Ignore the hype, but think about getting AI ready

AI. AI. AI. It’s everywhere. And I’m sorry, this is another Artificial Intelligence post, but it’s more a “hold your horses” sort of post…

You see, yesterday, I was helping a colleague review slides for an upcoming AI presentation. He wanted to make sure he gets past the hype, but was suggesting we’re coming out of that phase now as we’re seeing some negative press about generative AI.

I disagreed. Generative AI in particular feels like it’s right at the peak of inflated expectations…

Why I think generative AI is at peak hype right now

I know Gartner is just one (albeit influential) analyst firm, and Hype Cycles aren’t everything, but their Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies (Aug 2023) shows GenAI approaching the Peak of Inflated Expectations and 2-5 years from productivity.

I don’t have a Gartner subscription but the diagram is taken from an article by The Next Web (and also available directly from the Gartner website). Quoting the TNW article directly,

“Gartner’s warning echoed across our conversations with European tech insiders. In 2024, they expect a cautious and pragmatic approach to AI adoption.”

The Next Web: After a year of breathless hype, AI will face reality in 2024

Another source (which is freely available) is the Gartner Emerging Technologies and Trends Impact Radar for 2024. This contains several AI techs, but shows Generative AI starting to break through:

So what does that mean? To answer that question, we look at another Gartner resource – their Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2024. There are several AI-related trends mentioned, but the TL;DR is that now is the time for strategic planning.

It’s time to get AI ready

Move fast and break things is an often-used phrase suggesting agility. But sometimes, breaking things is less than ideal. And moving fast is great – as long as you’re moving in the right direction.

It’s a good time to increase your awareness of trending technologies (including the democratisation of generative AI) and think about how they can provide benefit to your organisation. But don’t worry if you’re not implementing AI right now. You’re not the only one, despite what you might think from reading around.

To take one example, yes, Microsoft Copilot is huge. The productivity benefits could be significant. But consider your AI readiness before turning on features that could expose data and information that you didn’t even know was there. Think about:

  • AI Principles: How will your organisation use AI. What are your boundaries? Can you clearly articulate and have you articulated what you will (and will not) do with AI?
  • AI Ready: Data: This is a good opportunity to examine the data you have, what you use it for, and who can access it. Making sure your data is AI ready means that it is ethically governed, secure, free of bias and accurate.
  • AI Ready: Security: Understand and prepare for new attack vectors that AI makes possible. Create an acceptable use policy for public-facing generative AI products.

Then, when you’re AI Ready, you’ll be in a position to move fast, hopefully without breaking anything.

Featured image: generated with AI, in WordPress!

Monthly Retrospective: May 2024

May’s update was late, and June’s is in danger of rolling into July, so here’s a few highlights from my life in and around tech…

At work

On the work front, it was a short month – I was on holiday for the last week and with public holidays too there was lots to cram into a few short weeks. Nevertheless, I still managed to:

  • Continue to develop Node4’s new ransomware scanning service.
  • Finalise a dozen product data sheets for our public cloud services.
  • Submit some blog posts to our marketing team to support upcoming campaigns.
  • Keep pushing some pre-sales activities forwards.
  • And mine and Bjoern Hirtenjohann (/in/BjoernHirtenjohann)’s internal Node4 podcast on public cloud was released:

But the biggest activity in the month was presenting at Node4’s Infrastructure Symposium. One of our Practice Directors brought all his teams together to learn about the products and services that we jointly deliver. With four (or five, depending on how you look at it) companies all merged, there’s been a lot of change at Node4 over the last year or so. Getting everyone together is a great way to break down boundaries and understand the direction we’re headed in. And for me it was a chance to outline that our cloud offers span public, private and hybrid delivery models – and that we will deliver what’s right for the client, not for us. We call this Pragmatic Cloud (and I freely admit we didn’t come up with the term, but it I like it a lot).

I also celebrated my 9 year anniversary of joining risual/Node4 in May. And, for those who were confused by my comments last month, I was saying that my recent move has been overwhelmingly positive and I’m in a better place than I have been for a long while!

Elsewhere

Away from work…

  • My youngest son, Ben, passed his driving test. I was ready for a big insurance bill, but what I wasn’t ready for was: a) no decrease on the bill for the 19 year-old’s insurance (now with 2 years’ experience); and b) a 350% increase in premiums between him passing his test 2 years ago and the 17 year-old passing now. Even with a black box, parents as named drivers, etc. the car insurance bill for the two old cars that our family share with the teenagers was around £4500. For contrast, the bill for my Volvo (with just me and Mrs W as drivers) actually fell and is now back under £500. Public transport is just not reliable enough where we live, so the choices are: a) drive the teenagers everywhere; or b) pay the money. I’m still getting over this assault on our savings… some families just won’t have that money and I dread to think how many uninsured cars there are on the road as a consequence.
  • My eldest son, Matt, continues to race his bike up and down the country. After a catastrophic failure of the fork steerer tube, his Canyon road bike was hastily replaced. That meant a drive to Wakefield to collect the new bike, but it is rather lovely. I don’t get to all his races these days but I did manage to watch him in Ixworth and I was in the team car again for the Lincoln GP. Unfortunately, when he went to Ireland to race the Rás Tailteann I had to make do with watching for updates on Twitter!
  • Ben and I have been planning our Interrail trip – and now we have bought our passes along with inbound/outbound travel. Plus, we’re going to be taking the NightJet sleeper train from Berlin to Vienna! There were a few challenges with seat availability (things have changed since last time I went – we can use high speed rail, but there’s limited availability and we need to pay a supplement). This is more of a problem when dates are fixed so we had to change our route a little. On the flip side, with the start and end locked in, the middle section of the holiday is now free for us to be flexible.
  • I completed the home network upgrade. Was the switch from AmpliFi to UniFi worth it? Time will tell. It’s certainly more flexible but it’s cost me more and my house does not lend itself to structured cable runs. Maybe I should have just replaced the broken AmpliFi mesh point but it felt like I could fall into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy.
  • On the home automation front:
    • Octopus Energy sent us a Home Mini, which should give more granular data on electricity consumption, once I get the Home Assistant configuration right (I’m still tweaking).
    • I’ve also continued to play around with Home Assistant, including a bed occupancy sensor (which I can link to turning off the lights). I will admit that’s probably a step too far into nerd territory.
  • The month ended with a short break in Spain. Originally scheduled for May 2021, we never did get to go on a family holiday to Barcelona and the Costa Brava, though Matt made it out there on a training trip to Girona earlier this year. So, half the holiday, with only one of the “children” (though he is now twice the size!), Nikki, Ben and I spent a glorious few days in an around Begur.

Writing

These retrospectives are a bit of a blogging catch-all, but I did write a post on LinkedIn that turned into a blog in its own right. You can read it at the link below:

Photographing

Bits and pieces

  • 300m short of 200km!
  • Choose your PIN wisely:
  • Commentary on technical debt and the British Library’s ransomware attack woes:
  • Who doesn’t love a bit of Top Gun?
  • Thoughts on location tracking for family members:
  • Why it’s better to find a real application compatibility fix instead of just giving users admin access:
  • And why encrypted messaging is difficult:
  • Finally, shipping sunlight for green energy. Not as bonkers as it sounds!

Featured image: author’s own

Monthly Retrospective: April 2024

Another look back at some of the things I’ve been up to over the last few weeks…

At work

April marks a year since I started my transition to a new role at Node4. I didn’t move over full-time until July, but that’s when I stopped running what was formerly risual’s Architecture team and joined the Office of the CTO. This is not the forum to share the full details but suffice to say I had manouevred myself into a position where I was very unhappy – neither close to the tech nor able to best use my skills to provide value to the organisation and to our clients.

The change in role has been a breath of fresh air: the focus has changed a few times and there have been some bumps on the road; but one thing is core – I get up each morning and think about how best to add value. Whether that’s building out collateral for our public cloud portfolio, developing a new offering to guard against ransomware, helping clients with their IT Strategy or getting some structure around our “thought leadership” outputs.

The month ended with Node4’s “Go To Market” conference, in Nottingham. It’s an opportunity to set the agenda for the coming year and make sure we’re all headed in the same direction. This was the first time I’d attended and it was also a brilliant opportunity to meet some of my colleagues from across the business.

I managed to get myself into the video somehow, despite not officially being one of the presenters…

After two days of socialising, I was completely wiped out and needed some time to decompress. It’s left me thinking a lot about introversion. On the flip side, I also need to work on my FOMO… being one of the last to go to bed on the first night was not smart. At my age, I should know better.

Blogging

As usual, I didn’t find much time to blog this month, but I did write a thing about Enterprise Architecture, based on Dave Clark and Sophie Marshall’s good work…

Away from work

It’s not often that I go to the theatre but I saw the 1990s TV sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey was returning in theatre format with the original cast. I then failed to book tickets, missing it in Milton Keynes by a week. I asked myself if I could be bothered to go to Birmingham instead? Well, why not… I had a birthday so that was an opportunity to do something different!

I loved it, but it’s definitely written for an audience of a certain age (and I fit that demographic). For those less familiar with the original TV programme, it’s still amusing, but it does help to understand the characters and how they have developed over 30 years.

A matinee theatre show in a major city gave us an opportunity for a day out. So, afterwards we wandered down to The Custard Factory in Digbeth, for food and drink at Sobremesa and Rico Libre.

Oh yes, and I couldn’t help but be amused when I spotted that the image on the vinyl wrap in the train toilets contained an empty vodka bottle…

Playing with tech

If last month was about Meshtastic, this month has been Home Assistant. After initially installing on a Raspberry Pi to try it out, I quickly moved to a dedicated device and bought a Home Assistant Green. There was nothing wrong with the Pi installation, but I could use a Raspberry Pi 5 for other things. I’m still getting to grips with dashboards but Home Assistant has pulled all of my various smart devices together into one platform. This thread tells some of the story:

Annoyingly though, iCloud’s “was this you?” messages are not very helpful when you have automated services using your account:

I’ve also been upgrading the home Wi-Fi, moving from a consumer AmpliFi mesh to a solution based on UniFi equipment. That’s been an adventure in itself and will probably be a blog post in its own right.

And, I “went viral” (well, certainly had far more engagement than my normal tweets do), with a family service announcement for Wi-Fi updates…

Elsewhere on the Internet

  • On the need for critical thinking:
  • On outdated anti-WFH rhetoric:
  • On brilliant advertising:
  • On the decline of reporting:
  • On the value (or otherwise) of a degree:
  • On blogging:
  • On whether or not it’s useful to refer to “cyber”:
  • On the reasons that things sometimes cost more than you think they should:

    Travel

    As is usual, supporting Matt with his cycling races has meant a fair amount of travel and this month’s Premier Inn destinations have been… Tiverton and Stockton-on-Tees. Stockton was the overnight stay for the East Cleveland Classic, where I was in the team car all afternoon – and what an experience that was!

    There was also a race in Leicestershire where Matt was in the break for 2 hours before getting caught and then boxed in on the final sprint.

    But the big one was supposed to have been the CiCLE Classic in Rutland, until it was unfortunately cancelled on the day due to biblical rain. I do feel for the organisers in these scenarios, but even more so for the teams that had travelled from overseas.

    Away from cycling, but very exciting, is starting to plan an Interrail trip with Ben this summer. I only have two weeks’ leave available, but i’m pretty sure we’re going to have a brilliant time. It’s not the first time for me – I went solo in the early 1990s – but things have changed a lot since then.

    This month in photos

    Wrap-up

    That’s all for this month… May’s nearly over now but I have some notes ready for a review – hopefully not too long after the end of the month!

    Featured image taken from Node4’s Go To Market video, on LinkedIn

    Some thoughts on the hype around artificial intelligence

    A couple of weeks ago, I wrote something on LinkedIn. It was only supposed to be a short piece. It ended up long enough for a blog post, so I’m re-publishing it here…

    In a week that seems to have had more than its fair share of truly bad AI ideas (including GPT employment vetting and making a single image “sing and talk” from audio), I’m as AI-jaded as anyone right now. So please bear with me on my yet-another-AI-post-on-social media.

    You see, earlier today, someone shared Molly White‘s article about how AI isn’t useless – but is it worth it? It’s a long read (so I recommend listening instead – a great feature of Molly’s website) and there are many parts of the article that resonate for me.

    First up, she compares the current AI hype with Blockchain before in that “they do a poor job of much of what people try to do with them, they can’t do the things their creators claim they one day might, and many of the things they are well suited to do may not be altogether that beneficial”.

    But Molly goes on to talk about some of the use cases where AI is helpful, which I’ll pick another quote from: “I like it for getting annoying, repetitive tasks out of my way; I don’t worry it’s going to take my job.”

    Some of the other quotes that resonated with me were that: “[AI tools] are handy in the same way that it might occasionally be useful to delegate some tasks to an inexperienced and sometimes sloppy intern” and that “ChatGPT does not write, it generates text, and anyone who’s spotted obviously LLM-generated content in the wild immediately knows the difference”.

    I found it interesting when Molly writes about AI-generated images too: “AI-generated images tend to suffer from a similar bland ‘tone’ as its writing, and their proliferation only makes me desire real human artwork more”.

    She also writes about where LLMs are “good enough” – although sadly that seems to be industrialising some of the less desirable behaviours of the Internet (e.g. keyword stuffing and content farms).

    Most importantly, Molly writes about the environmental and human costs of AI – and touches on the truth of it all. Many AI technologies are solutions looking for problems – and really about boosting profits for investors in tech companies.

    And then the final paragraphs nail it for me – I recommend you read Molly’s post instead of me quoting them in full here (or ask an LLM to summarise it ?) but here’s the last sentence, which absolutely matches how I feel about so much technology right now. “We need to push back against endless tech manias and overhyped narratives, and oppose the ‘innovation at any cost’ mindset that has infected the tech sector.”

    I’m not a Luddite. But I do pride myself on my ability to look past the hype and be strategic when it comes to tech. AI’s a long way from its plateau of productivity – and just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

    Oops. I appear to have written enough here for a blog post… oh well, at least it was genuine opinion and not generated by an LLM. And thanks for the inspiration, Molly White.

    The Enterprise Architecture Stack

    Over the years, I’ve written several posts about IT architecture. Whilst it seems that there is an increasing trend to call experienced IT folks “architects”, one of my core beliefs is that Enterprise Architecture is not the same as “architecting” IT at enterprise scale. Yes, creating an IT architecture that will scale to support a global organisation with thousands of users is “enterprise scale” – but it’s not Enterprise Architecture.

    So what is Enterprise Architecture?

    Like so many things in life, an illustration can really help describe a point. And, a few years ago, I came across an excellent Enterprise Architecture diagram from Dave Clark and Sophie Marshall. You can see it as the featured image at the top of this post and one of the reasons I like it so much is that it’s clear that the technology is only one of several factors in a whole stack of considerations.

    I adapted it (under Creative Commons) but the basic premise of the diagram remained the same – step back from the problem and understand the organisation to consider its needs and requirements. We need to know what is needed before we can can consider solutions! Then, we should ask what good looks like. Don’t just dive in with technology.

    Let’s take each layer in turn… and you’ll see that, right away, I added another layer at the top.

    Purpose

    The purpose is about why an organisation exists. It should be straightforward to answer but is hopefully more than “to deliver value to our shareholders”. A Council may exist to provide services (statutory and otherwise) to citizens. A retailer may exist to (make money and) provide the best selection of fashionable clothing at affordable prices. It’s entirely logical that the organisation’s culture will be strongly linked to its business motivations.

    Many organisations will give an indication of their purpose on their website, or in their company report. For example, the IKEA vision, values and business idea sets out the organisation’s purpose in the form of:

    • A vision: “To create a better everyday life for the many people”; and
    • A business idea: “to offer a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.”

    Strategy

    Strategy supports purpose by providing business ambition and goals – a direction in which to head. Storytelling and visualisation are techniques that can be used to communicate the strategy so that it’s well understood by everyone in the organisation. They can also help others who need to work with them (for example business partners). A useful tool for defining business strategy is the Business Model Canvas, based on the book by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur.

    Looking briefly at visualisation, Scott Berinato (@ScottBerinato)’s 2016 article for Harvard Business Review on Visualizations [sic] That Really Work stresses the need to understand the message you want to convey before you get down into the weeds. This blog post is a case in point – I want to show that Enterprise Architecture is much more than just technology. And I found a good visualisation to illustrate my point.

    As for storytelling, I’ve seen some fascinating presentations over the years on how to tell a good story to bring a presentation to life. One of the most memorable was at a Microsoft MVP Event in 2017. Tony Wells used this example of how we tell stories to children – and how we (too) often communicate at work:

    (I’m still practicing my storytelling technique, but Hubspot also has what it calls The Ultimate Guide to Storytelling.)

    What, Who and How

    What we do is a description of the products and services that the organisation offers – the business’ capabilities. These may be the value propositions in the Business Model Canvas but I would suggest they are a little more detailed. Strength/Weakness/Opportunity/Threat (SWOT) analysis can be a useful tool here too for identifying what could be done, though the emphasis is probably more on what is currently done, for now.

    Who we do it for is about the consumers of the organisation’s products and services – understanding who the “users” are. Tools might include stakeholder maps and matrices, empathy maps, personas.

    How it’s done is about understanding the methods and processes that deliver “the what” to “the who”. Journey maps, process flow diagrams, storyboards and SWOT analysis can all help.

    Who does it is about the people, where they are located, and how the organisation is structured. In a world of remote and hybrid working it’s even more relevant to understand the (human) network and how it works.

    Software, data and technology

    Only after we’ve understood “the Business layers” (purpose, strategy and the what, who and how) can we move onto the IT. And that IT is more than just infrastructure:

    • The data models that support this. (There may a discussion to be had there about data, information, knowledge and wisdom but that’s a topic in itself.)
    • The software applications that are used to access that data.
    • And the underlying technology infrastructure.

    Why is this important?

    For many years, I was part of and then managed a team of people who were labelled “Enterprise Architects”. During that time, I argued that the term was aspirational and that most of the work we did was Solution Architecture. Maybe that was splitting hairs but we rarely got the chance to drive strategy, or to get involved in designing the organisational structure. Whilst we were experienced at IT, we still operated at the lower levels in the stack: business requirements driving software, data and technology decisions. We wanted to become trusted advisors, but for the most part, the work we performed for our clients was transactional.

    My colleague Ben Curtis (/in/BenCurti5) has an excellent analogy built around perception and perspective. I hope he won’t mind me borrowing it:

    • Perception is about what meets the eye. Imagine you’re walking through a forest and come across a single tree. Your first impression of that tree – its size, shape, colour, and surroundings – is your perception.
    • Perspective is seeing the Forest and the Trees. Now, let’s say you climb to the top of a hill and look down at the entire forest. Suddenly, you see how all the trees are connected, how the sunlight filters through the leaves, and how animals move through the undergrowth. This bigger view – the perspective – gives you a deeper understanding of the forest as a whole.

    Whilst this can be used to show the difference between an individual system and the complete view of an IT environment, I’d suggest that its also about how the IT environment is part of something much larger – an organisation of people and processes, supported by technology, that exists with a purpose and a strategy to make it happen. And that, is the Enterprise Architecture.

    Related posts

    Here are some posts I’ve written previously on IT architecture. I think this is the first time I’ve properly outlined what Enterprise Architecture means though:

    Featured image: The Enterprise Architecture Stack, by Dave Clark and Sophie Marshall [source: Dave Clark on LinkedIn]

    Monthly Retrospective: March 2024

    I managed the weeknotes for 9 weeks. The last one was posted as I was sitting on a plane, about to take off for a long weekend away with my wife. And then I started to take stock. I don’t have time for them. What had been a weekly reflective activity had become a chore.

    And then the unwritten thoughts started to build in my mind. There were still things that I wanted to share. And the feedback had been positive, though the weekly cadence was probably too much.

    So here we are. A new concept: Monthly Retrospective; 12 posts a year instead of 52. Maybe a better chance of me getting it out of the door on time too? I don’t promise it will be published exactly on the end of each month (I’m a week into April as I finish this post), but it will be there or thereabouts…

    So what’s up this month?

    Here’s a quick summary of what’s in the rest of the post

    • We have the tech – both at work and at home. Plus a few of the many interesting things I’ve spotted on my Internet travels (I still post most of them on X, and a more professionally curated set of posts on LinkedIn).
    • We have the events – typically evenings, attended to expand my knowledge.
    • We have the entertainment – music, film, TV.
    • We have life – family and friends.
    • And we have the photos – snapshots of life viewed through my iPhone.

    So let’s get started…

    In tech: at work

    I’m busy, busy as always at work, with more organisational changes to keep me on my toes. One thing I’ve tended to avoid in recent years is working on bids. This is partly because I find there’s invariably a slow start and a mad rush to complete before the deadline, and partly because I prefer to work on a consulting-led sell where I have helped to shape the solution. In a competitive tender scenario someone else has influenced the client, so you’re already on the back foot, second-guessing what the client needs cf. what the invitation to tender says they want. In this case, one of my colleagues asked me to help out, and we have a few weeks to create our solution. It’s also a really interesting project so I’m enjoying pulling this solution together.

    Meanwhile, the ransomware service is also moving forwards, though not as fast as I would like (or, more to the point, as fast as my boss would like). All being well, I’ll have something to shout about in next month’s retrospective.

    In tech: at home

    I’m still playing around with Meshtastic, with one node travelling mobile with me and another soon to be set up at home. Here’s the thread with the progress:

    In addition to the excellent Meshtastic website, Andy Kirby’s YouTube channel has tons of information.

    Other home projects include researching which CCTV cameras to put up (almost certainly from Reolink) and how to get an Ethernet cable to them…

    In tech: some of the things I stumbled across this month

    Some bits and pieces:

    • Advice to help build genAI prompts:
    • One of the many issues with QR codes:
    • Remembering some security advice I used last year:
    • One of my favourite design projects:

    In events

    March saw me getting out to a few tech events in the evenings

    • Milton Keynes Geek Night (MKGN) is always a good night out. In truth, it’s not really geeky these days – more creative – but I enjoy most of the talks and after a dozen years of attendance, I know a lot of the people in the crowd. This was the thread I created with the highlights from MKGN number 47:
    • A few days later, I headed down to London for the Windows Azure User Group Meetup. Unfortunately, I couldn’t use Node4’s London office, so I worked from the British Library and other locations for most of the day, before heading over to Elastacloud for the event in the evening. After Richard Conway (in/richardelastacloud) introduced the evening, Steph Locke (@TheStephLocke) from Microsoft talked about AI Landing Zones before Andy Cross (in/crossandy) gave a hilarious demonstration of how the death of coding is a little way off yet, even with multiple AI agents collaborating…
    • Towards the end of the month, I went to the inaugural NN1 Dev Club event, mostly to see what it’s about. I’m not a developer (though I might like to be…) and it seemed a good opportunity to get to know some of the tech folks in another nearby town. I enjoyed the talks – both PJ Evans (@MrPJEvans)’ tales of home automation (“Boiling Nemo”) and Dr Junade Ali (/in/junade)’s tales from the world of security research (“The Science of Software Engineering”) – so I’m sure I’ll be back for more events in future.

    In entertainment

    Cover image for The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

    When I was about 8 or 9, I read a book at school. I couldn’t remember much about it, except that it was about some children travelling across Europe, it was set in WW2, Warsaw was a part of it, and I really enjoyed it. I asked a group of friends if they remembered something like this and one asked ChatGPT. ChatGPT thought it might be The Silver Sword, by Ian Serraillier. I read the synopsis and that was it! Why I never thought to ask an AI, I have no idea, but it worked. I then had a very enjoyable few hours in the car listening to the audio book…

    On the subject of books, some more reading has arrived:

    This month’s TV has been about:

    • Explosive action (deliberate pun) Trigger Point, S2 (ITV).
    • Laid back and delightfully silly Detectorists, S2 (Netflix).
    • Stunning landscapes mixed with murder mystery Shetland, S8 (BBC).

    None are new, but they had been on the list for a while. The jury is still out on Shetland without Douglas Henshall in the main character role though.

    I’ve also decided that I need to get out to some gigs. My wife’s not into the electronic music that I enjoy so much and I was thinking about heading down to Greenwich with my youngest son for a Day with Chicane. Unfortunately the gig is 18+ and he will be 3 months short of adulthood, so maybe that will wait a while longer.

    In life: a trip to Tallinn

    The month started with a trip to Tallinn, Estonia. Nikki and I were celebrating 21 years of marriage and we had a fantastic weekend exploring a new city. As a country that’s been in and out of Soviet control several times in modern history we were not sure what to expect. What we found was a beautiful medieval city, food that seemed more Scandinavian than Eastern European, and public transport that was cheap and plentiful.

    Our hotel was only just outside the old town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so we didn’t actually need to use the transport much (the city is compact enough to walk). Even so, €2 each way for a bus to/from the airport seemed amazing value.

    Similarly, we ate and drank well at remarkably good prices compared with the UK – whether that was hot chocolate in Pierre Chocolaterie, hot wine in Ill Draakon (a medieval-themed bar), or one of the modern Estonian restaurants that we dined in. (For future reference, they were: Kaerajaan, Rataskaevu 16 and Pegasus). I came home thinking that, for the most part, the UK is a very dull and overpriced culinary destination.

    Other highlights were a visit to the top of the tower at the Niguliste Museum for views across the city. We also enjoyed a walk along the old town walls. Outside the old town, we took a short walk to Telliskivi and visited the photography exhibitions at Fotografiska.

    If you’re inspired by this and you fancy a trip to Tallinn (highly recommended), we flew with Wizz Air from London Luton and the Visit Tallinn website has a mine of information.

    Oh yes, and linking back to tech for a moment, I forgot that the delivery robots I see in Milton Keynes and Northampton have Estonian cousins…

    …and was amused to see people out and about experiencing virtual reality headsets in the centre of Tallinn…

    In life: a Welshman in Twickenham

    I may have been born in Northampton, but I identify as Welsh. And certainly when it comes to international Rugby Union, my team plays in red. I wasn’t going to say “no” though when I got the opportunity to watch England host Ireland at Twickenham. What a game! The final drop kick was at the other end of the pitch to me, but it was a brilliant match to be at.

    In life: sporty teens

    As ever, my sons are a huge part of what I get up to outside work. With Matt away in Spain, I was able to get to watch Ben play Hockey a bit more, including the Eastern Counties U17 tournament. Now Matt’s returned and he’s racing as much as he can, trying to get his Category 1 (and maybe Elite, if he can get enough points) road race licence. That needs my support sometimes (passing bottles, driving on the longer trips). At the other end of the scale, it was exciting to be able to watch him pick up a win at our local race:

    It’s fantastic to see the support he gets from his own teammates and some of the guys he’s racing against too (the video cuts off Richard Wiggins exclaiming “he’s got it!” just as I hit record). #ProudDad

    After a couple more races that I didn’t get to see (and didn’t exactly go to plan), he wrapped up the month with a particularly eventful weekend. On the Saturday, a couple of punctures meant his race only lasted a few minutes, but that was probably lucky as we then found the steerer tube at the top of his fork had a huge crack in it…

    That afternoon and evening, he rebuilt onto one of the spare cyclocross frames that were waiting to be set up, and then raced the Fakenham town centre crit’ on Sunday. It was a wet afternoon and my heart was in my mouth for the whole race but coming in third after an early break and leading for a good chunk of the race was a great result.

    In photos

    Wrap-up

    That’s all for this month… please let me know what you think in the comments and I’ll be back in early May to recap on April… plus, hopefully, with extra time for some other posts in between.

    Featured image by 139904 from Pixabay.

    Weeknote 2024/09: radio; podcasts; AI and more

    This week’s weeknote is short. It’s also a little earlier than usual because today’s my wedding anniversary and I was busy trying to get everything wrapped up before flying away for the weekend…

    …so, in chronological order – but all mixed up between work and play:

    • Two weeks ago I said One Day (on Netflix) was a rom-com. Well… maybe not a comedy. A romantic drama? Regardless, we finished the series last weekend. There were tears. Mostly mine. And I highly recommend it for anyone who left uni’ in the UK in the 90s…
    • After passing my amateur radio foundation exam a couple of weeks ago, I have my callsign from Ofcom. I’m now M7OLN…
      • Last weekend, I met up with Christian Payne/Documentally (G5DOC) and talked radios among other things over an enjoyable cafe lunch…
      • I’m having trouble getting into local repeaters on a handheld radio from my place but we worked out my config issues so I know the radio is set up properly.
      • I can hear the local repeater but I need to put a better antenna up at home. That could be tricky. If only I could safely get closer to this chimney stack…
      • I’ve also ordered an antenna and window mount for the car. And discovered that there is a radio shop close enough to click and collect (Moonraker).
    • As a slight tangent from amateur radio (I can’t bring myself to call it HAM), I’ve discovered LoRa and some Meshtastic nodes are on their way. More on what that means when I have them set up…
    • I now have an identity on the Node4 Microsoft 365 tenant (don’t get me started on how difficult it is to bring multiple organisations into one but I have huge respect for my colleague who is managing this). Judging by the emails I’m receiving, I’m not the first person to have used this alias. I can deal with the emails for trainers and other fashion items… but it seems they were a Manchester United fan too, which is harder to take.
    • On Tuesday, I recorded a podcast with my colleague Bjoern (in/bjeorn-hirtenjohann). It was great fun and I was very chuffed when the producer, Beth, told me I could have a new career as a radio host. It may have been a joke but I would like to do more of this.
    • Then, I headed Bletchley for the Bletchley Park Microsoft AI User Group event. I was AI-jaded when I arrived. I was AI-buzzing when I left.
      • Will Rowe (@MSFTRecruit) made us laugh, a lot, at about recruiters.
      • I made some great connections.
      • I learned some cool things about AI prompting from Lydia Carroll (in/lydiacarroll) and about digital ecosystems from Chris Huntingford (@ThatPlatformGuy).
      • I also did some improv’ – volunteering for an unscripted, 1-2 minute talk on AI, that children would understand. Thanks to Stephanie Stasey (in/missai) for giving me the chance to get out of my comfort zone whilst practicing something I want to do more of – presenting.
    • I’ve also started to kick some thoughts around about what it means to be technical leader… and how I can encourage others.
    • And, in a discussion about recognition, someone who will remain anonymous shared this comment with me… I feel seen:

    “I’m also an introvert that overcompensates BTW. People confuse my enthusiasm, facilitation, and contribution as me being extrovert. Secretly I’m like a Duracell Bunny using a bad battery – it wears down quite quickly!“

    • (I was exhausted on Wednesday, after Tuesday’s exploits.)
    • Thursday ended with an example of when AI chatbots go wrong:
    • There were some blog posts not written this week that need to be:
      • My journey into amateur radio
      • Writing better AI prompts
    • Next week is looking even busier (with only 3 days at work) but I’ll try and write them soon.

    Right, time to go, I have a plane to catch.

    This week in photos

    Not that many… I’m sure there will be more next week.

    Featured image: author’s own, from the last time I flew with Wizz Air

    Weeknote 2024/08: re-organisation and recovery

    Last week’s weeknote was huge.

    This week’s weeknote is more… focused.

    (I may finally be finding the right balance…)

    At work

    • There have been some changes. A minor re-organisation that brings the Office of the CTO closer to the delivery end of the business – with a renewed focus on innovation and technology leadership. This makes me much happier.
    • I brokered a successful introduction between a data science contact I made at the recent AWS event and my OCTO colleague who looks after data and analytics.
    • I did some script-writing as preparation for some podcasts we’re recording next week.
    • And I published a blog post about the supposed demise of cloud, where apparently lots of people are moving back on-premises because it’s “too expensive”. Hmmm:
    • Also, because nobody engages with AI blog posts, I made a little observation on LinkedIn:
    • I spent quite a bit of time working on the ransomware offering that I’ve mentioned a few times now. Once we finalise the cost model I’ll start to shout some more.
    • And someone actually booked some time with me using my Microsoft Bookings page!

    At home

    • Mrs W did, as predicted, read last week’s weeknote :-)
      • I’m pleased to report that she had an enjoyable birthday and my cake baking was successful.
    • Matt is happy in Spain (for a few weeks), riding his bike in the sunshine and mixing with professionals and amateurs alike.
      • Two new cyclocross frames arrived last week too, so his bedroom back home looks like a workshop as he prepares for gravel/cyclocross later in the year.
      • Unfortunately, his groupset is wearing out (the interior components on Shimano 105-spec shifters are fine for leisure riders like me, but not for people who ride more miles on their bike than many people drive). Alpkit were selling off some surplus 105 Di2 groupsets and one is now in our house. The theory being that there’s less to wear out with an electronic groupset. I’m not convinced!
    • Ben had a great half term holiday with friends in Devon. He’s back home safely now. The Young Person’s Railcard is a wonderful scheme.
    • And I’m bouncing from day to day, ticking things off lists and generally trying to balance being a good Dad, a good husband, and to get myself back in shape, mentally and physically. Once I’d finished work for the week:
      • I took myself along to a talk about using multimeters, at one of the local clubs and societies in Olney, which filled a few gaps in my geek knowledge before I caught up with my friend James for a couple of pints.
      • And I took a ride on a local railway line that’s recently reopened after a year or so with no service. For a few weeks it’s £1 each way between Bedford and Bletchley so I decided to get a different view of the various developments along the Marston Vale. Old brickworks are now energy recovery facilities and country parks, but there’s lots more to see too.

    In tech

    • OpenAI launched a text-to-video model called Sora:
    • The BBC looked back on child futurologists from 50 years ago:
    • I found Timo Elliott’s cartoons – including this one on AI:
    • And BT sold its London tower, which has long since lost its use for radio communications:
    • Whilst I feel for Kate (@katebevan), I’m pleased to see someone else finds these UI features as frustrating as me. See also country dropdowns where I scroll and scroll to get to United Kingdom but someone thought the USA was important enough to put at the top of the list:

    Next week

    Don’t be surprised if I skip a week on the weeknotes… I’m going to be very busy at the end of next week… but I’ll be back soon.

    Featured image: author’s own

    Cloud is dead. Long live the cloud!

    I’ve seen a few articles recently that talking about how organisations are moving workloads out of the cloud and back to their own datacentres. Sometimes they are little more than clickbait. But there is a really important discussion to be had here. So I thought I’d lift the lid on this topic and have a look at what I think is really going on.

    The promise of the cloud

    Cloud is great for many things. On-demand access to vast amounts of computing and storage resource, on a pay as you go basis. Brilliant. No need to invest in capital. Just pay for what you use.

    Except that’s not how all businesses work. At least not for all application workloads and data sets.

    Possibly the most famous of these “we found cloud expensive and moved back on-prem” articles is David Heinemeier Hansson (@DHH)’s why we’re leaving the cloud post for 37 Signals, written in 2022. In that post, DHH says that renting someone else’s computers didn’t work for his business. He describes 37 Signals as a “medium-sized business with stable growth”. But, I’m willing to bet that most of the readers of this post are not running SaaS applications in AWS for a global audience of B2B and B2C customers. Some will be, but most of my clients are not.

    In fact, in his video on kicking cloud to the curb [sic], David Linthicum (@DavidLinthicum) flags that SaaS providers will scale in a repeated pattern, whereas enterprise [and SME] workloads scale differently. Cloud still has a place for most organisations. DHH’s follow-up post (the Big Cloud Exit FAQ) is worth a read too. Just remember that most business don’t follow the profile of 37 Signals. And that 37 Signals are still using co-lo facilities (because building new datacentres in 2024 is a very brave move, unless you are a hyperscaler).

    But you’re not 37 Signals

    In 2024, I would seriously question why anyone is running their own office productivity tools (email, IM, intranet, etc.) on-premises. There are many services that can do this for you on a per-person-per-month basis. And they will have better up-time than you ever did, despite what your former email administrator tells you. Those jokes about “Microsoft 364” whenever there’s a blip in the matrix… how much more did you spend on storage to make sure that you got to even 99.5% availability in your Exchange servers?

    But let’s move on past the “low hanging fruit” that can relatively easily be replaced by SaaS. Let’s have a look at all those other applications that actually run your business: the finance system; the case management system; the modern data platform; the reporting and analytics; the years and years of accumulated unstructured file data that no-one knows what is needed and what is not. (“The business”* says “that it’s up to IT to sort out”. IT says “we don’t know what you need”. No-one agrees to the blanket retention policies, just in case that file deleted after 3, 7, 10 years is really important.)

    What I’ve seen happen, time and time again, is that almost everything is moved to the cloud. I say almost, because the cloud discovery process often turns up evidence of virtual machines that were created, are no longer used, but are left running. This happens because on-premises infrastructure is seen as “paid for”. There is no cost to leaving things running. Except there is – not just in wasted processor cycles and storage, but in the size of the infrastructure that’s required.

    Lifting and shifting without transformation

    There are many motivations for cloud migrations but the most common I see is because the datacentre is closing. Maybe it’s the end of an outsource, maybe the site is being sold for redevelopment. But it’s nearly always “we must exit by” a particular date. No time to transform – just transition. We’ll sort it out later. Except “later” never comes. The project to move to the cloud is completed. The team is stood down. The partners are disengaged. “Phase 2” to transform the estate doesn’t have a strong enough business case** and things stay the same.

    And then the cloud bills come in. They look a bit steep – especially for IaaS. You’re using more storage than you expected, and those VMs are a little pricey. Some “optimisation” is done to adjust VM sizes. Reserved Instances and other benefits are used to reduce the monthly charge.

    Watch the costs rise

    A year later, the prices rise. Inflation. Exchange rate variance vs. the $ or the € (depending on your provider’s base currency). That’s OK, it was always expected. Wasn’t it? Another round of “optimisation” happens. A couple of applications are no longer used, replaced by SaaS. Some VMs are switched off.

    Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.

    A few years on, but you’ve still not transformed. Those resources that you “lifted and shifted” to the cloud are, like the old adage, the same computers running in someone else’s data centre.

    The CFO looks at the cloud bill and says “how much?!”. It looks astronomical compared with industry norms. They bring in a new Head of IT and tell them that they have to reduce the cloud spend. “We’ll move back on-premises – where it used to cost less”, they agree.

    But it’s still the same systems. With the same technical debt. And now it needs power, and water, and expensive servers and storage and… you see where we are going.

    Refactor or modernise

    Cloud is not a cycle, like in-source/out-source. It’s a business model. And, like all business models you need to tune the way they are used to make best use of them. N-tier applications running on VMs in IaaS will generally not be cost-effective. Look at how to move the presentation tier to web services. Can the application be re-factored? Could the database run in PaaS too? Often the challenge is ISV support. But it’s 2024. If your vendor doesn’t have native support for Azure or AWS, maybe it’s time to find a different vendor.

    And if you’re moving to the cloud to save money, maybe it’s time to look again at your business case.

    Use the cloud for innovation, not to save money

    Cloud can save money. But only after the workloads are transformed. And only then with continual optimisation. The trick is to make the effort you put into transformation cost less than the savings you return through efficiencies. We can do this on-prem too, but it normally involves capital spend. And that’s another major advantage of the cloud. Once you’re there you can use it to try out new products and services, without a major investment. All that AI innovation that’s happening right now. You can try it out in the cloud, for relatively little effort. Now imagine you needed an investment case for the infrastructure to develop new AI models in house? Cloud gave you agility and flexibility.

    And don’t forget about efficiency

    To borrow a metaphor from David Linthicum, remember that cloud is a utility. If you leave the heating and lights on at home, you can expect a big bill. It’s no different in the cloud, if you run inefficient infrastructure and applications.

    Look at the long-term viability and placement for your services, Make right-sizing decisions based on application workload and datasets. The problem isn’t the cloud – it’s that some people are trying to use it for the wrong things.

    * I used this term to be deliberately provocative. I could write a whole separate post on the concept of “the business” vs. “IT”.
    ** It should have. If properly thought through.

    Featured image: author’s own

    Weeknote 2024/07: pancakes; cycle races; amateur radio; flooding; and love stories

    The feedback I receive on these weeknotes is generally something like “I’m enjoying your weekly posts Mark – no idea how you find the time?”. The answer is that 1) I work a 4-day week; and 2) I stay up far too late at night. I also write them in bits, as the week progresses. This week has been a bit of a rollercoaster though, with a few unexpected changes of direction, and consequently quite a few re-writes.

    This week at work

    I had planned to take an extra day off this week which looked like it was going to squeeze things a bit. That all changed mid-week, which gave me a bit more time to move things forward. These were the highlights:

    This week away from work

    Last weekend

    I was cycle coaching on Saturday, then dashed home as my youngest son, Ben, said he would be watching the rugby at home instead of with his mates. England vs. Wales is the most important Six Nations fixture in my family. My Dad was Welsh. He wasn’t big into sport, but, nevertheless I remember watching 15 men in red shirts running around with an oval ball with him. Nikki’s Dad was Welsh too. Even though we were both born in England, that makes our sons two-quarters Welsh. Cymru am byth! Sadly, the result didn’t quite go our way this year – though it was closer than I’d dared dream.

    On Sunday, our eldest son, Matt was racing the Portsdown Classic. It’s the first road race of the season and there were some big names in there. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the result he wanted – finding he has the power but is still learning to race – but he did finish just ahead of Ed Clancey OBE, so that’s something to remember.

    I’m just glad he avoided this (look carefully and Matt can be seen in white/blue on a grey bike with white decals on the wheels, very close to the verge on the left, just ahead of the crash)

    The rest of the week

    Our town, Olney, has celebrated Shrove Tuesday with a pancake race since 1445. It even features on the signs as you drive into town.

    I didn’t see this year’s race as I was working in Derby. Then driving back along the motorway in torrential rain, in time for a family meal. We were supposed to be getting together before Matt flew out to Greece for 10 weeks, but those plans fell apart with 2 days before his outbound flight. Thankfully he’s sorted a plan B but I’m not writing about it until it actually happens!

    For a couple of years I’ve struggled to ride with Matt without him finding it too easy (and actually getting cold). I miss my riding buddy, but it was good to hear him say he’d like to ride with me again if I can get back into shape. Right. That’s my chance. Whilst he is away it’s time to get back on Zwift and prepare for a summer on the real bike. I need to lose at least 20kgs too, but that’s going to take a while…

    …which reminds me. I must find a way to pull all my information from the Zoe app before my subscription expires.

    As last Sunday’s bike race was “only” around 75km, I didn’t have any roadside bottle-passing duties so I took “the big camera” (my Nikon D700 DSLR). Then, I got home and realised my digital photography workflow has stopped flowing. My Mac Mini has run out of disk space. My youngest son, Ben, now uses my MacBook for school. And my Windows PC didn’t want to talk to the D700 (until I swapped cables – so that must have been the issue). It took me a while, but I eventually managed to pull a few half-decent images out of the selection. You can see them below, under “this week in photos”. I love using the DSLR, but do wish it had the connectivity that makes a smartphone so much more convenient.

    The Portsdown Classic was my first opportunity to take a hand-held radio to a race. I’d seen spectators using them at other National Races last year but I didn’t have the equipment. I’d asked someone what they used and considered getting a Baofeng UV-5R but didn’t actually get around to clicking “buy now”. Then Christian Payne (Documentally) gifted me a Quansheng UV-K5(8) at Milton Keynes Geek Night. A chat with a friendly NEG rider and a little bit of homework told me which frequencies British Cycling uses. It was fascinating to be able to listen to the race convoy radio, both when driving behind the convoy at the start of the race and then when spectating (at least when the race was within radio range).

    Listening in on the action gave me a whole new perspective on the race. So much so that I’m considering completing the ConvoyCraft training to be able to drive an official event car

    I mentioned that Christian had gifted me a radio last December. That was on condition that I promised to take the exam for my RSGB Foundation Licence. Well, I took it this morning and passed. The results are provisional but, assuming all goes well and I get my licence from Ofcom, I’ll write another post about that journey into the world of RF and antennae…

    Finally, I wrapped up the week by meeting up with my former colleague, manager, and long-time mentor, Mark Locke. I learned a lot from Mark in my days at ICL and Fujitsu (most notably when I was a wet-behind-the-ears Graduate Trainee in the “Workgroup Systems” consultancy unit we were a part of in the early days of Microsoft Exchange, Novell GroupWise and Lotus Notes; and later working for Mark on a major HMRC infrastructure project); he was the one who sponsored me into my first Office of the CITO role for David Smith, back in 2010; and we’ve remained friends for many years. It was lovely to catch up on each other’s news over a pint and a spot of lunch.

    This week in TV/video

    My wife and I started watching two new TV series this last week. Both are shaping up well, even if one is a rom-com (not normally my favourite genre):

    This week in photos

    Elsewhere on the Internet

    In tech

    At least one good thing came out of the VMware-Broadcom situation:

    The NCSC appears to have rebranded 2FA/MFA as 2SV:

    But this. This is a level of geekiness that I can totally get behind:

    Even I have to accept that playing Snake on network switches is a little too niche though:

    Close to home

    The river Great Ouse in Olney saw the biggest floods I can remember (for the second time this winter). The official figures suggest otherwise but they measure at the sluice – once the river bursts its banks (as it now does) the sluice is bypassed through the country park and across fields. The drone shots are pretty incredible.

    This is a fantastic project. The pedant in me can almost forgive the errant apostrophe in the final frames of the video because the concept is so worthwhile:

    Underground-Overground

    Transport for London decided to rename six formerly “Overground” lines, This is one of the more educational stories about it:

    It’s not the first time naming these lines has been proposed:

    But British Twitter stepped up to the mark and delivered its own commentary:

    Or at least some of British Twitter. Those outside the gravitational pull of London were less bothered:

    St Valentine’s Day

    Every now and again, the social networks surface something really wholesome. This week I’ve picked three St Valentine’s Day posts. Firstly, from “the Poet Laureate of Twitter”, Brian Bilston:

    And then this lovely story (pun entirely intended) from Heather Self (click through for the whole thread of three posts):

    This one just made me giggle:

    Coming up

    The coming weekend will be a busy one. Ben is heading off to the West Country for a few days away with his friends. It’s also Nikki’s birthday… but I won’t spill the beans here about any plans because she has been known to read these posts. And then, hopefully, on Monday, Matt will finally get away to train in a sunnier climate for a while.

    Next week is half term but with both the “boys” away it will be quiet. When they are at home, we have the normal chaos of a busy family with two sporty teenagers. When they are away it’s nice to enjoy some peace (and a slightly less messy house), but it sometimes feels just a little odd.

    Right, time to hit publish. I have a birthday cake to bake…

    Featured image by -Rita-??? und ? mit ? from Pixabay.