Monday, January 26, 2009

Micro-Lending as a Stimulus

The president is continuing to implement an economic stimulus program. A program of epic proportions. But from what we hear on the news, much of this money will not have an effect on the economy for years to come. What could perhaps help would be a government sponsored program of Micro-Lending.

These loans would come in two sizes:
Small personal loans to individuals, from $100 - $1000. The idea is to create a simple way for individuals to make a very small loan, one that is smaller than those normally offered by banks.

Larger 'micro loans' to businesses, from $1000 - $10000. Here the idea is to provide cash for small businesses to establish themselves, or invest as seed money in a new product idea.

Rather than run the program directly, the government could choose a banking provider to administrate the loan program. The program would be implemented in line with economic research on micro-lending, particularly to establish the needed scale of the program and to use guidelines in place in existing micro-lending programs to prevent abuse.

Government itself would provide the seed money to establish the program. But the program would ultimately be self-funded based on revenue from the lending activity.

Don't delay the DTV Conversion

It seems odd to me that some are saying members of the public are not aware of the upcoming DTV conversion. If you watch TV in the US, you have been inundated with messages about upgrading your television to receive the new digital signals for months now.

A coupon program has been running for months to provide discounts on equipment needed to receive the new signals. Some members of congress argue that we should delay the February deadline because the coupon program ran out of funds. We all knew it would run out of funds eventually. So why is it that congress doesn't just increase the funds available for coupons? That makes more sense than delaying a transition that has been well communicated already, and creating confusion in the process.

Come on people, get back to work on something more meaningful than this red herring!


Update: the delay turned out to be a good thing. Massachusetts really had minor troubles wiht the transition, but apparently there were many areas of the country which benefitted from the delay and the additional coupons made available.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Virtualization: A threat to the O/S?

Some recent press has referred to virtualization and browser based applications as a threat to the operating system. As an IT Manager - having lived through a few technology waves - I think the arguments that are being made are unrealistic.

Today's Windows machines have Flash ROM that contains the BIOS code, the low level functions that are required to start a machine and figure out where the actual boot code resides. When they boot up they generaly flail around until they access a boot image - which most often is on a hard drive (but could be on a network drive, or a CD).

If we go to the extreme of providing a Hypervisor on the machine, then we can run virtual machines (various O/S') on top of the Hypervisor without loading Windows or Linux first.
This is great for flexibility, but you'll notice that it doesn't reduce your licensing costs with Microsoft or whomever. It also doesn't reduce the security vulnerability of your box - in fact it increases the threat surface by the number of VMs that are running at once! You might be able to use a snapshot to restore quickly if you are compromised, but that's the only security benefit.

The problem is that virtualizing an O/S just brings you more of the same. All the software related management costs come along with each instantiated machine, along with some additional complexity due to running VMs.

But there is an opportunity here for a different kind of virtualization to make an impact.
A couple examples might make this clear.

1) Take a look at how BitTorrent streams files to multiple recipients. The network traffic is comprised of tiny slices of the file that come to you from many different directions. The BT application breaks the files into slices for shipment and at the client reassembles them into a recognizable file. What is created is close to an internet SAN - but a fairly slow one.

2) SETI at home, and other applications, make use of compute time on internet connected
computers. This "free" CPU resource is used to solve very large problems.

Now what if network speeds reach the point where we can store the boot image for our PCs in the "cloud". Perhaps you would keep a local cached copy of the boot image and refresh it every time you start up the machine. We might be able to produce an O/S that is never "installed" on a PC. The machine could simply run BOOTP - if there were a server waiting to provide the software load.

Well... Of course replacing everyone's home PC with a BOOTP loaded machine is impractical - much as it means that now Verizon and Comcast will have to get in the O/S provisioning business. And there is the little problem of loading the OS down in the clear via TFTP.

But what could happen is that we could create a storage network that runs on the excess capacity of other machines that share their bandwidth. Then, home machines would run a modified BOOTP over something like Bittorrent. The boot loader comes over the wire.

Well - how is this better than what we have today?

I think anything you load at boot time like this would have to be fairly small.
It could be about as complicated as Mac OS 6 - a basic stable OS, but with a browser
built in. But if the OS is not affected by loading programs, and everything is run in a browser
window, then we can reduce the threat of infection to software on the machine (since that would be replaced at each boot)

Need a lot of refinement, of course, but I can see where this might be headed!