Brocade in a stitch over Exit Strategy?

A couple of days ago, on 18th August, storage and ethernet vendor Brocade released their Q3 2011 results (their Year End is in October).

It roughly followed what was outlined in their Preliminary Q3 numbers (flat revenue year-on-year) released on 5th August, and their shares taking their biggest hit since IPO, back in the ’99 boom time. Despite showing earlier signs of rallying, their stock is still trading around the $3.40 mark as I write.

It’s no secret that Brocade has been looking for a buyer for a couple of years, since completing the Foundry Networks integration to add ethernet to their existing storage focus. However, in the buyout beauty contest, likely suitor Dell has just passed Brocade up in favour of fluttering it’s eyelashes at Force10 Networks, which abandoned it’s own plans to IPO in favour of the Dell acquisition.

Interestingly, it’s not as though Foundry ended up being an indigestable meal for Brocade, as some might have predicted. It seems quite the opposite. The growth in their ethernet business is somewhat offsetting a slowdown in their SAN equipment sales, though it’s unclear if some element of this is “ethernet fabric” displacement in what would be classic fibre-channel space.

So, might Brocade be finding themselves in a stitch over their investors getting their money out? Their Exit Strategy, which seemed to be concentrated on selling on to a large storage/server builder at a profit, doesn’t look like it’s getting much traction anymore. Are there many potential buyers left? What happens if the answer is “no”? How do you keep going?

Here I think lies part of the problem: It seems that the common investor Exit Strategy becomes focused around “doing stuff to make money”, rather than “doing stuff that makes money”.

That has been the achilles heel I’ve long suspected exists in technology investing: While there might be a good solid idea at the foundation, one often gets the impression that more corporate priority can be given over to ensuring there’s an Exit Strategy for the investors, and following that road, rather than a sound development strategy to ensure the product or service itself drives the success of the company, and not how you sell it. The two find themselves at juxtaposition and can be a source of unwanted friction, as well.

In Brocade’s case, I think the current marketing style isn’t doing them any favours. Look at brocade.com. Videos of talking heads, trotting out technobabble, or grinning product managers waxing lyrical while stroking their hardware. “Video data sheet” – now what the hell is that all about? Yet, everyone’s up to it. Animated banners on pages where you actually just want the dry data and cold hard facts. It’s almost like they don’t want you to find the information you’re really looking for. Please can I just have a boring old data sheet?

Maybe in cases like this it’s time to go back to basics: Making something you’re proud of, something you can be happy putting your name to, which is how many great products and brands developed in the past. Question is, have tech companies remembered how, and do investors have the longer-term stomachs for it?

Broadband to your Barn

…or, “a different kind of social networking”

There’s been some good reporting recently on the B4RN (Broadband For the Rural North) initiative, which aims to deploy a fibre broadband infrastructure to over 1300 properties in a rural area of my native Lancashire, which would otherwise almost certainly fall into the 10% of fast broadband have-nots by 2017.

If the build was left to a commercial entity which needed to pay dividends to it’s investors, it would be very difficult for the plan to pass the litmus test, because of the high overheads involved in a large company, and the need to make profit.

So, how does B4RN differ from initiatives such as Yorkshire’s Digital Region, or Connecting Devon and Somerset?

Well, for one thing, it’s a smaller project. The second one is that it seems to be less reliant on public funding.

Continue reading “Broadband to your Barn”

Not-so-instant messaging

I work in the Internet operations industry. Most (maybe all) of the people I know in the industry use some form of instant messaging all the time. A hell of a lot of us still use one of the great ancestors of IM, IRC. We organise, keep in touch, and do business over IM.

We leave our IM client(s) running all the time, so the moment we open our laptop lid, it logs back in to the IM platform(s) of choice and we’re back online straight away, available to our circle of contacts.

Even if we’re nowhere near the computer, we’ll often still be in IM: We might have manually set that we’re “away”, or depend/hope/pray that the “idle” feature of our client will mark us away, when we’re not paying attention. It’s not unusual to return and find a handful of IM messages waiting for us. I then just process them like any other message, be it email, voicemail, or whatever – respond if it’s needed, take in the message if it’s informational, delete it if it’s not relevant.

Now, here’s the cultural difference…

Folks I know who aren’t Internet Ops sort of folk get agitated when they leave me a message over IM and I don’t respond straight away. They think I’m deliberately ignoring them by not answering them instantly. They’ve even got bent out of shape at me because I’ve not answered them straightaway (“Damnit! I thought this thing was supposed to be instant!”). They don’t realise that I’ve walked away from my keyboard.

While I might virtually be there, I’m not really there at all. “Thank you for your note, I’ll get back to you soon.” I guess if it’s really urgent, they could just pick up the phone.

Their culture seems to be to only use their IM client when they want to chat, when they are sat in front of their keyboard. They find the concept of walking away and leaving stuff on alien. I know that my folks think it’s completely bizarre. They also have all the annoying bleeps and buzzes turned on for message alerts, so they are instantly aware of someone wanting their attention, too, and can reply straight away.

If my industry colleagues are anything like me, all those bleeps and bongs are turned off, they certainly are on my systems. I will have no idea I’ve recieved an IM, unless I look, or I happen to be watching when a little popup background alert floats by.

I guess the message here is that while the medium is instant, nothing else about it is…

Unpopular UI Changes

Interesting article on the recent (and continuing) changes to the Google UI.

In the case of the items highlighted in that article, specifically useful searchtools behind buried beneath “More…”, what I do wonder is why Google doesn’t remember (e.g. via a cookie – hell knows they drop enough of them, what’s one more between friends?) whether you had the “More” contexts in the sidebar menu expanded between windows/sessions?

When you have one Google window open with the “More…” expanded, try opening a second window. The “More…”s are all collapsed again.

I’m just waiting for the phonecall from my technophobe parents, trying to find where the things they used to use have gone, and tearing what’s left of my hair out while they try and explain.

The UI changes in Firefox and Thunderbird have already upset them, driving my poor mum to tears, when all she wanted to do was send a 10 line email.

Changing your UI is something you should do with a lot of caution, and only when you have a hell of a good reason. In some ways, the UI for a popular piece of software is part of your brand. Play with it at your peril.

Er… did someone pwn my WP dashboard?

So, I logged into WP to write a blog post and found this floating at the top of the dashboard…

D00d ur browser is old and skanky. Upgrade now.I’m like, “Que?” Has WP been owned? What is “Browse happy?” Hmm.

<BASILFAWLTY>

Yes, yes. I know I’ve not put the latest and greatest Firefox on just yet. It’s in the list of things to do, awaiting sufficient round tuits. I don’t want to have to break off what I’m doing right now to lose all my browser windows during an upgrade. I’m trying to do stuff, can’t you see?

</BASILFAWLTY>

Oh damn. You’ve made me break off and write this thing anyway…

It looks like some pop-up that a naive user would click on, and subsequently get their machine owned. Well, okay, it’s not got terrible grammar or spelling, but despite it being a legitimate campaign, it looks not unlike something that miscreants would use to spread malware.

It’s a laudable effort to keep folks browsers up to date, but should someone as responsible as widely used as WP be encouraging users to click on “Install this now” links, and using the “You’re X is out of date!” statements, so commonly used by malware droppers?

I don’t think it’s necessary.

This also links very nicely with an article that I’m writing (or at least, trying to!) about poorly considered impacts of UI changes.

How to reset a broken culture?

I’d recently read “Rework“, the book that 37signals’ founders wrote about what they learned along the way while growing their business, and why they think the mould about setting up a small business (or growing into a larger business) shouldn’t just be broken, but thrown away too.

It made me think about the things I’ve done right – being myself, being open and honest, feeling my customers’ pain, and the things I’ve done wrong – being overkeen to delegate, defer, insist, be grouchy, and allow myself be pushed into creating policy to deal with a corner case instead of dealing with it properly, falling into the various terrible management traps that lie in wait, trying to catch you out when you least expect it.

One recurring theme throughout the book, though in many different shapes and sizes, is the simple and old-fashioned adage of “treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself”, and that’s something I really identified with. It’s something we should live our life by more often.

Continue reading “How to reset a broken culture?”

Detrain or not detrain? That is the question…

Those of you who live in London and the South East likely saw the chaos that was caused by a bungled cable theft to South West Trains commuter services yesterday.

After over three hours stuck going nowhere, and with little or no information about how longer they would be involuntarily detained on the train, a number of passengers on a train within walking distance of a station decided to self evacuate, seeing as the railway appeared, at least from their point of view, to be making no attempt to help them.

Evacuating a train to track level is not a decision which is taken lightly. It’s no easy task, regardless of whether passengers are able to sit at step level and drop down, or come down an evacuation ladder. It’s still a long way down for most folk, a slow process, and once you’re on the floor, there’s lots to trip over and fall on. Oh, and in this case, add in a high voltage electric rail, just to build the excitement.

Like the initial attempted cable robbery, the response from the railway operator seemed to be bungled too. From detaining people for excessively long periods, to the local Plods threatening to arrest and prosecute those who self-evacuated for trespass, adding to their distress, the whole thing seemed to be a mess of confusion and frustration.

(SWT have since decided that although the original cause for the problem was vandalism, they do want to compensate delayed passengers.)

The basic fact is that there doesn’t seem to be a best practice for rail staff which says, “Okay, you’ve been trying for too long, you should give up trying to move this train (or trains), and now make it safe to detrain these people to track level and walk them in.”

Right now, local staff (the driver, the station staff) can’t make that decision, unless it’s more dangerous to be on the train (i.e. it’s well alight). They need the decision to come from on high.

The decision is fractured – between the train operator, Network Rail, and the BTP. In itself it’s a problem, you’ve got to stop all other trains in the area of the train you’re evacuating (though this seemed to have largely been done for them on this occasion!). It’s also a last resort. It’s admitting defeat.

People faced with a failure situation will always want to “try one last thing”, usually several times, before saying “Okay, there’s no more we can do” and stopping. It’s human nature. Who we are and what we do. The best thing to do is give these folk some guidelines, to help them make the decision to throw the towel in, and to show them that it’s not wrong when they finally do.

There needs to be some best practice for dealing with stranded passenger trains. There needs to be some timelimit recommended, which is longer than an hour, and less than three, upon which the white flag is raised and passengers are evacuated.

Then the folk in charge can actually make a decision, with the confidence they aren’t getting fired tomorrow.

A week for new 40G toys…

It’s been a week for new 40G launches in the Ethernet switch world…

First out of the gate this week has been Arista, with their 7050S-64, 1U switch, with 48 dual-speed 1G/10G SFP ports and four 40G QSFP ports, 1.28Tbps of switching, 960Mpps, 9MB of packet buffer, front-to-back airflow for friendly top-of-rack deployment, etc, etc.

Next to arrive at the party is Cisco, with their Nexus 3064, 1u switch, with 48 dual-speed 1G/10G SFP ports and four 40G QSFP ports, 1.28Tbps of switching, 950Mpps, 9MB of packet buffer, front-to-back airflow for friendly top-of-rack deployment, etc, etc.

Whoa! Anyone else getting deja vu!

Continue reading “A week for new 40G toys…”

Flash the Cache

Some trends in content distribution have made me think back to my early days on the Internet, both at University, and during my time at a dialup ISP, back in the 1990s.

Bandwidth was a precious commodity, and webcaching, by deploying initially Harvest (remember Harvest?) and latterly it’s offspring Squid, became quite popular, to reduce load on external links. There was also the ability to exchange cache content with other topologically close caches – clustering your cache with those on your neighbour networks.

(I remember that at least one of the UK academic institutions – Imperial College, I think, or maybe it was Janet – had a very popular cache that it openly peered with other caches in the UK, was available via peering across LINX, and as a result was popular and well populated.)

There were attendant problems – staleness of cached content could blight some more active websites, and unless you tried enforced redirection of web traffic (unpopular in some quarters, even today, where transparent cacheing is commonplace), the ISP often had to convince your users to opt-in to using the cache through changing browser settings.

It was no surprise that once bandwidth prices fell, caches started to fall out of favour.

However, that trend has been reversing in recent times… the cache is making a comeback, but in a slightly different guise: Rather than general purpose caches that take a copy of anything passing by, these are very specific caches, targeted and optimised for the content, part of the worldwide growth of the distributed CDN.

Akamai have long been putting their servers out into ISP networks, and into major Internet Exchanges, delivering content locally to ISP subscribers. They famously say they “don’t have a backbone” – they just distribute their content through these local clusters. Akamai are delivering a local copy of “Akamaized” web content to local eyes, and continuing to experience significant growth.

Google is also in the caching game, with the “Google Content Cache” (GCC).

I heard a Google speaker at a recent conference explain how a GCC cluster installation at a broadband ISP provided an 85-90% saving in external bandwith to Google hosted content. To some extent this is clearly driven by YouTube content, but it has other smarts too.

So, what’s helped make caching popular again?

Herd Mentality – Social Networking is King. A link is posted and within minutes, it can have significant numbers of page impressions. For a network with a cache, that content only needs to be fetched once.

Bandwidth Demand – It’s not unheard of for large broadband networks to have huge (nx10G) private peerings with organisations such as Google. At some point, this is going to run into scaling difficulties, and it makes sense to distribute the content closer to the sink.

Fault Tolerance – User expectation is “it should just work”, distributed caches can help prevent localised failures from having widescale effect. (Would it have helped BBC this week?)

Response Speed – Placing the content closer to the user minimises latency, improves the user experience. For instance, GCC apparently takes this one step further, acting as a TCP proxy for more interactive Google services such as Gmail – this helps remove “spongyness” of interactive sessions for those in countries with limited or high-latency external connectivity (some African countries, for instance).

So, great, cacheing is useful and has taken it’s place in the Network Architect’s Swiss Army Knife again. But what’s the tipping point for installing something like the GCC or Akamai cluster on your network? There’s two main things at work: Bandwidth and Power.

Having a CDN cluster on your network doesn’t come for free – even if the CDN owns the hardware, you have to house it and power it and cool it. The normal hardware is a number of general purpose high spec 1U rack-mount PCs.

So the economics seem to be a case of factoring in the cost of bandwidth (whether it’s transit or peering), router interfaces, data centre cross-connects, etc., versus the cost of hosting the gear.

Down at Peckham Market… “Get your addresses here. Laaavley v4 addresses!”

One of the first big deals in the IPv4 address secondary market appears to be happening – Microsoft paying $7.5m for pre-RIR (aka “early registration”) IPv4 address space currently held by Nortel.

There have been deals happening on the secondary market already. But this one is significant for two reasons:

  • The size of the deal – over 600k IPv4 addresses
  • That Nortel’s administrators recognise these unused IPv4 addresses, that Nortel paid either nothing, or only a nominal fee, to recieve, are a real asset which they can realise capital against.

Interesting times… Now, where’s my dodgy yellow van?