Michael Dell at the BCS

The British Computer Society’s Elite group gathered in London yesterday for a Q&A session with Michael Dell.

For the techies among us, Mr Dell described how a couple of years ago he saw the rise of Web Service as challenging their existing enterprise server business. The response: to change technical and commercial direction.

There was an enterprise trend to virtualisation and an emerging market for massively scaleable “cloud” services: and these pull the market in opposite directions. Virtualisation is about mapping multiple servers onto single hardware. Cloud providers, and customers such as China’s Tencent QQ instant messaging service (which has 650 million subscribers), develop infrastructure using large numbers of straightforward devices. The key principles in this environment are strict adherence to a common environment, and a collapse of the complex layered architectures which have grown up in conventional data centres. At the same time, virtualisation of both compute resources and storage creates an enabling opportunity for enterprise users, through development of “private clouds”.

Moreover: SaaS and other trends encourage the enterprise customer to procure solutions, rather than systems; and, in response, Dell is no longer simply a hardware supplier.

What emerges is a picture of an entrepreneur, and a company, unlikely to get stuck in any one business model when the world is moving on. Perhaps that was the biggest take-away from his introductory remarks.

The larger part of the meeting was given over to Q&A. Some of the topics were:

  • Green IT: Dell is now itself a carbon-neutral company, but intends to make a far larger contribution through energy efficiency of its products. The latest Dell noteboook, for example, uses $7 of electricity per year; not long ago that would have been $100.
  • Solid state devices: in response to my own question, Michael Dell outlined how SSD is encroaching fast where its two advantages of lightness and fast response are valuable: high performance PCs and servers. More interesting though was his account of how Dell has influenced the storage vendors to think of themselves as knowing about fast and efficient read/write operations on any device, and to see firmware (e.g. for massively reliable servers) as their primary expertise rather than hardware
  • Dell and Microsoft: Dell see their products as being customer driven, with both Red Hat Linux and VMWare being important platform partners

Asked where he would invest a thousand dollars if (heaven forbid!) Dell collapsed and that was all he had left, the answer was Shanghai. Dell has seen growth pick up again in their business in China and in Asia more generally. This should be a good sign.

• BCS Elite
• Dell Computers (UK) and Michael Dell
• TenCent (US English page)

Computing: the science-engineering continuum

Professor Sir Tony Hoare is one of academic IT’s great names: one of the first UK Professors of computer science, and now associated with Microsoft’s Roger Needham Research Laboratory in Cambridge. What may not be so well realised is that his early days in IT included the decidedly practical delivery of the first commercial compiler for the Algol-60 language – the first language I myself learned as a postgraduate at Oxford less than ten years later. But, in the early 60s, everything was new and there was as much research involved in such a task as practical engineering.

The BCS’s London Group meeting yesterday evening was probably better attended than any I’ve been to, showing how widely recognised and respected Prof. Hoare is. He shared his thoughts about the two ends of the spectrum, and the collusion (no, not collision) between them. He stimulated a wide ranging discussion about the differentiating characteristics of “pure” exploratory science, and practical engineering. I’ll pick just a few, and reflect the discussion.

A scientific investigation focusses on the long term development of knowledge, or of an effective framework to understand and rationalise observations. It is as much interested in the details that don’t fit. In fact, probably more so: since these indicate the imperfections that will lead, in due course, to the flash of inspiration that creates a newer, better and more generalisable theory. We might say that a scientific theory is developed to stand for the foreseeable future, though “foreseeable” might be short-lived or very long term.

An engineer, on the other hand, is concerned to develop a serviceable, dependable product whether it be a bridge, a vacuum cleaner or a software module. The 80-20 rule applies; an engineer will either over-compensate for the unknown, to assure safety, or find a way to work round it. Innovation is a source of risk that has to be assessed and managed, and an engineer for preference will work on the basis of what has been successfully understood and used before. An engineering artefact is developed to meet a particular need and to stand for a known period of time. In many cases this is short term, until the next scheduled generation of the product is developed, although the designed-for period may be long and it may be considerably exceeded (think mediaeval buildings, for example).

Tony Hoare is interested in the science of correctness of programs. He argued that this endeavour is truly a science, based on the list of characteristics he (and the audience) had adduced. However, its target is the development of engineering dependability in the software that will be proved using the tools. He sees the link between the two as the necessary development of domain models which can themselves be scientifically proved, and can then be used as the basis for dependable production-scale engineering. He cited the parallel of the aircraft designer, who tests aerodynamics using a model in a wind tunnel. Such models must be of significant enough scale that the tests are realistic, but will not be production scale. Finding such domain models is itself a challenge; in some cases they may have to be developed.

Over refreshments, I talked briefly with Prof. Hoare about the challenge of developing tools to prove correctness. Their own correctness must of course be of a higher order than the correctness they are trying to prove, otherwise the error might be in the tool, not the artefact being tested! There’s no primary standard. If I understood correctly, there’s a bootstrap process which can be used to successively prove the correctness of elements of the tool. The necessity for proof of that process is what shows that this is science, not engineering!


Tony Hoare home page on Microsoft Research
Elliott Algol-60 (History of Programming Languages, Murdoch University, Australia)
• BCS London Central Branch past events; look here for the download of Prof. Hoare’s slides, not yet available