Quantum Computing 101

There’s been a lot of buzz around quantum computing over the last year or so and there seems little doubt that it will provide the next major step forward in computing power but it’s still largely theoretical – you can’t buy a quantum computer today. So, what does it really mean… and why should we care?

Today’s computers are binary. The transistors (tiny switches) that are contained in microchips are either off (0) or on (1) – just like a light switch. Quantum computing is based on entirely new principles. And quantum mechanics is difficult to understand – it’s counterintuitive – it’s weird. So let’s look at some of the basic concepts:

Superposition Superposition is a concept whereby, instead of a state being on or off, it’s on and off. At the same time. And it’s everything in the middle as well. Think of it as a scale from 0 to 1 and all the numbers in-between.
Qubit A quantum bit (qubit) uses superposition so that, instead of trying problems sequentially, we can compute in parallel with superposition.

More qubits are not necessarily better (although there is a qubit race taking place in the media)… the challenge is not about creating more qubits but better qubits, with better error correction.

Error correction Particles like an electron have a charge and a spin so they point in a certain direction. Noise from other electrons makes them wiggle so the information in one is leaking to others, which makes long calculations difficult. This is one of the reasons that quantum computers run at low temperatures.

Greek dancers hold their neighbour so that they move as one. One approach in quantum computing is to do the same with electrons so that only those at the end have freedom of motion – a concept called electron fractionalisation. This creates a robust building block for a qubit, one that is more like Lego (locking together) than a house of cards (loosely stacked).

Different teams of researchers are using different approaches to solve error correction problems, so not everyone’s Qubits are equal! One approach is to use topological qubits for reliable computation, storage and scaling. Just like Inca quipus (a system of knots and braids used to encode information so it couldn’t be washed away, unlike chalk marks), topological qubits can braid information and create patterns in code.

Exponential scaling Once the error correction issue is solved, then scaling is where the massive power of quantum computing can be unleashed.

A 4 bit classical computer has 16 configurations of 0s and 1s but can only exist in one of these states at any time. A quantum register of 4 qubits can be in all 16 states at the same time and compute on all of them at the same time!

Every n interacting qubits can handle 2n bits of information in parallel so:

  • 10 qubits = 1024 classical bits (1KiB)
  • 20 qubits = 1MB
  • 30 qubits = 1GB
  • 40 qubits = 1TB
  • etc.

This means that the computational power of a quantum computer is potentially huge.

What sort of problems need quantum computing?

We won’t be using quantum computers for general personal computing any time soon – Moore’s Law is doing just fine there – but there are a number of areas where quantum computing is better suited than classical computing approaches.

We can potentially use the massive quantum computing power to solve problems like:

  • Cryptography (making it more secure – a quantum computer could break the RSA 2048 algorithm that underpins much of today’s online commerce in around 100 seconds – so we need new models).
  • Quantum chemistry and materials science (nitrogen fixation, carbon capture, etc.).
  • Machine learning (faster training of models – quantum computing as a “co-processor” for AI).
  • and other intractable problems that are supercompute-constrained (improved medicines, etc.).

A universal programmable quantum computer

Microsoft is trying to create a universal programmable quantum computer – the whole stack – and they’re pretty advanced already. The developments include:

Quantum computing may sound like the technology of tomorrow but the tools are available to develop and test algorithms today and some sources are reporting that a quantum computing capability in Azure could be just 5 years away.

Weeknote 17: Failed demos, hotel rooms, travel and snippets of exercise (Week 18. 2018)

This week, I’ve learned that:

  • I must trust my better judgement and never allow anyone to push me into demonstrating their products without a properly rehearsed demo and the right equipment…
  • There are people working in offices today who not only claim to be IT illiterate but seem to think that’s acceptable in the modern workplace:
  • That operations teams have a tremendous amount of power to disregard and even override recommendations provided by architects who are paid to provide solid technical advice.
  • That, in 2018, some conference organisers not only think an all-male panel is acceptable but are hostile when given feedback…

I’ve also:

  • Gone on a mini-tour of Southern England working in London, Bristol and Birmingham for the first four days of the week. It did include a bonus ride on a brand new train though and a stint in first class (because it was only £3 more than standard – I’ll happily pay the difference)!
  • Taken a trip down memory lane, revisiting the place where I started my full-time career in 1994 (only to be told by a colleague that he wasn’t even born in 1994):
  • Squeezed in a “run” (actually more like a slow shuffle) as I try to fit exercise around a busy work schedule and living out of a suitcase.
  • Managed to take my youngest son swimming after weeks of trying to make it home in time.
  • Written my first blog post that’s not a “weeknote” in months!
  • Picked up a writing tip to understand the use of the passive voice:

So the week definitely finished better than it started and, as we head into a long weekend, the forecast includes a fair amount of sunshine – hopefully I’ll squeeze in a bike ride or two!

Keeping up to date with developments in the Microsoft world

One of my customers asked me today how I keep up to date with developments in the Microsoft world.

The answer is, “with great difficulty” but I do have a few resources at my disposal. Rather than create a blog post which will quickly be out of date, here’s a OneNote Notebook that has the info (and is more likely to be kept up-to-date).

I also get a fair amount of information directly from Microsoft, either as a P-TSP or through my work at risual but some of that is under NDA. Hopefully the links in the OneNote (which I will expand over time) will help…

Future Decoded 2016 highlights (#FutureDecoded)

Two years ago, I attended Future Decoded – Microsoft’s largest UK event, which has taken place each November for the last few years at the ExCeL centre in London. It’s a great opportunity to keep up to date with the developments in the Microsoft stack, with separate Business-focused and Technical-focused days and some really good keynote speakers as well as quality breakout sessions.

Future Decoded has particular significance for me because it’s where I “met” risual, who have been headline sponsors for the last 3 events. After the 2014 event, I decided to find out more about risual and, in May 2015 I finally joined the “risual family”. This year I was lucky enough to be on one of our five stands (one headline stand in the form of a Shoreditch pub, complete with risuAle, and one each for our solutions businesses in retail, justice, education and productivity). I had a fantastic (if very tiring) day connecting with former colleagues, customers, industry contacts and potential new customers – as we chatted about how risual could help them on their digital transformation journey.

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Whilst I wasn’t able to attend a lot of the sessions, indeed I was consulting with a customer in the north-east of England on the first day, I did manage to catch the day 2 keynote and was blown away with some of the developments around machine learning and artificial intelligence (maybe more on that in another post). I also noticed the teams behind the Microsoft Business (@MSFTBusinessUK) and Microsoft Developer (@MSDevUK) Twitter handles were tweeting sketch notes, which I thought might be a useful summary of the event:

You can also catch all of the main announcements in these two Microsoft live blog posts from the event:

Why Microsoft customers don’t need to worry about EU-US Safe Harbour/Harbor

When European Courts judged the 15-year-old EU-US Safe Harbour/Harbor treaty to be invalid last October, Internet news sites started to report how terrible this was for EU companies placing data into cloud services offered (mostly) by American companies. For some, that may be true, but that assumes Safe Harbour is the only protection in place.

This week, IT news sites are at it again. The Register (the tabloid newspaper of IT news sites) has an article titled Safe Harbor 2.0: US-Europe talks on privacy go down to the wire but the actual URI belies a much more dramatic title of “Safe Harbor countdown to Armageddon”. Sensationalist at best, some might even say irresponsible.

I’m no lawyer but, for my customers, who are implementing Microsoft cloud services, there seems to be nothing to worry about and I’ll explain why in this blog post. Of course, Microsoft is just one of many cloud services providers – and for others there may be valid concerns.

The United States Export.Gov website currently displays the following text regarding Safe Harbor:

“On October 6, 2015, the European Court of Justice issued a judgment declaring as ‘invalid’ the European Commission’s Decision 2000/520/EC of 26 July 2000 ‘on the adequacy of the protection provided by the safe harbour privacy principles and related frequently asked questions issued by the US Department of Commerce.’

In the current rapidly changing environment, the Department of Commerce will continue to administer the Safe Harbor program, including processing submissions for self-certification to the Safe Harbor Framework. If you have questions, please contact the European Commission, the appropriate European national data protection authority, or legal counsel.”

EU Model Clauses trump Safe Harbour

Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer, Brad Smith, issued a statement on 6 October 2015. Quoting from that article:

“For Microsoft’s enterprise cloud customers, we believe the clear answer is that yes they can continue to transfer data by relying on additional steps and legal safeguards we have put in place. This includes additional and stringent privacy protections and Microsoft’s compliance with the EU Model Clauses, which enable customers to move data between the EU and other places – including the United States – even in the absence of the Safe Harbor. Both the ruling and comments by the European Commission recognized these types of steps earlier today.

Microsoft’s cloud services including Azure Core Services, Office 365, Dynamics CRM Online and Microsoft Intune all comply with the EU Model Clauses and hence are covered in this way.”

There’s also a follow-on post which talks in general terms about the wider issues and privacy beliefs but the key point is that Microsoft offers EU Model Clauses within its contracts, which go beyond Safe Harbour. Microsoft also has an FAQ on the EU Model Clauses that is worth a read.

Quoting again from the 6 October 2015 statement:

“We wanted to make sure all of our enterprise cloud customers receive this benefit so, beginning last year, we included compliance with the EU Model Clauses as a standard part of the contracts for our major enterprise cloud services with every customer. Microsoft cloud customers don’t need to do anything else to be covered in this way.”

That suggests to me that customers who have signed up to Azure Core Services, Office 365, Dynamics CRM Online or Intune since early 2014 already have greater privacy protection than was afforded by Safe Harbour – and that protection meets the EU’s current requirements. In short, Microsoft customers don’t need to worry about Safe Harbor (sic).

One month with the Surface Pro 3

When I started my current job and tweeted about my new “laptop” (a Microsoft Surface Pro 3), I was a little surprised at the reaction from some people, including one of my friends whose words were along the line of “give it a month and then then tell me if you still like it…”

Well, it’s been a month, so here we go…

<tl; dr> I really, really, like it.

That’s not really much of a review though… so here’s some of the things that are good, and some that are less so…

Starting out with the positives:

  • It’s a fully-featured PC. Every time I see someone comparing the Surface with an iPad I cringe. I tried using an iPad as my primary device and it didn’t work for me. I can see why it would for some people but I need to work with multiple applications and task switch, copy and paste text all of the time. The Surface Pro runs Windows 8.1 and does everything I expect of a Windows PC, plus the benefits of having a touch screen display and a tablet form factor.
  • The display is fantastic. Crisp, clear, 2160×1440 (as Ed Bott highlights, that would be called a retina display on an Apple device).
  • The type cover keyboard is really good. Backlit keys, easy to type on, a good size. Combined with the kickstand on the tablet itself, it becomes a fully-featured 12″ laptop and it’s far more stable than many tablet/cover/keyboard combinations.
  • I live in OneNote. I can draw with the Surface Pen now – and that is incredibly useful.
  • It’s light. I haven’t checked how light, but light enough to carry with ease.
  • The power supply is not too big – and it has a USB charging socket too. Having said that, I can usually manage on the battery to catch the train in/out of London and get through a customer meeting.

On the downside though:

  • There aren’t enough USB ports and the use of a Mini DisplayPort means I need to carry adaptors. To be fair, I carry quite a few for my other devices too.
  • The price of accessories is way over the top: type cover is a penny under £110; Surface Pen is £45; Docking station is £165. Really? Add that to the cost of the device itself and you could buy a pretty good laptop. (The Surface Pro 3 range starts at £639 but the Intel i5 model with 4GB RAM and 128GB of storage that I use is £849 and the top of the range Intel i7 with 8GB RAM and 512GB storage will set you back £1549).
  • The type cover trackpad is awful. I use a mouse. That’s how bad it is.
  • The pen takes some getting used to (this post from Microsoft helps) – and I ran through the first set of batteries in no time (this support page came in useful too).
  • I’ve had some worrying issues with resuming from standby, sometimes not resuming at all, sometimes having to go through a full reboot. I suspect that’s the Windows build it’s running though – I can’t blame the Surface for that…

I’m more than happy with the Surface Pro 3 (at least, I am until the Surface Pro 4 comes out!). I was given the choice between this and a Dell ultrabook and I’m pretty sure I made the right choice. Maybe if I was a developer and I needed a laptop which was effectively a portable server then that would be a different story – but for my work as a Consultant/Architect – it’s exactly what I need.

If you need a Windows PC, your work is mobile (and not too taxing in terms of hardware requirements), and your employer has the facilities for effective remote working, the Surface Pro 3 is worth a look. I’d even go as far as to say I would spend my own money on this device. That’s more than I can say about any company-supplied PC I’ve had to date.

Microsoft News Q1 2015

This post is an edited version of one that originally appeared on my internal blog at Fujitsu.

Louis Lazarus’ Microsoft News Updates

Back in December, I wrote what I intended to be the first of a regular update on what’s going on in the world of Microsoft – a sort of Microsoft news round-up.  Since then, I’ve been alerted to a regular update from Louis Lazarus (an independent technology strategy consultant – @_louislaz) and I’ve been re-posting his updates via Twitter/OneDrive.  The links for recent updates are below (each one covers the previous month):

Directions on Microsoft Enterprise Software Roadmap

As featured in my previous post, Directions on Microsoft is an independent analysis service focused on Microsoft technologies, roadmaps and licensing policies and their latest quarterly roadmap calls attention to recent roadmap shifts for Microsoft enterprise technologies, including:

  • “Windows 10 and Office 2016 for PCs. Previews have appeared for the next versions of Windows and the Office desktop suite, giving organizations an early opportunity to identify potential migration blockers for software currently running on their Windows 7 PCs.
  • Windows Server. The next version of Windows Server has been postponed to 2016, which means Microsoft’s latest PC security and management infrastructure will not be ready when Windows 10 and Office 2016 ship later this year.
  • Mobile e-mail clients. An acquisition has fundamentally changed its mobile e-mail client roadmap for iOS and Android, and could trigger changes to bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies in organizations.
  • Windows 10 tablets and phones with Office. Windows 10 previews are available for tablets and phones, and Office mobile app previews have appeared for Windows 10. Organizations can use the previews to re-evaluate the future of their Windows mobile device applications.”

[the bullets above are a direct quote from the email I received from Directions on Microsoft]

Access to the report requires a subscription (which I don’t have) but even the snippets above provide a useful overview.

“Microsoft accounts” vs. Microsoft’s “organizational accounts”

If you’re using Microsoft’s online services, you might reasonably expect to authenticate against some form of directory service.  And, if you have your own directory service (like Active Directory), you might reasonably expect to be able to synchronise it with your cloud identity to provide a holistic view to end users. Unfortunately, whilst both of these things are possible, the end result can be really confusing and I’ve just had to explain it for one of my customers.

You see, a “Microsoft account” is not what you use to log on to Office 365 (or Intune, Azure, etc.) – for that you need an “Organizational account” (which is held in Microsoft Azure Active Directory) – although you might have logged on to your Windows PC, phone or tablet with a Microsoft account.

Still with me? No! Well, let me quote from an MSDN article:

Q. What is the difference between “Organizational account” and “Microsoft account”?
Organizational account
 is an account created by an organization’s administrator to enable a member of the organization access to all Microsoft cloud services such as Microsoft Azure, Windows Intune or Office 365. An Organizational account can take the form of a user’s organizational email address, such as username@orgname.com, when an organization federates or synchronizes its Active Directory accounts with Azure Active Directory. […]

Microsoft account, created by user for personal use, is the new name for what used to be called “Windows Live ID”. The Microsoft account is the combination of an email address and a password that a user uses to sign in to all consumer-oriented Microsoft products and cloud services such as Outlook (Hotmail), Messenger, OneDrive, MSN, Windows Phone or Xbox LIVE. If a user uses an email address and password to sign in to these or other services, then the user already has a Microsoft account—but the user can also sign up for a new one at any time.”

Right. Hopefully that’s a bit clearer? Unfortunately the whole thing gets really messy when you have multiple browser tabs connected to different services and I often find I have different browsers (or InPrivate/Incognito browser sessions) running in parallel to access services.  One approach, although probably not recommended, is to manually synchronise the passwords between a Microsoft account and an Organizational account that have the same email address to give the illusion of single sign-on.

Maybe one day all of the consumer services will move to Azure Active Directory and we can just have a single identity. Probably not though… that’s what Microsoft Passport (Windows Live ID’s predecessor) was trying to do back in 2001 and it felt a bit “big brother” to some people (although today we seem quite happy to have Google and Facebook act as identity providers for multiple services).

Post Script

Since I wrote this post, “organizational accounts” have become known as “work or school accounts”, which I guess makes things a little clearer, even if the phase is a touch unwieldy!

Microsoft #TechDays Online 2015

Last week, was Microsoft UK’s TechDays Online conference, held over three days with thousands of virtual attendees watching/listening to sessions on a variety of topics, starting off in the IT Pro arena with a keynote on Windows 10 from Journalist and Author Mary Jo Foley (@MaryJoFoley), Windows Server, on to Intune, Office 365, progressing to a variety of Azure topics, containerisation and DevOps with a keynote from Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Jeffrey Snover (@JSnover) and eventually into full developer mode with a keynote from Scott Hanselman (@SHanselman).

This is the fourth year that Microsoft has run these events and I was fortunate to be invited to watch the sessions being recorded.  I attended the first afternoon/evening and the second day – driving my Twitter followers mad with a Microsoft overload. For those who missed it, here’s a recap (unfortunately I couldn’t commit the time to cover the developer day):

(I later retweeted this:)

And we continue…

Actually, he didn’t – I later published this correction:

And back to my stream of Twitter consciousness:

Sadly, I missed Mary Jo Foley’s keynote (although I did manage to get over to Microsoft’s London offices on the second evening for a Live recording of the Windows Weekly podcast and caught up with Mary Jo after the event).

Sessions were recorded and I’ll update this post with video links when I have them.

Microsoft News Q4 2014

This post is an edited version of one that originally appeared on my internal blog at Fujitsu.

Fujitsu UK’s resident Exchange Master (and Distinguished Engineer), Nick Parlow (@Hagbard) does a great job of running an [internal] email list with links of things going on around Exchange. Indeed, there’s so much there I don’t manage to keep up with it but I do know where to look to see what’s happening… and I’d like to be able to do something similar about broader developments in the Microsoft Community.

I’ll use my blog for the time being… this post is my first attempt at a Microsoft News round-up.

Directions on Microsoft Enterprise Software Roadmap

Directions on Microsoft is an independent analysis service focused on Microsoft technologies, roadmaps and licensing policies and their latest quarterly roadmap calls attention to recent roadmap shifts for Microsoft enterprise technologies, including:

  • “Windows 10. The next version of the Windows client operating system is scheduled for release in the third quarter of 2015 and will improve security and management as well as address the user interface problems that limited adoption of Windows 8 and 8.1 by enterprise customers. The new operating system will likely ship for phones as well as tablets and PCs, which will simplify development of applications that run on all three devices types. Organizations should evaluate Windows 10 previews scheduled for early 2015 to see if the new OS will be a viable replacement for Windows 7, which leaves Mainstream support on Jan. 13, 2015.
  • Office 365. Customers of the Office 365 cloud services and software will continue to get new capabilities in areas such as e-mail filtering, collaboration, and search that are not available to customers running the corresponding on-premises software. Organizations planning future investments in Exchange, SharePoint, and Office should review the capabilities of Office 365 and its roadmap, even if they are not ready for an immediate move to the cloud.
  • Office 16. The next version of the Microsoft desktop productivity suite has an estimated release date in the third quarter of 2015. A touch-oriented Modern Office suite for mobile Windows devices such as tablets is likely to appear at the same time. Organizations can expect previews of these Office suites in early 2015.
  • Skype for Business. New versions of Lync products and services will launch in the first half of 2015 instead of late 2014 as originally planned. The versions will ship under a new name, Skype for Business, but current Lync technology and licenses should transition without major disruption.”

[the bullets above are a direct quote from the email I received from Directions on Microsoft]

Access to the report requires a subscription (which I don’t have) but even the snippets above provide a useful overview.

Future Decoded

Microsoft’s flagship marketing event for the UK took place last month over three days at the ExCel Conference Centre in London’s Docklands. Each of the days focused on a different audience with business leaders on Monday, partners on Tuesday and a technical audience on the Wednesday, with different Microsoft teams leading the day. I attended the business and technical events.

Clearly, lots of money was spent on keynotes speakers – of varying quality – but the real gems on the business day were the afternoon sessions with real world customer stories of how they were implementing Microsoft technologies (not just product pitches). I heard from Marstons on how they’re using Dynamics CRM (just enough for me to get a feel of what the product can do), JustGiving on their GiveGraph big data solution that aims to make giving social by picking up on how emotion and sentiment flows between people, Schroders on the lessons learned from their Lync deployment, ThyssenKrupp on how they’re using data to change the way they maintain lifts [and hijacking the Internet of Things trend to discuss what’s really just “things on the Internet”], from Transport for London explaining the evolution of payment systems (contactless micropayments), and finally from Landmarc on the “private cloud” they built for the MoD (I mis-read the session title because I was interested to hear how MoD might embrace cloud services).

The technical day was a bit harder to jump tracks in the afternoon – I’ve fed back to Microsoft that many of us (particularly in the enterprise space) will have multiple streams to follow and not just one topic of interest – but I did manage to attend sessions on outsmarting the digital deluge, hyperscale solutions for the Internet of things, hybrid identity management, and Microsoft Azure Machine Learning (MAML).

All three days also featured an Expo with about 3000 attendees on each of the days I visited and delegates on the third day could also visit AppsWorld in the next hall (passes were valid for both conferences)…

In other news, one of the Platinum sponsors was Risual (the others were Dell and HP).  I didn’t tweet about this too much because I didn’t want to be seen to support one of our competitors but it seems they got plenty of PR when their promotional video went viral.

Re-imagining the Enterprise

Tony Muraki-Hart, CTO for the Microsoft-Fujitsu Alliance spoke at a recent Distinguished Engineers’ event about Microsoft’s forward-looking vision – how Microsoft is re-imagining the enterprise. Key themes included digital transformation, becoming a customer-obsessed enterprise, and the re-imagination of Microsoft as a productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world.

Unfortunately the slide deck is not one I can share publicly but, in essence, the Microsoft that Steve Ballmer led with a focus on Windows and Office is a different organisation to the one Satya Nadella is leading – more open, and cross-platform.

Wrap up

That’s it for now. I’ll aim to come back with another Microsoft News update in the new year. Until then, I’ll sign off with a link to a Redmond Magazine article from Mary Jo Foley on the five changes at Microsoft in 2014 that mattered the most.