Google Platform OS

John Battelle points to Rich Skrenta, and says:”Google is a massively distributed platform with its own OS, and how that has given Google the competitive edge to roll out cool stuff like Gmail. Very Web 2.0 stuff here – the Platform Web.” Writes Skrenta:

Google has taken the last 10 years of systems software research out of university labs, and built their own proprietary, production quality system. What is this platform that Google is building? It’s a distributed computing platform that can manage web-scale datasets on 100,000 node server clusters. It includes a petabyte, distributed, fault tolerant filesystem, distributed RPC code, probably network shared memory and process migration. And a datacenter management system which lets a handful of ops engineers effectively run 100,000 servers.

Google is a company that has built a single very large, custom computer. It’s running their own cluster operating system. They make their big computer even bigger and faster each month, while lowering the cost of CPU cycles. It’s looking more like a general purpose platform than a cluster optimized for a single application.

While competitors are targeting the individual applications Google has deployed, Google is building a massive, general purpose computing platform for web-scale programming.

This computer is running the world’s top search engine, a social networking service, a shopping price comparison engine, a new email service, and a local search/yellow pages engine. What will they do next with the world’s biggest computer and most advanced operating system?

Third World to Second Superpower

Jim Moore points to a chapter from his forthcoming book, co-authored with Ethan Zuckerman on “Extreme Democracy.” The chapter “takes the idea of The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head and Joi Ito’s Emergent Democracy and asks: How can we get the rest of the world engaged in this–when currently they are so underrepresented in everything from traditional to blog media?”

A few ideas suggested by Jim:

Third-world Orkut. Give extra points for third world friends signed up.

Skoop-based sites in the third world would allow self-registering “crossing the chasm” blogs for all who now have email accounts–which is actually many more folks in the third world than have computers, due to cybercafe access..

And start to tweak the Net-based world news. Imagine if Google News gave extra ranking points to news sourced in the third world?

What if Feedster had RSS feeds from newspaper front pages and blogs in the third world, referenceable by various sub-sortings, starting with geography? This project would require setting up RSS outputs for some newspapers–but might, say, be something Soros’ OSI could do in conjunction with some of the journalism organizations..

Writes Ethan: “Given the challenges of involving the developing world in the world of online reporting, discussion and activism, it’s worth asking whether it’s reasonable to try to make room for the Third World in the second superpower. Are technologists in developed economies being absurdly arrogant in speculating that a set of tools and behaviors used by less than one percent of the world’s population a disproportionately wealthy and powerful group of people can help change the political lives of people around the world? My strong suspicion is that the answer to this question depends a great deal on the actions of the people using and developing these tools in the First World. In designing the tools to enable communities, are we thinking about the full spectrum of people we’d like to use these tools? Are we helping people join our dialogues, or are we content to keep them out? If we are committed to the long, hard project of ensuring that the whole world has a chance to participate in our conversation, there’s a chance that emergent democracy can be a force in emerging democracies. If not, we help ensure that the community phenomena that have developed around social software won’t extend to the people who could be most positively affected by this technology.”

SMEs and e-Procurement

NYTimes writes (in the US context):

Among the nation’s biggest 500 companies, the practice of connecting to suppliers via the Web and automating purchases – a process known as e-procurement – is “rising substantially,” said Andrew Bartels, an analyst with the technology consultancy Forrester Research.

Well-financed corporations are willing to invest in Internet software and technology that helps take the inefficiency out of the buying processes, Mr. Bartels said.

But for small- and medium-sized businesses facing an uncertain economy, such investments are often impossible to justify. “Between two-thirds and three-quarters of big companies are doing it,” Mr. Bartels said. “But below that level, the glass floor effect takes over.”

Unlike bigger businesses, second- and third-tier companies cannot be certain that their suppliers will have online electronic catalogs, be able to respond to electronic purchase orders or be willing to make online business proposals. Industry behemoths, on the other hand, can devote the time and money to installing such systems, while also compelling suppliers to link to such systems.

Mr. Bartels said the company that had attracted the most dollars from big businesses – and could benefit most from cracking the glass floor – is Ariba, one of the stars of the business-to-business bubble.

While procurement software can help make that happen by linking suppliers and buyers more closely, it is not yet affordable enough for most companies to risk the investment, said Frank Ruane, director of corporate purchasing and materials management for Olympic Steel, a company in Bedford Heights, Ohio that processes unfinished steel for manufacturers.

Mr. Ruane, who buys about 1.2 million tons worth of steel a year, said he used the Internet extensively to communicate with his 40 or so suppliers, as well as to buy indirect goods like office supplies. But Olympic, which has about $500 million in annual revenues, has yet to buy e-procurement software.

The Internet has, Mr. Ruane said, helped him reduce the cost of the products he buys, by both allowing him to find better prices and complete the transactions quickly.

But because software offered by the various e-procurement vendors is simply too expensive for him to put in place, he has not been able to reduce the company’s reliance on electronic data interchanges, the one-to-one electronic trading systems frequently set up between buyers and sellers.

Olympic would have to replace its three older computer systems with a new enterprise resource planning system, he said, before it could install new procurement technology. “And then there’s the costs of training people,” Mr. Ruane said. “The cost ends up being so astronomical that a $500 million dollar company with very narrow margins just wouldn’t have the cash flow to do it, or the time or staff.”

Behind the Sun-Microsoft Deal

WSJ has a fascinating look at what went on behind-the-scenes. In four words: customer pressure, IBM, Linux.

The deal is a capitulation for Sun’s brash leader, who for years blasted Microsoft, verbally and through his lawyers. But Microsoft may no longer be Mr. McNealy’s biggest problem. International Business Machines Corp. has been effectively exploiting customer dissatisfaction with complex technology, deploying armies of consultants to help different kinds of hardware and software to operate more like a single system.

The Linux operating system also has disrupted Sun’s business. The software, which can be downloaded free or obtained with computers from IBM and other vendors, has made it easier for customers to use machines that are simpler and less-expensive than Sun’s. That trend has hammered Sun’s hardware prices and profit margins. Sun on Friday disclosed plans to lay off 3,300 workers, about 9% of its work force. The company said it expects a loss for the fiscal period ended March 28 of between $750 million and $810 million, or 23 cents to 25 cents a share. Sun promoted Jonathan Schwartz to president and chief operating officer. He had been Sun’s executive vice president for software.

Microsoft is also feeling heat from Linux and IBM. And the software giant bears another big burden, 14 years of antitrust investigations and lawsuits. The company wants to quickly settle such cases, which hurt its image with customers, so it can share more of its $53 billion cash hoard with investors.

If the relationship advances, Sun should find it easier to attract and retain customers who want to use its machines in combination with Windows PCs and servers. Microsoft, over time, could gain more freedom to emulate Sun innovations in the largest computer systems, where Windows plays a small role now.

Adds Red Herring: “[Microsoft] seems merely to be clearing the playing field for its next great wars in the search market and with Linux.”

Excerpts from an interview with Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s new President and COO by Steve Gillmor:

If we make our desktop more interoperable with a Microsoft server or with another Microsoft client, it ought to make that desktop all the more appealing in the mass market. So, this is very much about advantaging Sun’s software efforts, which, as you know, spans Java on all the platforms on which Java runsWindows, Linux and Solaris.

If you think about it, we are probably, second to Windows, the largest driver of volume technology on PCs on desktops. I don’t think it’s reached the level that Windows has on the desktop, but Java runs on hundreds of millions, close to half a billion PCs out there. For us to deliver technology to all those runtimesremember those runtimes are also auto-updatingand potentially deliver some interoperability to the native Windows environment, that’s a compelling opportunity.

India’s Services Model

[via Yuvaraj] Stephen Roach (Morgan Stanley) visited India recently – his first, after 25 visits to China since 1997:

Its tempting to make the China-India comparison — trying to figure out which of these two Asian giants has the better approach to economic development. I see no reason to frame this in such black and white terms. In fact, I am inclined to argue that its not China or India but, in fact, China and India. Each of these two nations has a distinctly different recipe for economic development — recipes that are complements rather than substitutes as they fit into the broad mosaic of globalization. To be sure, China has come first in the sequencing, but this breakthrough has served India well. As the rest of the world has finally come to accept the China miracle, that realization has opened the door for acceptance of the India miracle. As one Indian leader put it to me, Its the flying-geese pattern of Asian development.

As China is to manufacturing, India is to services. Thats an over-simplification but it is the key conclusion that I take away from this journey. Manufacturing prowess is typically the yardstick that is used to measure the prosperity of emerging nations. As seen from that standpoint, theres no comparison. China has plowed its huge reservoir of domestic saving — about 40% of GDP — into some of the best infrastructure you will see anywhere in the world. And it has been brilliant in attracting massive inflows of foreign direct investment as the means to acquire technology, managerial expertise, and factories on a scale and scope that is hard to believe. China has, in fact, leapt to the fore as the largest recipient of FDI in the world — some US$53 billion per year in 2002-03.

India suffers in comparison basically from having none of the above. Thats an exaggeration but not all that wide of the mark. India has a 24% national saving rate, a little more than half that of China. As a result, it has far less in the way of internally-generated funds available to plow back into infrastructure. And it doesnt take much traveling around in India to experience first-hand the serious deficiencies of its infrastructure. The India Infrastructure Report 2004, put out by the 3iNetwork of Indias best and brightest engaged in this field, says it all, even relative to our income, our failure in water, roads, sanitation, schooling, and electricity is woeful. Nor can India hold a candle to China on FDI. Chinas inflows in 2003 were more than ten times the US$4 billion that went into India.

But thats not the lens through which India should be viewed, in my opinion. Indias strength is elsewhere — namely, in an extraordinary stock of human capital. And it has deployed that strength into the creation of world class IT-enabled service companies such as Infosys and Wipro and the service subsidiaries of large conglomerates such as Reliance and Tata. I spent time with each of these companies and was staggered by what they had accomplished in the relatively short time span of the past 10-20 years. The push into IT-enabled services sidesteps what I believe are Indias greatest impediments on the road to development — its infrastructure and FDI deficiencies. Self-sufficient in electrical power — all big companies have back-up generating capacity — the only infrastructure requirement in services is telecom. And, here, the Indian government has gotten out the way — focusing on telecom deregulation and facilitating connectivity both in domestic markets and to overseas destinations.

It is important to stress that contrary to widespread impressions there is far more to Indias success in services than an attractive cost arbitrage in low-valued processing tasks. Yes, the cost saving is enormous — like-quality Indian talent goes for about 15% to 20% of the Western norm. But the strength of Indias IT-enabled services model is not about the inroads it has made in attracting easily commoditized data processing and call-center operations. The successful IT-enabled service companies have been quick to move up the value chain into a wide range of BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) activities including purchasing and order functionality, procurement, accounting, insurance management, e-based corporate learning management, human resource and benefits management, and a vast array of internal corporate control functions. More recently, Indias BPO efforts have moved into medical, actuarial and legal functions. And then theres Indias natural strength in a broad array of IT applications — from software programming and multi-media platforms to systems support and network management.

For Indian IT companies, the real breakthroughs come from the development of customized integrated systems solutions. The BPO business is basically the Trojan Horse — driven initially by the cost arbitrage that makes outsourcing extremely attractive as a means to enhance corporate efficiency in high-cost countries. But Indias IT-enabled service companies have been quick to take this opportunity to the next level — going beyond the functional silo approach that has long plagued corporate structures and exploiting the synergies that can be realized through collaborative solutions that span previously segmented functions. And they attack these integrated systems problems with seamless global networks that pass the management and control functions around the world every 24 hours.

Roach disagrees that manufacturing holds the key to India’s future: “Repeatedly, I heard the argument that manufacturing is critical to resolving Indias long-term unemployment problems. I find this response puzzling. Over the past 50 years, technological change has spurred capital-labor substitution and turned manufacturing into an increasingly labor-saving activity. Services, by contrast, are far more labor intensive, especially in the knowledge-based production activities of the Information Age. For a huge country like India, a services-driven development model seems tailor made both to its greatest strengths (human capital) and its greatest needs (employment and coping with poverty). And the new IT-enabled tradability of services is the icing on the cake.”

Wireless for Development

[via Atanu] CNet writes:

A. Richard Newton, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said the most important technological step to take in developing countries is to build out communications networks with wireless capabilities.

He said it is conceivable to put solar-powered antennae towers that support voice and data communications in villages for about $750 apiece. Newton also proposed a mobile phone with a much simpler interface, one he claimed was economically feasible. The phone would display images of people who called, so a user reviewing voice mail could press on the image of the person whose message he wanted to hear. “I can build that phone for less than $5 today,” he said.

Newton was among the many scholars, public officials and business leaders participating in the “Bridging the Divide” conference organized by UC Berkeley’s Management of Technology Program along with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.

Maggie Wilderotter, Microsoft’s senior vice president in charge of the public sector worldwide, began a keynote speech Friday by painting a picture of a starkly divided world. She said 2.5 billion of the world’s 6 billion people live on less than $1 a day. She also highlighted the importance of education. “What good is a laptop with broadband access if you can’t read or write?” she asked.

Still, technology can play a vital role in helping people’s well-being, she argued. Microsoft has a number of projects around the world designed to increase technology access, with wireless as one focus. In Africa, Wilderotter said, Microsoft is helping nomadic people stay connected via satellite. “The school computer lab actually moves with them,” she said.

The issue of development is a lot deeper and needs to be understood better. Atanu and I are thinking of writing a book to outline the issues, frame the problems (barriers to development) and suggest solutions (some of which could be entrepreneurial opportunities).

TECH TALK: As India Develops: Energy (Part 2)

In its July 2001 issue, Wired looked ahead to what it called the Energy Web, and discussed the opportunity for micropower:

The smarter energy network of the future, Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) believes, will incorporate a diversified pool of resources located closer to the consumer, pumping out low- or zero-emissions power in backyards, driveways, downscaled local power stations, and even in automobiles, while giving electricity users the option to become energy vendors. The front end of this new system will be managed by third-party “virtual utilities,” which will bundle electricity, gas, Internet access, broadband entertainment, and other customized energy services. (This vision is reminiscent of Edison’s original ambition for the industry, which was not to sell lightbulbs, but to create a network of technologies and services that provided illumination.)

Now, the digital networks will be called upon to remake the grid in their own image. By embedding sensors, solid-state controllers, and intelligent agents throughout this new supply chain, the meter and the monthly bill will be swapped out for something more robust, adaptive, interconnected, and alive: a humming, real-time, interactive energy marketplace.

Swiss engineering giant ABB surprised the world in 1999 by announcing that it was off-loading the business of building nuclear plants to focus on renewables and distributed generation, an umbrella term for various smaller-scale methods for producing electricity closer to the consumer. Distributed generation isn’t a new idea – it was Edison’s first template for universal electrification, with neighborhood steam plants furnishing power and heat for 1-square-mile lighting districts. Seth Dunn of the Worldwatch Institute uses a more felicitous term for distributed generation: micropower.

Green resources such as photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines fall into the micropower category, as do reciprocating engines, fuel cells, Stirling engines, and gas-fired microturbines. Micropower is surging in world markets, both in industrialized countries and in regions with no electricity, where distributed generation offers rural communities and local entrepreneurs access to power without waiting for the costly grid extensions promised long ago by national utilities.

In many countries, where supplies of sunlight and wind are enormous and inexhaustible, the primary energy source for the poor is high-carbon biomass. These fuels – crop residues, scavenged wood and charcoal, and cattle dung – take significant tolls on the health of those who burn them, and add to the impact of first-world power profligacy in heating up the atmosphere. In India alone, indoor air pollution created by high-emission fuels causes half a million premature deaths a year.

In countries that already have access to electricity, micropower resources will provide ways to reduce carbon emissions, improve energy efficiency, and ease the strain on stressed grids by providing supplemental power during periods of peak use.

The micropower/cogen technology with the most commercial potential – and some of the greatest environmental benefits – is the fuel cell. Employing electrochemical combustion of hydrogen with oxygen, fuel cells are powered by gas, and will eventually be run by supplying hydrogen directly, producing stable streams of current and emitting only water vapor and heat. Unlike gas turbines, they are silent and require little maintenance. When hooked up to water electrolyzers – like fuel cells run in reverse – they can also store electricity as hydrogen, for energy that can be poured back into the system during times of high demand. When photovoltaic panels and gas turbines are networked with fuel cells, their efficiency and reliability soar.

Tomorrow: Energy (continued)

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