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Shahid Shah Architecture & Engineering Blog

Balsamiq Mockups is a good tool for requirement elicitation

We’ve all heard how a substantial number of software projects fail or are cancelled routinely. For years developers have said “if only the requirements were right, the software would have worked right.” Intuitively we all understand that the better the user community (business users in many cases) can get the product defined the more likely the software will work. Agile processes and methodologies insist that the best way to do this is to show early and show often the fruits of the development labor but hold back on writing pages and pages of specifications.

A new category of software, known as prototyping, application simulation, or application modeling tools, allow end users to create quick prototypes and workflows that can be handed to developers to do the actual coding.

A while back I recommended taking a look at Axure but recently I’ve seen another one that I like just called Balsamiq Mockups. I still like Axure a bit more because of the artifacts it generates and it’s overall much more sophisticated but Balsamiq also does a great job and has an XML format that developers can use for generating the artifacts themselves.

If you can actually get your end users or business customer helping define your custom projects using a prototyping or simulation tool almost any amount of money is worth the investment if your projects are important.

How To Demo Your Startup

This is an article I wish I wrote. It’s about how to demonstrate your startup or business idea to a stranger on the phone or in an audience. Since people pitch me their products (which I enjoy, of course), I see lots of demos every month. At then end of each demo I almost always give advice on how the demo could have gone better and the folks at TechCrunch have captured it quite nicely. Check it out and learn from both Part I and Part II.

The Evolution of Virtualization: Qumranet joins Red Hat

I saw this press release that caught my eye (thanks, Rich):

Red Hat today announced the acquisition of Qumranet, Inc. The acquisition includes Qumranet’s virtualization solutions, including its KVM (Kernel Virtual Machine) platform and SolidICE offering, a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), which together present a comprehensive virtualization platform for enterprise customers. In addition, in connection with the deal, Qumranet’s talented team of professionals that develop, test and support Qumranet solutions, and its leaders of the open source community KVM project, will join Red Hat.

This is very good news for the free (built-in an OS) virtualization market.

XTS’s Citrix reporting tools just keep on getting better

It has been some time since I last wrote about XTS, a rapidly growing virtualization management vendor focused on the Citrix market. In my recent interview with Eric Spiegel, CEO, I found out that XTS has had many important changes this year. On the product side, they launched a new, more powerful version of their analysis and reporting solution and renamed it Introspect for XenApp. On the staffing side, they added two Citrix sales veterans including Charlie Clements, the former Citrix VP of Americas. Getting Charlie was a big deal and I commended Eric for snagging him.

But, most interesting to me was that last week they released a free utility that enables Citrix administrators and architects to easily create configuration reports for their Citrix farms.

Unlike the full product Introspect, which is focused on usage data captured in the Resource Manager summary database, the free configuration report generator utilizes the ubiquitous Citrix data store and features the same flexible, easy to use interface that they have always had in Introspect for quickly creating reports exactly the way you need them.

I see it as being useful for the following tasks:

  • Documenting implementations and upgrades
  • Creating baselines for troubleshooting, audits and disaster recovery
  • Identifying incorrect server configurations, either to solve a problem or proactively reduce help desk calls
  • Ensuring consistency of hotfixes across a Citrix farm

Additionally, integration with Active Directory can be leveraged for better insight into user and application assignments. Other bells and whistles like automated scheduling, report distribution via email and the ability to customize look and feel of report output can also be found in this robust piece of free code.

Anyone can download the free configuration report generator from the XTS website. It is currently packaged as a fully functional virtual machine and includes a sample Resource Manager summary database so you can try Introspect’s starter templates to evaluate the historical usage reporting and analysis capabilities as well. Please also note that they recently simplified their pricing model and now base it on the number of Resource Manager summary databases, which makes Introspect very affordable in my opinion.

If you are a Citrix administrator or architect I suggest checking out this free utility from XTS which will probably help you save time and possibly some headaches in the future.

If you’ve already downloaded a copy and tried it, drop us a line here and let us know how it’s working out.

OS choices not as easy as they once were

As most of us probably know, Windows Server is currently the most popular choice for most “mission critical” packaged applications for office automation — but, that’s changing. According to Forrester Research, “firms name a wide variety of operating systems (OSes) that they use for critical apps, and 29% name two or more. More than half of North American enterprises would consider switching OSes, and among them, Linux is the top choice, with 37% of switchers.”

What does this mean? For one, don’t just assume Windows is the only game in town. It also means that your customers are going to want more control over their OS decision. My own work in the government consulting arena has shown that non-Windows server are gaining popularity as well (anecdotally).

The best way to “future proof” yourself is to choose an operating system that you can easily deploy as a virtual appliance. I’ve been recommending this to most of my clients for the past few years but it’s even more important now. What this means is that instead of shipping package software with an installer, just ship a completely stripped down virtual appliance running either Linux or or free operating system and include your database, OS, app, and everything together in one “system”. Later, if users want to move to a different database they simply switch configurations.

To help with your virtual appliance building, installation, and maintenance check out rPath. They’ve got some nice solutions when you’re building either physical or virtual appliances.

Management 2.0

Are CIOs seen as obstacles to innovation? In a nice interview with Gary Hamel, Allan Alter at CIO Insight writes:

The efficiency-focused management model has run its course, says strategist Gary Hamel. To see the future of management, look to the Internet, open source, free markets and democratic institutions.

It’s a good article. Some other interesting snippets:

Has management as we know it reached the end of the road? Strategy expert Gary Hamel thinks so. Yes, traditional management approaches have led us to achieve great things. “If you have a couple of cars in the garage, a television in every room and a digital device in every pocket, you can thank the inventors of modern management,” he writes in his upcoming book The Future of Management (Harvard Business School Press, October 2007; $26.95). But our century-old emphasis on planning, organizing and controlling won’t help companies solve their 21st century problems. In an era marked by global competition and commoditization, adaptability, speed and creativity are essential for survival, says Hamel, whose previous books, “Leading the Revolution” and “Competing for the Future” (with C.K. Prahalad), earned him a reputation as one of the great strategic thinkers of our time. “The old management model is simply not good enough.”

The future management model is taking shape, but some aspects are already evident, Hamel told CIO Insight executive editor Allan Alter. Companies will finally begin to be as open and democratic inside their doors as societies are outside those doors. Go/no-go decisions on projects and investments now made by a handful of executives will be made collectively by hundreds of employees.

Talent will matter far more than titles. And one of the most important catalysts and models for 21st century management will be the Internet.

If you’re a manager today, especially an IT manager, it’s a good article to check out.

Running ColdFusion applications on Java using the smith project

I’ve written thousands of lines of ColdFusion in my web-career (the last line being around 2001) and I was always impressed by CF’s capabilities. I just ran across this new freeware (not open source yet, though) project that allows ColdFusion to run on Java without paying anything for a CF server. Seems very cool.

Check out the Smith project:

Smith is a freeware, cross-platform ColdFusion engine, written entirely in Java. Running on the top of Java Runtime Environment and Java Servlet Container, it can be virtually deployed on any operating system and work with any web server. Smith represents lightweight, yet reliable alternative to the existing ColdFusion servers. It supports most important CF features (see Features) and already drives several large ColdFusion applications.

Deeply integrated in J2EE, Smith works as part of ordinary Java Web application and can easily be used together with servlets and JSPs. The server behaviour is easily configurable through the simple Web interface where database connections, debugging options, server mappings and more can be set.

Smith is freeware software, which means that it comes with permission for anyone to use, copy, and distribute it. It is also being seriously considered to open-source it.

Download and try fully functional version of the Smith engine.

Technical leadership advice

Many of my younger colleagues often ask about what some of the most important leadership aspects are for technical managers like team leads or architects. There are no hard and fast rules but here are some things I’ve learned over the years:

  • Make Decisions. This is one of the most important aspects of leadership — just making a decision and not analyzing for weeks or months. No amount of evidence or information will ever “be enough” and at some point you’ll need to make a decision. Your team can see if you are timid or if you take risks. Leadership is about decision making and if your decision making skills or risk taking ability are limited, don’t bother trying to lead. I’ve seen many architects and so-called “team leads” that try to get their bosses to make their decisions for them so they don’t get in trouble for making “the wrong ones”. Big mistake.
  • Lead by Example. Leadership is about direction and if you want to lead, you’ll need to make sure you take charge and establish that you know where you want to go. But, be prepared to demonstrate that you do what you ask your team to do. If you ask everyone else to do something but don’t do it yourself, your team will lose respect.
  • Be transparent. You work with bright people and although they may not be your equals in experience or knowledge, they will know when you are making decisions based on whim or reason. If you can’t explain your decisions in a way that your team can comprehend then you’re not a good leader.
  • Mentor. Good leaders create the next group of leaders, not just bark orders. If you’re not regularly mentoring and training, you’re not doing your job. And, if you mentor well you can let your team make many of the decisions without you and you’ll be able to trust that their decisions will be as good as yours.
  • Be inclusive. You’re the leader and can make all the decisions and everyone knows that. But, if you’re not including input from everyone you’re losing valuable data and a chance to build a cohesive team.

Independent Verification and Validation: The NASA Approach

Very few of us deal with the kinds of problems that engineers at NASA face — except for perhaps other engineers working in safety critical fields like avionics and medical devices. I live nearby NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), which is home to one of the most advanced software engineering labs in the world. As you can imagine, they take their engineering processes very seriously so when they put together an event open to the public I usually attend.

Recently they put together a talk on Independent Verification and Validation: The NASA Approach. This presentation described how verification and validation is executed within NASA. It “described what IV&V is and what it is not, the process that NASA uses to determine what projects the IV&V Program will work with, the approach that the IV&V Program takes to planning the tasks to be executed and how those tasks are executed.”

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