With next Tuesday’s budget just around the corner and my latest VAT return having just landed on my doormat, my thoughts turn (as a software journalist) to what kind of automated tools I could be using to make my life easier.
There’s a good deal of debate in technology circles these days as to what point level source software, or indeed free and open source software, can fulfil our needs – especially when business gets mission critical. For individuals, mission critical status comes along when it comes to our health, our family, our house and our money so Tax and VAT certainly come within radius.
If you set about Googling the subject you’re likely to stumble upon mostly US websites as of course our American cousins have to perform many of their tax-based duties themselves. There is in fact an organisation called the Tax Code Software Foundation that has been trying to develop an open-source platform for tax preparation software.
But US-based or not, what with the source code open to the development community as a whole and with changing tax laws and VAT levels. Would you have enough trust to start sniffing around on the SourceForge open source code repository to look for something snazzy looking that seems like it might do the job?
I myself, in this instance, would not.
What we need is software specifically presented for the UK small business owner (or freelance self employed person such as myself) that will a) be able to cope with the rumoured VAT increase and b) automatically adjusts calculations so that we don’t get HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) breathing down our necks in the wrong way. NB: I’m not sure that there is a right way!
So I’ve opted to step outside my open source world in this instance and am currently testing Intuit’s QuickBooks product. So just to put the product into context and help question whether this is the kind of software that you DON’T get from open source, I will mention some of the more salient features.
There’s a VAT Exception Report that helps build a transparent audit trail. A one step VAT returns feature that allows me to automatically populate my quarterly VAT returns and to file them securely online with HMRC.
I’m quite fond of the “QuickBooks coach” and the short video demonstrations. I also like the company snapshot real-time cash flow feature and there’s multicurrency tools, invoicing functions as well as sales and expenses tracking.
So my question is, will we always turn to proprietary vendors such as Intuit for software of this nature? For the time being I think the answer has to be yes, but could this change in the future if the open source “community” approach provides social media opportunities and discussion forums that bring small business users together?
Well not in this case. It might be a case of life imitating art or proprietary vendors imitating open source communities, but QuickBooks also has (surprise, surprise) a professional online network option for us “like-minded” small business owners to ask questions and engage with one another.
So is it useful software and worth the price? Yes. Do I feel happier about my tax situation and VAT returns now? No, but thanks for asking.
The unprecedented popularity of scaled down ultra-portable netbook computers from manufacturers including Asus, Dell and HP has in turn fuelled interest in fast booting operating systems (OS) capable of starting up in a matter of seconds.
Hewlett-Packard last week opted to spend US$12 million acquiring Phoenix Technologies to bring its HyperSpace OS into the HP stable for distribution on netbooks and laptops down its product line.
HyperSpace although a ‘watered down’ version of the Linux OS, will allow users to get simple uncomplicated access to their machines to check email, view images and surf the web.
After acquiring Palm in April of this year, HP’s move to further improve its mobile device technology may be seen as a means to react to the rising popularity of tablet devices, which generally boot up extremely quickly.
Etisalat is the UAE’s telecommunications provider and is well known in the industry for pursuing an aggressive expansion policy. Starting out from its home hub in the Gulf state of Dubai, the company now operates in 18 countries. From its comparatively ‘closed’ origins in the strictly controlled Emirates, Etisalat is using a variety of ‘open’ source solutions as it expands into new regions including Sri Lanka.
Whether the challenges of working in territories with poor infrastructural foundations like Sri Lanka have pushed the company to adopt the more ‘fluid’ technologies available from enterprise open source vendors is uncertain.
What is certain is that providing services to 2.4 million subscribers across the island nation’s cellular network demands extreme scalability. Logically then, virtualisation technologies characterised by their modular delivery options are a sensible option. Although not exactly a “turn on – turn off” delivery option, virtualising hardware for storage and processing power (and software too) is generally argued to provide some degree of extra flexibility.
Etisalat used Red Hat Enterprise Virtualisation as the foundation for its data centre’s critical IT infrastructure, inventory management and distribution services serving 30,000 retail outlets.
With Red Hat Enterprise Virtualisation, Etisalat Sri Lanka was able to reduce its previous 40 servers down to just six servers, while hosting the same extensive amount of data.
Whether enterprise open source virtualisation solutions will have a similar impact in so-called developing nations elsewhere is hard to say. Developments in Africa may well provide the best clue here.
The software application development community tends to use the summer months to host various events, exhibitions, symposia and community gatherings of all kinds. I for one am looking forward to attending a couple of these including Sybase TechWave, especially given the company’s recent acquisition by SAP.
As a test, I thought I would analyse one or two companies not exactly famous for their reputation in open source and see what came up. Sybase as a case in point does have an open source developer portal so-to-speak that is focused on among other things ebXML (Electronic Business using extensible Markup Language) which is a standard method to exchange business messages.
The point here is that technology vendors are waking up to the reality of open source and the so-called community contribution model of code development and enhancement. Even if the company in question is a proprietary “closed” shop in general. There are, it seems, always going to be some extensions to the technology core that can be opened up for public consumption.
So it would be remiss of me not to mention Microsoft and the company’s open source projects at this point. Microsoft has in fact got quite an enviable track record in open source. To list just two examples, the company has shared the source code of FlexWiki, which is a software program for creating wikis. It has also formed all manner of open source partnerships and alliances with companies such as Novell, Red Hat’s JBOSS etc.
So what does all this teach us? I spoke to Martin Atherton who is service director
at analyst house Freeform Dynamics Ltd. “The open source philosophy serves the broader, economics-driven need for software firms to redeploy / reuse code if it’s appropriate. What end customers need to be more aware of than they are today is that products they do buy don’t end up the subject of IP disputes, which have and will happen. Of interest also, are ‘open source software firms’ (Talend springs to mind), which initially traded solely on that basis, but now trade on the fact they simply have a decent product to offer,” said Atherton.
Open source database management company Ingres has made much of the performance gains it claims it can now deliver with over existing database and analytic servers with the latest release of its VectorWise technology.
News of this accelerated database technology working at increased speeds reaching 70 times faster than previously may have overshadowed the fact that the company also plans to fully open source the product by the end of 2010.
Already available for download here, Ingres VectorWise for Linux has completed its beta programme successfully and is now starting to land in customers’ hands.
But up until now the central nucleus of the technology itself has been closed source thus it not been open to the software application development community as a whole for exploration, examination and potential augmentation.
The company states that, “The release of Ingres VectorWise is one of the most significant database technology innovations in the last 20 years, and meets broad business demands to analyze exploding volumes of data. It uses a unique new design to unlock the vastly superior capabilities of modern commodity hardware.”
Today sees the start of the LinuxTag Exhibition in the German city of Berlin running from 9 to 12 June. For once it appears that this technical exhibition is not making too much noise to publicise itself, although in fact the show itself appears to have been around for some 16 years now.
Targeted at professional users, decision makers, developers, beginners and the Linux community in general, the event’s panel discussion is said to feature a topical discussion on whether recent mergers threaten innovative small and medium sized Linux businesses.
Although much of the content appears to be presented in German, the website is bilingual (in English) in many parts and attending partners such as IBM, Nokia Qt Development Frameworks, Google, Debian and Mozilla Europe are all truly multinational.
“Takeovers are changing the Linux corporate landscape. These corporate takeovers pose the question of whether Open Source is increasingly at the mercy of larger companies: Sun buys MySQL, Oracle buys Sun, VMWare buys SpringSource and so on,” says the LinuxTag organisers.
Despite struggling through Q2 of 2010 with a US$12m drop in net income on the same period last year, Novell continues to plough optimistically forward into the mainframe market with its support for the IBM System z Series.
After what is in fact 10 years of Linux shipments on IBM’s mainframe line, Novell is the market leader for Linux on System z and is the only operating system vendor to have supported Linux on IBM mainframe servers for its entire 10-year history with its SUSE Linux Enterprise Server product.
But despite this decade of software and hardware engineering “excellence”, the commercial bottom line appears to be less healthy.
“We are recognised for our ability to generate ROI for our customers through the consolidation of distributed workloads, reduction of downtime and data centre complexity and increase in operating flexibility,” said Markus Rex, senior vice president and general manager of open platform solutions at Novell.
Novell has delivered commercial-grade Linux mainframes across industries from banking to government to medicine and education; the company’s market proposition being that Linux-based mainframe solutions can help customers to expand critical software applications and system workloads.
However, with a decade of fine-tuning under its belt now, the next 10-years of Linux on the mainframe could provide better financial gains. It has been argued that mainframe technology is enjoying a renaissance due to reduced complexities through improved management software and standardisation of technologies at both the both hardware and software level.
When IBM expanded its use of open source software and enabled Linux to run on IBM mainframe computers it did so as a result of customer demand. Today, with these technologies now well out of their adolescence, the combination of Linux on System z is argued to be an outstanding platform to support cloud computing.
Perhaps now it’s time to show us the money Novell.
While there still seems to be some consternation and confusion among many IT departments as to exactly where cloud computing based services will ultimately be of most use, the unusually named open source cloud provider Funambol is firmly of the belief that rich media over mobile devices holds the key.
By ‘rich media‘ we mean of course images and video as well as animation, audio and even highly interactive ‘content’ such as social networking applications.
The software product in question here is the newly released Funambol v8.5, which allows users to ‘synch’ pictures and other rich media (as well as email, contacts address books and other text-based data) between mobile devices and the open cloud. The company says that, “Once synced, pictures and mobile data can be viewed online, synced with connected devices and shared with social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.”
For the record, nobody has defined the open cloud itself very clearly, least of all the Open Cloud Manifesto.org, but we can probably safely assume that it means any part of the commonly agreed cloud infrastructure that is not a part of the proprietary ‘closed clouds’ belonging to Amazon, Microsoft and Google etc.
Well first of all, so what? Users can now host (sorry that should be ‘synch’) rich media up to data centres housed on cloud based servers and get their images onto Facebook. Hadn’t we been doing that already with our iPhones and BlackBerrys etc? Well yes, but these are proprietary platforms says Funambol and this particular product is cross platform – it supports Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Mac OS and others.
OK, still so what? More of the same and from more users, I’m still not excited. Who benefits? Is it the mobile operators, the device manufacturers or the users? We won’t ask Funambol that question because we know they’ll tell us it’s all three.
Don’t forget, it’s Funambol’s platform that is open source, not its services, maintenance, consultancy, enterprise level partner agreements or the cheese sandwiches in its staff canteen for that matter.
Probably most in line to benefit are the mobile operators and Internet Service Providers who are looking for a means to satisfy the growing demand from subscribers to share data and rich media from all their connected devices anywhere. For mobile operators, Funambol asserts that its technology provides the means to re-establish customer relationships that have been lost to device manufacturers themselves and users tapping into their ISP’s online platform while at home.
Anyone can try the software for free on the myFUNAMBOL demo portal at http://my.funambol.com for 90 days, or users can use it with Funambol’s commercial customers.
Recent reports have detailed Google’s actions to phase out the internal use of Microsoft’s operating system for security reasons following targeted attacks that the company has experienced. The targeted espionage attacks took place in January of this year and were carried out with the aim of gaining access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human right activists.
Now as Google employees consider the option to select either Apple Macs running OS X or PCs running the open source Linux operating system, the question is whether other corporations will follow this practice.
If enterprise roll out of open source and Apple’s OS X operating system markedly increases, then will the relatively small amount of malware targeting these platforms increase by a proportionate amount?
Whether you agree with Apple CEO Steve Jobs when he talks of Windows being in “permanent decline” or not, the reality is that on balance Mac and Linux are not more secure than Windows. They’re just less targeted. For now that is.
Most would argue that Apple’s heavyweight consumer branding and advertising will always position the company’s products in the hands of the home user or the creative design field. But enterprise open source and the various “flavours” or distributions that it comes in is gaining ground fast.
The espionage Trojan that came knocking on Google’s door could easily be remodeled and re-spawned as a Linux variant of its former self.
So is this likely to become a reality and will we see a new tide of malicious content start to grow for platforms other than Windows? I spoke to Mickey Boodaei who is CEO of secure browsing services company Trusteer to get some comments on the wider implications of this story.
“Products that are widely used are more likely to be tested for security flaws and are more likely to be attacked regardless of whether they’re open source (or Apple Mac OS X) based or not. A company’s decision to adopt a platform from a security perspective should be never based on whether it’s open source or Mac or Windows. It should be based on whether you have the right tools and processes to secure the platform,” said Boodaei.
Perhaps it is no coincidence then that Trusteer does produce a security product for Mac. But Boodaei’s comments are quite even handed, so the best advice for all of us is clearly to watch what we click and, where, free security software is available for any platform (and there is plenty) that we should install that as our first move.