my recent reads..

Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters; From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima
Power Sources and Supplies: World Class Designs
Red Storm Rising
Locked On
Analog Circuits Cookbook
The Teeth Of The Tiger
Sharpe's Gold
Without Remorse
Practical Oscillator Handbook
Red Rabbit

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Released: Authlogic_RPX gem, the easiest way to support multiple authentication schemes in Rails

I've just made Authlogic_RPX public for the first time and invite any rails developers to take a look. It's a ruby gem that adds suppport for RPX authentication in the Authlogic framework for Ruby on Rails. With RPX, you get to support all the common authentication schemes in one shot (Facebook, twitter, OpenID etc).

Authlogic_RPX is available under the MIT license, and a number of resources are available:

The best place to find out more is the README, it contains the full background and details on how to start using it. Feedback and comments are welcome and invited (either directly to me, or you can enter them in the github issues list for the project).

Authlogic_RPX plugs into the fantastic Authlogic framework by Ben Johnson/binarylogic. Authlogic is elegant and unobtrusive, making it currently one of the more popular approaches to authentication in Rails.

RPX is the website single-sign-on service provided by JanRain (the OpenID folks). It complements their OPX offerings I wrote about recently. RPX abstracts the authentication process for developers and provides a single, simple API to deal with. This approach is great for developers because you only need to build a single authentication integration, and leave to JanRain the messy details of implementing and maintaining support for the range of authentication providers: OpenID, OAuth, Facebook Connect, AOL, Yahoo, Google, and so on..

If you want to learn more, there was recently a great podcast interview with Brian Ellin from JanRain on the IT Conversations Network: RPX and Identity Systems

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Twitpocalypse II: Developers beware of DB variances

Alert: "Twitpocalypse II" coming Friday, September 11th - make sure you can handle large status IDs!
Twitter operations team will artificially increase the maximum status ID to 4294967296 this coming Friday, September 11th.

"Twitpocalypse (I)" occured back in June, when twitter and application developers had to deal with the fact that message status IDs broke the signed 32-bit integer limit (2,147,483,647).

At that point, the limit was raised to the unsigned 32-bit limit of 4,294,967,296. Now we're heading to crack that this week. You can track our collective rush to the brink social celebrity meltdown at;-)

First reaction: OMG, it's taken only 3 months to double the volume of tweets sent over all time? That's a serious adoption curve.

Next reaction: once again, application developers are reminded that we unfortunately can't ignore the specifics of the database platform they are running on and just take it for granted.

It's actually quite common for development and production infrastructure to be subtly different. This is especially true in the Rails world where SQLite is the default development database, but production systems will often be using MySQL or PostgreSQL.

If you are using a hosted ("cloud") service it may even take some digging to actually find out what kind of database you are running on. For example, if you use Heroku to host Rails applications, most of the time you don't care that they run PostgreSQL (originally I think they were using MySQL but migrated a while back).

It's in situations like Twitpocalypse that you care. With a Rails-based twitter application, use an "integer" in your database migrations and you will have no problem running locally on SQLite, but you're app will blow up on a production PostgreSQL database when you encounter a message with status_id above 2,147,483,647.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: migrate to bigint data types.

And the even better news is that ActiveRecord database migrations make this a cinch if you have been using integer types in the past. For example, if you've been using an integer type to store "in_reply_to_status_id" references in twitter mentions table, the change_column method will happily manage the messy details for you:

class ForcebigintMentions < ActiveRecord::Migration
def self.up
change_column :mentions, :in_reply_to_status_id, :bigint

def self.down
change_column :mentions, :in_reply_to_status_id, :integer

It's always a good idea to check fundamental limits for the database platforms you are using. They are not always what you expect, and you can't safely apply lessons from one product to another without doing your homework.

Here's a quick comparison of integer on some of the common platforms:
  • SQLite: INTEGER. The value is a signed integer, stored in 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, or 8 bytes depending on the magnitude of the value. i.e. will automatically scale to an 8 byte signed BIGINT (-9223372036854775808 to 9223372036854775807)

  • PostgreSQL: INTEGER 4 bytes (-2147483648 to +2147483647). Use BIGINT for 8 byte signed integer.

  • MySQL: INT (alias INTEGER) has a signed range of -2147483648 to 2147483647, or an unsigned range of 0 to 4294967295. Use BIGINT is the 8 byte integers.

  • Oracle : NUMBER type ranges from 1.0 x 10^-130 to but not including 1.0 x 10^126. The activerecord-oracle-enhanced-adapter provides facilities for intepreting NUMBER as FixNum or BigDecimal in ActiveRecord as appropriate.

PS: there's been some discussion of why twitter would schedule this update on Sep 11th and publicise it as the Twitpocalypse II. I hope it was just an EQ+IQ deficiency, not someone's twisted idea of a funny or attention-grabbing stunt.

Monday, September 07, 2009

OPX: Almost, but not quite, what we need to get the Enterprise on the cloud?

A post today by Dana Gardner - Cloud adoption needs a support spectrum of technology, services, best practices - got me thinking again about the importance of a universal "business" identity to make cloud computing a reality for the enterprise sector.

I wrote some time ago about OpenID - the missing spice in Enterprise 2.0? The basic premise being that for Enterprises to truely exploit the exploding cloud offerings, they first need a way of exporting business identities to the web.

While most businesses at the moment have not officially adopted cloud services, the reality is that cloud services are already penetrating all organisations - whether it is sales people keeping touch with contacts on twitter, pre-sales engineers collaborating via google docs, or consultants using to get around email size restrictions when sending documents to partners and customers.

The issue I wrote about in my previous post is that we need to wake up and recognise that the flood gates are already open: we are mixing personal and business identities in a tangled mess that is becoming harder to unravel each day.

The risk for business? While free cloud services are giving a tactical boost, when employees move on, they will take all of their cloud-attached contributions with them. At best, a relationship management issue to recover, at worst you find all kinds of SOX and compliance issues lurking to bite back.

Now pretty much all IT-enabled organisations have a form of internal directory and authentication service (be it AD or an LDAP variant). My premise is that organisation do want to be able to exploit google apps, Zoho or Salesforce, but when doing so, we should care deeply that employees apply their business (not personal) identity to any transaction.

From a technologist's point of view, this essentially means that we want to take our internal authentication processes and expose them in a very controlled way on the web. SAML was the deathstar standards approach, but I think in reality OpenID has won the hearts and minds at this point.

One of my projects-on-the-drawingboard is an OpenID provider designed for the Enterprise - a drop in module that allows you to export internal identities from AD or LDAP in a very controlled and auditable way. It is still on the drawing board and has been for ages - if others are interested in making it reality, drop me a line.

However, I think the options may already be available. I am talking about janrain's OPX, although I'm not sure that any of their offerings are really designed for this specific scenario. Even the OPX:Groups offering, which seems to be the closest seems to require establishing a new directory of identities rather than leverging your existing assets. I may be wrong... still investigating and certainly appreciate a steer in the right direction.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Could Open Government initiatives help drive innovation in Singapore?

A few recent stories got me thinking about the status of open data in government, how that translates in Singapore, and in particular the importance of:
  • open web publishing standards

  • giving priority to open when developing web/data services

First, there was an interesting discussion on open government with Silona Bonewald, founder of the US League of Technical Voters, on the IT Conversations Network. Then the storm-in-a-teacup over a prematurely leaked LTA OPC announcement.

Tim O'Reilly made a convincing summary of the state of play and call for action in his recent O'Reilly Radar presentation at OSCON (and blog post Gov 2.0: It’s All About The Platform). Don't just use our voices to "shake the vending machine"; as technologists we should lend our hands to help prove that open is indeed a better strategy for Government.

And last but not least, Anil Dash posted a great review of the recent initiatives launched by the executive branch of the federal government of the United States in response to President Obama's Open Government Directive. Two notable achievements:

  • now publishes exclusively under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

  • is providing public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government, and I believe is the driver behind some incredibly useful services such as

The President's CIO Vivek Kundra has since even outlined a vision where the default setting for information created by the government should be public, not secret.

President Obama is racking up some serious credibility for being able to push innovation and adoption in government, and raising the stakes for Governments the world over.

Getting traction in Singapore

As someone who has adopted Singapore as their home, my first reaction was: "it could have been us". It chaffs to see Singapore's world-leading ICT adoption not always translating into world-leading technology innovation and service enhancement.

To be fair, Singapore's iDA Infocomm Adoption Programme and the iGov2010 Strategic Plan encapsulate many of the right sentiments. The issue is timing and rate of change. But for that, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long could easily have stolen President Obama's thunder.

But I guess the glory of being first isn't the point. Each government must run it's own race, with the focus being on sensible, timely initiatives to improve citizen engagement and stimulate innovation, the economy, and civil society in general.

There are two areas I personally believe deserve priority in Singapore, and are well within reach under the auspices of established strategies:
  • Promote citizen engagement by adopting an open publishing standard for Government web sites

  • Promote local innovation and technology development by giving priority to "Open" in all Government data initiatives.

Promote citizen engagement by adopting an open publishing standard for Government web sites

Case in point: Did you know that you cannot hyperlink to most government sites without first obtaining explicit permission?

I didn't believe it either until I started checking all the "Terms of Use" statements. This means, for example, that you can't post a link to the MOM list of Public Holidays on your corporate intranet without approval. To say that this flies in the face of how the web is intended to work is putting it mildly (remember what the H in HTML stands for).

mrbrown says it best in relation to the LTA brouhaha:
OPC scheme leaks online before Minister announces it. The internet is here, embargoes don't work. Tough.

Embergoes don't work, neither do attempts to prevent people from linking to a published, public internet website.

While trawling the various government Terms of Use statements, I was also struck by how widely they differ across all the government web properties.

Together, these failures to bring published government websites under some semblance of rational information rights cannot fail to hinder a real engagement of the intended consumers of the information.

Fortunately, the way forwarded has been mapped out clearly: with the example set by, and the brave souls who have laboured over the production of the Singapore adaptation of Creative Commons.

I would dearly love to see the Government adopt a Creative Commons License (perhaps: attribution, no derivative works) as the standard for web site publishing and doing away with all the divergent and restrictive legalese in existing Terms of Use statements.

Why is this important? True citizen engagement and transparency (of the kind attempted by will not succeed while Government terms of use still attempt to restrict access and use of information openly published on the web.

The results of my Terms of Use survey? 12 ministries prohibit unauthorised hyperlinking, 4 accept linking (at your own risk). I didn't count stat boards, but they typically have the more restrictive terms.

12 Ministries that prohibit Hyperlinking without Permission - 75% FAIL!

Wording varies, but generally you may only hyperlink to the homepage upon notifying in writing, and for other pages you must make a specific request and secure permission before making a hyperlink. Note that many statutory boards use similar terms. In case you think this may just be a holdover from the internet dark ages, note that all claim to have been "last updated" in the past 3 years, many in 2009.

4 Ministries that are Hyperlink-friendly - 25% win

The heroes;-)

Promote local innovation and technology development by giving priority to "Open" in all Government data initiatives

Earlier in August, I saw the latest press release from the Singapore Land Authority and Infocomm Development Authority concerning SG-Space (I would link to SLA's own press release from earlier in the year, but - you guessed it - according to their terms of use, I cannot without prior written permission. Here instead is the non-hyperlinked URL:

The goals of SG-Space are laudible - " provide an infrastructure, mechanism and policies to allow convenient access to quality geospatial information.." and "..creating a transparent and collaborative environment.." - however it seems to be a good example of how closed, proprietary approaches to innovation still dominate:
  • initial rollout will be limited to government agencies, this may mean for years given that this is now a $27m project over 5 years

  • the scope seems not only limited to provision of data services, but also includes the provision of applications

  • the intent is to extend to the private sector, and to the individual, but the timeframe and commercial basis for this are not clear

The approach has all the hallmarks of the traditional attempt to control and manage innovation through a series of government pilots, before gradually opening up a "fully baked" infrastructure for wider use. Valid, maybe, but one that ignores the lessons from successful API/service innovations such as flickr, google maps and amazon and so on. The open innovation route promises better results, faster:
  • going open early drammatically accelerates innovation due to the network effect (a key theme of Patricia Seybold's Outside Innovation

  • going open creates the opportunity for unexpected, unplanned innovation (who could have imagined a site like even 5 years ago?).

  • by engaging a broader community in the open, much more can be achieved for less (an good example being how allow everyone to contribute missing or new location details)

As Tim O'Reilly put it: DIY on a civic scale (he since adopted a more civic-minded "Do It Ourselves" as suggested by Scott Heiferman)

Although SLA talk about wanting to "Start with pilot projects and be quick to scale up" (Mr Lam Joon Khoi, Chief Executive, SLA), by choosing a closed route there is the distinct possibility that quick just isn't quick enough. Rather than harness the collective energies of the technology community in Singapore, it's more likely to see private efforts stalled completely, or diverted into "Do It Ourselves" initiatives (e.g. OpenStreetMap).

A largely unsung example of how "open" can work very successfully in Singapore is BookJetty. By opening up it's information services, the National Library Board has provided the opportunity for an individual entrepreneur and technologist to combine government and non-government information and create an amazingly compelling service that is not only relevant in Singapore, but also has a global audience.

BookJetty is an example of service innovation that the NLB itself could not have attempted. Since the needs that BookJetty serves are at least one step removed from the core mission of the NLB, I doubt they would even be in the position to officially identify and imagine such a service. But by opening their information services to the private sector and individuals, they paved the way for others to innovate in unimagined ways.

Imagine what possibilities there would be for improving the efficiency and level of service if a similar approach was taken to Government Procurement by GeBIZ? (sigh, another site that prohibits hyperlinks)

I think it's worthwhile pausing to consider the restrictions imposed by
data accessed through do not, and should not, include controls over its end use.

This is fundamental to the idea of Government as a Platform. It recognises that government does not have a monopoly on creativity and innovation, and that promoting private sector innovation and entrepreneurship is a priority.

Here is an opportunity for Singapore to greatly boost innovation and ecomomic development by giving early priority to openness in all Government data and service initiatives. The community is certainly brimming with ideas (see what was discussed at a recent WebSG meeting for example).

Singapore seriously does have a small, but vibrant, technology "startup" community. The Government does a great deal to try and stimulate entrepreneurship in this sector, but I would say the results have been middling at best. The main support is in terms of grants and programs (offered by MDA, iDA, Spring and EDB for example), and the opportunity to secure standard government contracts to work directly for the public sector.

Why is this important? I think the time has come to seriously consider how Government can significantly accelerate local technology innovation and economic development by giving serious, strategic priority to opening up it's data and service platform. The iDA Web Services adoption strategy has in fact already lit the path, but it seems to miss the high level push it needs, and a recognition that it most definitely does not mean that Government needs to "Do It All Themselves":
..the programme targets government agencies encouraging them to make available information or services via Web Services. The end result would be citizens making use of richer services via their preferred access points.

Conclusion (or Hypothesis?)

I guess it boils down to a belief that "Open is Better" when applied to government data and services: both for the benefit of civic dialogue and engagement; and to maximise the stimulus for economic development in the local technology sector.

But I wonder if my thoughts are just "outliers"? I'd be very interested to hear more real examples from people of:
  • successful innovations that have been enabled through the use of existing open data/services offered by the public sector

  • areas you desperately would like to innovate in, but are being held back by closed or inaccessible services

Whether you agree with the priorities I am suggesting or not, I hope most would think that this is an important subject to be discussing.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Making HackerspaceSG: The Zouk of Geekdom

The technical/geek community in Singapore has been showing some vibrant signs of life in recent times.

  • geekcampsg some 80 or so people gave up their Saturday for 12 solid hours of geekdom - from robotics, to natural language processing, to android development and more

  • Singapore Ruby Brigade is going from strength to strength - last Thursday's meetup at wego packed in some 30 people (I guess). They had to kick us out after 10pm and 3 hours of presentations, questions and discussions. That didn't stop most from gathering around the corner for supper that ended after midnight!

The next project is more ambitious: establish a Hackerspace in Singapore. Hackerspaces are community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects (more)

In order to get this off the ground, a pledge drive has started. Find out how to pledge a donation.

Updated 5-Sep: pledgie no longer being used for the donation drive, so remove the badge

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

+0.1: Oracle Database 11g R2 now GA for Linux

Oracle has released Oracle Database 11g R2 today - currently only the Linux version, with other OS to follow.

The 11gR2 documentation is not yet available on OTN or for download yet, but I note it is already available online if you want to stay up tonight to digest all that's new. Chris Kanaracus' PCWorld review is one of the first to hit the streets.

I've yet to digest all the changes, but in general I'd call this a "refinement" release after what's been a very solid initial 11g release. It is interseting to see the cloud features creeping in though, for example backup to Amazon S3.

11g R1 has now been out for about two years, and while technically it was the "polish" needed to round out the major shift to 10g, my personal experience is that 11g adoption has been pretty slow, and mainly the result of fresh installs rather than upgrades. This is to be expected given that most customers fit into one of two camps: those still stuck on pre-10g, and those who finally got it and moved to 10g (few of whom are yet keen to regroup for a move to 11g). Apparently, Oracle estimates about 10-20% of customers have implemented 11g which sounds about right.

As fitting my tradition (going back to a very old and tired joke), this means the tardate blog gets a +0.1 increment. w00t!