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Laura Brown's Blog

What Heartbleed teaches us about communication

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll know what Heartbleed is. For those who need a quick refresher it’s a bug discovered in OpenSSL software. Basically it’s a line of code allowing people to read encryption data like passwords, logins and private information. Not good, right?

Consumers and computer users are obviously fairly freaked out when a major security issue makes headline news. It becomes particularly hard when you get conflicting advice. The first news reports told people to change their passwords immediately. The second response told them to hold off because they could actually do more harm than good. Facebook and Google told reporters they had developed a “patch” (a diversion, essentially to bypass the errant code) and therefore users did not need to change their passwords. However reports suggested changing passwords before this was done could expose both the new and old passwords to malicious users.

Confused yet? The advice from the BBC is their round up when they spoke to various specialists is that over the next few days we should all think about changing our passwords.

This is what some security analysts have described as an 11 on their scale of 1-10 of the bad things that can happen on the internet. It’s a serious breach and it’s understandable that people are a bit worried. But the biggest issue comes with a lack of clear and concise information that’s easy to understand.

Imagine if you had just installed a new intruder system at your home. A couple of weeks later you’re sitting at your desk in work and you get a text from the company that installed the system. They tell you they think someone might possibly have broken in and you should race home. Just as you’re throwing yourself into your car they text you again to say actually if you go home you could be putting yourself in danger so you’re probably best staying exactly where you are. How would you feel? Pretty irritated and frustrated and not at all safe.

When big internet giants send out misleading information it makes it look like they haven’t checked all the facts, especially when the message gets changed a few hours later. People want to get the right information, not a half answer that could throw them into danger.

There’s also a major issue because while a lot of people might spend a huge portion of their life online they don’t fully understand all of the technology and security systems involved. Whether that is right or wrong it emphasizes the importance of internet providers and those in the know to spend time educating their customers. Ignorance is not bliss and we all need a little hand-holding when we’re scared that we might have been the victim of a security breach.

The cloud is a wonderful thing and we’ve talked a lot on these pages about how it has revolutionized business and services. Yet looking after a third person’s data is a huge responsibility and no one can take that responsibility lightly. And this week, when you get round to it, change your passwords. You should be doing it regularly anyway.


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Making the cloud more elastic

As Windows XP’s support entered its final days we reflected on the things about the software that drove us mad. How about when a programme would just crash without warning, losing the last hour’s work? How about the difficulty it had working on slower machines which couldn’t cope with two or three programmes running at the same time, making every operation slower and sluggish.

The truth is it isn’t just about how fast our computers are, how well the applications we use day in day out have an enormous impact on our daily productivity and ability to hit deadlines and simply get the job done.

The Cloud doesn’t change that, not yet. If you’re using a virtual server you can pick and choose the applications you need to use, running them through open source over an internet connection so they’re not relying on the internal hard-drive of your computer, instead they are relying or a broadband or download speed, which helps performance. But the problem is you can’t see how well applications are performing.

Until now. Possibly.

Researchers at the University of South Wales have been working with artificial intelligence to make the cloud computing elastic and to govern how applications are performing.

Say, for example, your business gets a great write up in a newspaper, or their message gets retweeted by someone with a few thousand – or even million – followers. Would your servers be able to cope? Would your website go down? If your servers have to contend with a sudden increase in demand can they still ensure you  - and your customers – can access all the applications they need to?

What this research does is that it monitors the performance of each application. A resilience is built in by having a controller application which makes sure each bit is working. If one isn’t it reroutes power to ensure its performance is maintained while working to solve the problem.

Resilience is vital because it keeps your business ticking over. Where the cloud is strongest is in its ability to allow your IT set-up to be bespoke, for you to cut costs and develop a flexible and scalable infrastructure that meets needs. This flexibility allows you to focus on innovation. Yet service still needs to be met and in this digital age the truth is we don’t have as much control over traffic to and from applications like websites. Cloud providers like Giacom can support customers ensuring that they can still access and re-route applications and servers even if a lot of traffic floods to their site, ensuring resilience is maintained and there is now decrease in service. This new research builds on that practice integrating artificial intelligence with existing practice meaning that in the future end-users will have no change in the service they experience, no matter what’s happening behind the scenes.

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Thank you, Yahoo

Yahoo’s new encryption service shows that security and protecting data is now the driving force in cloud computing.

Big data, how it’s used, stored and protected is one of the single most contested issues not just in technology but e-commerce, customer service and any kind of service online. People can feel as though they sign a pact when they agree to a deal; they handover data in exchange for an email service, free browser or retailers online. Consumers are offered a more personalised service but the fragile status quo needs to be carefully managed. Make presumptions or use data in way they’ve not expected or don’t feel comfortable with and people rebel.

While the Cloud has made this possible it lies at many of the concerns felt over its development and evolution. Security and the protection of data is vital. It is now an extended element of customer service to illustrate to consumers how and why they are protecting the valuable personal data that is trusted with them.

This is obviously a major concern for Yahoo, but there’s an added factor to throw into the mix. The security revelations in the past 12 months about government surveillance and access to data has tarnished the brands of the tech giants. People fear the major firms just roll over when the government comes calling, that their data is handed over to agencies in the interests of international and national security without them being asked.

Now Yahoo has acted. A new encryption covers mail going from Yahoo’s servers to its inboxes. Any searches on Yahoo are covered by the encryption with a new encryption system planned to extend to Yahoo Messenger over fears the government views webcams.

Yahoo says its working with all of its partners, but that its intention is to prevent surveillance, to ensure it extends throughout their service and protects users against surveillance that doesn’t have a target.

It’s a pro-active measure that shows just how far the idea of a free internet has been shaken by the revelations of surveillance. The Cloud is a tool or an foundation for equality online, of a brave new world where businesses and individuals can utilise services and embrace a technology and platform that eases their storage and communications concerns making servers a thing of the past.

Yet if people feel as though their data is being used in a way they don’t agree, approve of or haven’t signed up for then they become frustrated, angry and may begin using a different service. Security and measures against it are now a point of difference between companies and tech giants. Yahoo obviously hopes that through this encryption service they will be seen to be taking people’s concerns more seriously than their competitors and that people will thus turn to them.

What it means is that innovative security solutions will increasingly be part and parcel of how the Cloud is used and sold. Security, rather than being an add on, will be a core feature of platforms and will emphasise how far data is protected.

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Why the cloud helps customer service

It isn’t just IT costs the cloud can help. For retailers looking to adjust their IT requirements, moving to the cloud can help them to focus more on the customer.

Retailers were one of the first industries to move to cloud technology. It isn’t surprising. The growth of the cloud coincided with several changes like the economic downturn and the move towards online shopping both of which had (and still have) the capacity to hit the retail industry squarely in the pocket. Consumers changed their habits, wanting more of a bespoke service but expecting a smaller bill. They’re using more mobile technology and a range of devices.

To pre-empt and respond to this widening of social channels, the growth of e-commerce and the rapid evolution of consumer technology retailers turned quite often to the cloud. It met their need to be able to engage with consumers real-time, to respond quickly to their habits and keep them loyal. Major stores like Walmart, Tesco and of course Amazon led the way but once they forged a path smaller retailers followed.

That early move has benefited retailers but it has also created a headache. You can’t innovate once and then switch that part of your brain – or your customer’s brain – off. Technology doesn’t just stand still, it continues to evolve. Retailers have had to evolve with it and keep pace providing a more digitally focused customer service and having the ability to respond quickly to any complaint or query. How many of us now turn to Twitter to contact a retailer, rather than emailing the info@ email address on their website?

In a multi-billion pound industry retailers have to keep up the pace. They need to be able to adapt to their customers needs and behaviours to stay ahead. Those retailers who adopt and adapt cloud technology to feed into their digital strategy tend to stay ahead. Centralising their communications so a team from anywhere is able to respond quickly to a customer question is just the first step. The next is to ensure all staff are trained on how to use the technology so that customers receive a consistent service from wherever they are, or whatever device or platform they are using.

The benefit of this is that this technology helps retailers to track customer behaviour. Understanding how people shop, why, what motivates them, what they are looking for and when can influence the sales messages and the communications a retailer can send out. This more targeted approach secures a better response from the customer. It is a strategy that can be tweaked quickly as well, ensuring the retailer is able to continuously evolve.

By using cloud based apps, retailers have found they are able to quickly respond to customer behaviour and in a cost-effective way. This flexible and scalable approach, so at the heart of cloud computing, has allowed retailers to stay ahead of the trend and keep giving customers what they want, in a rapidly changing landscape. As the customer has changed so the retailer has been able to change with them and all because cloud technology allows them to embrace innovation without a huge outlay.

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How do you make the cloud more efficient?

Could the cloud be more efficient? Even the world’s biggest firms who operate almost exclusively in the cloud know they can be under-utilising the performance capacity of their servers. So the problem must also exist for those firms not as tech-savvy as Google, Twitter or Microsoft. Using the cloud to store business data, to manage communications or to run an application, for example for e-commerce can help a firm increase how much money its making and make itself more streamlined and innovative. Yet if there is a chance for them to be more efficient this can only improve their service and turnover. Now a team at Stanford University in America has looked to see how they can improve the problem.

The management software developed by the team of computer scientists using the principle that computer servers typically run at a fifth of their capacity. This approach is done to avoid overloading a machine, especially if a lot of work suddenly shows up. Most CIO’s know the phrase virtualisation which is when you merge the work of one single server with others to avoid any overloading.

Yes that’s an efficient way from one perspective but actually sometimes this strategy can be too over cautious. Virtualised systems can share work but actually make performance much slower because work is flowing from a new machine to an older one.

The new system, which is called Quasar, acts like a project or resource manager inside of the computer systems. It directs what should be working where, when the most efficient time to do it is thus making it much more efficient. The computer scientists believe it could in fact increase capacity by 70-75%.

Increased efficiency in systems makes it easier for firms to run their applications. If they are serving customers it ensures there is no downtime, no negative impact on the speed they can do jobs or sites and applications can be utilised. It can also reduce the amount of power that they use. If a computer, or bank of computers, is running faster then they don’t need to use the same amount of energy, cutting bills even further for businesses.

The software developers of Quasar haven’t decided whether to team up with a technology company yet, or to turn the machine over to open source and allow people to use it directly for free. Yet the principle is an interesting one and reflects just how developers are innovating and looking into ways that the cloud’s performance can be improved in its second generation. Making systems or applications more efficient help businesses run faster, saves them money and can improve the service they offer to customers.

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Cloud Computing; why its growth is felt far and wide

Who do you think benefits from a growth in cloud computing? Businesses, certainly they’re able to cut costs and work more flexibly. Providers benefit clearly because it gives them a bigger customer base and it enables these firms to grow and reach more people. But like any industry Cloud Computing has a supply chain. How far can a surge in the use of Cloud Computing help sectors and industries you might not have considered?

The Industrial Technology Research Institute in Taiwan has been looking at just that. Taiwan has long been a global marketplace in technology, think of computer build and electronic engineering expertise and manufacture. Yet the cloud is all about moving away from the need for a physical infrastructure, is it not? How can cloud computing impact on a marketplace traditionally associated with traditional computing.

In fact it plays a significant role. Taiwan works closely with cloud providers and server builds. Currently it working closely with Facebook in its drive for more energy efficient cloud-based servers. The rising demand for cloud applications as well is thought to impact on the shipments of global servers by a fifth to 12.2 million units.

Cloud computing still needs to rely on physical servers. Facebook’s Open Compute Project (known as OCP) is looking at how data centres can reduce how much power they are using. For technology and electronic manufacturers this is as important as the search to make a carbon neutral vehicle for the automotive industry. The effects are felt right along the supply chain from researchers to designers, manufacturers and sellers. The desire to make the industry greener is part of the next generation and development of cloud computing, which can only benefit those looking to work it and profit from it.

This growth exponentially affects not just SMEs and firms benefiting from the use of the technology as the end user but those further along the supply chain who make the components and are involved in the research happening within the industry. This inevitably means that the Cloud becomes more profitable. It becomes the focus itself of innovation and research – how can it be greener, cheaper, benefit from smaller and faster chips. Cloud Computing has often been seen as the death knell for traditional computing but for those manufacturers within the industry in fact it is an opportunity to take it to the next level and develop it further. There are pockets around the world, like Taiwan, benefiting from cloud computing.

What does this mean for the end user, the businesses that are using the cloud? It means there will be greater diversity and choice. Once there is focus on how a technology or practice can be developed and improved the end user gets to see rapid transformation; more applications, new ways of working, innovative technology. It is an exciting time to be part of the Cloud.

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Should IT lead the way on SaaS?

Who’s responsibility is it for business security on cloud systems; the provider, the individual, the CIO?

Software as a Service, or SaaS is one of the most popular models for cloud computing and its adoption within companies. An accessible system of applications and programmes it is scalable, affordable and flexible. What company wouldn’t want that? Employees can be just as flexible as the software, working remotely or on the go when they need to. For firms it means they get a productive and happy workforce without having to pay a fortune in a new IT system.

Yet there’s one big problem. Security. This isn’t an issue of cloud security and the system but how people are using it at work. A new survey has discovered that when employees are using SaaS systems they are lax about password security and this could leave companies exposed to malicious attacks.

The password problem comes from staff posting their password visibly on their desk, sometimes on sticky post it notes. A quarter of SaaS users were found to do this. They are 10 times more likely to store their password on an unprotected drive or in an unprotected document. It isn’t older people doing it either, almost a third of 20 something’s are lax with how they store their passwords.

The response to this can’t be for firms to remove the SaaS and go back to how things were before, but someone does need to enforce good practice and ensure employees are more safety conscious. This has to come from IT. Just as IT would train staff on the use of a new application or piece of software then the importance of security to protect the firm’s assets needs to be basic part of all training. Places with shared computers, like universities, have regular prompts encouraging individuals to change their passwords regularly. This notification with an added reminder about keeping your passwords safe, secure and locked down is probably also important.

As well as passwords, IT staffers need to tell their colleagues about how their behaviour could leave the firm exposed; sharing files between email addresses, even if they are a work email and a personal one. Similarly, if employees are using apps to share files then IT needs to be made aware. They have to know what employees are using as they can offer valuable perspective on whether the app is safe and secure, as well as whether it is the most appropriate for a staffer to be using.

The cloud brings with it many great benefits but it is vital that firms understand the need to educate staff about the risks as well as the potential. Employees might not know the importance of storing passwords safely and securely, or of downloading apps to help them share files. This could leave firms exposed and at risk. No employee wants to be responsible for that but the task of ensuring everyone keeps to a standard has to fall somewhere, and it makes sense for it to be the IT desk.

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Have security breaches really damaged cloud computing?

This week an article appeared in The Guardian which claimed privacy breaches and NSA revelations have caused businesses and consumers alike to question the Cloud. It quoted a piece written by a Labour MP in 2013 who reflected that her worries about security in the Cloud mean it “isn’t ready for the mass consumer market”. The fact that more and more firms and individuals are relying on the Cloud seem to suggest this isn’t a widespread opinion. More fundamentally it ignores a shift occurring with how people respond to their use of their data and how they consider it.

In fact, businesses and consumers have been able to separate in their minds the difference between the Cloud services they utilise for their home and work with the different security issues that equate at government level. This is because, instead of being an out of reach concept, the Cloud has in fact raised the question of data security and how to protect it on a personal level for many people. Their anger towards governments, agencies and major brands is when they do not exert the same level of concern and protection as a firm does on their own client’s data as a conglomerate may for a country’s.

From a consumer perspective many are happy to forgo some level of privacy to be able to use online hubs, services and applications. Think Gmail, Facebook, Skype, Amazon. Consumers know that they sign a deal when they sign up for free. They know they are going to be sold to and receive personalised adverts. Think of criticisms when there has been a data breach, for example last week at Kickstarter. Consumers didn’t complain because a data breach had occurred. Instead they complained because it had taken four days for Kickstarter to tell them. Security and the risks associated with storing personal data in the Cloud aren’t off-putting to the majority of consumers. They do, however, want brands to take the protection of that data incredibly seriously.

From a business perspective, the Cloud has encouraged many firms both in the private and public sector to reflect on how they store, use and manage data as never before. Security and privacy are issues which were once discussed by marketers and CIOs. Instead now they are a major selling point and are talked about around boardrooms across the country. Businesses at once understand the potential of Big Data but also the responsibility it proffers. The Cloud’s offer to enable firms to create a bespoke security set-up, to be able to define for themselves how they protect client data has been a major step forward.

This may suggest that the Cloud has led to a laissez faire attitude when it comes to security. Take up of the Cloud is increasing and more and more businesses and consumers are storing data there. What they want is an assurance of security from their provider but also to be able to set their own limits. Personal responsibility is vital; for example more needs to be done to encourage consumers to have a greater variety of passwords online. Yet instead of security being something turning them away from the Cloud instead they see it as part and parcel of the deal but expect brands to be honest, open and transparent. The Cloud has changed how we think about privacy and security. Gone are the days where we dismiss out of hand purely for the risk, instead we step up to see how we can minimise it ourselves or encourage providers to do so.

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The scale of the job

The cloud isn’t perfect – what is? But if firms are looking the other way because they fear the job of switching is too high then they risk being left behind.

Throughout the economic downturn business developed a fairly short-termist approach. This is standard in periods when the economy is struggling. Focus is shifted to quarterly figures and results. Wholesale or long term changes in behaviour or risks to altering business can seem too much, too unpredictable. This is one of the reason why many firms go under in times of recession, they spend so much time fiddling with the day to day to keep the quarterlies happy they fail to look at what their competitors are doing and get left behind.

Through that lens it might, with the benefit of hindsight, be a surprise when we consider the take-up of cloud computing over those first initial years. Much of the early focus was on the ability to save costs. The size of IT teams was being reduced as many businesses looked to streamline their service – a euphemism for “can’t afford the workforce” and adopted elements of the cloud to help them action that strategy.

But while this was the headline there were true innovators adopting and seeing the potential of the cloud. Enabling them to be more streamlined, to cherry pick the applications they needed to run their business effectively the scalability of the cloud had a cost-benefit, certainly but it was the culture change that had the biggest impact.

In 2008 when the tech industry first began examining this new trend called the cloud they focused on the question of reliability, the fear of being locked in to contracts, that IT was ruling itself out of a job by suggestion cloud adoption, and what it meant for IT strategy. Those initial fears may have been smoothed away largely by practice. The cloud is vastly more reliable than it was, it has had to be. IT experts have found themselves freeing up their roles from day to day IT management and more towards strategy, approach and integrating the best technology with business operations as the cloud has matured.

Yet while many businesses who have adopted the cloud there are still naysayers. The concern is the size of the job at hand. Early adopters are now in the phase of seeing the first inroads by the cloud and now want to see how they can take it a step further. CIOs are used to it, they know it. Their approach is “OK, what’s next, what can I *really* do with this kit”.

The size of the job, for those who haven’t sipped their toe in the water now seems vast, impenetrable, and unwieldy. The problem is that, far from being a piece of technology on the fringe of practice the cloud is increasingly mainstream and far more important. Now an intrinsic part of any firm’s information strategy it can feel like too big a task to take on if you haven’t done so already.

This risk with the “ostrich” strategy is that it means you get left behind. Early cloud adopters skirted around the edges to begin with, identified one element of the business that would benefit from the cloud approach; e-commerce, communications etc. This allowed them to test and trial the software before they committed. Only now are they widening the strategy to filter into other elements of the business. There is nothing to stop those who adopt the cloud now to offer the same approach. No one looks at a new piece of technology and immediately decides to overall their whole business. Instead they trial it, see how it fits and then expand if they need to. Just because they might be behind some competitors, late adopters can still use the same approach as those who have gone before.

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New boss, new direction for Microsoft?

There’s a new CEO at Microsoft – what does that mean for the cloud?

When you think about security of legacy, of a solid, reliable figurehead helping to shore up a firm then you would struggle to find a better example than Microsoft. Satya Nadella, the tech giant’s new CEO is only its third in 38 years. That kind of consistent continuity strengthens a company. It helps its strategy to be stronger, to develop over the years. For customers this is a good thing. Any firm which has a regular change at the top is often weakened by regular changes of direction and focus.

So what does this new CEO have in store for Microsoft and its customers? Will it mean a new direction for the firm, which has been a strong force in cloud computing technology?

Nadella says his focus will be on “mobile-first, cloud-first world”. With an ambition to catch up Apple, Google and Amazon, Nadella is the ideal choice if cloud is firmly in Microsoft’s future. He led the company’s cloud computing unit which has been a departure from what Microsoft usually offers, which has been developing software that people add onto their machines directly.

Microsoft also owns Nokia. Although struggling in recent years, the Finnish mobile phone company has made some interesting choices in its Lumia range and has a long partnership with Microsoft’s Windows Phone software. Microsoft also launched the Xbox One which aims to centralise all of a home’s entertainment and data, using principles of the cloud to impact on the way individuals access TV, film, music and online information.

If Microsoft is to expand the small cloud computing section of its existing business and enable it to grow then it could be interesting for companies as a whole. Many firms trust Microsoft, they trust the brand to understand how and why they work. If they have been unwilling to try out and test cloud computing, perhaps an element of that may have come from their preferred tech giant not fully endorsing it, as its competitors have. A renewed force and focus on cloud computing would go a great way towards encouraging those who may have been cautious about the emerging platform to try it and reap the benefits.

It’s also good news for those already in the cloud. Mobile is an increasing element of digital strategy for many brands in 2014. Having a major player like Microsoft in the field helps to boost innovation with new products, ideas and practice.

Yet Microsoft’s focus on growth is not entirely in keeping with all aspects of the cloud. At its heart Microsoft is a firm that sells its products. Those software developments, like Office, are always likely to be its principle asset and that which will keep adding to its coffers over the years. Therefore to embrace the cloud with Microsoft it’s likely a firm will be encouraged to use Microsoft products. The cloud is all about flexibility, scalability and a bespoke approach. Being able to pick and choose applications that fit the business are what enable it to level the playing field, to make it much easier to adapt and focus on innovation. Some firms may fear that to adopt the cloud with Microsoft means to be sold more of its products. OK, Sharepoint might work for many firms, but the cloud is about choice after all.

Having said that expanding its cloud computing portfolio and having a renewed focus on the potential and ability of the cloud to transform commerce is a good thing, undoubtedly.  Microsoft single-handedly created the products that shape many working days. Having them focus on new products in the cloud will drive it forward and they have a huge revenues to turn towards research and development. For cloud providers the major tech giants do help teach firms about the potential of the cloud and its ability to benefit business. Microsoft will add an endorsement to the technology and widen the use of the already rapidly expanding platform.

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