IT in homes, schools

I’ve had some lightweight posts on SOA for the home in the past, and for whatever reason, it seems to be tied to listening to IT Conversations. Well, it’s happened again. In Phil and Scott’s discussion with Jon Udell, they lamented the problems of computers in the home. Phil discussed the issues he’s encountered with replacing servers in his house and moving from 32-bit to 64-bit servers (nearly everything had to be rebuilt, he indicated that he would have been better off sticking with 32-bit servers). Jon and Phil both discussed some of the challenges that they’ve had in helping various relatives with technology.

It was a great conversation and made me think of a recent email exchange concerning my father-in-law’s school. He’s a grade school principal, and I built their web site for them several years ago. They host it themselves, and the computer teacher has done a great job in keeping it humming along. That being said, there’s still room for improvement. Many of the teachers still host their pages externally. My father-in-law sends a letter home with the kids each week that is a number of short paragraphs and items that have occurred throughout the week. Boy, that could easily be syndicated as a blog. Of course, that would require installing WordPress on the server, which while relatively easy for me, is something that could get quite frustrating for someone not used to operating at the command line. Anyway, the email conversation was about upgrading the server. One of the topics that came up was hosting email ourselves. Now, while it’s very easy to set up a mail server, the real concern here comes up with reliability. People aren’t going to be happy if they can’t get to their email. Even if we just look at the website, as it increasingly becomes part of the way the school communicates with the community, it starts to become critical.

When I was working in an enterprise, redundancy was the norm. We had load balancers and failover capabilities. How many people have a hardware load balancer at home? I don’t. You may have a linux box that does this, but it’s still a single point of failure. A search at Amazon really didn’t turn up too many options for the consumer, or even a cash-strapped school for that matter. This really brings up something that will become an increasing concern as we march toward a day where connectivity is ubiquitous. Vendors are talking about the home server, but when corporations have entire staffs dedicated to keeping those same technologies running, how on earth are we going to expect Mom and Pop in Smalltown U.S.A. to be able to handle the problems that will occur?

Think about this. Today, I would argue that most households still have normal phones and answering machines. Why don’t we have the email equivalent? Wouldn’t it be great if I could purchase a $100 device that I just into my network and now have my own email server? Yes, it would be okay if I had to call my Internet provider and say, “please associate this with” just as I must do when I establish a phone line. What do I do, however, if that device breaks? What if it gets hacked and becomes a zombie device contributing to the dearth of spam on the Internet? How about a device that enables me to share videos and pictures with friends and family? Again, while hosted solutions are nice, it would be far more convenient to merely pull them off the camcorder and digital camera and make it happen. I fully believe that the right thing is to always have a mix of options. Some people will be fine with hosted solutions. Some people will want the control and power of being able to do it themselves, and there’s a marketplace for both. I get tired of these articles that say things like “hosted productivity apps will end the dominance of Microsoft Office.” Phooey. It won’t. It will evolve to somewhere in the middle, rather than one side or the other. Conversations like that are always like a pendulum, and the pendulum always swings back. I’m off on a tangent, here. Back to the topic- we are going to need to make improvements in orders of magnitude on the management of systems today. Listen to the podcast, and here the things that Jon and Phil, two leading technologists that are certainly capable of solving most any problem, lament. Phil gives the example of calls from his wife (I get them as well) that “this thing is broken.” While he immediately understands that there must be a way to fix it, because we understand the way computers operate behind the scenes, the average joe does not. We’ve got a long way to go to get the ubiquity that we hope to achieve.

One Response to “IT in homes, schools”

  • […] I’ve previously blogged about SOA for schools (here and here). My father-in-law is a grade school principal, so I have the occasional conversation about the use of technology in school administration. Your average school is not going to be able to invest in BizTalk or any other orchestration engine, yet, as the example calls out, there’s certainly opportunities to apply orchestration. What this strategy really is a competitor to is something like Yahoo Pipes. There’s probably a broad market where significant efficiency gains can be made, but the cost of the infrastructure is not worth the investment. Is a school really going to buy BizTalk to automate a workflow that maybe occurs once or twice a year (depending on where you live)? No. This seems much better suited to a pay-per-use model. In this manner, the provider of the hosted workflow can have many, many workflows, any one of which is used infrequently at best. Think of it as the long tail of workflow. This model actually makes some sense to me. What are your thoughts? […]

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