Tag Archives: disruption

More RSS Tools: Sharing Feeds

This post was first published on the Idealware Blog in April of 2009.

For my last followup to my RSS article, Using RSS Tools to Feed your Information Needs, I want to discuss OPML, the standard for RSS Reader feed information, and talk a bit about why RSS, which is already quite useful, is about to become an even bigger deal. Last week, I discussed sharing research with Google Reader; before that, filtering RSS feeds with Yahoo! Pipes, and I started with a post about integrating content with websites.

Admitting that I might represent an extreme case, I subscribe to 96 feeds in Google Reader. I started with Google Reader last December – prior to that, I used a Mac RSS Reader called Vienna. Moving from Vienna to Google Reader might have been a chore, but it wasn’t, thanks to Outline Processor Markup Language (OPML). The short story on OPML is that it was developed as a standard format for outlining. While it is used in that capacity, it’s more commonly used as a format for collecting a list of RSS feeds, with last read pointers, that can then be processed by other feed-reading software. So, I exported all of my feeds from Vienna to a .opml file, then I imported that into Google Reader, and all of my feeds were instantly set up. If you run a WordPress blog, you can rapidly build your blogroll by importing an .opml file.

In addition to sharing feed information with applications, OPML can be used to share a group of feeds with a co-worker, friend or constituent. Say your org does advocacy on a particular issue, and you’ve collected a set of feeds that represent the best news and commentary on your issue. You could make the OPML file available on your web site for your constituents to incorporate in their readers.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “what are the odds that my constituents even know what a feed reader is? Wouldn’t making this available be more likely to confuse than help people?” As good as a question as that is, here’s why I think that you won’t be asking it soon. RSS has seen quick and steady adoption as a standard web service. Four years ago, it was obscure; today every content management system and web portal supports it. It features prominently in the strategic plans of tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!. But it’s not as well-known by the general computing public — RSS still has yet to become a real household concept, like search and email have. The game-changer is underway, though. Last month, The Seattle Post-Intelligenser, one of Seattle’s primary daily papers, ceased print publication. The San Francisco Chronicle announced last month that they are making one last ditch effort, with a redesign and new printing presses, to stem the growing budget deficit that they face. Competition from TV and the web is driving newspapers out of business, and the hope that something will reverse this trend is thin.

As the internet becomes the primary source of news and opinion, RSS is a natural fit as the delivery medium. You can see that all of the Seattle PI sections are available as RSS feeds, and they have an option to customize the news and features that you see on your homepage. How long before they offer your customized paper as an OPML file, allowing you to instantly replicate your web experience in a reader?

In 1995, internet email was an arcane, technical concept. I figured out that I could send mail to an Internet address using my company’s MCI Mail account. My email address was 75 characters long. RSS may seem similarly oblique today, but it’s well on the road to being a mainstream method of internet information delivery. Your partners and constituents won’t just appreciate your support for it; they’ll start to expect it. I hope that my article and these follow-ups in the blog can serve as a good starting point for understanding what RSS can do and what you might do with it.

The Lean, Green, Virtualized Machine

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in November of 2008.
I normally try to avoid being preachy, but this is too good a bandwagon to stay off of. If you make decisions about technology, at your organization, as a board member, or in your home, then you should decide to green your IT. This is socially beneficial action that you can take with all sorts of side benefits, such as cost savings and further efficiencies. And it’s not so much of a new project to take on as it is a set of guidelines and practices to apply to your current plan. Even if my day job wasn’t at an organization dedicated to defending our planet, I’d still be writing this post, I’m certain.I’ve heard a few reports that server rooms can output 50% or more of a company’s entire energy; PC Magazine puts them at 30-40% on average. If you work for an organization of 50 people or more, then you should look at this metric: how many servers did you have in 2000; how many do you have now? If the volume hasn’t doubled, at least, then you’re the exception to a very bloated rule. We used to pile multiple applications and services onto each server, but the model for the last decade or so has been one server per database, application, or function. This has resulted in a boom of power usage and inefficiency. Another metric that’s been quoted to me by IDC, the IT research group, is that, on average, we use 10% of any given server’s processing power. So the server sits there humming 24/7, outputting carbons and ticking up our power bills.

So what is Green IT? A bunch of things, some very geeky, some common sense. As you plan for your technology upgrades, here are some things that you can consider:

1. Energy-Saving Systems. Dell, HP and the major vendors all sell systems with energy-saving architecture. Sometimes they cost a little more, but that cost should be offset by savings on the power bills. Look for free software and other programs that will help users manage and automate the power output of their stations.

2. Hosted Applications. When it makes sense, let someone else host your software. The scale of their operation will insure that the resources supporting your application are far more refined than a dedicated server in your building.

3. Green Hosting. Don’t settle for any host – if you have a hosting service for your web site, ask them if they employ solar power or other alternative technologies to keep their servers powered. Check out some of the green hosting services referenced here at Idealware.

4. Server Virtualization. And if, like me, you have a room packed with servers, virtualize. Virtualization is a geeky concept, but it’s one that you should understand. Computer operating system software, such as Windows and Linux, is designed to speak to a computer’s hardware and translate the high-level activities we perform to machine code that the computer’s processor can understand. When you install Windows or Linux, the installation process identifies the particular hardware on your system–the type of processor, brand of graphics card, number of USB ports–and configures the operating system to work with your particular devices.

Virtualization is technology that sits in the middle, providing a generic hardware interface for the operating system to speak with. Why? Because, once the operating system is speaking to something generic, it no longer cares what hardware it’s actually installed on. So you can install your Windows 2003 server on one system. Then, if a component fails, you can copy that server to another system, even if it’s radically different – say, a Mac – and it will still boot up and run. More to the point, you can boot up multiple virtual servers on one actual computer (assuming it has sufficient RAM and processing power).

A virtual server is, basically, a file. Pure and simple: one large file that the computer opens up and runs. While running, you can install programs, create documents, change your wallpaper and tweak your settings. When you shut down the server, it will retain all of your changes in the file. You can back that file up. You can copy it to another server and run it while you upgrade components on it’s home server, so that your users don’t lose access during the upgrade. And you can perform the upgrade at 1:00 in the afternoon, instead of 1:00 in the morning.

So, this isn’t just cool. This is revolutionary. Need a new server to test an application? Well, don’t buy a new machine. Throw a virtualized server on an existing machine.

Don’t want to mess with installing Windows server again? Keep a virtualized, bare bones server file (VM) around and use it as a template.

Don’t want to install it in the first place? Google “Windows Server VM”. There are pre-configured virtual machines for every operating system made available for download.

Want to dramatically reduce the number of computers in your server room, thereby maximizing the power usage of the remaining systems? Develop a virtualization strategy as part of our technology plan.

This is just the surface of the benefits of virtualization. There are some concerns and gotchas, too, that need to be considered, and I’ll be blogging more about it.

But the short story is that we have great tools and opportunities to make our systems more supportive of our environment, curbing the global warming crisis one server room at a time. Unlike a lot of these propositions, this one comes with cost reductions and efficiencies built-in. It’s an opportunity to, once in place, lighten your workload, strengthen your backup strategy, reduce your expenses on hardware and energy, and, well — save the world.

Not all penguins are Tech-savvy

There was an interesting and disturbing article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. Mind you, it’s an election year; there are lots of these. But this one hit a few of the hot spots in my consciousness – comic strips and technology. Berke Breathed, author of Bloom County, Opus and the short-lived Outland comic strips, was interviewed regarding the end of Opus. This Sunday will herald the last appearance of his long-lived penguin, a mainstay in each of the three strips. Breathed has a number of reasons for retiring, but among them was the following interesting assertion regarding his readership, or lack thereof:

“…I strolled into a college campus after three years of doing my strip, no one had ever read it. In fact they hadn’t read anything, unless it was something from 25 years ago that their parents had given them the books of. So I already saw that the window was closing, that it was just a matter of a few years.”

His target audience of 20-30 year olds, as far as he could tell, were completely disengaged from newspapers and, therefore, his work. But were those college students dutifully reading the paper ten years ago? Doubtful! Further, he threw some numbers and predictions out:

Breathed said his readership was 60 million to 70 million people in 1985, when Peanuts had a readership of 200 million to 300 million and Calvin and Hobbes, 200 million people. “That will never happen on the Web. Your readership drops to a couple thousand people – maybe, if you’re lucky, 10,000.”

As a big aficionado of newspaper strips, I find this very distressing, but I’m also a bit of a skeptic. I would suggest to Breathed that he is predicting the future based on a transitional phase. Newspapers, as it’s plain to point out, are having a difficult time transitioning to the web-based information world. I grabbed this article from sfgate.com, the online version of my daily paper. But I only visit that site to find specific articles or manage my vacation holds. My idea of an online newspaper is my.yahoo.com, igoogle.com or netvibes.com. Each of these sites lets me group together all sorts of information that is fairly akin to what I read in the newspaper, including comic strips. I’m a techie and an early adopter, but trends show RSS adoption growing steadily, and rss is really simple syndication, a concept that a cartoonist should latch right onto. I can grab any strip from GoComics.com as an RSS feed.

It is a different medium. It has the disadvantage that Breathed points out – a fraction of the people who are delivered his strips in the paper they purchase will willingly subscribe. But how many of those people read them anyway? I’ve gotten Cathy in my paper for as long as I can remember, but I promise you, I never read it. For now, as we transition, his actual readership is probably down. But comic strips are far from down from the count. On the web, we can subscribe to — and only to — the ones we want to read, and brilliant strips that struggle for readership will stay in circulation. This is a big improvement for the medium. It’s really too bad that Berkeley Breathed, one of our most talented practitioners, won’t stick around for it.

The future of Salesforce

I’m attending a strategic planning session at Salesforce.com this week devoted to planning the roadmap for non-profit use of the product. This should be an interesting event and an exciting opportunity to help steer one of the most exciting applications to hit the industry in some time. I remember walking through the exhibitor booth’s at the “Science Fair” during the 2005 NTEN Conference in Chicago and noting, in the corner, the guy with a shaved head standing at a small booth titled “Salesforce.com” and wondering what, on earth, he was doing there. Wasn’t Salesforce that corporate application used by all those people trying to sell me enterprise software? The next year, in Seattle, Salesforce was a key sponsor of the show, and the whole gang from the foundation was there. I was a lot more educated as to why, as well – in the interim, my former organization had signed up and I had started work deploying it.

Salesforce appeals to me because it lives up to many of the standards I look for in an online database:

  • It’s open. Any Salesforce customer can download their entire database into Excel pretty much at any time. There are no technical or contractual walls separating me from my information as a Salesforce customer.
  • It has a community around it extending, developing and integrating the product. While Salesforce is far from the only commercial application with such a community, it is far more analogous to the open source communities around applications like Joomla and Drupal than it is like their commercial counterparts. Salesforce has provided excellent forums and support, nurturing their partners in ways that most commercial developers are far too guarded to allow.
  • Sharing and philanthropy are part of the corporate ethic, fairly deeply ingrained. I like to joke that their stated policy of “one percent of people, product and profits goes back to the community” is not that big a deal, given that 100% of a non-profit’s revenues are recycled back into their missions, but the truth is that they do a lot more than just give away software, and I’m certain that it ends up being much more than 1%.
  • Salesforce is audacious and ambitious in all the right ways. They want to do away with your infrastructure and change the way that technology is deployed, and they are by far the most sophisticated example of how that can and should be done. And don’t ever mistake them for a CRM company just because that’s what they’ve primarily been – they’re a shard data and computing platform, and the next few years are going to see them break out of the CRM neighborhood into a new role as a data management middleware provider. Store your data and build your processes, they’ll handle the hardware.

Finally, in this era, when internet business is shaking up traditional business models in dramatic fashions — just ask the RIAA, or the telecoms, or your local newspaper’s classifieds editor — Salesforce is the disruptor in our community. Blackbaud, Kintera and Convio, along with the other established donation-based business support vendors, are all rapidly changing their models to more closely match the open approach. And Social Solutions and the case management crowd are well aware that they’re next. This bodes well for the customers.

I’ll be blogging from the conference (as allowed) and hope to spread exciting news.