In Pursuit of Paradox

Opinion: Hardened software and softened hardware are high on my list of interesting contradictions. This week will see vendors introduce two examples of the former and one of the latter.

I cant resist a good paradox. Hardened software and softened hardware are high on my list of interesting contradictions. This week will see two examples of the former and one of the latter coming from the sibilant trio of Softricity, Solidcore Systems and Silicon Graphics.

I cited Softricitys application-virtualization technology in an eWEEK story on utility computing in February 2004; the company will announce this week its ZeroTouch product for self-service application deployment, transforming a ready-to-run application into something that can be managed as easily as a data file.

A virtualized application, to be outrageously anthropomorphic, thinks that its been installed on a client machine—with all the intrusive registry modifications and other error-prone side effects that this implies—but its interacting with something that only acts like a native installation environment. The result can be administered with granular privileges, can have its usage tracked and controlled, and can be accessed from any client device without altering that clients configuration. Its an impressive idea, and Softricity users attest that it works.

Softricitys marketing materials dont do nearly as good a job as its top technical people at describing the innards of this approach.

I viewed an early version of the companys video on SoftGrid, Softricitys name for the idea of applications being as readily on tap as electricity: I found myself thinking of the Sidney Harris cartoon with two scientists looking at a blackboard of complex math, interrupted at one point by the label, "Then a miracle occurs." One is saying to the other, "I think you should be more explicit here in step two." Softricity needs to do that as well, but Im sure its trying to find the right balance between informative explanation and coma-inducing minutiae.

Until Softricity representatives can find the right words, theyll have to rely on customers who are willing to talk about success—a notorious problem, in my experience, when a technology is any good at all. Who wants to tell ones competitors about an innovation that actually helps?

Meanwhile, I mentioned Solidcore in an column just last month, after talking with the companys senior people about their application configuration management tools; theyll drop the other shoe this week, announcing an offering that seemed to me during our prior conversation to be an overwhelmingly obvious next step. Building on top of its "solidification" technology for locking down an applications state, the company is introducing its S3 Change Control product for precisely tracking the origin, timing and extent of changes to a process and technology stack.

/zimages/5/28571.gifDevelopers redefine abstraction demands. Click here to read more.

Unlike traditional change management systems, which authorize change but dont confirm what was really and truly done, Solidcores Change Control approach makes it far more likely that an organization will be able to assign change privileges, establish change policies, enforce those change rules and guidelines, and safely reverse any changes that go wrong or that turn out to have unacceptable side effects.

While Softricity and Solidcore harden our software, making it easier to handle and less likely to spill out into a mess on a users PC, Silicon Graphics is taking further steps in the direction of softer hardware—a notion that I discussed here in the Aug. 1 issue, with comments on forthcoming Mitrionics tools. Silicon Graphics RASC (Reconfigurable Application-Specific Computing) technology, scheduled for general availability this week, offers developers another high-level tool chain for FPGA (field-programmable gate array) hardware, quickly building a customized module for behind-the-scenes acceleration of compute-intensive tasks.

When an application spends most of its time running a tiny fraction of its code, morphing those active sections into hardware is increasingly a plausible proposition—especially when one such hardware setup can be made accessible to networked users in any location. And thats the unifying theme of these three announcements: making IT more accessible, more manageable and more cost-effective. Theres certainly no paradox in those goals.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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