Sep 232016
 
weta_digital

Dealing with the massive wave of data flowing into businesses will be one of the defining management issues of the next decade. One company that is already dealing with this is New Zealand’s Weta Digital.

Wellington based Weta that’s best known for its work on Lord of the Rings and is part owned by director Peter Jackson employs 1400 staff for its movie special effects work and has won five visual effects Academy Awards over its 23 years of operations.

Kathy Gruzas, WETA Digital’s CIO, spoke to Decoding the new Economy at the Oracle OpenWorld forum in San Francisco this week about some of the challenges in dealing with the massive amount of data generated by the movie effects industry.

“We have some very heavy loads.” Kathy states. “We push our systems to the limit.”

Applying powerful systems

One challenge is the sheer computing power required, ‘the render frame processes one frame per server until you have four seconds of footage. Sometimes that takes over night or even longer and for that we use a lot of storage,” Kathy says. “The render farm being six thousand servers will write 60 to 100 terabytes of data a day and read a quarter to half a petabyte each day.”

“We need systems that will be very large to handle the volume of data we generate but also be very quick to handle those read and writes.”

“One render could use a thousand computers, sometimes more, and all of those will be reading and writing against the same block of storage so we have our own software layer that directs those loads but we try to minimise the load on our storage but we have the worst work load you can imagine with lots of servers, lots of small reads and writes and many of them random and concurrent with pockets of hot files.”

Despite the automation, the business is still extremely capital intensive. “In visual effects you probably need at least three hundred artists to work on one film, it’s a very labour intensive process to do the artistry and much like a production line.”

Going mobile

The nature of modern movie production means the effects teams are now part of the shoot which adds another level of complexity for Weta. “Although we are visual effects which is largely post-production we do go out with crews when they’re shooting the movie so we can do reference photography,” says Kathy.

“We do 3D scans so if we need to do something digitally and we do motion and facial capture as well,” she says. “There are 240 muscles that we tweak individually to get the expression. That’s a huge amount of data to capture.”

To do this, Weta created their own ‘road case’ that contains everything they need to grab the shots and store the data they need, “you can’t ask the director retake the shot because we missed something.”

Into the forest

“We have to take the case into the forest and into the rain and everywhere. It’s good having that roadcase that has storage, networking and servers in it.” The case, which was self assembled by Weta’s team is “probably the most travelled Oracle system on the planet,” laughs Kathy with “lots of data capture and sub-rendering.”

Weta’s story illustrates just how managing data is becoming a critical issue for companies. While movie special effects is very much a specialised field that’s far ahead of the curve in its technology use than most businesses, they do show the importance of managing and securing their data.

For other businesses, lessons from Weta is understanding your company’s – including staff and customers’ – needs then investing in the right tools to deliver is essential.

One important difference between technology intensive businesses like Weta and most other organisations is the New Zealand company is doing most of its processing and storage in house. Those without the same needs will almost certainly be shifting these tasks onto the cloud.

Sep 222016
 
Nokia-Maps-augmented-reality-view-1024x723

This week’s The Future is now – Trends in the Modern Workplace webinar was an opportunity to look at the trends affecting small and micro businesses.

What’s notable is almost all the topics affecting small business are being felt by their corporate cousins. It shouldn’t be surprising the technology and social trends affecting society are equally being felt

Now the webinar is over, I’ve posted the presentation to Slideshare with the commentary below, we cover established trends like the shift to mobile then ponder the future of business with artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

The presentation ties up with the post I published a few days ago that provides the commentary to the slides.

Sep 132016
 
google-data-center-mayescounty-employee2

One of the little discussed reasons for the US tech industry’s success is the role of military and intelligence spending by the government. Not only are various agencies funding research and enthusiastically buy technology, they are also being strategic investors in many companies.

In Sydney last week Dawn Meyerriecks, the CIA’s Deputy Director for Science and Technology, gave an interesting insight into the agency’s investment philosophies at the SINET61 conference.

The conference was aimed at drumming up interest in the technology security industry along with showcasing the connections between Australia’s Data61 venture and the US based Security Innovation Network (SINET).

SINET itself is closely linked to the United States’ security agencies with chairman and founder Robert Rodriguez being a former US Secret Service agent prior to his move into security consulting, venture capitalism and network-building.

Compounding the organisation’s spook credentials are its support from the US Department of Homeland Security along with the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), so it was barely surprising the Australian conference was able to attract a senior Central Intelligence Agency officer.

Investing in flat times

“Flat is the new up,” says  Meyerriecks in describing the current investment climate of thin returns. In that environment, fund managers are looking for good investments and the imprimatur of the CIA’s investment arm, In-Q-Tel, is proving to be a good indicator that a business is likely to realise good returns.

“If you can predict a market – and we are good predictors of markets – then the return on investment is huge,” she says.

“In-Q-Tel really leverages capital funding for good ideas. We get a twelve for one return, for every dollar we put in it’s matched by twelve dollars in venture capital in emerging technologies.”

Attracting investors

For the companies In-Q-Tel invests in along with those that supply technology to the organization, the CIA encourages them to seek private sector investors.

“What we’re telling our supply chains is you go ahead and tap into the capital markets,” Meyerriecks says. “If you can turn that into a commercially viable product then will will ride the way with the rest of the industry because it’s good for us, it’s good for the country and it’s good for the planet.”

Adding to the CIA’s attractions as a startup investor are the opportunities for lucrative acquisition exits for the founders, she believes. “Not only are we using that venture capital approach for emerging technologies but our big suppliers are sitting on a ton of cash.”

Diversity as an asset

Another lesson that Meyerriecks believes will help the planet, and the tech industry, is diversity. “Globalisation has show isolationism doesn’t work,” she says.

“Back in the day when I was a young engineer the best way to make sure your system was resilient was to harden its perimeters. the best ways to be ‘cyber resilient in the old days was by drawing the barriers to keep the bad guys out.”

“The best way to be cyber-resilient in the old days was to draw big boundaries around yourself to keep the bad guys out. The latest studies look at other things because you want to be resilient, you want high availability.”

Now, system diversity is seen as an asset.“Biologically the three factors that contribute to resilience are the ability to adapt, the ability to recovery and diversity,”  Meyerriecks says. “We look to deliver high availability among components that may not themselves have high reliability.”

The future of investment

“I think we’ll see commercialisation still driving investment for applied R&D in particular,”Meyerriecks said in a later panel on where the agency is looking at putting its money.

“The big game changers will be around the edge, taking SDN (Software Defined Networking) to its logical extreme giving everyone their own personal networks, not just in data centres but at the edge of the network.”

“I think there’s lots of things that the commercial industrialisation of the technology and physical system are going to force us to grapple with on many levels.”

Risks in managing identity

An interesting aspect of Meyerriecks’ talks at SINET61 was her take on some of the technology issues facing consumers and citizens, particularly in the idea for individuals having their own personalised network.

“This opens up a whole range of things, ” she suggests. “Do I eventually not just be an IMSI or EIMI (the mobile telephone identifiers) but do I become an advertising node, does that become my unique ID? Do I a become a gaming avatar?”

“Then we get into the whole Big Data area. Computational anonymity is a phrase we use. At some point people start saying ‘this is crossing the line’ – it crosses the ‘ooooh’ factor.”

Changing Cybersecurity

“I think the definition of cybersecurity will be expanded to much more beyond wheat we’ve classically thought about in the past.”

Meyerriecks’ presentation and later panel appearance was a fascinating glimpse into the commercial imperatives of the United States’ intelligence community along with flagging some of the areas which concern its members as citizens and technology users.

The US security community’s role in the development of the nation’s tech sector shouldn’t be understated and Meyerriecks’ observation that private sector investors tend to follow the CIA’s investment path underscores their continued critical role.

Sep 092016
 
Meg Whitman (center), President and Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, rings the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange on November 2, 2015. CREDIT: Eric Draper

Over this week I’ve been posting a series of interviews with the candidates for this week’s Sydney Lord Mayoral election. All of the teams have interesting schemes and ideas on how they can improve the city’s profile as a global tech centre.

While each team’s plans are worthy, it’s worth asking exactly what governments can do to make their communities more attractive to businesses and whether short term subsidies and incentives can help.

There is some evidence they can, prior to San Francisco changing its tax rules the city took second place to Silicon Valley in the southern Bay Area. In the last ten years, the city has become the focal point for the tech industry.

However there is a counter argument that San Francisco benefited on a generational shift of lifestyle preferences away from the leafy suburban lifestyles of Palo Alto and San Jose to the grungy but walkable communities of the Mission and SOMA.

The Bay Area though is a special case, Silicon Valley’s success as a tech hub is based upon massive Cold War tech spending that drove the region’s industry and its that high level support that probably tells us more about government support.

In the case of London and Singapore, the successes have been due to the national governments putting in broader economic reforms and incentives. Also their proximity to Europe and East Asia respectively has made both cities attractive.

On balance it’s those broader economic factors that make regions attractive as industries clusters – local incentives count little compared to access to factors like markets, capital and skilled labour. Taxation is, at best, a secondary issue.

The biggest challenge for Sydney, and most Australian cities, is the the crippling cost of property. In 2013, staff.com released a survey showing Sydney to be second only to Zurich in the cost of establishing a startup.

In many respects, the cost of property doesn’t really matter to prosperous industry hubs – San Francisco, London, Singapore and New York are all eye wateringly expensive and yet they still thrive – however all of those cities have better access to capital and markets, if not labour, than Sydney.

Addressing Sydney’s chronic shortage of affordable accomodation is firmly in the state and Federal governments’ remit and beyond giving property developers a green light to build high rise apartments neither level of government has shown any interest in addressing it.

Similarly, the tax structures which penalise Australian employees of high growth businesses and dissuade investment in early stage ventures are totally the responsibility of the Federal government and it’s hard to see that changing in the term of the current dysfunctional administration.

The relative powerlessness of local governments leaves initiatives by the City of Sydney limited in scope and schemes to promote the city or offer incubator space are peripheral to the factors that encourage the development of a global industrial centre.

Ultimately though, the question has to be how much any government can do to create a Silicon Valley, factors such as labour availability and access to capital come down as much to the community’s attitudes and business’ risk tolerances.

So perhaps we focus on what governments can do for business. Maybe just providing a level playing field can be the best we can hope for.

Aug 312016
 
Can overinflated job titles affect a business

Are senior executives lost when discussing their company’s digital strategy?

At the Huawei Connect conference this morning in Shanghai, Nigel Fenwick, a Vice President and principle analyst of Forrester Consulting, released his company’s study titled Business and Technology Leadership in a Post Digital Era.

Forrester surveyed 212 IT and business managers across selected markets in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific for the survey and found only four percent of business leaders were confident they understood their companies’ digital strategy.

Even more worryingly less than ten percent of business IT leaders claimed they understood their organisation’s digital strategies.

The reason for this, Fenwick believes, is the pace of change in the technology sector as managers struggle to put digital innovations into the context of the business.

Exacerbating this lack of understanding is how companies are ‘bolting on’ digital strategies to their existing business models rather than thinking about how their industries, products and markets are being transformed, Fenwick says.

There’s little new or surprising in Forrester’s report and the small and selective data set doesn’t inspire confidence in the survey’s results. It is however a good reminder of the challenges facing today’s boards and executives in understanding the consequences of a rapidly changing economy on their businesses.

Aug 092016
 
how modern society deals with the roulette wheel of risk

“How are you going to manage, not stop, risk?” Asked John Suffolk, the Global Cyber Security & Privacy Officer of Huawei Technologies at the company’s ICT roadshow in Sydney today.

Suffolk’s message is one that should be heeded by all business owners, managers and executives in areas more than just IT security.

One of the conceits of the late Twentieth Century management philosophies is that risk could be managed out of business, partly through technology but mainly through legalisms that attempted to push liabilities onto suppliers, contractors, resellers and customers.

That philosophy still holds true in many organisations today, particularly government agencies, and it costs them dearly.

In truth, business is risky and trying to eliminate risk is a fool’s errand. How it’s managed is the real test for leaders.

Jun 282016
 
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“If you’re digital now, you’ll be cognitive tomorrow” says Ginni Rometti, the head of IBM.

Rometti was talking at the Sydney IBM Think forum today where she laid out the vision of IBM’s role in the data rich organisation of the future,

IBM’s pitch is that services like their Watson artificial intelligence platform is a key part of business as companies try to differentiate themselves in the new economy.

While Rometti’s view is correct, the question is whether IBM are the company to do this. The audience in Sydney were largely incumbent corporations and government agencies, it was almost sad that some of the panelists citing their digital smarts were from Australian businesses that have been tragically leaden in responding to changes to their markets over the last two decades.

In the first panel Rometti was joined by Andrew Thorburn and Richard Umbers the respective CEOs of the National Australia Bank and the Myer department store chain.

Thornburn’s comments about NAB being an agile fintech company were somewhat at odds with the reality of Australia’s housing addicted banking sector but Umbers’ view that Myer is leading the way in customer experience is almost laughable given how his company has missed almost every development in retail over the past twenty years.

Leaden corporations are Rometti’s core customers however – it still remains true that no-one at companies like Myer and NAB gets sacked for buying IBM.

“We’ve been part of your past, and I hope we can be part of your future” was Rometti’s conclusion of her keynote. It remains to be seen whether her customers are part of the future.