized unless proven not to work in a virtual environment. This has led to many school infrastructures targeting a 80-90% virtual environment for teaching and learning platforms. With the education trend now into the virtual world, and more feature packed virtual server solutions, 2011 should bring increased momentum for virtualized servers in education institutions. There are still some education specific challenges that IT administrators will face when deploying virtual infrastructures, but the goal of getting well over 50% of deployed servers virtualized is now within reach of many.

I will ask, what are the challenges, how has virtual server infrastructure changed your school and do you see an increase in this methodology heading into 2011.

Bring your own Computer?

November 23, 2010

by Scott Reeder

Bring your own computer?

If you would have asked me this question 5 years ago, I would have said you are crazy!   Students bringing their own computer to school, I would have said it was a dream that we would never see in our lifetime.

Fast forward to 2010 and that dream is starting to become a reality.  What has change and how is it now possible?   There are many moving parts to this trend, but there is one fundamental principal that is driving this and faster than ever, and it is “Moore’s Law”

Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of Intel, described a trend in 1965 that the number of components in integrated circuits would double every 12 months for the next 10 years.   Not only was his prediction right, but it continues to this day.

So translating this prediction into our every day IT world shows us that the devices we depend on continue to get more powerful, smaller with a decreasing cost per instruction executed.   This is setting the stage for an explosion in devices coming into our schools by students.

Laptops, netbooks, notebooks and tablets continue to fall in price but increase in performance and functionality.  Smart phones, game consoles and handheld devices are growing in performance capacity and have already hit the price point that are driving wide scale adoption.

When you combine this onrush of low cost, higher performing hardware with the changing software landscape a perfect storm is now on the horizon.  Application streaming, cloud computing, virtualization are a few trends adding fuel to the storm.

Predictions on smart phones and mobile internet devices show growth rates faster than any tracked technology segment since the adoption of the PC.   Internet traffic is expected to continue on it’s explosive growth path with smart phones making up over 50% of web browsing by 2012.

So as thought leaders in education are we ready for the storm?  How are we going to look at bring your own devices and embrace them in the future?  How will it impact our technology resources, students, teachers and education system?

So what do you think?

This IS an Exciting Time

November 8, 2010

By Brett Collingwood

In a couple of weeks, I have a speaking engagement where I get to talk about the future of desktop computing.  I’m excited and apprehensive at the same time.  This is part of the preparation process for me; I’m guessing it’s probably the same for you who make public presentations too.

The $50,000 question: What’s the role for cloud computing in K-12 education?

I don’t think anyone can argue that hosting applications, securing information, and making it ubiquitously available across many different platforms, (desktop, laptop, tablets) is a great idea.  To state it another way, the cloud is a good thing BUT we have a long way to go before it becomes a reality.  For enterprises, there is a compelling argument for cost savings and efficiency by moving applications to the cloud.

In K-12 education, the problem is a matter of scale i.e. is it cost effective to re-host existing applications in the cloud just to say they’re in the cloud?  Is a web based application considered “cloud compliant?”  Does building a virtual hosted desktop infrastructure constitute a cloud? Or better yet, does placing a tablet computer in each student’s hand improve education by giving the student access to “the cloud?”

Please don’t take my statements as being negative about cloud computing.  I think the subject needs to be changed: “What’s the best usage model for K-12 student computing?” I’m chuckling as I wrote the last sentence because it’s always easy to pivot, change the subject, and answer your own question, especially in a forum such as a blog. With that aside out of the way, I’ll assert that a rich client device is the best compute tool for K-12 students, (and for that matter, everyone else).

Students deserve more than just a device to consume content; they need a device where they synthesize the content they consume and produce (create) content in a way to demonstrate their learning through the completion of their assignments.  I would argue that student compute devices require an equal balance between content consumption and content creation capabilities.  So, where does that lead us regarding cloud computing in K-12 education?

It doesn’t matter whether the end-user’s device is a desktop, laptop, nettop, tablet or better yet, it doesn’t matter whether you wave a “certified, cloud compute” flag so long as the student has a rich experience consuming content and the capability to easily create high quality content.  I’ll even go out on a limb and say that the cloud can be helpful for delivering client aware applications but I’ll save that topic for another time.

-Brett Collingwood

Backup those systems!

October 25, 2010

by Scott Reeder

Backup that Data!

 As a field engineer for Intel I spend a good amount of time on the road visiting customers and talking about technology.   So to say that I often procrastinate on my home “IT duties” is an understatement.   However, upon returning from a recent road trip, I was snapped back into reality when we had two home laptops fail in the same week with crashed hard drives.

 Surely someone like me that makes a living in the IT world would have good backups of both systems.  NOT!  At best one machine had a two month old backup and the second had a one year old archive.   So after spending one painful week of getting both my daughters and wife’s laptops back online, I decided this was a good topic to blog on.

My first thought on this topic is that I am not alone in regards to poorly planned backup and recovery options.  I often see in many K-12 settings that backup and recovery is often pushed to the bottom of the priority list when systems are deployed.   Even though critical data may not be stored on a system, the amount of IT time spent rebuilding a system can be detrimental in a classroom setting.

So in today’s era , there is no excuse for a unprepared drive failure.  There are a host of software solutions today that make backup and restoration a snap.   IT administrators have a multitude of choices that range from cloud based internet backups, enterprise backup systems to the old reliable local software with external drive technologies.  The price points of these solutions have dropped significantly over the past several years to offer solutions that will fit any budget.

Beyond having a plan and using a backup and recovery solution the hardware world is changing as well.      Using redundant hard drives and RAID technologies has become affordable at the desktop and notebook level where data and recovery is critical.  In systems where drive failures are not an option, levering this technology may be beneficial.

But the real trend that is changing the way we think about data and storage is the explosion in Solid State Drives (SSD).  Intel launched it’s first Solid State drives over two years ago and has been steadily improving the technology with each generation.

So what does SSD bring to the table?  Solid State Drives move storage technology away from the traditional spinning magnetic media of Hard Disk Drives (HDD) and use semiconductor material to store data.   This translates to drive technology that is faster, more reliable and uses less power than a traditional HDD solution.  As the technology continues to mature, the price points are now becoming more affordable for mainstream deployments.

The bottom line is that education institutions have a host of options today to protect data and classroom continuity.  Hardware, software and the cutting edge technology of SSD provide ample solutions with varying price points based on the system integrity level that is required.   Don’t fall into the complacency trap as I did and build a plan to deliver solid recovery solutions to those teachers, students and administration staff that we support.

 Let’s hear what you think, how does data backup and SSD’s play into your current and future plans?

Choosing the right device for students in education environments.

August 9, 2010

by Scott Reeder

 Wow, have we ever seen an explosion in the new devices and gadgets that have hit the market over the last 12-18 months.  Unless you have been living in a box, there is no shortage new devices that continue to bombard us through the media.  Netbooks, notebooks, cell phones, laptops, tablets, pads, new form factors along with traditional computing devices are exploding.

 So what does all this mean for education and how do we keep an even keel when choosing the right technology tools for students?  As a technical strategist and gadet guy, it is tough not to get caught up in all the hype with the “device of the year”.

 For education and students, it is important that the tools chosen to deliver technology are based on sound and proven methodologies.

We can break the decision process into four simple areas to investigate.  There are many more, but these four areas of focus will reign in the chaos and help direct the selection process towards solid technology solutions.

  1.  Content creation, content consumption or both?   From a high level view it is important to determine how the device will be used from a content standpoint.   Sure I may be able to write a term paper on both a cell phone and a laptop, but which of these devices will give me the best user experience and enhance the learning process.  Understanding how students will interact from a content standpoint will shape the device requirements rather quickly.
  2. Mobility?   How portable or mobile does the device need to be or not?  Mobility has taken on many different tangents over the past few years with the growth of cell phones, netbooks and tablets.   Examining how students will use and interact with the device is critical.   Mobility can be within the classroom, within the school, or beyond the brick and mortar that surrounds the education environment.   Defining the how, when and where that a student will need to utilize technology devices to learn will give a clear vision as to the mobility requirements.
  3. Life Cycle?   How long do I plan on using or keeping the device and use case in production?  Buying or choosing a device that has limited processing power, memory, storage or graphics can have profound implications on the future use of technology tools.  One needs to exam what the current curriculum and software requirements are of today and then project how they will change over the life cycle of the device.   Many technology deployments fall short over their life cycle when they were purchased with a narrow vision of “good enough”.   Software upgrades, OS updates, changes to student requirements and curriculum, hardware maintenance are all key factors in determining platform lifecycles.   In my travels around the country visiting many different schools, this is often the most critical part of implementing technology, and often the most overlooked.  Understanding how long devices will be in place and used before refreshing is critical to success.
  4. It’s all about the applications!  What good is the latest gadget, widget, netbook or laptop if it cannot run the applications needed by our teachers and students?   Platforms must be chosen based on their ability to deliver rich interactive applications that foster a good learning experience.  Open platform systems that can deliver the right experience when deployed and leave the doorway open to upgrades, changes and additions over the lifecycle will provide the best overall experience to students.

 Again there are many more decisions that factor into choosing the right devices to expand the learning experience for students, but these four will set the conversation in the right direction.   It is important for all of us involved in this process that we have an open mindset, focus on the end goal (educating our students) and deliver solutions that offer the most rewarding experience for all that are involved.

 So let’s hear your thoughts and experiences in choosing the right platforms for education.