RDBMS and XML

Jon Udell (InfoWorld) writes about the coming marriage of the two:

Now that XML can represent both the documents that we see and touch — such as purchase orders — and the messages that exchange those documents on networks of Web services, it’s more critical than ever that our databases can store and manage XML documents.

Most of the information in an enterprise lives in documents kept in file systems, not in relational databases. There have always been reasons to move those documents into databases — centralized administration, full-text search — but in the absence of a way to relate the data in the documents to the data in the database, those reasons weren’t compelling. XML cinches the argument.

As business documents morph from existing formats to XML — admittedly a long, slow process that has only just begun — it becomes possible to correlate the two flavors of data. Consider an insurance application that stores claims data in a relational table and claims documents in XML. A hybrid SQL/XML database enables the application to extract fragments of XML from a subset of the documents. And that subset can be created by joining XML elements in the document with column values in relational tables.

We’ve developed a utility called “Events Horizon” which can interface to any ODBC-compliant database and generate an RSS feed for specific events. So, I could set up a SQL-query on the database for something I want to track regularly and then get the RSS events resulting from that feed delivered to me in my news reader.

K-Logs and Intranet Portals

John Robb compares the RoI of a K-log (knowledge weblog), as compared to an Intranet portal. Phil Wolff summarises his conclusions:

Can blogs can replace portals? If so, what are the relative costs, benefits, ROI? [John Robb’s] answers (and I concur): Yes for everything except “adding a web front end to business apps”

Blogs look better:
– Costs: $142 vs. $807 per desktop (Costs 82% less)
– Benefits: $1,658 vs. $1,886 per desktop (Delivers 88% of the value)
– ROI: 1,170% vs. 240% (or 4.9 times the ROI)

Considering that so many projects:
– Aren’t funded at all in this economy
– Fail completely (around 25% are cancelled or aborted)
– Fail partially (blowing scope, schedule, or budget)
Setting up a klognet seems like a low risk, high payoff proposition.

Masayoshi Son’s Next

I first heard about Japn’s Masayoshi Son when he made the Yahoo investment in 1995. After that, he made many bets – some worked, and others didn’t. He is now focusing on braodband in Japan.

Wired writes about the Japanese entrepreneur who “lost $75 billion in the dotcom crash. His new master plan: superfast, supercheap DSL for the masses.”

Softbank has spent close to $2 billion building out a gigabit Ethernet network and leasing copper wire from Japanese telecom giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. The result is a service, offered under the Yahoo! BB brand, that provides Internet access to Japanese homes at 12 megabits per second – eight times faster than what Americans are used to – for about $21 a month. Every day, as many as 7,000 new subscribers fire up their plug-and-play DSL modems, making Yahoo! BB the world’s fastest-growing broadband service.

So things are looking rosy, right? Not quite. Softbank is spending $250 to acquire every new customer – $50 million per month. Outside Tokyo subway stations, rain or shine, cute teens in white Yahoo! BB mackintosh coats hand out a free modem to anyone who breaks stride. A second-rate baseball team, the Orix Blue Wave, now plays in Yahoo! BB Stadium. Such marketing gambits increase the company’s profile but only add to Softbank’s staggering $3.9 billion debt.

Business Week too has a story on him, and his plans to now focus on online-gaming as the killer app for the broadband network that he is building in Japan.

On July 25 he plans to open a Web portal called BB Games featuring about 50 titles. Players will pay a monthly fee of $8.50 to $13 per title to square off against others across the country. By yearend 2004, Softbank plans to offer as many as 300 games and hopes the site to bring in revenues of at least $400 million per year by 2006. Of that, BB Games will keep 20%, with the remainder going to game developers. “There’s no doubt that the killer application for broadband is online games,” says Taizo Son, Son’s younger brother and a partner in the venture.

Son is hoping to turbocharge revenues by getting his broadband subscribers hooked on services such as games that bring in extra cash. Already, Yahoo BB has attracted 2.5 million users to an Internet phone service, and it’s now experimenting with pay-TV over its network. Down the line, Son plans to expand into e-learning and corporate services such as videoconferencing. Japan’s broadband content market could be worth $6.4 billion by 2005, a sharp jump from $1.5 billion last year, according to Mitsubishi Research Institute Inc.

Rich Web Clients

Adam Bosworth comments:

Personally I like the web. It is easy, doesn’t require arcane knowledge to use, … So, in terms of user interface, I think it is generally the right solution. I’m always surprised when I hear people disparage the web as poor or limited or dumbed down UI as Macromedia does and Laszlo and Altio and Nexaweb and others have sometimes done.

Limitations:
But there is no doubt that there are two things it isn’t particularly good at:
Offline Access. IE’s attempt to make sites go on working offline is a joke. Offline requires a new paradigm.
Push. If Information needs to flow to the user more or less as it occurs then the browser paradigm isn’t always the best model, at least without help.

All by themselves, I’d argue that the gain outweights the pain. But add in occasionally or poorly connected which is the world of mobile devices and the more limited UI gestures that really work on mobile devices and I think the game gets more interesting.

There is a definite need for (near) real-time information delivery. This is where the publish-subscribe concepts powered by RSS can play a role. RSS needs to deliver via IMAP to a microcontent client. There are only two options: the email client/news reader (which will merge) or the browser. The former option can be done via next-gen email client like Chandler, while the latter needs the equivalent of a “digital dashboard” (harder to do, but still possible). I’d go with the former approach.

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India 2: Solution Building Blocks (Part 2)

There is a virtually unlimited supply of thin clients available. Millions of computers are being disposed of annually by users and organisations in the developed world as they upgrade their desktops and laptops. These disposed computers have turned into a recycling problem for the developed nations. Most of these computers are in good working condition it is just that there are not fast enough to run the new generation of software for most users. The typical upgrade cycle for computers is 3-4 years, and the annual consumption of computers in the developed world is more than 60 million units. This ensures not only a large supply, but also one which is continuous. A fraction of this supply is good enough to meet the needs of the developing countries.

Shipping these computers to the emerging rural markets solves two problems the recycling problem in the developed world, and the need for an affordable computing infrastructure in the developing world. It is possible to take the computers being disposed, invest a small amount of money in their refurbishing, and ship them for use across the rural markets to serve as thin clients. The cost of this entire value chain will be no more than USD 100 (Rs 5,000).

Smart software running on the thick server ensures cutting-edge performance from these thin clients. In addition, because the computers are so cheap, it is possible to keep a few spare units in case one of the units stops working, it can be quickly replaced by another unit. There is no need for expensive maintenance engineers, which can be a problem in rural and remote areas.

Server-Centric Computing

The second building block is server-centric computing. A thick server handles the processing and storage. Moores Law is creating very powerful computers at ever lower prices. A new desktop costing about USD 500 (Rs 25,000) is more than good enough to become a thick server and support upto 4 thin clients. Shifting the processing and storage to the server also simplifies the administration of the computing infrastructure the server is the only system that needs to be managed.

Open-Source Software

The third building block is open-source software. Over the past decade, Linux has emerged as an equally good alternative to Microsoft Windows both on the desktop and server side. An ever-increasing pool of Linux developers and applications is now available. What open-source software offers is not just free software, but also the freedom to make changes as applicable to the software (provided the changes are themselves released in the public domain). What open-source software does is enables the leveraging of a vast applications base for a near-zero price.

WiFi

The fourth building block is WiFi. The 802.11 set of standards use open spectrum to enable wireless connectivity across a distance of upto100 metres. While it is primarily seen as a local connectivity solution through hotspots, WiFi can become the fulcrum for rural connectivity in rural areas through the use of repeaters and antenna innovation. Recently, Media Lab Asia in India demonstrated how two points over a distance of over 50 kilometres could be connected by WiFi. Thus, the connectivity layer for the last mile for both voice and data applications could be WiFi.

Thus, taken together, the 5KPC ecosystem comprising of thin clients which are refurbished computers from the developed world, server-centric computing on new desktops, open-source software based on and around Linux to provide the applications base, and WiFi to provide connectivity, serves as the basic building block for an affordable and pervasive computing infrastructure across rural areas.

Tomorrow: TeleInfoCentre and RISC

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