2009 October


 All along the Watchtower…

October 28, 2009

Bear McCreary’s version of “All along the Watchtower” in the finale of Battlestar Galactica Season 3 is simply awesome. I have the albums. All of it. If ever there was a Scifi series with a perfect soundtrack – BSG was it.

If you have know idea what I’m ranting about at this late hour, then it’s probably the time to get educated on the original Bob Dylan version of the song too.

I apologize for the pointless youtube embedding just for delivering some audio, but apparently google gets away with more rights violations than I could. There is a point to my rambling…

Firstly — the Bear McCreary/Bt42 version:

Then — Bob Dylan version, overlayed into the closing of Season 3 of BSG.

If you don’t know what BattleStar Galactica is, then well… Let’s just leave it there.

So what’s this got to do with “All along the watchtower” ?

At the end of the day, I got to this point by contemplating what is happening with the Mobile Interconnect Rate, and ICASA, and government. I stumbled across the song, during a random trawl of my media collection, and felt that it was quite applicable to the current happenings in terms of regulation in telecoms.

Bob Dylan is a great balladeer, and the whole point of “All along the watchtower” is that it is in essence, a reverse, recursive song. “At the conclusion of the last verse, it is as if the song bizarrely begins at last, and as if the myth began again.”

We have been here before:

When ICASA drafted their hare-brained ADSL regulations in 2006, everyone thought it would be great, and broadband in South Africa would be on the upswing. Little did we know. The regulations simply indicated that ICASA has a near zero understanding of any subject matter on their plate. The nett result for ADSL subscribers have been an even more racketeered DSL and bandwidth market. Telkom still has a stranglehold over the local loop. Telkom has found nifty ways around regulations such as “Local bandwidth usage shall not be subject to the cap”.

More fail predicted:

ICASA has been hopelessly unsuccessful in regulating the tiny bit of legislation they have control over. The DoC has been a complete basket case for the last 10 years.

Now suddenly there is a hive of activity? Politicians are showing their teeth. The operators are running scared (there’s a 19% ‘negotiated’ drop!)

ICASA is still trying to fight their way out of the paper bag they created. I predict that any and all regulation around the Mobile Interconnect Rate will be as pointless and ineffective as the ADSL regulations were. This is simply due to the fact that ICASA,  and it’s councilors have simply no idea of the subject matter.

We are the union, and the watchers:

The bottom line is — who is watching the watchers ? They are clearly incapable of doing so themselves.

MyADSL, the consumer, and every disillusioned internet user has become the watchdog. The consumers are the watchers. And they’re not turning to malformed regulation anymore. They’re just publicising their frustrations on the internet. I believe that activism and opinion has done more for the broadband market than any well-intended governement regulation.

A marketing manager’s nightmare.

Well done all. 😉

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 Social Bandwidth Swine Flu

October 15, 2009

— or —

“What happens when the owner of a web design company reckons he’s got what it takes to be an ISP?”

swineflu2On the 12th of October, a new “ISP” called Social Flu Internet launched with great fanfare, and  got  great coverage on MyADSL, under the heading “ADSL: R 8 per GB local, R 35 per GB blended

A lot of people, including the MyADSL editorial team considered this too good to be true. This is understandable, seeing that they offered local-only@R8/Gb, and shaped@R35/Gb, and unshaped@R45/GB, when the retail price from SAIX for unshaped bandwidth is still above R100/Gb (didn’t the ADSL regulations cover port prioritisation?)

As it turns out it was a scam perpetrated by Social Flu Media’s “Internet” division. Kudos to Rudolph Muller of MyADSL for asking the difficult questions, and doing the investigation.

Of course most people that  know just a smidgeon about the industry knew that things were just “not right”.

SAIX resale structures:

Apparently, Social Flu Internet was simply a reseller of another “upstream” company’s bandwidth. Put into perspective it simply means that SocialFlu signed up with someone like Datapro, Axxess, Web Africa, or the various ISP’s that have invested in RADIUS infrastructure, as a “reseller” and received their own realms based on the “upstream” company’s wholesale agreement with SAIX.

SAIX, will not allow a company to resell their bandwidth unless they are a registered VAN, or ECS holder. This has however, left a nice niche, where ECS/VANs license holders tend to sign up “resellers” under their overall wholesale agreement with Telkom/SAIX and allow the reseller to register their own “realms” under the auspices of the wholesaler. Of course, the ECS/VANs license holder is completely liable for all usage of the realms under it’s auspices.

Social Flu’s “upstream wholesaler” hadn’t billed them since 2005.  This is a practically inexcusable fault from the wholesaler, but fortunately only to their own demise.

The reality is, that if someone offers you SAIX bandwidth they are reselling SAIX bandwidth. And whining about whether Axxess, is better than Datapro, or MWeb, or @lantic is pointless. They’re all reselling the same thing. They’re reselling a username, and a password, and gettting charged the standard rate from SAIX.

Other than that, they have very little control. It’s like signing up for a Vodacom, MTN, or Cell-C cellular package through Nashua Mobile. You just hope that Nashua Mobile’s administration and support is better.

Fraud — “I perpetrate you”:

Social Flu’s owner — Enrico Rausa’s  behaviour,  after having cottoned on to the fact that his upstream isn’t charging him for services is simply tantamount to fraud. He launched SFI’s offerings at prices so low that he would NEVER be able to pay his “upstream” bill, but he simply depended on the lackadaisic billing from his upstream  to offer him some leverage in the market.

Honestly, I don’t know what he thought he would accomplish, or whether nothing would happen, but let’s face it… If someone in the DSL market offers pricing below what other ISP’s reselling Telkom/SAIX does then “difficult questions” are going to be asked.

As it turned out,  apparently his “upstreams” asked the difficult question, and decided to investigate their records. Lo and behold they came across a an account that hadn’t been charged from their billing system since 2005.

Enrico’s retort to MyADSL questions was: “We tried something, it backfired. Send me to the gallows if you want. It is time people took a stand against the big people.” is even more inexcusable.  It’s a bit thick there on the gallows thing..

According to him – he did nothing wrong, and what went wrong is that he got caught out. Naturally Afrihost’s recent R29/Gb marketing scheme assisted in people buying into the SFI’s marketing, since it really seemed possible that prices could be dropped, and everyone has been expecting it.

SAIX resale — the facts:

SAIX charges standard rates to everyone as resellers in the market. If someone offers you SAIX quality bandwidth below the well-known  cost prices of local-only@ R19/Gb, shaped@R49/Gb or unshaped@R119/Gb then you have to consider it to be dubious. If SAIX changes their wholesale price,  then most  SAIX resellers such as  Axxess, WebAfrica and MWeb’s prices will change.  Some of them appear to be “beter” in the market by selling below cost, but not by a big margin.

If a single SAIX resellers’ price changes, then so will everyone’s. Telkom will by lynched otherwise. So anything that you see in the market, in terms of pricing is simply the loss, or gain that the ISP is willing to make, based on the basic wholesale price. Some of them will be clever and will use statistics and modelling to make sure that their price point still allows them a profit based on the fact that most users don’t overrun their CAP.

The only companies that have some modicum of fixed  control over their base  costs, are companies that subscribe to SAIX/Telkom’s IPConnect service, which is charged per Mbps (speed), instead of per Gigabyte (volume). This is basically Internet Solutions, Verizon/MTN, FNB Connect, and recently WebAfrica.

This allows ISP’s  to terminate (in a very crippled fashion) their own ADSL sessions, and provide their own international and local bandwidth. However, with SAIX/Telkom’s prohibitive IPConnect pricing, there isn’t really much space to play with in terms of pricing either,  because even on IPConnect the base cost per Gig s are so much more than SAIX itsself has to pay. Yes. TelkomInternet  itsself doesn’t pay IPConnect fees. Every ISP does. Competition Commision investigation results are “imminent” 😉

The cunning ISP however, knows how to optimise this kind of infrastructure, even against the insane disadvantage of TelkomInternet, whilst still providing a good quality service. Social Flu wasn’t even close to this. In fact, it didn’t even reach the check-out counter of Checkers. Ok, maybe it did. But it didnt’ have change.

I don’t really know how people believed in their capability to innovate, or be the “killer in the market”. Believe you me — it is way more complicated than the ADSL forumites tend to make it out to be every day…

Afrihost R29/Gb – “The catalyst”?

The reality is that, yes, a catalyst such as Afrihost’s R29/Gb offering is certainly  stimulating competition. But when analyzing the fundamentals (of which I have a very firm grasp) anyone with half a brain will realize that some business models simply aren’t sustainable, and that, simply is why most ISP’s haven’t dropped their prices. Because in 99% of cases, their upstream (SAIX) hasn’t changed their prices.

SAIX is bargaining on the fact that for most ISP’s it will simply be easier and more economical to resell access on the SAIX network, that it would be to actually get their own AS Numbers, IP space, peering arrangements and international access.

Gian Visser of Afrihost has clearly done some good statistical analysis, and some risk analysis. Afrihost “might” make it, if their userbase is big enough after the R29/Gb marketing stunt to at least break even. That’s sustainable if you can keep the costs down.

One has to also consider the additional value-added service revenue Afrihost may have gained from a “mass signup” with such a good marketing campaign. Perhaps it might even be marginally profitable… Sustainable? I’m not so sure.

I have personally bought an Afrihost 5GB account, and have killed it within the first three days of every month. Actually, I triple-killed it three times, because Afrihost, and their upstream Internet Slowlutions didn’t realise that one of the two  SAIX POD (packet of disconnect) RADIUS servers was out of comission for nearly a week.

Afrihost is certainly not going to make any money out of me, and I doubt Gian Visser will — out of this whole “buyology” scheme — in the long run.

Afrihost’s upstream — Internet Solutions will always be on the winning side because they know how to manage bandwidth (ok, perhaps that’s giving them too much credit), and they have fixed costs in terms of connectivity and IPConnect. Afrihost will always be on the “low-margin” – “high-volume” end of the game.

The  moment Afrihost tries to do something else,  Internet Solutions will pull the proverbial “cunt” on them in terms of peering, local access, etc. Just as they have with every ISP smaller than them, that grew into a peer or “threat”.

MWeb’s TV advertisements attract the kind of customers who don’t overrun their CAP’s. Marketing on MyADSL in the other hand attracts every tom-dick-and-harry that will eat their bandwidth simply because they can.

I’m not so sure you’ll be able to keep your R29/Gb promises. Believe me  — the day you can’t I will be there to call you…

The social flu fallout:

As usual, there was lots of whining on MyADSL. Lessons were learnt. Probably not enough…

This is all similar in vein as the previous “free proxy server” fraud stuff I reported on.

I also predict that there is a  set of offices in The Colloseum, Century City, Cape Town to be evacuated  in the next few weeks as well. Some customers probably lost money. An “upstream provider” definately lost money.

They tainted my surname!

What pisses me off the most about the Social Flu saga is that my surname “Diedericks” is mentioned in the article: According to Social Flu Internet Marketing Manager Gareth Diedericks, he was shocked when he found out how the business was run.

“The calm attitude shown by Enrico after the scam report made me firmly believe that everything was above board. I am still amazed at how this turned out… I really thought that this was legit and even believed that I was going to become very wealthy,” said Diedericks.“Thank you to MyBroadband for bringing this to light. I dread to think what may have happened to me or my family should this not have been discovered and Social Flu grew.”

Get rich out of reselling SAIX bandwidth? What a dumbass marketing droid… The market is saturated. The room for maneuverability is nearly nil. It’s like trying to enter the market as Cell-D. Oh but wait. Gareth didn’t actually have a clue about what he was selling, or what it really was, or how it worked, or ANYTHING.

You clearly missed the  Diedericks gene-pool-meeting where we handed out brains and common sense.

Or perhaps it was just a simple way for Gareth to cop out of something he really knew was happening. Kudos for resigning. I hope you have better luck selling insurance policies or something.

A scrape-ing-of the silicon?

If you can think it, we can create it!” says Social Flu Media’s contact page.

Uh, yeah. How’d that work out for you?

Of course, for me to mention that Enrico,  and Gareth come from Roggebaai/Century City in Cape Town (as per co.za and other sources) might be a bit insensitive, and biased considering my recent diatribe against Silicon Cape, but then again…

Without further ado here is Social Flu Internet/Media’s swansong:  DoosDronk!

“Party, party, party” Courtesy of “Die Antwoord”

Uncategorized | 3 comments
3 responses to “Social Bandwidth Swine Flu”
  1. Gee says:

    Interesting article.
    People are very vulnerable to these scams – the internet has been around for so long you would think people would learn not to trust everything they see.

    Ask questions people!

  2. Gareth Diedericks says:

    Well written article Roelf, let me clear up a few things regarding my involvement.

    I was approached by Enrico Rausa to run his marketing campaigns for the launch of SFM. I was shown just enough by Enrico Rausa to have me believe everything was legitimate.I was even given a 100GB account by Enrico Rausa that used a realm used by SFM.

    I had only been working for SFM for a few days before contacting myBB to discuss banner advertising. This move directly resulted in the scam being brought to light. Consider this, Had I known that he was stealing bandwidth from the upstream provider, do you think this would be my first avenue of advertising?

    The moment the accusation of fraud came to light, I not only resigned, but contacted the upstream provider and offered to meet with them. I disclosed all my particulars to their legal team and discussed all my working knowledge of the “operation”.

    While I understand your frustration you mention regarding our last name, your comment the gene-pool meeting is offensive. I’d be happy to discuss this with you in person!

    I write this just to let you know that if you choose to say bad things about people you don’t know – get your facts about that person right first!

  3. roelf says:

    Hi Gareth.

    I didn’t see you explaining the facts as you have done now when the scam came to light. I will quote from the MyADSL article: “Social Flu Internet Marketing Manager Gareth Diedericks said that he was shocked when he found out how the business was run.”

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think anyone would assume from that (non-contested by yourself) quote that you were in fact deeply involved in SFM. It indicated that you were directly involved, and not as a “sideline” contractor as you now indicated. “I really thought that this was legit and even believed that I was going to become very wealthy” simply emphasizes that.

    If you wanted to strongly indicate your position then perhaps you should have stated your position more boldly when asked for comment by MyBroadband.

    My comments were based around those facts. You had your chance during the expose’ to state your facts. Thanks however, for feeling the need to indicate some more facts around the issue nearly *6 months* later.

    On the other hand, when I have have something to say, I generally say it plainly. I honestly do feel that you were a bit naive in the commonsense department on this issue.

    And I believe that my comments around that still stands. New facts aside.

Tags: , , , , ,


 Silicon Africa?

October 11, 2009

Andrew Thomas-Woolf, was probably one of the few people whose comments about my “Sillycon Scrape” post hit the right strings with me. Thanks for engaging Andrew, and I have to say that your words has left some lingering thoughts.

I agree that the Cape and it’s lifestyle has much to offer, and that it definately has a great many attractions for “the right” people. I never disputed this. I like your Cape. I don’t necessarily like all the fscktards living in it.

What I disagree with Thomas about,  is that South Africa has too small a market to “attract” venture capital. Reason: You’re thinking about just South Africa!

The entire Silicon Cape initiative is  soooo South African focused.  Hello. We live on a continent.

It’s called Africa. I’ts fairly big.

Andrew said:

Our economy is just plain and simply too small. A 20% penetration rate on say 4 million Internet subscribers at R200 total lifetime value per customer == R160m or US$20m.

This is just such a typical  SillyconScrape way of looking at things. Certainly,  if you’re trying to build another Web2.0 company this is the case. The market is small.  But Information Technology is certainly not limited to Web2.0 startups and doing business in the global internet economy. Unfortunately, this is all that SiliconCape appears to care about.

Infrastructure is where IT’s at:

There are many opportunities in Africa in that does not align with the “Youtube/Facebook/Web2.0” sphere of Information Technology. Just because Social Media is currently the “big thing” on the internet, does not mean that Africa has the access to it, or the opportunity for business in it.

Africa needs IT infrastructure before it can enter the blogosweer.

And that is the venture capital problem that REALLY exists. Very few venture capitalists want to invest in infrastructure, because it’s not exciting enough or in their mind doesn’t “promise” enough return.

On the other hand funds earmarked for infrastructure all over Africa is being misapplied by the largely corrupt governments  in charge of said funding on initiatives that are too driven by hype and marketing than anything else !

Africa NEEDS basic infrastructure:

How are we ever going to eradicate the information poverty that exists within Africa ? What about telecommunications, data centers and the real nuts and bolts that makes IT work ? What about PCs for people? You need ROADS before you can have INDUSTRY. How are we going to address that poor “Internet penetration rate” ?

Perhaps if we focused on upping our “penetration rate” in South Africa, we’d have more venture capital. News24.co.za certainly seems to be able to profitably cater to a “very poorly penetrated” community. Ach, enough about sex then…

It appears that all the Silicon Cape is interested in, is in what the REST OF THE WORLD WANTS, and not what Africa NEEDS, because basic infrastructure like connectivity, computing facilities and the rest is simply not exciting enough for most people. “It’s droll”. It’s “plumbing”. I know a lot of rich plumbers though…

The opportunity I see, and have have a passion for is Africa. Not the “rest-of-world”. There are a great many opportunities north of the South African borders, yet unrealized and waiting to be picked. Opportunities that can make money, and on top if it make a difference.

Basic infrastructure DOES make money:

What Africa needs is virtual roads. Of course, that’s just simply not exciting enough for Venture Capital… However companies like Altech seem to be making a KILLING in this industry. Why ? Because they don’t take the short-term venture capitalists view. They know a lot about basic economics and ignore Seth Godin-like economics like the “long tail”. Even heavyweights like Dimension Data seems to have caught on to this fact.

My company is aligned with this African view. And I’ll tell you straight, it’s hard to do business “up there”.

We struggle on a daily basis to keep our customers happy, to understand contracts written in Arabic, French, and other languages. But the reality is that there is simply no better country, populous, or  skill-set better than South Africans geared to doing business in Africa. We understand the continent. We live on it. We breathe it.

Idealistically, basic infrastructure is  where I’d rather be involved. I was born African, and have a passion for remaining African. I certainly do not have a passion for becoming the next “Intellectual Property” export of South Africa. I have a passion for providing Internet services in Zanzibar, Lagos, Nairobi —  and for applying technology in a way that makes a difference to people.

I don’t even have a facebook account, because I consider it stupid. Facebook is not infrastructure. It’s the Internet  equivalent of an annoying tea-party with a bunch of people you’d rather call fuckwits.

It appears that the SillyconScrape  is more interested in wasting venture capitalists  money and enriching themselves. Because they can tote the success of Facebook, and others. Oh wait, perhaps that’s premature. Facebook isn’t actually profitable yet.


I guess my problem  is that what I’ve seen about SillyconCape is that in  it’s entirety it simply misses the point of Africa, and focuses on the rest of the world and the global internet, when the reality of Information Technology on this content is abysmal.

I predict that the next company to make it “big” in this continent will be the company capable of doing business in Ki-Swahili.  MX-It in Ki-Swahili anyone?

My roadmap to success, is based north of our borders in this content, rather than across the Atlantic or Pacific.  Supplying Internet plumbing.

It’s a completely untapped market, and as MTN and others have shown, ready for the picking. Competition is low, revenues are high, and the ability to get entrenched is phenomenal.

I guess it just doesn’t fit with what SillyconScrape fanboys sees as “Information Technology”.

To end this post I could have quoted from Vinny’s presentation: “Yes We Can!” But that would have just been cliche, and  I don’t do that kind of crap.

Honestly, I’d rather just fall back to the great British morons:

“Let’s just get ON with it dear…”

Uncategorized | 7 comments
7 responses to “Silicon Africa?”
  1. Andrew Thomas-Woolf says:

    Hi Roelf,

    Thanks for engaging in the way you have. Before I deal with certain of the points you have raised, I want to make clear that I am entirely in agreement that the “Youtube/Facebook/Web2.0″/”SocialMedia Space” view of ICT is a big problem. Part of what we collectively need to do is a process of education, helping people to understand more broadly the constraints and opportunities that we face here, something which I believe you are trying to do, albeit in a harsh tone probably borne out of frustration!

    You quoted my explanation of how small our local Web2.0 market is, seeming to interpret it as saying that SA was too small for VC. On the contrary, my point was exactly the same as yours: that people’s *THINKING* is too small.

    This is the same point that both Vinny, Justin, Laurie and others made at the conference. People need to let go of this idea that some kind of localised version of a foreign service is the way to go. In fact, someone commented that they heard a groan in the audience when Vinny stood up and said, “If anyone is working on a South African version of Twitter, give up now.”

    Re: Infrastructure is where IT’s at.
    One of the things that came out of the conference was that, for those present, bandwidth was no longer a primary constraint. This is a 15 year+ project and given our mobile penetration rates, it would be fair to say that the majority of innovation that will come from our shores would be in that mobile space.

    With cloud computing, the necessity for high-bandwidth sytems and content delivery is no longer necessary. Maybe for IPTV, etc, but this isn’t where the “man on the street” (or various versions of him) is going to interact and where the possibility of entrepreneurial led innovation is going to lie.

    With regards to VC for infrastructure: you are absolutely right. VC’s will not generally fund infrastructure. The economics of infrastructural development are very different from those in scalable, internationalizable (is that a word?) early stage (more risky) businesses. Infrastructure, e.g. SEACOM, EASSY, etc should be funded by institutions with the appropriate expertise and financial backing: banks, project financiers, development funding institutions, goverments, the public via debt (bonds), etc. It is /generally/ capital intensive with lower returns. Frankly, VC’s don’t have the kind of budget (nor the ability to magically create cash via the fractional reserve system that the banks have) to fund the majority of these investments.

    None of this is to say that they are not important, but those of us involved in the SC initiative (which, by the way, was announced as an attempt to build a Silicon Valley of Africa – I’ll get back to this shortly), are focusing on other hurdles.

    With regards to your passion for Africa: I am glad that you have this and emotionally I can connect and share this. When we were discussing the issues of work permits for foreigners coming into South Africa of help deal with our local skills shortages, one of the ideas that came up was that it might be more political palatable and feasible to offer easier entry to fellow African Union members first, before going global. Personally, I think we would be best served by allowing people generally into our communities to help build our knowledge base, but there you have it – differing opinions 🙂

    Yes, we *ARE* interested in what the rest of the world wants. Sitting in the background of this drive is that the biggest provider of our foreign currency earnings is currently raw materials, minerals being mined out of the ground, which will eventually run out. Geographically, we are located out in the middle of nowhere with few currently major markets nearby.[1] (We have to cross oceans or fly over land to get tangible products to people.) When we run out of minerals, what are we going to be selling or exporting? The one place where it seems that we will be far less relvatively disadvantaged from our geographic location is in IP-based, intangible products.

    I’m glad that your business is focused on Africa and that you’ve found yourself a potentially profitable place by focusing on economic fundamentals: barriers to entry & lack of existing competition or easy substitutes.

    I trust that you yourself have come across some of the painful regulatory issues at play: ExCon, newly remedied issues with claiming foreign tax credits when receiving payments from e.g. Botswana, underavailability of relevant supporting professional knowledge (e.g. legal & tax, foreign language communication), etc.

    Forget about the fanboyism, please. Focus on what is concrete, tangible, real and being targeted. We’re aiming to create substantial change over a long time period. After the hype dies down, there’ll still be people pushing along, trying to make a difference. I just hope that you’ll remain one of them.

    [1] Something that would add greatly to intra-Africa trade would be the development of a decent rail network. I suppose baby-steps: our’s, though improving, still needs some sorting out. Having such a physically large country isn’t always the best for these kinds of things!

  2. Andrew Thomas-Woolf says:

    Falling back to the Silicon Valley of Africa:
    The very first blog post, which everyone visiting the http://www.siliconcape.com website was encouraged to read as a starting point, contains an FAQ. The very first question in the FAQ reads:
    “Why the Cape? Does Silicon Cape exclude the rest of South Africa?

    Not at all. The whole of South Africa is most definitely included and everyone is invited. South Africa as a whole is without doubt the technological powerhouse of Africa. However, much like with Silicon Valley, we feel that an initiative and a brand like this needs a focal point, and that the Cape contains the unique mix of all of the varied ingredients that ultimately serve to bring together the right participants. This would already seem to be evidenced by the number of tech startups which are Cape based.”

    Regarding comments that there are already initiatives in play, in the same first post was another FAQ:
    “How does CITI, Bandwidth Barn, and other great projects fit in with Silicon Cape?
    Silicon Cape doesn’t exist to compete with or duplicate the great work done by these projects. They are all very complementary to each other and very necessary, and indeed Silicon Cape can highlight the opportunities that they create and work together with them.
    Silicon Cape is more of an awareness campaign and a global brand which serves to catalyse conversation, attract interest and highlight opportunities and challenges, and create a focal point that the community across the board can own and rally around.”

    Hope this helps.

    Kind regards,

  3. Colin Alston says:

    There’s an old saying which goes, “The only people who MAKE MONEY FAST on the Internet are those who manufacture routers and disk drives.”

  4. Colin Alston says:

    @Andrew Thomas-Woolf
    “People need to let go of this idea that some kind of localised version of a foreign service is the way to go”

    My argument is that people need to let go of this idea of some localised version of a foreign idea… like Silicon Valley… Oh wait…

  5. Andrew Thomas-Woolf says:

    @Colin Alston: Re: your point @23:17.

    If you had attended the event or followed up with the published speakers notes (front page of the SiliconCape website), you would know that the model that is currently most favoured for “localising” is *not* that of Silicon Valley, but in fact the Israeli VC model, which Laurie Olivier, one of the speakers, has watched and experienced from the ground up and watched Israel grow (with e.g. the Yozma programme) from a relative tech backwater in 1990 to a country with one of the highest per capita R&D in the world and which is now home to various research arms of IBM, HP, Intel, Cisco and others.

    To requote for context:
    “On the contrary, my point was exactly the same as yours: that people’s *THINKING* is too small.

    This is the same point that both Vinny, Justin, Laurie and others made at the conference. People need to let go of this idea that some kind of localised version of a foreign service is the way to go.”

    You seem to want to contradict some element of what I said by some form of reductio ad absurdum. The underlying assumption is that a replication of a business service and the replication of an enabling environment are identical, which they are not.

    The creation of a business supplying a particular service is a choice. One can choose to enter or not enter a particular marketplace.

    You cannot however choose not to have a regulatory environment within which to construct that business. It exists regardless of any particular business you seek to create. You cannot choose to “opt out” of having a regulatory environment in a country. Even “no regulation” is a regulatory regime.

    We are thus compelled, in some way, to compete in an international market place for the attraction of people and capital. Our businesses will be helped or hindered in their international trade (exports, international expansion), our environment making it easier or more difficult to sell to foreign customers.

    The only way we can choose not to compete in this way would be to go the way of North Korea: become entirely internally focused. Even then there would be positive and negative environmental issues affecting the internal development that takes place.

    Your analogy is false, and further leads to the absurdity that learning from anyone else’s experiences where those people are not South African is
    not to be valued.

    Your comments are not constructive and I can see that you are not interested in entering into an actual discussion about any of the above. Although I will continue to respond to any statements that I see as misleading or factually incorrect, I will for the foreseeable future not be engaging further with you on this topic.

  6. Colin Alston says:

    I’m not being constructive because you failed before you began. The key to successful technology is passionate and capable people on every level. Top down approaches fail EVERY time. If you look at every successful company now, rather than short lived fads, every one of them began with able people not suits with Big Ideas.

    Your constant, borderline personal diatribe about not engaging my arguments is entirely transparent. Many others have done as you have, and I’ve been pointing at it each time. It’s the fundamental reason for my tone right from the start.

    I could have been nice and constructive, I’m perfectly capable of that, but that wasn’t my goal. I’m very aware of the people involved in Silicon Cape and I know how they react to disagreement and criticism.

    Here’s a fact, not all criticism and suggestions are wrapped in fur and tailored to your liking. Ultimately, the people in Silicon Cape will always cry “You’re just jealous” and allow personal mud slinging as a means to defend themselves. I’ve spent the better part of a decade watching it.

    Unfortunately for you though, at the end of the day I represent many of the people capable of writing the code, and the nuts and bolts critical to almost any of the ideas that might be involved or relate to Silicon Cape. Best of luck achieving anything if you can’t convince people like me.

    I guess I wasn’t entirely honest when I said “I don’t want your valley”. It’s more a case of “I don’t need your valley”.

    You see, I don’t actually *have* to win anyone over or stroke their egos. I could replicate their ideas in an evening with a pot of coffee. You see what the people who don’t know programming don’t realise is that technical merit rewards usability, and usability is what gains users. Your users.


  7. Andrew Thomas-Woolf says:

    @Colin: Thanks for the explanation.

    I think what’s happened is that your experiences with a bunch of the people who have chosen to associate themselves with the whole SC drive have badly coloured your expectations of how people will behave and that you have extrapolated from this to all of the people involved.

    I have definitively tried not to engage in ad hominem attacks. In fact, in one of my first posts to you I made clear that I *knew* of your intellect and ability and therefore thought I made clear that you personally and likewise people with the *ability* to deliver are valuable and necessary. (I worked in IT for several years and I expect that some of the people in your social circles would be able to give you a bit more info on my technology background – not sure if this would help?)

    I’m very happy to engage on facts and continue this discussion and appreciate you taking the time to set out more of your views. Perhaps I should join with you and Justin Spratt at some point, given that I now live in Johannesburg? (And grew up in Port Elizabeth, by the way, so I’m not even a Capetonian by birth or current living place!)

    I’m going to mail you privately and we can continue this discussion that way 🙂



 Sillycon Scrape?

October 8, 2009

sscrapeI’ts lovely that some of our country’s useless politicians presided over a function to promote the Cape as “Silicon Cape”.

However, innovation and invention also happens here, in Johannesburg — “amazing doll!”.

I think in Joburg it’s just more the accepted norm than “something amazing”. Perhaps that’s why fancy banners aren’t slapped onto web2.0 businesses in an attempt to attract venture capital, because quite honestly every single investor I’ve talked to are looking at business fundamentals and not the badge.

From what I can see the soon-to-be-immolated-in-silicon-cape  has come up with  SynthaSite (ohwaitzors that’s called Yola now) (didn’t geocities try this and fail?) and a Fon-like  scheme trying to monetize Wi-Fi hotspots,  and an even grander scheme to reinvent Youtube in a bandwidth starved country.  I wish the initiative luck, and lots of mountain. Then again,  frogfoot do rock so there must be some brains in Cape Town. In fact, it must be so, because many of my previous colleagues have immigrated there…

Blogs, “Web 2.0” apps and the like was OFN in the year 2000 when the bubble burst. I really don’t see the reason for the excitement now. I had a web-2.0 style framework more complicated than prototype, jquery, mtools and and scriptaculous built for a web-based application delivering real-time data in 2004 already. Oh, and I had paying customers.

Why does every brand new MVC based framework out there still have a “blog” as the primary example of the efficacy of the framework? Is this what computing has driveled down to?  Blogs ?

Honestly — trying to flag a single city in South Africa as “silicon” just because a lot of people living in it tend to blog, and build RSS based aggregators does not mean that it invents stuff. RSS, XML feeds, content aggregation — it’s been done. All the Silicon Cape appears to be doing is refining it, and putting well-designed badges on it.

Call me sour. Call me whatever you want, but please don’t label the Cape as if it’s something new and fancy, or “the mother of invention”.

Try and build something innovative, that requires scaling, and challenge the problems before claiming that a city filled with developers is the new Silicon Valley. Do something really innovative. Like. Let’s say… Something that HASN’T been done before. Repeat it. Make it a success. Monetize it.

Politicians take note — if you want to incentivise innovation, technology and the overly-used term “ICT Development” how about giving technology companies a tax break, stop charging insane provisional taxes on profits not yet realized, and unbundle the local loop already… Perhaps then, successful businesses would want to put people into apprenticeships, and innovation and development could really happen. Perhaps — THEN, we could develop into an information society.

I have nothing against the Cape. Sounds like a marvelous lifestyle, and I certainly wouldn’t mind to live in Cape Town.

In my mind “SiliconSA” sounds a lot better…

Invention and innovation is a mindset —not a fucking geographical location.

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22 responses to “Sillycon Scrape?”
  1. Jonathan says:

    I couldn’t agree more, well said.

    If only there were more people with their head /outside/ of their ass.

  2. Colin Alston says:

    Well they aren’t “refining it” so much as going “Omg South African’s can make this stuff too!”, which duh of course we can when it’s already been done and wasn’t rocket science.

    The main issue here is that people involved in Silly-Conman Cape are not the programmers or the people with brains to do anything – those people seem to live in Joburg, and quietly go about their lives.

    What it rather transparently is, is a bunch of middle men who have “big ideas” and noticed they can’t actually afford to implement them, and don’t have the skills to do so in the first place. So they create a big media hype to try and attract people to Cape Town so they can get venture capital, buy a Ferrari, and pay some coders 10k a month to implement it.

    The problem with this mindset is is that it’s not how good things happen. Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc etc etc were built by genuine programmers working on stuff in their basement. They hit luck, and the investors came running anyway, they then used that money to hire marketing jerks because the technology was what came first.

    Basically, programmers aren’t as stupid as capetonians look. We know we can make the stuff ourselves, and we don’t need some pretentious assholes acting like they are the be-all and end-all of Web2.0. We’ve also been screwed enough times by start-up’s that lack technical knowledge, because the best recipe for a failing product is people in the driving seat who are absent of technical skill.

    That and the fact that Sillicon Cape is entirely white, meaning it won’t get DTI or Government backing, meaning it’s doomed from the start. And also, Yola’s not even a South African company for fucks sakes.

  3. Darb says:


    I work for lol-omgz-its-yola-not-synthasite. I went to Silicon Cape. I am impressed how tastefully and mature you have engaged in the debate around the issue.

    Let me give you an overview of what the event was about:

    * Silicon Cape is a brand and working group, that happens to be in Cape Town, but is aiming for benefits for all of South Africa (since the legislation that is getting in the way of innovation and small business is national)

    * It is a 5-15 year project and is more about getting the right people talking regularly (VC funds, entrepreneurs, government, small business, tech companies)

    * It is about recognising and seeing how we can lift barriers to entry for investors, entrepreneurs, etc. for all of south africa.

    And, the government people that spoke:

    * Helen Zille (Premier of the Western Cape)
    * Dr. Mamphela Ramphele – Former VC of UCT, with a zillion degrees behind her name (not just honorary degrees), and newly appointed head of the government working group ‘Technology Innovation Agency’ which is well placed to inform policy changes and advise government.

    There was also a number of other pretty intriguing discussion around the issues the TECH (not the “omglolweb 2.0”) industry faces in South Africa, what issues Entrepreneurs face, etc.

    There was also discussion about building tax free zones for tech companies (which you pointed out).

    Silicon Cape was not intended to only be about Cape Town, but (and this is my own opinion), take it from someone who has worked and lived in Durban, Grahamstown, and Johannesburg; Cape Town has a lot going for it in terms of attracting innovators, funders, and geeks who like to live in a pretty place with high quality of life and a strong, friendly geek network.

    Just to clarify, Yola is not based in South Africa for the same reason SAB, and many other big companies that started in SA, have moved base. Working with foreign currency is unnecessarily complex and difficult under current Reserve Bank laws (the same reason we don’t get PayPal payments in SA). The exit strategy for investment companies and VC funds is not particularly attractive (South African law doesn’t allow IP to easily leave the country (except in people’s heads when they leave to start businesses in other countries)).

    Building a globally viable company, with good acquisition prospects (a way for founders to make large amounts of cash straight up), is nearly impossible in SA.

    You should probably read more about the event from people who attended it before you criticize, infer, and childishly attempt to undermine a concept.

  4. roelf says:

    I, for one welcome our new “Technology Innovation Agency” overlords.
    I’ll make a prediction : *FAIL*

    Darb :
    criticize, infer, and childishly attempt to undermine a concept

    Free country eh ?

    Of course, I have an apparently long history of doing the things you mention. I’m certainly going to continue to speak my mind.

  5. Darb says:

    I didn’t say you couldn’t criticize a concept, I just said you should probably do a bit of research first so you can at least put forward valid, relevant arguments. Otherwise people who did do their research, attend the event, or thinks the concept is good will read your blog post and go ‘That is just adorable’.

  6. Erin says:

    I hate to burst your bubble but everything that has succeeded in South Africa has been copied in some form or another. Our cellphone networks were launched off models taken from overseas. MNET built itself off international cable/satellite business plans. MXIT just did exactly what MSN chat had been doing for years, and succeeded mostly because their users didn’t have the cellphone handsets required to support free IM applications like Gtalk – once phones catch up in the next 6 months to 1 year, are millions of users still going to want to pay MXIT their Moola for the sensational ability to send messages on their mobiles? Lastly, taking a look at the items on your Projects list, it seems you too are working on existing platforms. Why? By your reasoning in this post, you should be reinventing every single item you work on and sell.

  7. Colin Alston says:

    What research is there to do? You have to admit, it’s pretty difficult to get any kind of signal with so much noise from people going “OMIGAWD IT ARE TEH AWESOME IDEAS”.

    All any of us can see on the website for Silicon Cape is mile long lists of trash about venture capital and people punting their various Web 2.0 clone sites.

    Face it, the real issues are just not out there. As for reading up about the event, I can’t find a single one which gives an unbiased blow-for-blow account.

    That’s just the price you pay for inviting fanboyism to your idea.

  8. Ivo Vegter says:

    Finally, I’ve acquired fanboy status!

    Silicon Cape has nothing to do with its past. It’s a wish for its future. This whine misses the point about as much as the observation that DEC and IBM were east-coast companies.

    If you want an unbiased blow-for-blow account, read my 4500-word live blog of the event. Barring a few clearly marked lines, those 4500 words are pretty much verbatim notes. Also, I wasn’t invited, wasn’t paid, and covered my own petrol and accommodation. But yeah, cynical though I am, and conditional though my conclusions were (in publications that carried my coverage), I’ll admit I’m a fan. And while Silicon Cape may not have solved the ultimate question (how do we attract the right people), I think your post is a pretty good example of how not to.

  9. Andrew Thomas-Woolf says:

    Hi Colin, Roelf & others,

    The primary results/outcomes of the “conference” were:
    1) identifying some of the major hurdles in building a commercial and innovation ecosystem in a similar mould to the Valley, Boston, London or other centres; and
    2) getting buy-in from the major institutional role-players who have the capacity to effect the changes required to enable this ecosystem.

    The “useless politicians” included Ramaphele (an exceptional woman, and I truly hope you view her speech when the video clips are released of the event) and Zille (World Mayor of the Year?) in person and indirectly (via Johann Rupert’s interactions) Trevor Manuel, who were all supportive of this initiative.

    The problems identified as most pressing for building the appropriate ecosystem were legislative and regulatory hurdles, in particular tax issues (not incentives, but provisions that have dramatically punitive effects on “normal” VC-style structuring aimed at incentive alignment, not tax dodging) and exchange control issues (e.g why can’t we sign up to Paypal and receive Paypal payments? Why can’t we charge US$ currency amounts when we accept credit card transactions?), and to a lesser degree e.g. the fact that SA is not a signatory to the most recent Madrid Protocol to the Paris Convention on IP, leaving our IP protection laws behind those of our major trading partners and potential capital providers. Also clearly highlighted was the mobility of so-called “intellectual capital” (i.e. you and I), which can be a double-edged sword: great minds leave South Africa, but it is inordinately difficult to try bring in bright, skilled and determined foreigners to boost our woefully low level of tech skills.

    None of the above problems can be solved without getting government buy-in and involvement, and this is why we exerted so much effort in getting them there. They weren’t piggy-backing on our initiative to score points. We *WANTED* them there so we could actually try and get some of the issues resolved.

    Re: the Cape vs Johannesburg, understand that the Cape has certain things that make it attractive for internationals that is /not/ easy remediable: beautiful scenery and surrounds. If we want to attract internationals, then it makes sense to have a geographic focal point that has relatively unique and difficult to replicate features (sustainable competitive advantage, anyone?). Regardless, if anyone had read the manifesto, it’s not only about the Cape and in particular the idea was put forward that in this more modern environment, geographic concentration was not as important (and, as Darb pointed out, the regulatory issues are national in nature).

  10. Andrew Thomas-Woolf says:

    With regards to making out like the Cape is the “Mother of Innovation”:
    There was no intention to imply that the end game is here. Several speakers made abundantly clear to those who may have thought otherwise that this was likely to be a multi-decade initiative.

    Andrea Bohmert specifically highlighted the issues regarding not only the Cape’s, but South Africa’s dramatic lack of performance in international recognition of innovation. Our patent application rate by locals is abysmal, for example. Universities here have no or relatively immature commercialisation programmes in place for the IP that /is/ developed.

    There is a role to be played with the use of the “Silicon Cape” brand in attracting venture capital, but again (and you would know this if you were there) the major issues that were raised were around the incomplete ecosystem in place. “Venture Capital” isn’t monolithic and isn’t the entire range of funding required to build substantial businesses.

    The major issues around funding identified here included:
    1. There are no substantial “angel” funding networks in SA, or at least none of which the majority of people in attendence were aware. (I am aware of some of the old FNB/RMB crowd that are fairly active and of course some of the Clickatell parties, which leads me to my next point…)
    2. That getting the right kind of people involved in funding requires a first few rounds of exits by competent business developers. It is these previously-successful founders/entrepreneurs who are usually best placed to identify, support and fund (courtesy of having previously made money) businesses to a point where they are ready to be taken to a full venture capital funding round, assuming these businesses then require them.
    3. There are substantial amounts of funding in the marketplace and very few people who appear capable of receiving substantial funding and using it appropriately. There are too many (as you have identified) people trying to do a localised version of some Web2.0 idea, which is utterly irrelevant to someone who is looking for substantial returns from a substantial investment.

    Our economy is just plain and simply too small. A 20% penetration rate on say 4 million Internet subscribers at R200 total lifetime value per customer == R160m or US$20m. For an early-stage funder looking at achieving return multiples of 8x-20x, the maximum amount that could be invested would be US$2.5m assuming the founders would accept ZERO equity, or US$1.25m if the founders would accept 50% equity. This is simply not enough of a return to justify attracting the skills and funding of institutional VC.

    Therefore, another iniative objective is to educate the potential entrepreneurs (coders or otherwise) as to what is involved and required before they would likely achieve some measure of success on an economic level (as opposed to technical level).

    The other parties that need to be educated are in fact the supporting professionals, e.g. accountants and lawyers, as the legal costs involved in setting up VC-style structures are prohibitively expensive. The US-based NVCA has precedent documentation which can be used by all as a starting point for term sheet negotiation and also definitive agreement development, saving everyone time and money and letting people focus on the substantive issues instead of learning about VC or angel structuring. On this note, and as a direct result of the conference, we’ve had Jo Neser, a Cape Town partner of Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, commit to looking to US legal service-provider payment arrangements to reduce the cost of obtaining genuine, strong and profficient legal advice for start-ups in South Africa.

    Frankly (and I stand open to correction here), I see the criticisms as coming from a set of prejudices and assumptions, which are as follows:
    1. Cape Town is trying to present itself as “something special” and in undeserving of that (yet?).
    2. The people driving it are self-centred, egotistic and media/attention-seekers, without any real knowledge of what the real problems are, if any.

    Please, if these are your views, then ask yourself what you would have to see to convince you that they were wrong.

    If I am wrong in my assumptions, then let me know. We can continue this discussion. Colin, I know you and your competence, and it would sadden me to see this whole /South African/ initiative denied your potentially valuable input simply because you choose to be dismissive before knowing more about what was being undertaken. Media is media, be they print or blog, and people should know that it frequently in their interests to hype to sell newspapers/generate eyeballs. I cannot see why in this particular circumstance one would choose to take their messages as gospel.

  11. Andrew Thomas-Woolf says:

    Lastly, with regards to the “whiteness” of Silicon Cape, the two guys that were pushing it hard were Justin and Vinny. I know that so-called Indians may not be “black enough”, but I’ve yet to hear them be called “white”!

    Colin, you are factually wrong when you said that this will not get DTI or government backing. We have explicit statements of support made by Helen Zille, Dr Ramaphele and Trevor Manuel. Dr Ramaphele is to head up the TIA and organise the future direction of the various, dispersed innovation-focused initiatives (e.g. the DTI’s SPII) and she is absolutely on board.

    Yesterday in a meeting (which involved my co-workers) the IDC very clearly and specifically stated support for this kind of initiative and made clear that they had funding ready and available for appropriate opportunities.

    Mansoor Mohammed (executive director of economic & social development in the City of Cape Town) has been engaged repeatedly and the interim SC people are in tune with and well aware of other initiatives, ala the Barcelona Activa-style project.

  12. justinspratt says:

    Silicon Cape is merely a branded metaphor for the wider SADC region. I have spoken to Justin and Vinny directly about this.

    I have never herd of you, and probably wouldnt unless Colin Alston hadnt posted your blog link on twitter. because I know he is smart I guessed your post was worth reading. I also read your cv before reading your post, which also excited me – you clearly have credentials that lead to a “he is smart” conclusion.

    But then I read your post. Wow. Unlike most “vitriolics” (SC detractors essentially), at least your prose was readable. Unfortunately it is contentless. I have taken nothing useful away from it except that you (whom I didnt know previous to reading this) doesnt like Cape Town. Who cares about that?

    If you have a good mind (which I am lead to believe in spite of this post) I would really be interested to know how you think we can solve South Africa’s macro-economic woes. Because that is what SC is trying to solve… we need entrepreneurship and we need a rallying point for it. Sc is the best example of providing this to-date.

    I am in Joburg. If you want to come to The Campus in Bryanston to discuss it, that would be great. I will spot you and Colin to a cappuccino and we can

    PS I had the same views on politicians as you prior to this event. Helen Zille is remarkable. I suggest you try and see her give stump speech live – good chance it will give you some hope in them.

  13. Izak Burger says:

    So it seems some people in the Cape organised something to promote the Cape and now some Notherners are unhappy? Perhaps just one or two… 😛

    Re Frogfoot, I know the company well, and while I respect and personally know the people who own it/work there, I don’t think they are the poster-child of greatness as far as the Cape goes.

  14. roelf says:

    justinspratt :

    But then I read your post. Wow. Unlike most “vitriolics” (SC detractors essentially), at least your prose was readable. Unfortunately it is contentless. I have taken nothing useful away from it except that you (whom I didnt know previous to reading this) doesnt like Cape Town. Who cares about that?

    I can understand my views coming across as being unclear, having re-read my post.

    I certainly don’t get how you read that I dislike Cape Town.

    What I do dislike is lip service, and I guess what you need to take away is that I’m tired of hearing the same thing from politicians and “those concerned”.

    In addition, I’m patently tired of Web startups whining about a “difficult venture capital environment” and the problems they encounter when trying to make their supposedly startling businesses cash flow positive, whilst verbally fellating about this in endless Geekdinners and 24-somethings.

    I have personally found that elbow grease tends to lubricate a lot of things. And yes, I do cross border transactions, and projects scoping Africa and have a very good handle on what the issues are in terms of IP, and foreign currency and taxes.

    But honestly, people complaining about the lack of cross-currency Paypal payments because it breaks their business model is simply farsical.

    The Silicon Cape initiative is far too focused on “monetizing online startups” than with the real plumbing that is Information Technology. I would hate to see just another series of SEO optimizers, Blog consultants and microblogging tools and websites be the vanguard of Information Technology in South Africa.

    I have never herd of you, and probably wouldnt unless Colin Alston hadnt posted your blog link on twitter.

    Ditto. I’d never heard of you either. Are we quits now ?

    I also did some digging, specifically around this post and you. Let’s, for example take your twitter post quoted such:

    @karnaugh oh, a bring that “rodent” guy too. although he sounds abused as a child, he appears smart, so there could be a chance 🙂

    You, on the other hand appear dumb and vindictive. Take your fucking invite for coffee and shove it up your anus, you pompous, conniving prick.

    I’ll buy you a Jack Daniels if I ever get to see you. I don’t need your Cuppacino.

    Oh, and bring more hate please.

  15. roelf says:

    Erin :

    I hate to burst your bubble but everything that has succeeded in South Africa has been copied in some form or another. Our cellphone networks were launched off models taken from overseas.

    My bubble is quite intact, thank you. And you’re wrong.

    Thanks for your post.

  16. Colin Alston says:


    Quite right. Why then are we perpetuating this?

  17. roelf says:

    Ivo Vegter :

    Finally, I’ve acquired fanboy status!


    Ivo Vegter :
    But yeah, cynical though I am, and conditional though my conclusions were (in publications that carried my coverage), I’ll admit I’m a fan. And while Silicon Cape may not have solved the ultimate question (how do we attract the right people), I think your post is a pretty good example of how not to.

    Ah, yes. So sorry if my post upset the entire initiative. I’ll try to do more “we’re not worthy’s” next time.

  18. roelf says:

    Andrew Thomas-Woolf :

    Hi Colin, Roelf & others,

    Andrew, your post is very eloquent and hits the right strings with me. Thanks for engaging, and I have to say that it has left some lingering thoughts.

    I’m posting a full response as a new article…

  19. justinspratt says:

    Rodent – there was no hate or malice in my response at all. It wasnt even sarcastic! I was merely offering an olive branch to try and understand your point-of-view… oh, well. 🙂

  20. Colin Alston says:


    For what it’s worth I will take up the offer, I just need to find a time. Will email you.

  21. Darb says:

    Sjoe, you guys are all enthusiastic. I hope everyone has achieved some level of synergistic properties, minimising misunderstandings and leveraging positive relationships.

    It has taken a week, but, Colin/Roelf, please spend the time (if you can) watching the speeches on http://www.zoopy.com/siliconcape (you can avoid all the soundbyte videos), and you can judge for yourself.

  22. Darb says:

    @justinspratt to be fair, you did postulate that he was abused, that is not really a neutral olive branch.

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 Reinventing the “Cloud”

October 7, 2009

nihSeven years ago, when I still worked as the Internet Architect for I-Net Bridge, a company distributing Market Data (real-time stock information and news) in the South African market, I went to my boss, Paul Septhon and said that we had to extend the real-time messaging layer (IML) to include ASCII style messages so that it could be easily integrated into I-Net’s web delivery platforms.

IML (I-Net Bridge Messaging Layer) as it was called at that point, was a publish/subscribe real-time messaging layer for distributing I-Net’s real-time data to it’s customers, from various data sources such as the JSE, Bridge, Dow-Jones and the London Stock Exchange.

The problem was that the publisher and subscriber API’s were extremely event-driven, using callbacks and largely implemented using C, or C++. When it came to developing our web applications it became a problem to integrate a call-back driven, and binary-transport focused system into web applications that are typically “request-get-forget” style systems.

Thus, was invented “CABS” aka “Common Application and Backoffice System”. CABS predated service-oriented architecture and distributed systems that we are seeing now, by about 6 years. Using the existing reliable binary-focused publish/subscribe system that was IML, I-Net developed a scalable ASCII-protocol based client/server architecture that makes things like gearman look like amateur attempts.

The system support load-balanced function calls, a complete directory-like tree structure, mount points for various publishers and a plethora of client and publisher interfaces, including TCL, php, Perl and C/C++.

Data could be accessed transparently in the entire “data” tree, with full ACL based permissions required by the underlying IML layer, thus limiting the access of data by clients only to publishers that they subscribe to. Publishers could then implement finer grained access control. We proceeded to implement one of the most feature rich, web-based MDDS syndication and publishing systems in South Africa based upon this architecture.

It was a phenomenal achievement and I reckon, one of the grandest in South African development history, considering the time, the recent .com bubble bursting and everything that ensued post-that. We even implemented user-authentication and statistics gathering using this architecture. We had about 8 Apache based-linux front-end servers, communicating with the “cloud” of distributed data publishers across multiple geographic locations.

The front-end apache’s were mod_perl and HTML::Mason scripts that talked to the publisher’s with a simple ASCII style protocol. The HTML::Mason components used aggressive memcached caching in order to scale our performance.

Nowadays, I hear about “Web 2.0” startups, and dig into the architecture and system used, and have not found anything approaching the implementation we had at I-Net Bridge.

Until, today I came across gearman. Having been a memcache and danga.com fan for many years, I was surprised to see — finally, something that resembles the original I-Net Bridge CABS.

Gearman, is very simple, based on a simple job submission client, “mnemonic function” based job-router (gearmand) and hooks up to a bunch of “workers” that actually do the work.

In terms of architecture it focuses on the basics, redundancy, scalability and leaves all the rest of the complicated stuff such as the actual handling of access-control and marshalling of data as a “undefined contract” between the publisher and subscriber. Gearman simply handles the distribution, and reliable queuing of tasks and responses. It doesn’t even have client authentication! Those, I can work around fairly easily…

It is nowhere near as complicated as CABS was (nor do I think it will ever be) but having waved a sad good-bye to an amazing system at I-Net Bridge, I’m glad to finally find something that allows me to build some systems on a common distributable platform. I’ve been fiddling with PHP beans, UDP-based broadcasting of requests queues and various other solutions for Neology‘s carrier-grade caching, RADIUS and billing systems, and I’m glad to have finally found some replacement “glue” to get everything together again in a consistent fashion.

I intend to use gearman for everything, including pinging my desktop 🙂

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