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Open APIs – Why you need them in 2012

December 30th, 2011 No comments

Open … and Shut If the last decade was all about open source, the next decade will be about open APIs. However, as with open source, APIs aren’t necessarily a guarantee of billions in the bank. They’re simply the ante for playing the technology game at scale. That scale will be determined by who gives developers the best access to data, and that access is a function of open APIs.

Yes, developers. Politicians may focus on ways to get consumers to spend more money in an effort to rebuild their economies, but the world’s economies are increasingly founded upon software services, services that are developed and consumed by developers. These developers are, then, “the new kingmakers,” and not simply of some random technology company. They are behind the rise or fall of 21st Century news (Twitter), communication (Facebook), and more (Salesforce, Google, etc).

To thrive, these developers need APIs. Lots of them, though standardized and well-documented.

Redmonk analyst Stephen O’Grady hints at this in a recent post that discusses ways to unleash the “age of data”, by describing legal handicaps placed on Redmonk’s efforts to get at analytics data through an open API. Cut off the API through whatever means, and you’ve cut off a developer’s ability to not only grow her service, but also yours.

Given the importance of APIs, it’s surprising just how hard it can be to release them. Dan Woods calls this out, reporting on research he and others had done on APIs: “API programs [are often] started in secret, nurtured by the true believers in a clandestine way, slipped into production, and then brought to the awareness of senior management after the API was shown to be a success.” Developers, in other words, are having to secretly succeed for their business.

This is silly, if for no other reason than one of the great benefits of APIs is how much they can help with the integration of internal software services. That is, software that runs behind the firewall. Indeed, O’Reilly’s Anant Jhingran argues that for all the positive noise made about public APIs at Twitter and Facebook, the “real revolution” is that “enterprises of all sizes are API-enabling their back-end systems”. This makes the enterprise permeable to partners but also to its own employees, and is the number one reason enterprises are adopting APIs.

APIs are the key to making internal integration easy.

At one time we looked to open source to fill this function. Companies like CollabNet sprung up to enable internal software collaboration. But it turns out that APIs prove to be an easier way to achieve similar goals. Instead of having to learn an entire code base, I just need a well-documented API to get access to software services. Minimal fuss, maximum productivity.

This may be the point in APIs: to give developers a way to focus on services provided by software, and not the software itself. This shift from open-source software to open APIs becomes ever more critical as we move to cloud services, where developers can no longer access the underlying software. As the industry moves from software to Infrastructure as a Service to Platform as a Service, APIs are the key to the shift, as analyst Krishnan Subramanian details.

But not just any APIs. The industry can’t stomach a million competing APIs any more than it could digest a huge array of open-source projects for CMS, ERP, etc. We need APIs, but we also need standardization.

Take OpenStack, for example. OpenStack has taken on the daunting task of unseating Amazon Web Services, but it has made its life dramatically more difficult by trying to move the industry away from Amazon’s APIs. For better or for worse, the AWS APIs are the public standard and, as Canonical and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth posits, “The hackers and funders and leaders and advocates of OpenStack, and any number of other cloud infrastructure projects both open source and proprietary, would be better off figuring out how to leverage [the AWS API] standardisation than trying to compete with it, simply because no other API is likely to gain the sort of ecosystem we see around AWS today.”

Shuttleworth is right about OpenStack, and about the larger industry. It’s better to rally around a common API, much as we rallied around Linux. In the case of cloud computing, cloud expert and former Googler Sam Johnston thinks the future is OpenCloud, and other industry observers have their own preferred horses in the various races.

But at the heart of each is APIs. Open APIs are the new open source, except they require less geeky access to lines of code, and more programmatic interaction with software services. As an added bonus, open APIs don’t come with the baggage of licensing fundamentalists. Praise the heavens! ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analyzing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco’s general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open…and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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Five Cool, Free Business Apps for Your New Smartphone

December 29th, 2011 No comments

Did Santa (a.k.a. the boss) bring you a new smartphone this year? Or maybe you decided to make the move from your trusty but aging BlackBerry to an Android phone or iPhone? Whatever the case, it’s time to add extra “smart” by stocking your handset with some productivity-boosting business apps.

I’ve rounded up five of my favorites, all of them indispensable, all of them free.

Dropbox

If you use the Dropbox cloud-storage service, you must get its companion app. Available for Android and iOS, Dropbox lets you tap the cloud anywhere you go, providing fast and easy access to everything you’ve ever shared or stored: documents, photos, videos, presentations, and so on. In fact, you can stream videos you don’t have room to store on your device.

The app works both ways, too: you can upload snapshots and videos from your device to your Dropbox folders. It works with both free and pro-level accounts.

Evernote

Not to gush, but Evernote is like a personal assistant for your pocket. With it you can save receipts for later reconciling, capture a whiteboard diagram for future reference, record a voice note to share with your team, and, of course, take notes.

Everything you capture with Evernote gets synced to the Web, your PC, and any other mobile devices you have. Seriously, if there’s a better productivity tool, I haven’t found it. The apps are free of charge, as is the service itself (though there is a Pro version, natch).

MapQuest for AndroidMapQuest

The stock Google Maps app is pretty good at giving you directions from point A to point B (especially on Android), but the MapQuest app raises the ante with with voice-guided, turn-by-turn directions–much like you’d get from a bona fide GPS.

It also offers automatic re-rerouting (in case you take a wrong turn), local-business search, and even live traffic updates. Before you spend $30 or more on a GPS app, take this freebie for a test-drive.

TeamViewer

Need remote access to your PC? Look no further than TeamViewer. With it you gain total control over your PC–great for, say, grabbing a PowerPoint presentation from a thousand miles away, shutting down the PC you left running at the office, or just running a program you can’t normally run on a phone.

TeamViewer can also save the day by letting you remotely troubleshoot an employee’s PC, assuming you’re the IT guy of the organization. It’s hard to believe this app is free.

TripIt

TripIt is a killer travel-management service that organizes your itineraries, reservations, and the like. It began life on the Web, but now, well, there’s an app for that. With TripIt for Android and iOS, you can manage and share all your travel plans.

All you do is forward all travel-related confirmation e-mails (from airlines, hotels, car-rental outfits, etc.) to plans@tripit.com. The service culls all the pertinent details from those e-mails and builds detailed itineraries. The apps are free, as is the TripIt service.

Have you found a business app you can’t live–or work–without? Tell me about it in the comments!

Categories: mobile, mobile applications Tags:

Five Open Source Technologies for 2012

December 28th, 2011 No comments

Next year, if all goes according to plan, Red Hat will become the first open source software company to generate more than US$1 billion a year in revenue. It will be a watershed moment for the open source community, who have long seen their approach of community-based development as a viable, even superior, alternative to traditional notions of how software should be written.

“I think we’re seeing a fundamental shift in where innovation happens, going from the labs of a few software companies to these massive open source efforts,” said Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO of Red Hat.

Certainly, open source has left the proprietary software world in turmoil over the past few years, as Linux, the Apache Web server, Perl, Apache, Hadoop, OpenOffice, GIMP and dozens of other programs put the pinch on their commercial counterparts. But what are tomorrow’s open source heavy hitters? Here are five projects to watch closely in 2012. They may form the basis for new businesses and new industries. Or they may just capture the minds of developers and administrators with some easier, or at least less expensive, way of getting the job done.

Nginx

For the better part of the last decade, the choice for Web server software has been pretty stable. Apache has been used on the majority of Web servers while Microsoft’s IIS (Internet Information Services) is used across many of the rest. Over the past few years, however, use of a third entrant, Nginx (pronounced “engine-x”), has been on the rise, thanks to the software’s ability to easily handle high-volume traffic.

Nginx is already run on 50 million different Internet domains, or about 10 percent of the entire Internet, the developers of the software estimate. It is particularly widely used on highly trafficked Web sites, such as Facebook, Zappos, Groupon, Hulu, Dropbox, and WordPress. Not surprisingly, the software’s creator, Igor Sysoev, designed Nginx in 2004 specifically to handle a large numbers of concurrent users — up to 10,000 connections per server. “It is a very lean architecture,” said Andrew Alexeev, a co-founder of a company that offers a commercial version of the software, called Nginx.

The upcoming year promises to be a good one for Nginx. Last year, Nginx got $3 million in backing from a number of venture capital firms, including one supported by Dell CEO Michael Dell. It partnered with Jet-Stream to provide Nginx for that software vendor’s CDN (content delivery network) package. It also is working with Amazon to streamline Nginx for the AWS (Amazon Web Service) cloud service.

Beyond Nginx’s use in large Web operations, Alexeev sees wider use for Nginx in the emerging cloud computing and shared services market. “This is where we can add the most benefit,” Alexeev said. The next major release of the software, due next year, will be more pliable for shared hosting environments. It will be better able to handle DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service Attacks), and come with additional security features, he said.

OpenStack

The OpenStack project arrived relatively late to the cloud computing party, but it comes with one particularly indispensable feature: scalability.

“We’re not talking about [using OpenStack to run a] cloud of 100 servers or even 1,000 servers, but tens of thousands of servers. Other options out there aren’t really considering that scale,”said Jonathan Bryce, chairman of the OpenStack Project Policy Board.

Since its launch in July 2010, OpenStack quickly gained a great deal of support from IT firms interested in the cloud computing space, such as Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Dell. OpenStack devotees like to call their work the fastest growing open source project, with involvement from over 144 companies and 2,100 participants. Dell launched a package, called the Dell OpenStack Cloud Solution, which combines OpenStack with the company’s own servers and software. HP launched a beta public cloud service with the technology as well.

The core computational components of OpenStack were developed at NASA Ames Research Center, for an internal cloud to store large amounts of space imagery. Originally, the NASA administrators tried using the Eucalyptus software project platform, but found challenges in scaling the software to the required levels, according to Chris Kemp, who oversaw the development of the OpenStack cloud controller when he was CIO of NASA Ames.

To aid in wider adoption, OpenStack is being outfitted with a number of new features that should make it more palatable for enterprises, said John Engates, chief technology officer for managed hosting provider Rackspace. One project, called Keystone, will allow organizations to integrate OpenStack with their identity management systems, those based on Microsoft Active Directory or other LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) implementations. Also, developers are working on a front-end portal for the software as well. Rackspace, which first partnered with NASA to package OpenStack for general usage, is also spinning off the projectas a fully independent stand-alone entity, in hopes that it will be an attractive option for more cloud providers.

“2011 was the year for building the base of the product, but I think 2012 is where we really start to use that base for a lot of private and public clouds,” Engates said.

Stig

The past year has seen the dramatic growth in the use of nonrelational databases, such as Cassandra, MongoDB, CouchDB and countless others. But at the NoSQL Now conference, held last September, much of the buzz surrounded a still unreleased data store called Stig. With any luck, we will see Stig in 2012.

Stig is designed for the unique workloads of social networking sites, its maintainers claim. It was created at the social networking site Tagged by software engineer Jason Lucas, who calls the technology a distributed graph database. It is designed to support heavily interactive and social Web applications. The data store’s architecture allows for inferential searching, allowing users and applications to look for connections between disparate pieces of information. Because it was written, in part, in the Haskell functional programming language, it can easily divide up its workload across multiple servers.

Stig is still a bit of a mystery, as it hasn’t been actually released yet. But observers are predicting it could fit a niche in the social networks and other applications that keep a wide range of data. The needs of social networking services are inherently different from other types of jobs, and would benefit from a database attuned to its needs, Lucas explained. “You can’t be a relevant service in this space without being able to scale to a planetary size,” he said.

Stig is currently operating on one server at Tagged, though the company expects to expand its use to the point where it will be the sole database for the company. Originally, the developers were planning to source code by December, but moved back the release to sometime in 2012.

“What I did see looked very interesting,” said Dan McCreary, a semantic solutions architect for the Kelly-McCreary & Associates consulting firm. He praised the database’s functional language architecture, which should ease the deployment of the database across multiple servers.

Linux Mint

Despite years of advocacy on the part of open source adherents, Linux has never had a strong presence on the desktop. But usually there is always one user-friendly Linux distribution to use, as an alternative to Microsoft Windows. In recent years, Canonical’s Ubuntu has fulfilled this role, though the increasingly popular Linux Mint may trump Ubuntu by being even easier to use.

Software engineer Clement Lefebvre first crafted Linux Mint after a gig of reviewing other Linux distributions for various online forums. From this work, Lefebvre developed ideas about what features should be in the ideal distribution. Just as Canonical appropriated the Debian Linux distribution for its own massively popular Ubuntu, Lefebvre used Ubuntu as the base for Linux Mint. Today, the Linux Mint project is funded by donations, advertising revenue from its Web site, and income derived from user searches, the last through a controversial partnership with DuckDuckGo.

Linux Mint is designed specifically for people who just want a desktop OS, and who don’t wish to learn more about how Linux works (i.e. non-Linux hobbyists). This approach makes installing and running the software easy and maintenance pretty much a nonissue. Even more than Ubuntu, Mint emphasizes easy usability, at the expense of not using new features until they have proven themselves trustworthy.

For instance, Mint eschews the somewhat controversial Unity desktop interface, which Canonical adopted to more easily port Ubuntu to mobile platforms. Instead, Mint sticks with the more widely known, and more mature, Gnome interface.

Such rigorous adherence to usability may be helping Linux Mint, much to the detriment of Ubuntu, in fact. The Linux Mint project claims its OS is now the fourth most widely used desktop OS in the world, after Windows, Apple Mac and Ubuntu. Over the past year, Mint has evenusurped Ubuntu as the distribution that generates the most page views on the DistroWatch Linux news site, a metric generally thought to reflect the popularity of Linux distributions. No doubt 2012 will see only more growth for the OS.

Gluster

Could Red Hat revolutionize the world of storage software in much the same way it revolutionized the market for Unix-based OSes? In October, Red Hat purchased Gluster, which, with its GlusterFS file system, makes open source software that clusters commodity SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) drives and NAS (network attached storage) systems into massively scalable pools of storage. Red Hat plans to apply the method it used to dominate the market for Linux OSes for the storage space as well.

According to Red Hat’s Whitehurst, the storage software market generates $4 billion in revenue annually, though that’s not why the company was interested in the technology. Instead, Red Hat was interested in finding a storage technology that would make cloud migrations easier. “We look for places where open source would be particularly powerful as a way to innovate, and we look for areas in the stack where we think we can monetize,” he said. “There are not other solutions like that out there.”

The software has some momentum, at least in terms of administrators downloading and testing the software. Over the past year, GlusterFS downloads increased by 300 percent. In November, the software was downloaded over 37,000 times.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab’s e-mail address isJoab_Jackson@idg.com

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