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Microsoft

In the cloud

Gotta say, this makes sense.

What do a warehouse in North Austin and a building at Angelo State University have in common? They hold trillions of bytes of data about some of Texans’ most sensitive information, including health and education records.

The Texas Legislature created the twin data centers in 2005 to consolidate disparate data management operations at dozens of state agencies. But since then, as government programs churned out more and more electronic information about health care, highways, public schools and other key services, the cost to operate the facilities has ballooned.

This session, lawmakers are considering an overhaul of how the state uses its data centers, with an eye toward private tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft that own private networks of remote servers known as a “cloud.” Proponents say hiring such a firm to be the official keeper of much of the state’s data could save millions of dollars and modernize vulnerable government tech infrastructure. But detractors say the current set-up is working fine and that any kind of structural change would be laborious, expensive and potentially risky.

A decade ago, it cost $278 million to run the centers over the state’s two-year budget cycle; under the current spending plan, it costs about $489 million to operate them.

“What can we do to try to reduce those costs?” state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, asked state information officers at a recent committee hearing. “Today there’s a lot of options in terms of what we can do with the data center.”

Though some lawmakers have bristled at the idea of private companies storing Texans’ personal information in far-flung locations, proponents of the reforms say data security will be at the forefront of any decision they make.

“We are not signing a contract with anybody until we have a chance to find out what’s really going on here,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “The discussion about whether we do cloud and all that, we can have that discussion. I want to make sure — A, we’re protecting that information, [and] B, that we are keeping that information in Texas.”

Much of the data center debate this session has centered on a $1.5 billion deal that the Texas Department of Information Resources made with a French-headquartered company, Atos, to operate the facilities. In recent committee hearings, lawmakers have encouraged the agency to look at data storage options offered by cloud-computing service providers.

“I don’t understand why we’re so far behind here on this,” said state Rep. Donna Howard at a recent legislative hearing on data centers. The Austin Democrat noted that her city’s — and Texas’— reputation as a tech hub doesn’t jibe with the state government still “doing Medicaid on Excel spreadsheets.”

[…]

Last week, Nelson filed a bill that would require state agencies to consider cloud-based storage options when creating new government software applications. Another bill, authored by Capriglione, would create a technology modernization fund that agencies could use to pay for a transition to cloud-computing services.

State agencies already have some authority to bypass the data center and hire outside companies for certain data management projects, but only if the agency gets permission from the Department of Information Resources.

In an interview, Capriglione said he had heard from state officials, whom he declined to name, who recounted their frustrations working with a state data center they said was expensive and cumbersome.

“Here’s the reality — anyone that’s looking at this has come to the conclusion that cloud-based technology is significantly more secure, more resilient, more future-proof, than any sort of in-house data center client service,” Capriglione said.

As someone who works in IT, I agree with Rep. Capriglione. It’s not magic and it’s not set-it-and-forget-it, but it is industry standard now, and not to move in that direction would be weird and almost surely more expensive in the long run. Texas doesn’t have a great track record with large IT projects, but a lot of that was driven by bad ideas about cost-saving. Both of the bills above seem like the right idea. If you’re not moving forward in IT, you’re stagnating.

MS Houston

Meet our new technical overlords.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Microsoft will provide STEM education at schools, teach computer literacy skills to adults and transform Houston into a “Smart City” as part of a new partnership announced Friday.

“These sort of efforts become infectious and contagious,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Because of their presence, and the strength of their presence … I would venture to say that others will be motivated to do the same.”

Microsoft’s educational efforts will help boost the existing workforce while fostering the next generation of technology innovators. The Smart Cities element will look at improving city functions by adding sensors, collecting data and finding more efficient solutions.

Sensors, for instance, could be used to track buses and find more optimal routes that would have less congestion while being convenient for more people. It could also be used to determine if a bus is being driven too aggressively and consuming more gasoline than it otherwise would, said Cameron Carr, director of Internet of Things and Solutions for Microsoft.

After events like Hurricane Harvey, drones could be used to find people needing assistance or to determine areas that are flooded and impassible.

“We are right on the edge of creating this bold new world,” Carr said.

The Microsoft announcement is the latest in a string of technology developments as Houston seeks to become a hub for high-tech startups and venture capital.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which contains a few more details. It’s a little hard to say what this means right now – more specifically, it’s a little hard to say how long it will take for much of this to get rolled out – but I’m sure we’ll be seeing announcements soon. Putting my professional hat on for a moment, I hope this agreement includes security monitoring and incident response for all these IoT devices. Dwight Silverman has more.

News flash: Businesses still hate bathroom bills

IBM hates them.

As state lawmakers return to Austin for legislative overtime, tech giant IBM is stepping up its fight to defeat legislation it says would discriminate against children and harm its Texas recruiting efforts.

In an internal email sent Monday to thousands of employees around the world, IBM’s human resources chief outlined the New York-based company’s opposition to what the letter described as discriminatory proposals to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans. IBM sent the letter to employees the same day it dispatched nearly 20 top executives to the Lone Star State to lobby lawmakers at the state Capitol. A day earlier, it took out full-page ads in major Texas newspapers underlining its opposition to legislation that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and a cadre of far-right lawmakers have deemed a top priority.

“Why Texas? And why now? On July 18th, the Texas legislature will start a thirty-day special session, where it is likely some will try to advance a discriminatory ‘bathroom bill’ similar to the one that passed in North Carolina last year,” wrote Diane Gherson, IBM’s senior vice president for human resources. “It is our goal to convince Texas elected officials to abandon these efforts.”

[…]

The email IBM sent to employees on Monday echoed concerns businesses voiced in their letter to Abbott earlier this year, saying the company — which has more than 10,000 employees in Texas — is focused on defeating the bathroom proposals because they’re detrimental to inclusive business practices and fly in the face of “deep-rooted” values against discrimination targeting LGBT people.

“A bathroom bill like the one in Texas sends a message that it is okay to discriminate against someone just for being who they are,” Gherson, the company’s HR chief, wrote.

As do other companies.

CEOs from 14 leading employers in the Dallas area, including AT&T, American Airlines and Texas Instruments, are taking a public stand against a “bathroom bill” that would discriminate against transgender people in Texas.

On Monday morning, they delivered a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus. A bathroom bill, the letter says, “would seriously hurt the state’s ability to attract new businesses, investment and jobs.”

“Our companies are competing every day to bring the best and brightest talent to Dallas,” the letter says. “To that end, we strongly support diversity and inclusion. This legislation threatens our ability to attract and retain the best talent in Texas, as well as the greatest sporting and cultural attractions in the world.”

The letter is signed by Randall Stephenson of AT&T, Doug Parker of American Airlines, Gary Kelly of Southwest Airlines, Kim Cocklin of Atmos Energy, Matthew Rose of BNSF Railway, Mark Rohr of Celanese, Harlan Crow of Crow Holdings, Sean Donohue of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, Emmitt Smith of EJ Smith Enterprises, Fred Perpall of the Beck Group, David Seaton of Fluor, Thomas Falk of Kimberly-Clark, Trevor Fetter of Tenet Healthcare and Richard Templeton of Texas Instruments.

As the story notes, these efforts join other efforts by businesses to stop this thing. Such efforts have been met with an indifference bordering on hostility and contempt by Abbott and especially Patrick. I appreciate what all these companies and groups like TAB and the various chambers of commerce and visitors’ bureaus have done so far, which has been a tremendous help in keeping this awful legislation from reaching Abbott’s desk. But the big question remains what they will do after the special session gavels out, whatever the outcome of these efforts. I’ve had this question for a long time now. Between potty politics and the anti-immigration fervor of SB4, a lot of damage has already been done to our state’s reputation, and the men in charge keep wanting to do more. They’re not going to go away if they lose this session – they have the zealous will and a crap-ton of money powering them. Will these business interests, who have been getting so badly served by politicians they have generally supported, or at least tacitly accepted, in the past, put their money where their press conferences are and actively oppose Abbott and Patrick and their legislative enablers? Or will they bend over and take another lash from the paddle? One wonders at this point what they think they have to lose. The Chron has more.

Let’s use mutant mosquitoes to fight Zika

What could possibly go wrong?

The Bayou City’s teeming mosquito population spawns in dark, wet nooks and carries a slew of deadly tropical diseases that could ravage the region.

So Houston is pondering a sneak attack, something akin to a Trojan Horse. Harris County officials are negotiating with a British biotech company, Oxitec, to create and release mutant mosquitoes genetically engineered so that after they’re set loose in the wild, offspring die, and the mosquito population dwindles.

Deric Nimmo, principal scientist at Oxitec, said it is a paradigm shift – “the release of mosquitoes to control mosquitoes.”

If an agreement is finalized, Harris County could become one of the first locations in the United States to use the mosquitoes, going far beyond the chemicals and public-awareness campaigns the county has long relied upon.

[…]

Oxitec spun off from Oxford University 15 years ago to commercialize proprietary strains of insects, namely mosquitoes. The hope is that they can help reduce populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, among other deadly illnesses. The mosquitoes are common in the Houston region.

Oxitec inserts a “self-limiting gene” into a male mosquito and releases several into the environment. Those mosquitoes then mate with females – Oxitec claims their special males out-compete normal males – and the resulting offspring die before they become adults. Over time, the overall population of the Aedes mosquito declines.

Male mosquitoes do not bite and can’t spread disease.

The company has conducted field trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands and says it has reduced the Aedes mosquito populations by up to 90 percent in each location.

“It looks like we’re going to do or plan to do some sort of trial initially to test out the system,” Nimmo said.

Oxitec has yet to try out its technology in the U.S.

[…]

According to the FDA, if Oxitec wanted to conduct a field trial in Harris County, the company would have to submit an environmental assessment to the agency.

Another complication: Regulatory authority over Oxitec’s mosquitoes would then likely shift to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mustapha Debboun, director of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division, said working with Oxitec could provide another tool in the fight against Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

“We’re not abandoning the tried-and-true” approaches, said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who has been leading the efforts. “We’re willing to see – What can we add to the tried-and-true that can make this better, especially considering that the tried-and-true has some flaws?”

Unseasonably warm weather has prompted the division to boost staff during winter months. It has seven investigators now, compared to four, and two additional public education staffers, Debboun said.

In August, officials nearly doubled the number of Aedes mosquito traps across the county to 134. Harris County also continues to partner with Microsoft to develop high-tech traps that will sense and nab only certain species of mosquitoes, like those that carry Zika or dengue, and eventually hopes to utilize drones to find and target hot spots.

After receiving a federal grant, the county hopes by May to start research on whether mosquitoes in the region that could carry Zika are developing resistance to certain pesticides. The county also will use that money to test more mosquitoes for Zika, Debboun said.

“The crucial part of all this is to find out if the mosquito has the virus in it,” he said.

Yes, remember the Microsoft Mosquito Drone story? Nice to hear about it again, even if there isn’t much to report yet. As far as Oxitec goes, their approach is one I’ve heard about as a possible way to limit the growth of the A. aegypti population and the many diseases it helps propagate. Maybe it will work without serious unanticipated side effects, but we would be the US pioneers for such a test. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but as the consequences of doing too little are West Nile and Zika, I’m not sure how wishy washy one can be about this. What do you think?

Building a better mosquito trap

I love this story.

Microsoft Mosquito Drone

Harris County officials are teaming up with tech-giant Microsoft to find and research mosquitoes that could carry the Zika virus or other mosquito-borne diseases, the county public health department said Tuesday.

As part of “Project Premonition,” 10 traps will be placed across Harris County. Each trap can transmit data on when the mosquito was trapped, the temperature, barometric pressure and humidity during capture, according to a statement from the public health department.

Drones could then be used to help detect mosquito hot spots and to set and collect traps, according to the news release. The data collected could be used to predict when and where certain mosquito-borne diseases occur, ideally before they occur.

“We believe autonomous systems and cloud computing have enormous potential to improve monitoring and prediction,” said Microsoft lead researcher and project lead Ethan Jackson in the statement. “This partnership with Harris County’s state-of-the-art mosquito control program creates a unique opportunity to apply and shape next-generation technologies together with public health leaders.”

The computerized traps can filter out other flies and insects that aren’t being targeted. County officials emphasized that mosquitoes carrying Zika had not yet been detected in Harris County.

Follow that link in the story for the techie details behind this. Why not study mosquitoes to see where they are most prevalent, and base your response on that rather than spraying indiscriminately? Makes sense to me. Just please don’t anyone take a potshot at one of the drones if you see one in your neighborhood. It’s a bad idea on many levels.

Reading and writing and operating systems

Religion, politics, and operating systems – three things sure to start a spirited discussion.

By January 2016, when the Houston Independent School District’s latest tech initiative hits full stride, the district will issue laptops to every high school student and teacher in the district. All 65,000 of those laptops will run Windows 7 and cloud-based Office 365. For Microsoft, that’s sweet news: a solid little victory in the digital war for global domination.

As every tech geek knows, Microsoft, the world’s third-largest technology company, is embroiled in a three-way war with the first- and second-largest, Apple and Google. Each of those behemoths hopes to establish its own computing ecosystem as the world’s digital default, to be the system that everyone everywhere just seems to use on the fast-growing array of devices that connect to the Web. (Coming soon: Dog collars! Home thermostats! Cars!)

In the last two years, elementary, middle and high schools have been among the war’s hottest fronts. In part, that’s simply because K-12 education is a fast-growing, largely untapped market: According to analyst Phillip Maddocks of Futuresource, a research and forecasting company, only about 25 percent of U.S. students and teachers are currently equipped with devices such as laptops or tablets.

But that number is bound to rise. Last year, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the federal ConnectEd program, with a goal of making high-speed broadband available to 99 percent of American students by 2017. In January, Obama’s State of the Union address included a call to bring American classrooms up to date. Soon after, a group of private tech companies, including Apple and Microsoft, committed to donate $750 million in devices, software, training and Wi-Fi – as well as to offering deep discounts.

For those tech companies, such efforts are one part altruism, one part gold rush. As the remaining 75 percent of American students obtain devices and Wi-Fi, their hardware, software and habits are up for grabs.

“The scale is what’s so new,” says Cameron Evans, chief technology officer at Microsoft Education. “Before, there were always five computers in the back of the classroom. Until 2012, that was acceptable.”

As the story notes, Apple has been the leader in this space, but they’ve been vulnerable lately thanks to the high profile flop in Fort Bend and some embarrassing security failures in Los Angeles. Both were more due to design and implementation flaws than anything else, but they still look bad. Microsoft and Google have been competing on price and on compatibility, and have made some inroads. I know this is somewhat heretical to say, especially for an IT guy, but to some extent the OS and hardware don’t really matter. Basic concepts, about things like security and programming and how to use various apps, don’t really change that much from one device to the next. Of course, from the vendors’ perspective, they’re trying to lock in preferences. From my perspective, I’d like to see kids get experience with multiple platforms. Mostly I hope they get a solid curriculum that really takes advantage of the technology available to them. We’re still figuring out how to do that, so I hope we stay flexible and open-minded about it.