Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Excel Hell

A friend of mine wanted some help with a spreadsheet which, most unfortunately, was written in Excel. The help he needed was in creating a formula that would allow him to rank winners of a golf tournament that involved teams of three to five players. Depending on the number of players in each team, he wanted to rank only the best balls from each team.

As an example, if there were five players on each team he might want to count the three best balls of the five for each hole. This isn't an uncommon desire in some of the betting games in golf that occur every weekend on golf courses worldwide. In fact, there are so many variations on betting games in golf that books have been published to describe them.

Anyway, the formula was a bit complex but not too daunting. It involved creating an array formula. It took me about a half-hour to come up with the formula and I shipped his spreadsheet back to him.

Then I decided to be a little more thorough. I absolutely knew from past experience that the formula would get trashed at some point and I wouldn't remember it well enough to just "fix it." So, I decided to write a VB macro so my friend could just press a button and have the formula automatically repopulated - basically a safety net.

What a nightmare. The formula was valid but Excel refused to allow me to create the formula via Visual Basic. As with most technology, I presumed that if it didn't work it was my fault and I spent days trying to find the error I was making before discovering that this is a known issue with Excel. In fact, this issue has been known since at least 1999. The work-around is insane; one has to write a nonsense formula that fits the same structure of the desired formula and then perform text substitutions. In this particular case, Microsoft has arbitrarily limited the length of an array formula created with a macro to 255 characters - a limitation that doesn't exist for a formula manually entered on a spreadsheet.

This is one of the key problems with closed-source software. This problem is, most likely, easily fixed. However, Microsoft has not deigned to fix it. In the open-source world the frustrated users don't have had to spend years inventing kludgy work-arounds, instead they can just fix the underlying problem.

And for all this, Microsoft still has the nerve to charge outrageous prices for the right to use the software. It's so unfortunate that so many users still want to use Microsoft Office because they think it's the easier thing to do. We're well past time to move to a new model.

Monday, February 26, 2007

MySQL - Real Database Or Not?

I hold these truths to be self-evident:
  • MySQL is not a real database
  • MySQL is one of the most successful database systems out there

Matt Asay has an interesting blog on his site regarding the claim that MySQL is not a real database. I've been arguing for a while that MySQL is the proof that most systems are not database-centric in nature. In my blog entry, Centricity, I define the difference between application-centric and database-centric systems.

As someone who spent their career in databases, I can very well understand why people argue that MySQL isn't a real database. The operational issues (re-issuing SQL statements as part of a recovery) and the non-deterministic behavior when certain, invalid operations are attempted make it easy to argue that MySQL doesn't fit with many of the large-scale operational requirements of enterprise IT organizations. MySQL, I'm sure, will "fix" many of these issues as time goes on but, for now, there are valid issues that prevent MySQL from tackling some of the large database-centric problems.

On the other hand, though, MySQL's popularity absolutely proves that most systems that are deployed on a database are not database-centric. MySQL's success, I believe, is related directly to the ease with which applications can be developed. This has led to many application templates being developed on top of MySQL which, in turn, has made it easier to develop even more applications. Generally speaking, application developers don't care about how recovery of a down database is performed.

IT managers do care, though, about how long it takes to recover a down or corrupted database. As I pointed out in my Centricity blog, the problem with Oracle is that they want you to pay the database-centric premium for all your database deployments and that premium is very large, indeed.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Next Leg...

I've had a lot of golf here in Scottsdale. Mostly I played the TPC Stadium course, I got out to the Troon North Monument course once and I had the tremendous pleasure of playing the Chiricahua course at Desert Mountain.

I was disappointed with the Troon North course only because of its steep price compared to the TPC course, but the experiences at all of them were great. I've had 10 days of golf over the last 11 days and my new swing is starting to become more a part of me.

If you love golf you'll love Scottsdale because of the huge number of courses available. The desert is stunningly beautiful and the saguaro cacti are infinitely interesting.

We're driving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana tomorrow to visit family and get a little more golf in. Driving across this country is a lot of fun and tremendously relaxing. By the time I get back home I'll be well rested and hope to have my game back under control.

Expanding The Community

In a recent blog entry, I asked what would happen if the establishment began to agree with the anti-establishmentarians. Here's another article that explores the same theme. Commercial entities, both suppliers and consumers, have started to recognize the value that open-source brings them. As these interests begin to apply commercial standards to support and services of open-source software then we start seeing the beginning of a sustainable economic infrastructure.

Unfortunately, we're also seeing some fraying of the edges of the messaging around open-source.

Open-source is just that, open. We're starting to see some constituencies complain about the spirit of open-source vs. the letter of the law on licenses such as the GPL. The GPL is what it is. There have been complaints about Novell bypassing some of the "spirit" associated with the GPL in their relationship with Microsoft.

The question is, though, is the "spirit" of open-source attempting to change. The beauty of open-source is that anyone can do anything with open-source as long as they adhere to the license agreements. This means anything. Generally, the licenses require that if any changes are made to the code, those changes are given to the community under the same terms as the original license. Once I put something into open-source I no longer control what happens to it beyond the terms of the license and I am happy about that.

The beauty of open-source is that it has the ability to benefit many constituencies, even those with whom we may not agree. We are only at the beginning of this revolution, let's do everything we can to grow the movement.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Marketshare Redux

Back in May, when I was still at Ingres, I wrote a blog entry on the measurement of market share in the software industry. One of the comments I made welcomed Gartner's new way of looking at market share that gave a little more credit to the open-source companies who don't charge license fees.

Another article has come out recently about how IDC is predicting that the Linux ecosystem will reach $40 billion by 2010. I picked up on this one by reading Matt Asay's blog entry on the subject.

Now, I have a love-hate relationship with the analysts. Many of them I consider to be close friends and I've told them that I think analysts are usually predicting the past and half the time they get that wrong.

The major issue I have with the IDC numbers is they're using old techniques to measure and judge the success of an open-source product/project. The concept of open-source projects is their ability to remove money from the ecosystem, not in creating a new, large(r) ecosystem. I realize that investors want to know how much money they can make by investing in open-source companies, but if you really want to be useful then tell me something I don't know.

I know that Linux and other open-source businesses are going to grow tremendously. I know that you can look at dollar figures over a time-line and predict future dollar figures.

What I don't know is how much money is being removed from the IT infrastructure budgets. Open-source is about doing it better, cheaper, faster and more transparently than the closed-source vendors can allow. Tell me how much money will be saved by the IT industry by adopting open-source vs. closed-source and you'll give me a much better picture of the impact of open-source.

The closed-source vendors have trained the analysts to measure success by how much money they make. How about measuring success by how much money customers save? Now, that's a prediction I'd like to see someone make.

How To Screw Up A Perfectly Good Thing...

O.K., the new TaylorMade's showed up at my hotel in Scottsdale and I love them. Bright and shiny, never before played, ready to go out and get me a new course record...just need to fix that swing.

I've been in Scottsdale since February 11th and have played golf every day. My old game is starting to come back, I'm feeling more confident and making some great shots. A few birdies here and there tell me I'm starting to get back on track. Since everything's going so well I thought I'd screw it up.

My wife, Wendy, has decided to take up the game and she and I went to the TPC Tour Academy at TPC Scottsdale where they just held the FBR Open, formerly the Phoenix Open. They fixed some pretty serious swing flaws that I had. Unfortunately, I had adjusted to those very swing flaws and could shoot a pretty decent score. Even with those flaws I was in about the 89th percentile of golfers based on my handicap index.

But, alas, correcting those swing flaws puts me into a position of having to catch up. I need to become more comfortable with the more correct swing and this requires practice. Wow - a benefit, in order to benefit from the new golf lessons, I will need to practice what I learned and that means more golf.

Honey, I'm just trying to realize the value of our investment - practice, practice, practice.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Who's The Man?

When I was a kid I often heard the phrase, “the man is keeping me down.” Now, for a little kid growing up in the 1960s, this painted an interesting picture for me, I could either be kept down or I could be “the man.” It seemed to me an easy choice, be “the man” or be “kept down.” The 1960s were a very confusing time for everyone, not the least of which was a five-year old struggling with issues like who the hell is “the man” and why's he keeping everyone down.

The open-source movement reminds me very much of the various political movements I saw growing up and echoes in many ways “the man vs. the oppressed” battles of only a few decades ago. We could draw analogies of the closed-source software companies to “the man”, or maybe we call the IT organizations that weren’t willing to try open-source “the establishment.” If I extend this analogy further then we can see the open-source movement as the anti-establishment protestors fighting the closed-minded IT establishment.

But what happens when the establishment agrees with the protestors? Is this like matter meeting anti-matter, ying becoming yang or, shudder to think, closed-source becoming open? What would the protestors do?

In my mind the anti-establishmentarians have won. They’ve started to convince the software consumers that they should no longer be consuming closed-source software. The modern IT organization is starting to turn to and understand that open-source is good for them; they’re recognizing that they’ve been kept down by “the man” (the closed-source vendors).

What will the protestors do? They can expand the overall community by embracing their new brethren or they can continue to protest and fight for purity of message. The problem isn’t “the establishment”, it’s closed-source software. The open-source movement can be an even bigger winner by enlarging its community and accepting the new commercial interests. The enemy is the continued stifling of innovation brought about by the established closed-source vendors investing in business protectionism rather than innovation. It is in the best interests of the open-source foundation and the established IT organizations to work together towards a common cause. Perhaps, then, we can start to keep “the man” down.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

I've Seen The Coolest Technology

I'm in Carlsbad, California at the moment getting ready to drive to Scottsdale, Arizona. Yesterday, I had the joy of going to TaylorMade's headquarters to get fitted for golf clubs. I've spent the last 20 years working for software vendors and I've hosted many customer visits for the companies for which I worked. Yesterday, it was my turn to go to a customer visit center. Visiting TaylorMade's Kingdom fitting center was a tremendous experience.

It was my turn to be the customer and I was truly awed by the experience and the technology I saw. I had a chance to meet Jim Flick, a golf instructor I've watched on T.V. many times. Retief Goosen was on the range tuning up for an upcoming tournament. And, I, Dave Dargo, was about to get a real treat.

After warming up on the range I was taken into a room and fitted with a lot of dots. There were 9 cameras capturing my swing along with a launch monitor watching the ball. The image above is of me with a driver. The system showed a full-motion picture with full 3-D rotation so I could watch my attempt at swinging the club from any angle. The picture above is just as I'm starting the down-swing. All-in-all, I spent about four hours at TaylorMade looking at my swing scientifically and hitting lots of clubs. My new clubs are being made now and will be available to me in just a couple of days.

Emotionally, the personal experience was a bit disturbing as I could see many of the swing flaws I knew I had. Objectively thinking, though, it was a tremendously exhilerating experience as I went through a process that few others had. I got to see a clear picture of what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. I was fully engaged in the process and could have stayed all day looking at the technology and learning about TaylorMade's products.

The experience was more fun than I've had in a long time. It's so unfortunate that software customer visits can't be as exciting. We might just accomplish so much more if they were.