Monday, February 27, 2006

UKOUG Super SIG - 14-MAR-2006

Just over two weeks until the UKOUG Super SIG and we chairs are just figuring out what we're going to say in the start and end sessions. I do know there will be only a minimal mention of the F-word (that's Fusion, mister!)

The Super SIG is a joint day between the Development Engineering, Modelling & Design and Application Server SIGs. It's a bit like the conference only without keynotes and an exhibition i.e. just the interesting bits (am I allowed to say that? Oh well, I've said it). These SIGs have an overlapping audience but we frequently don't get the level of attendance that the database and Applications SIGs get, for reasons that are both complicated and mysterious. So last year UKOUG decided to have a combined SIG day with three streams. This was a roaring success and we've decided to run it again this year. If the success is repeated the Super SIG will become a permanent fixture in the UKOUG calendar.

I put together the DE SIG stream and I think it is a strong one. We have my colleague Ivan Pellegrin talking on Customer Data Hub and Data Quality. The whole Data Hub thing is one of Oracle's initiatives that seems like a good idea but doesn't seem to get a lot of attention. Then we have Jonathan Ellard of Oracle Consulting presenting a case study on XML Publisher, placing it in the context of Oracle's other reporting tools. Mark Rittman may think we're stepping on his toes but tools are part of our remit and a couple of attendees at previous SIGs have expressed an interest in finding out more about XML Publisher and how it compares with Reports and Discoverer. Jonathan hasn't yet got written clearance from the client, so he may have to present the case study in an anonymised version, which is always a tough on to pull off.

Next up is the blogosphere's very own "Bobalicious" Bob Baillie (providing he survives his snowboarding holiday in one piece). As those familiar with his blog may have guessed, Bob's going to be talking about applying Agile practices to Oracle development projects. Lastly, Sue Harper, who we got on a free transfer from the M&D SIG, will be giving an overview of SQL Developer (AKA Raptor).

What is unusual about this line-up is that there are no presentations on Forms or Java. For a long time the DE SIG has really been the Forms SIG; in the last couple of years as Oracle has started to position Forms as a J2EE tool and to put the spotlight on JDeveloper we have done lots on Java. Our Oracle buddy is the very wonderful Duncan Mills after all. Still, there's a lot more to Oracle development than GUI tools and I hope this SIG will emphasise the fact.

The afternoon will finish with all three SIGs coming together for a presentation by Debi Platt of the Department of Work and Pensions on assistive technology for building accessible software. This is an important area which doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves, and which legally we are obliged to give it. That is why we decided it ought to be a joint session rather than be assigned to one SIG's stream.

The other SIGs have equally interesting agendas. The venue, Baylis House in Slough, is very pleasant and the lunch last year was top notch. If your organisation has a UKOUG membership then please come along. Because there are three SIGs on the same day each membership can send along three delegates. So, if your membership is dominated by one or two people who go to everything then this is the perfect opportunity to attend for free. Hope to see you there.

Friday, February 24, 2006

How to ask a question the really dumb way

There's a thread on the Metalink forum which is a splendid example of how not to ask a question. The OP includes sample data with a typo in it. Unfortunately this typo makes it very difficult to understand the questioner's precise problem. When the a responder points this out the OP loses his rag, the initial responder really loses his rag and it sadly deteriorates from there. Most entertaining.

The teaching is: in this modern world of instant communication where the lingua franca is often people's second or third language it is to easy to imagine you're being dissed when you're not. The clue is: if somebody uses the word A$$HOLE they probably are dissing you, but if all you see is something that might be meant sarcastically then they're probably not dissing you.

Ideally, people would re-read what they've typed a couple of times and re-word infelicitous phrases before pressing Send but who really does?


I actually wrote this post in an internet cafe under the most unforgiving deadline of all: expiry of my paid-for half hour. This meant I didn't test the link in my post and I would like to thank Peter Lewis for taking the time to put the correct one in his comment. The other problem was that I wrote the original title as How to answer questions the really dumb way whereas the real dumbness was obviously on the part of the asker. I have corrected both of these faults. Given my comments on posting at haste without proof-reading, the irony is stunning.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

We can imagine it for you wholesale

Last night I attended a fascinating lecture at the BCS: Dr Richard Barbrook on Post-Industrial Imperialism - The imaginary future of the information society. This was an examination of the origins of the internet. Not its technical origins but its political, philosophical and sociological origins. The key question is, if ARPANET was supposed to be a communications network for use after a nuclear war why was it made out of flaky computers instead of almost indestructible switches? Because it wasn't really about post-nuclear communication, it was about demonstrating the superiority of the American future.

Barbrook's intriguing premise is that the internet is the future we've been promised for over forty years now. He started off with Marshall McLuhan. We've lived so long inside a cloud of McLuhanisms - the global village, the medium is the message, yadda yadda - that it's easy to forget that his key vision was the usurpation of the dominant print culture by an electronic one. Now, with the maturing of the internet, we are living in something approaching McLuhan's information society. (But Tony Blair and others are still saying we need to move to a "knowledge economy". Will this darned future ever arrive?)

Barbrook then traced the rise of post-industrialism as a countervailing philosophy to Communism. This was part of a general mobilisation of the social scientists to fight the Cold War on the intellectual front in the same way that natural scientists were striving to beat the Russians on the technological battlefield. The Third Way, the Affluent Society, the Great Society: these coinages of the fifties and sixties asserted not just how much more modern was American society but the inevitability that all societies would evolve in such a fashion.

So were does the internet fit into all this? Well, at the same time Eastern Bloc thinkers, in the wake of the death of Stalin, were positing the Unified Information System. This gigantic network of computers, linking up every node of the economy, would replace the centralised bureaucracy of the five-year plan with mathematical programs. The fear in the US was that this Cybernetic Communism would be a second refutation of democracy's advanced technological status following hard on the heels of Sputnik and Gargarin. They needed to prove not just that that the American vision of the future was better but that democracy was better at realising the future. So ARPA poured millions of dollars into delivering on McLuhan's vision. Hence ARPANET, hence the internet.

Finally Barbrook took us on a quick trot through the Vietnam War. He highlighted it as the first electronic battlefield, with computers guiding bombing missions, planning campaigns, running simulations. And, of course, the infamous Body Count was a computer produced tool for assessing the nearness of an American victory and it was every bit as accurate as the average Excel pie chart is today. Of course, McNamara's background in automobile manufacturing also had a role shaping the technocratic approach the Americans took but that doesn't detract from Barbrook's point.

The irony was that the pre-industrial Vietnamese guerillas understood far better than the American technorati that the real electronic battlefield was television. From the Tet Offensive in 1968 to the re-enactment of the fall of Saigon for the TV cameras that weren't there the first time, everything the NVA did was assessed in the light of how it would look on the six o'clock news. Despite the fact that the Americans were deploying cutting edge technology on the battlefield in the service of a new definition of geo-political interest they were fighting an old-fashioned war, of the kind von Clausewitz would have recognised. It was the Viet Cong who were fighting a post-modern war.

Barbrook finished off his presentation with an exhortation. The internet was the future as refracted by the lens of the Cold War. But cold war is over and it's time to invent new futures. This would be preferable to the current "new idea" - the Clash of Cultures - which is just the Cold War rebadged. The echoes of Vietnam in the Iraq imbroglio are compelling. I have seen the future and it's a re-run.

Having attended a number of training courses, seminars and presentations recently I am aware of the gap between academe and the usual business talk. Barbrook was confident, fluent and on top of his subject. He did use slides (Flash not Powerpoint, he is that revolutionary!) but it consisted of apposite pictures (not clip art) and relatively few words other than well-chosen quotes. Besides, you've got to admire a man whose opening line to a British Computer Society meeting is, "I'm not a techy, I've got a Mac."

In case it's not abundantly clear I thoroughly enjoyed this lecture. It reminded me of some of the enthusiasms of my youth - history, the Vietnam War, cultural studies, sixties American SF - and made it seem slightly less unlikely that I ended up as a database developer. Barbrook has written a book, Imaginary Futures, the draft of which is available for downloading. In an aside he observed that far from factories turning into universities we've ended up with universities becoming like factories. So do your bit to reverse this trend by printing a copy on your work's printer today!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Hacking Oracle using Google Fu

A rather excitable young person has just posted to the OTN forums on the topic Oracle...Most Insecure Database!. The thrust of which is that they have read the AppSec white paper on using Google to identify vulnerable databases which can then be hacked using known passwords for the usual accounts and SQL injection.

The interesting part is that, if I have understood them correctly, they have actually used the techniques in this paper to hack databases. Hence their Chicken Licken schtick. From other postings I know this person is a relative beginner (they've done the OCA course a month ago but not taken the exams yet). So it is obviously pretty easy for anybody with a little knowledge to get into insecure Oracle databases through iSQL*Plus.

The poster draws one conclusion from this - that Oracle is inherently insecure - when perhaps a more valid conclusion is that many Oracle databases are set-up by people too ignorant or too lazy to put even token protections in place.


I have clarified this with the original poster, and the database they have hacked is their own trial server and not someone else's.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Intellect "After 5"

Last night I attended an Intellect "After 5" briefing on Grid Computing, co-sponsored by the Welsh Development Agency. I did learn a few things. For instance, who knew the Welsh made wine (and that it was surprisingly not bad)? Or whisky (not tried yet)?

The actual stuff about computing was very general. The first half consisted of an overview of "Grid computing" by a couple of nice blokes from ThoughtWorks. Ben and Sam focused on computational grids (like SETI@home) rather than data grids. Hence no mention of Google or Amazon, of Sun's utility computing model or even RAC. Still it was interesting to learn that Novartis are using the scavenging technique to assess candidate drugs. By downloading a screen saver program to 2700 of their employees' desktops they built a computational grid equivalent in crunch to the fifteenth most powerful supercomputer in the world. Apparently there are licensing implications for such an approach (or maybe they were talking about RAC after all!)

The second half was some evangelising on "globally distributed endeavour" from Dr Alex Hardisty of Cardiff University. Again it was interesting to hear about things like the medical community's response to the SARS outbreak in Taiwan but I don't think Alex quite made the link between experiments in collaborative working and Grid computing in a commercial environment. This felt more like Video-Conferencing 2.0 than anything else. I don't doubt that he is correct in saying that the future of the internet is going to be more about collaboration than anything else. But I think he underestimates the scale of the task. The real problems are not technical they are political. When was the last time you heard the phrase "joined-up government" being used in any way other than ironically?

I suppose I'm not the target audience for these Intellect briefings. Intellect's remit is to raise general awareness of IT matters in industry generally so the briefings are very non-technical. Nevertheless, I feel they missed a trick by failing to cover data grids adequately. Computational grids fit relatively narrow problem spaces: lots of repetitive calculation over discrete chunks of data. Most commercial users are likely to find data grids more applicable to their present needs. That's why it would have been useful to have more discussion about the IT behind Google or Amazon, both businesses where the scalability and performance of grid computing are key to their successes.

The other thing it would have been useful to learn about is progress towards the commoditisation of grid computing. The few examples of successful grid implementations I've heard of tend to be domain specific projects - hand-rolled, hardwired, hard coded. It's really only going to take off when the solutions become truly generic. Does that sound like RAC? Hmmm....

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Raptor RIP but SQL Developer zips!

I have just installed EA4 of what we used to call Raptor. Is it just me or is the performance no longer Teh Suck? In fact, SQL Developer has a start-up time of perfectly acceptable dimensions. It's still not quite as fast as TextPad but it's getting there.

And they fixed the bug I raised last Wednesday too!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

QUTE looks, er, cute

Finally QUTE is available for download! The Quick Unit Testing Engine is the latest offering from Steven Feuerstein (Whom God Preserve) and is well worth a look. It's a tool for declaratively building PL/SQL unit tests. That is, QUTE provides a GUI for specifying test inputs and expected outputs; the tool generates the actual test code and executes it. There's lots of features for customising the code, defining test fixtures, etc. We can export QUTE test suites to a file. This means we can put them in source control alongside the PL/SQL application.

Essentially it is an evolution of his utPLSQL API. I love utPLSQL: it's a major contribution to code safety and I never understood why more people didn't use it. Perhaps everybody else always gets things right first time. I see there is a function so we can import our existing utPLSQL tests into QUTE. Unfortunately this hasn't worked for the two suites I've tried it with. I think this feature is an important one as I don't want to have to bounce between two different testing tools.

My main reservation is that when the program failed with a PLS-6502 error QUTE crashed and had to be re-started. I don't think that is very friendly. My other concern is more philosophical: QUTE isn't Test First. By its very nature we have to have a program unit signature before we can code a test. But once over that hump I'm sure we can get into a more Test Driven cycle.

Steven is still not certain about the roadmap yet. But he stated on the utPLSQL forum that QUTE will remain free for the foreseeable future. And as QUTE offers the ability to generate utPLSQL test suites we will retain our investment in the tests whatever he eventually decides.

At the moment QUTE is beta and there's plenty of room for improvement but I still think everybody ought to start using it now. Don't Google for it (Qute is the name of a FireFox icon set and several other things): download it from here.

Update: 15-FEB-2006

I downloaded QUTE r3 last night and they've fixed the utPLSQL import bugs. Hurrah!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

How do you pronounce Oracle Application Express?

Okay, so HTMLDB was a bit of a mouthful but it's still a good three syllables short of Oracle Application Express. And at least it was short to type. OAE is no good either. It sounds like Tom just after Jerry whacks his toe with a hammer. Oh!Eh!Eee!

I expect the creatives in Marketing have sunk many martinis into the quest for a new name but this one is just not as meaningful as HTMLDB. Furthermore, given that we already have Oracle Applications, Oracle Express and Oracle Express Edition this new name just seems destined to cause confusion. Has Larry imposed some kind of budget on the number of words that can be used in products names?

One of the good things about Raptor is its cool name. That is a name clearly targetted at hax0r d00dz (or least people who got into computing through Amiga and Spectrum games). What we need is a similar cool and easy to pronounce name for HTMLDB. Not another dinosaur. Something cuter, friendlier but just as smart. Project Meerkat anybody?


Since posting this it has occured to me that a compromise solution could be to use the same convention as when Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Not OAE but The Application Formerly Known As HTMLDB, which gives us the very nice acronym TAFKAH ("As Ivor Jones awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect").

On RAC, death and taxes

Yesterday I attended a briefing for Partners on Oracle 10g New Features and Grid sponsored by SCC at Oracle's City office. The bulk of the presentations were done by James Anthony, who's one of those scary OCM types. James presented a very dense set of sessions which contained lots of useful information. Martin Dale from Sun was also there to talk about the new Niagara chips. I think we'll definitely be looking at the T2000 servers for our web server and data mart.

I must confess I originally signed up for this event because it was free and it was a day out of the office but the timing was actually very handy. We are currently specifying the architecture of the next phase of my current project right now, and migrating to 10g and Grid are key objectives for me. In the pub afterwards, Tim Hilton (SCC's Oracle Practice manager) made the point that RAC is a win-win situation. The high availability combined with cheap(-ish) components keeps the bean-counters happy and the techies get to play with some gnarly technology.

I should have known better

Originally there was supposed to be a RAC demo but unfortunately some navvy put his spade through a link between the SCC office in Brum and London so the day wrapped early. Thus proving that Sun plus Oracle really does equal faster throughput.

Where it all went wrong is when Tim said he'd be buying drinks in the pub afterwards. I should have gone straight home to the bosom of my family but I succumbed to the lure of free Guinness. Not that there was anything wrong with the Guinness. It's just that while I was enjoying them some poor sad soul was making the decision to throw themselves under a tube train at Balham. A fact I discovered when everybody was detrained at Stockwell due to "passenger action". I'll skip the details of public transport in South London. Suffice to say there's only one bus route between Stockwell and Tooting, running every ten minutes in rush hour, and crammed. Minicabs were a thirty minute wait. Black cabs? Don't be daft this is south of the river. So I got a bus to get as far as Clapham and walked it from there.

Give me slack or give me death

As I trudged the long walk home I was afforded plenty of time to ponder the irony of the situation. Most of the 10g features James had talked about - Flashback, RMAN, RAC, Data Guard - are about resiliance, recovery, continuity of service, seamless failover. But those are things we only have for IT systems these days. The transport system has no slack: if the northern line is running everything is okay, but if it's out there is no alternative except walking. Of course, the elimination of slack is a response to obvious economic imperatives (people don't like to pay tax) but these unplanned outages are becoming a regular event. Still, the person who went under probably had a worse evening.

One more thing. Whilst I was on the 88 bus I overheard (everybody overheard) some guy on a mobile phone planning his weekend in the Alps. He was telling a friend which extreme sports website to visit in order to book crampons, ice picks, etc. Which leads me to:

The Great Paradox Of Modern Life

If you're in Stockwell on Tuesday evening and you want to ascend a glacier in Chamonix on Saturday afternoon you're golden.
If you're in Stockwell on Tuesday evening and you want to get to Tooting on Tuesday evening you're stuffed.