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Open and shut case
‘Gathering Clouds’ (March 2013) gives a good picture of the problem governments will have with cloud computing. Rhys Sharp of SCC notes that fundamental cultural change is needed and high levels of IT skills are still required. Steve Cliff of IBM suggests a "new category of supplier" may arise as a "cloud broker". In the light of these quotes, and the reference to getting SMEs involved, past history may be relevant.
In 1999 OECD warned of "supplier tie-in" or oligopolies in IT. In 2004 oligopolies were observed in public sector IT. In May 2011 the Public Sector Administration Select Committee (PASC) confirmed this and the Government response included the following.
"The Government recognises that open standards are vital in helping to avoid lock-in to a particular supplier or product and ensuring that data is portable and reusable. The Government agrees... that releasing public data has the potential to transform public services. Open standards and interfaces are vital in order to achieve this, and a key component of the ICT Strategy is to mandate agreed open technical and data standards across government."
ISO/IEC 26300:2006 standardised Open Document Format and the Conservative Policy Green Paper No 15 promised "open networks, open standards, open markets". As a result cloud computing should lead to non-proprietary offerings in the government cloud. That day may not come as the Office for National Statistics reorganised its site about two years ago and removed a lot of easily accessible statistics in favour of downloads of files containing all of the data on each particular item. These files are all in Microsoft Word or Excel format. The quantity of the data is so large and increases each month that it is unlikely that they will change them soon and the much vaunted cloud will have "supplier tie in".
I was an engineer in government service for 34 years and I have seen administrators’ attitude to professionals. Most professionals have been removed so the expertise to choose the right consultant or supplier is not there and I fear the “cloud brokers" may not be well chosen.
Alfred Reading MIET
Missed opportunity to cut jams
‘How to… cut traffic jams’ (February 2013) was both interesting and sad. Interesting, because it seems that at least some of the wonders that were foreseen more than 30 years ago are now working, sad because three decades back we missed an opportunity to lay the foundations of a system that would have allowed a truly impressive network to be quickly developed.
Between 1971 and 1981, the BBC Research Department developed a traffic information system known as CARFAX. It was originally devised as a counter to the German ARI system, which worked on the regional VHF broadcasting network in Germany. The EBU wanted to agree a European system, but we wanted to maintain our LF/MF networks whilst still extending our VHF/FM coverage, and we needed a traffic information service that would operate on all the sound radio outlets.
It was discussed by a group of experts from the road authorities, the police, the TRRL (as it then was), the declining British motor industry, and the broadcasters. Over a period of five years it was enormously improved and given a highly successful trial in the London area.
It would have required the use of a single MF channel, a network of between 80 and 100 low-power MF stations, and in 1981 the cost of the total transmission network was estimated at £5m. The additional chip required in the car radio would have added about £5 to the cost of the receiver.
Its benefits at the time were conservatively estimated by the TRRL to be between £5m and £10m per annum, with unquantifiable savings in accidents, police control, driver anxiety etc. The main attraction of the system was that it was dedicated, with a single line of communication between the information source and the road user.
But there were political objections, administrative problems and so on, and the timing was not good. In those years the BBC was passing through some difficult times (what’s new?). Anyway, much to the relief of the politicians and administrators, but with the barely suppressed fury of the engineers, the whole project was quietly shelved.
RS Sandell CEng FIET
Forces solution to skills shortage
Having read much here and in the wider press about the difficulties finding candidates for technical positions, I would like to report some good experience that my company has had sourcing skilled engineers for a large mixed-telecoms project.
The latest recruits to the team are all ex-forces engineers, who from the start have displayed excellent technical skills, attitude and leadership. It strikes me that others could benefit from considering this resource pool.
Although their technical qualifications may not be as readily recognised by private sector HR departments looking for ‘HND or equivalent’ type certificates, knowing what to look for, or use of a recruitment company that is able to match individuals’ competencies to a specific industry gives access to skills that have been proven ‘in theatre’, and that lives have quite literally depended upon.
We have, as a country, paid for the training that they have received, and can continue to benefit from their technical skills, and the additional mobility, aptitude and resilience that their experience brings with it, long after their active service years are over.
Kathleen Hodgson, MIET
Size isn’t everything
‘Journey to the centre of Big Data’ (April 2013) was an interesting account of the impact of information technology on our daily lives. However, the examples given depended very little on Big Data, but rather on data matching between traditional databases, supported by advances in data mapping and tagging, plus underpinning standards such as browser cookies.
To the extent that a ‘Big Data database’ is more than a marketing term, a useful definition would be ‘a database about very long binary strings that, as data entities, are described by the database and, as data elements, are contained in the database’. Such binary strings can be email messages and other unstructured documents, images, sound files, or even video files. Of course, the length of such data elements necessarily means that such databases often hold a lot of bytes. However, in understanding Big Data, it helps to remember that size isn’t important.
Malcolm Hamer CEng MIET
New York, USA
London needs a new airport
Arguing in favour of a new airport to the east of London (For & Against, April 2013), Daniel Moylan doesn’t mention a specific location. This is important because if it is to be built on virgin land then it will suffer the same disadvantages with regard to noise pollution as Heathrow does at present, and restrictions will need to be in place to limit aircraft take-off and landing at night.
Ideally, a new major airport to the east of London should be built on reclaimed land in the Thames Estuary where the noise pollution is well away from populated areas. This idea is not new and many readers will remember proposals put forward during the early 1990s for an airport with road links to motorways and a rail link to Ashford to join HS1.
As a global exporting nation we need a new major airport that can operate around the clock without restrictions on aircraft movements at night. We are a relatively small island with precious little virgin land available for the vast swathes of land needed. Moreover, in the light of our experience with operating Heathrow and Gatwick, and dealing with the objections to noise pollution raised by the surrounding population and the resulting misery that this aspect causes to individuals, there is a strong argument for locating a new major airport east of London away from the land-based population.
JO Persson CEng MIET
Worcester Park, Surrey
Solar’s bright prospects
I read with interest the letter from Richard Ely in the April 2013 issue of E&T about the withdrawal of BP from solar cell research. At the time when the company closed its UK research lab in the UK in the early 1990s, we had some research funding from BP and we were able to acquire some of their unwanted equipment.
Research has continued in Cambridge and elsewhere on a range of promising alternatives to the silicon solar cell - using semiconducting polymers, or with multilayer structures, using charge transfer nanocrystals, or in dye-sensitised solar cells - many of these without the environmental disadvantages of silicon . It might even prove possible with infra-red materials and appropriate geometry to bump up efficiency and overcome the fundamental quantum limits assumed for simple solar cells.
This is still a little way off, but local and national governments in many countries are taking steps to diversify our sources of energy. Fossil fuels are a hard act to follow with their low cost, energy density and convenience, but solar will play an increasing role.
Cottenham, Cambridge, UK
Fusion money better spent on thorium
Energy from fusion is one of the ‘Grand Challenges’ described in the March 2013 issue of E&T.. In an ideal world R&D on fusion generators would be a wonderful scientific and engineering project, but in these straightened times what a terrible waste of time and resources it causes!
We could have already solved the energy problem at a fraction of the cost and years ago if only a tiny bit of the fusion research effort had been put into (re)developing a Thorium fission generator, an intrinsically safe system with negligible nuclear waste compared with the current uranium machines. I despair!