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Wednesday Philosophy – A Significant Day (but only to me)

Today is a significant day. Well, to me it is – to the rest of you it’s just a Wednesday in the latter half of April, in the mid 20-10’s. Because we count in 10s (probably due to the number of flexible pointy bits on our front limbs, but that is a much debated argument) we have “magic” numbers of 10, 100, 1000 and multiples thereof. As geeks we also have 2,4,8,16,32 etc. And as nerds (but nerds who appreciate certain literature) we have 42. But today is not significant to me for any of those magic numbers.

Spot the Oracle Faces

My wife has been going through old photo’s from her mother today, trying to find a picture of Uncle Stan. In the box of photographs was also a magazine – an Oracle magazine!

Oracle Magazine award winners 2003!

Oracle Magazine award winners 2003!

Friday Philosophy – My Introduction To Programming Way Back When

One fortunate thing about me is my age. Or rather, how old I was in the 1980’s. I was at school in the 80’s, I did my ‘O’ Levels (taken at age 16) in 1984. One of my ‘O’ levels was in Computer Studies. This was before Windows and Excel and Word and all that office software, before the internet was in existence (TCP/IP was only standardized in 1982!) and phones were all tethered to the wall with a cable. What were we taught in Computer Studies? Programming. That and a bit about hardware, but mostly it was programming.

This beast had  about 48k of memory and hi-res 320*192 pixels

This beast had about 48k of memory and hi-res 320*192 pixels

Was the Oracle UK logo Blue back in 1991?

I think I might be going mad. I was sure that when I joined Oracle UK back in 1991 that the massive “Oracle” sign above the main office on “The Ring” in Bracknell was blue. It was the building that looked like a load of cubes balanced on each other.

As I remember it, the office stationary had “Oracle UK” on it in blue and my business cards were similarly coloured. I can’t find any 20 year old stationary to prove it and I owe Bryn Llewellyn a bottle of wine if I turn out to be wrong.

I’m sure I also remember fellow consultants joking in around 1993, when the annual bonus was particularly poor, that it was due to all the money spent going from blue to red stationary and signs when our UK identity was absorbed into the parent beast…

Friday Philosophy – The start of Computing

This week I finally made a visit to Bletchley Park in the middle of England. Sue and I have been meaning to go there for several years, it is the site of the British code-breaking efforts during the second world war and, despite difficulties getting any funding, there has been a growing museum there for a number of years. {Hopefully, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, granted only this month, will secure it’s future}.

Why is Bletchley Park so significant? Well, for us IT-types it is significant because Alan Turing did a lot of work there and it was the home of Colossus, one of the very first electrical, programmable computers. More generally of interrest, their efforts and success in cracking enemy ciphers during WW2 were incredibly important and beneficial to the UK and the rest of the allies.

In this post, I am not going to touch on Colossus or Alan Turing, but rather a machine called the “Bombe”. The Bombe was used to help discover the daily settings of the German Enigma machines, used for decrypting nearly all German and Italian radio messages. All the Bombes were destroyed after the war (at least, all the UK ones were) to help keep secret the work done to crack the cyphers – but at Bletchley Park the volunteers have recreated one. Just like the working model of Babbage’s Difference Engine, it looks more like a work of art than a machine. Here is a slightly rough video I took of it in action:

My slightly rough video of the bombe

{OK, if you want a better video try a clearer video by someone else.}

I had a chat with the gentleman you see in both videos about the machine and he explained something that the tour we had just been on did not make clear – the Bombe is a parallel processing unit. Enigma machines have three wheels. There are banks of three coloured disks in the bombe (see the picture below). eg, in the middle bank the top row of disks are black, middle are yellow and bottom are red. Each vertical set of three disks, black-yellow-red, is the equivalent of a single “enigma machine”. Each trio of disks is set to different starting positions, based on educated guesses as to what the likely start positions for a given message might be. The colour of the disk matches, I think, one of the known sets of wheels the enigma machines could be set up with. The machine is then set to run the encrypted message through up to 36 “Enigmas” at once. If the output exceeds a certain level of sense (in this case quite crucially, no letter is every encrypted back to itself) then the settings might be correct and are worth further investigation. This machine has been set up with the top set of “Enigmas” not in place, either to demonstrate the workings or because the machine is set up for one of the more complex deciphering attempts where only some of the banks can be used.

This is the bombe seen from the front

The reason the chap I was talking to really became fascinated with this machine is that, back in about 1999, a home PC programmed to do this work was no faster than the original electro-mechanical machines from 1944 were supposed to have taken. So as an engineer he wanted to help build one and find out why it was so fast. This struck a chord with me because back in the late 1990′s I came across several examples of bespoke computers designed to do specific jobs (either stuff to do with natural gas calorific value, DNA matching or protein folding), but by 2000, 2002 they had all been abandoned as a general PC could be programmed to be just as fast as these bespoke machines – because bespoke means specialist means longer and more costly development time means less bangs for your buck.

Admittedly the Bombe is only doing one task, but it did it incredibly fast, in parallel, and as a part of the whole deciphering process that some of the best minds of their time had come up with (part of the reason the Bletchley Park site was chosen was that it was equidistant between Oxford and Cambridge and, at that time, there were direct train links. {Thanks, Dr Beeching}. ).

Tuning and reliability was as important then as it is now. In the below picture of the back of the machine (sorry about the poor quality, it was dim in that room), you can see all the complex wiring in the “door” and, in the back of the machine itself, those three rows of bronze “pipes” are in fact…Pipes. Oil pipes. This is a machine, they quickly realised that it was worth a lot of effort to keep those disks oiled, both for speed and reliability.

All the workings of the Bombe from the back

Talking of reliability, one other thing my guide said to me. These machines are complex and also have some ability to cope with failures or errors built into them. But of course, you needed to know they were working properly. When these machines were built and set up, they came with a set of diagnostic tests. These were designed to push the machine, try the edge cases and to be as susceptible to mechanical error as possible. The first thing you did to a new or maintained machine was run your tests.

1943, you had awesome parallel processing, incredible speed and test-driven development and regression testing. We almost caught up with all of this in the early 21st Century.

The Myth of Oracle Fusion…

I read a post this morning by Grant Ronald talking about fusion apps. In Grant’s post he mentioned things that people have been saying about Fusion over the years. Middleware and Apps are not my specialist field, but I get to hear a lot about them from the conferences and ACE Director meetings, so I have been witness to the Oracle Fusion myth from the beginning.

Cast your mind back several years and the whole concept of Fusion was launched at OOW. We were told that the middleware stack was going to become a single coherent product, rather than the buggy rag-tag bunch of technologies we had in 9iAS and AS10g. Sounds good so far, but then all the existing stuff got rebranded as Fusion Middleware when the products it was made up of hadn’t significantly changed. That’s confusing.

Fast forward a bit and we were expecting something like real Fusion Middleware to appear, then the BEA buyout was announced and WebLogic became the core of Fusion Middleware. Oh. So this wonderful coherent product that Oracle had been developing and we were expecting soon was swapped for a best-of-breed app server from an acquisition. Strange and a little disconcerting, but at least we have a better app server now, except that some of the existing features still required you to install the old AS10g stuff. Still the name Fusion is plastered everywhere.

Fast forward a bit more and we have got to a point where applying the term “Fusion” to the middleware stack is less insulting, but if anyone experienced Fusion along the way they would probably have been left with a bad feeling about what Fusion actually means. It’s very hard to overcome a bad first impression. Are Oracle really surprised that the term “Fusion” is associated with myth and confusion?

OK. That’s the Middleware. What about Fusion Apps? Well, the name includes the word “Fusion”, so it takes on all the bad connotations associated with the infancy of Fusion Middleware. Added to that, since the original announcement of Fusion Apps there have been numerous acquisitions, all of which have no doubt added to the confusion about what Fusion Apps actually is. Then we are told there is no natural upgrade from eBusiness Suite to Fusion Apps. It’s a new product and we have to migrate data to it as we would any new ERP. Next we are told that the initial release will only be a subset of the modules we require, so we will have to run it alongside eBusiness Suite. Wow. This is really confusing. That sounds like a half-finished ERP built on a half-finished middleware stack. Once again, are Oracle really surprised people react like this?

Now I’m not saying the Fusion Middleware is bad. It’s come a long way. I’m also not saying Fusion Apps are bad. I’ve seen the demos and they look amazing. I’ve also talked to people in that field who are genuinely impressed and exited by it. I believe it will be a big eye opener and possibly a game-changer for a lot of people. What I’m saying is I can totally understand when people on the outside of our little goldfish bowl have a really bad and confused impression of anything containing the term “Fusion”, because it does have a very long and sordid history.

In my opinion the term Fusion needs to be scrapped and replaced, then perhaps we can forget the history and focus on the now. Kinda like they did with Beehive. :)