Creating a culture of Creativity….

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I came across this talk by John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) from 1991 about the process of building creativity.   I could not help but think of the applicability of building organizations that are creative.  In my opinion getting people out of the grind, the day to day blocking and tackling, into a place where they can begin to solve for things is more about the attitude and engagement of the team.  Its also one of the key cultural things I try to build in an organization.   The video highlights the impacts of being too serious, to solemn, The importance of giving yourself the time and permission to think, how to think, the struggles of thinking, the importance of play, and the impact and multiplication of effort of  play with others.  It’s a serious talk with lots of jokes thrown in…but if you are tasked with bringing out the most of your teams its well worth the 36 minutes investment of time.   He ends by telling you how to stop your subordinates from being creative.    Its all in fun, but I bet you can relate to his examples and managers and leaders you may have had in your work life!

 

John Cleese on Creativity Video

 

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** EDIT **
Thanks to Patrick Dugan and Dave Ohara for pointing out that the original Vimeo link had expired. Switched to the YouTube version.

The Cloud Cat and Mouse Papers–Site Selection Roulette and the Insurance Policies of Mobile infrastructure

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Its always hard to pick exactly where to start in a conversation like this especially since this entire process really represents a changing life-cycle.   Its more of a circular spiral that moves out (or evolves) as new data is introduced than a traditional life-cycle because new data can fundamentally shift the technology or approach.   That being said I thought I would start our conversations at a logical starting point.   Where does one place your infrastructure?  Even in its embryonic “idea phase” the intersection of government and technology begins its delicate dance to a significant degree. These decisions will ultimately have an impact on more than just where the Capital investments a company decides to make are located.  It has affects on the products and services they offer, and as I propose, an impact ultimately on the customers that use the services at those locations.

As I think back to the early days of building out a global infrastructure, the Site Selection phase started at a very interesting place.   In some ways we approached it with a level of sophistication that has still to be matched today and in other ways, we were children playing a game whose rules had not yet been defined.

I remember sitting across numerous tables with government officials talking about making an investment (largely just land purchase decisions) in their local community.  Our Site Selection methodology had brought us to these areas.  A Site Selection process which continued to evolve as we got smarter, and as we started to truly understand the dynamics of the system were being introduced to.   In these meetings we always sat stealthily behind a third party real estate partner.  We never divulged who we were, nor were they allowed to ask us that directly.  We would pepper them with questions, and they in turn would return the favor.  It was all cloak and dagger with the Real Estate entity taking all action items to follow up with both parties.

Invariably during these early days -  these locales would always walk away with the firm belief that we were a bank or financial institution.   When they delved into our financial viability (for things like power loads, commitment to capital build-out etc.) we always stated that any capital commitments and longer term operational cost commitments were not a problem.    In large part the cloak and dagger aspect was to keep land costs down (as we matured, we discovered this was quite literally the last thing we needed to worry about) as we feared that once our name became attached to the deal our costs would go up.   These were the early days of seeding global infrastructure and it was not just us.  I still laugh at the fact that one of our competitors bound a locality up so much in secrecy – that the community referred to the data center as Voldemort – He who shall not be named, in deference to the Harry Potter book series.

This of course was not the only criteria that we used.  We had over 56 by the time I left that particular effort with various levels of importance and weighting.   Some Internet companies today use less, some about the same, and some don’t use any, they ride on the backs of others who have trail-blazed a certain market or locale.   I have long called this effect Data Center Clustering.    The rewards for being first mover are big, less so if you follow them ultimately still positive. 

If you think about most of the criteria used to find a location it almost always focuses on the current conditions, with some acknowledge in some of the criteria of the look forward.  This is true for example when looking at power costs.   Power costs today are important to siting a data center, but so is understanding the generation mix of that power, the corresponding price volatility, and modeling that ahead to predict (as best as possible) longer term power costs.

What many miss is understanding the more subtle political layer that occurs once a data center has been placed or a cluster has developed. Specifically that the political and regulatory landscape can change very quickly (in relationship to the life of a data center facility which is typically measured in 20, 30, or 40 year lifetimes).  It’s a risk that places a large amount of capital assets potentially in play and vulnerable to these kinds of changes.   Its something that is very hard to plan or model against.  That being said there are indicators and clues that one can use to at least play risk factors against or as some are doing – ensuring that the technology they deploy limits their exposure.    In cloud environments the question remains open – how liable are companies using cloud infrastructure in these facilities at risk?   We will explore this a little later.

That’s not to say that this process is all downside either.  As we matured in our approach, we came to realize that the governments (local or otherwise) were strongly incented to work with us on getting us a great deal and in fact competed over this kind of business.   Soon you started to see the offers changing materially.  It was little about the land or location and quickly evolved to what types of tax incentives, power deals, and other mechanisms could be put in play.   You saw (and continue to see) deals structured around sales tax breaks, real estate and real estate tax deals, economic incentives around breaks in power rates, specialized rate structures for Internet and Cloud companies and the like.   The goal here of course was to create the public equivalent of “golden handcuffs” for the Tech companies and try to marry them to particular region, state, or country.  In many cases – all three.  The benefits here are self apparent.  But can they (or more specifically will they) be passed on in some way to small companies who make use of cloud infrastructure in these facilities? While definitely not part of the package deals done today – I could easily see site selection negotiations evolving to incent local adoption of cloud technology in these facilities or provisions being put in place tying adoption and hosting to tax breaks and other deal structures in the mid to longer timeframe for hosting and cloud companies.

There is still a learning curve out there as most governments mistakenly try and tie these investments with jobs creation.   Data Centers, Operations, and the like represents the cost of goods sold (COGS) to the cloud business.  Therefore there is a constant drive towards efficiency and reduction of the highest cost components to deliver those products and services.   Generally speaking, people, are the primary targets in these environments.   Driving automation in these environments is job one for any global infrastructure player.  One of the big drivers for us investing and developing a 100% lights-out data center at AOL was eliminating those kinds of costs.  Those governments that generally highlight job creation targets over other types typically don’t get the site selection.    After having commissioned an economic study done after a few of my previous big data center builds I can tell you that the value to a region or a state does not come from the up front jobs the data center employs.  After a local radio stationed called into question the value of having such a facility in their backyard, we used a internationally recognized university to perform a third party “neutral” assessment of the economic benefits (sans direct people) and the numbers were telling.  We had surrendered all construction costs and other related material to them, and they investigated over the course of a year through regional interviews and the like of what the direct impacts of a data center was on the local community, and the overall impacts by the addition.  The results of that study are owned by a previous employer but I  can tell you with certainty – these facilities can be beneficial to local regions.

No one likes constraints and as such you are beginning to see Technology companies use their primary weapon – technology – to mitigate their risks even in these scenarios.   One cannot argue for example, that while container-based data centers offer some interesting benefits in terms of energy and cost efficiencies, there is a certain mobility to that kind of infrastructure that has never been available before.    Historically, data centers are viewed as large capital anchors to a location.    Once in place, hundreds of millions to billions (depending on the size of the company) of dollars of capital investment are tied to that region for its lifespan.   Its as close to permanent in the Tech Industry as building a factory was during the industrial revolution. 

In some ways Modularization of the data center industry is/can/will have the same effect as the shipping container did in manufacturing.   All puns intended.  If you are unaware of how the shipping container revolutionized the world, I would highly recommend the book “The Box” by Marc Levinson, it’s a quick read and very interesting if you read it through the lens of IT infrastructure and the parallels of modularization in the Data Center Industry at large.

It gives the infrastructure companies more exit options and mobility in the future than they would have had in the past under large capital build-outs.  Its an insurance policy if you will for potential changes is legislation or regulation that might negatively impact the Technology companies over time.  Just another move in the cat and mouse games that we will see evolving here over the next decade or so in terms of the interactions between governments and global infrastructure. 

So what about the consumers of cloud services?  How much of a concern should this represent for them?  You don’t have to be a big infrastructure player to understand that there are potential risks in where your products and services live.  Whether you are building a data center or hosting inside a real estate or co-location provider – these are issues that will affect you.  Even in cases where you only use the cloud provisioning capabilities within your chosen provider – you will typically be given options of what region or area would you like you gear hosted in.  Typically this is done for performance reasons – reaching your customers – but perhaps this information might cause you to think of the larger ramifications to your business.   It might even drive requirements into the infrastructure providers to make this more transparent in the future.

These evolutions in the relationship between governments and Technology and the technology options available to them will continue to shape site selection policy for years to come.   So too will it ultimately affect the those that use this infrastructure whether directly or indirectly remains to be seen.  In the next paper we will explore the this interaction more deeply as it relates to the customers of cloud services and the risks and challenges specifically for them in this environment.

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DataCentres2012–Nice, France

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Next month I will be one of the key note speakers at the DataCentres2012 conference in Nice, France.   This event produced and put on by the BroadGroup is far and away the most pre-eminent conference for the Data Center Industry in Europe.   As an alumni of other BroadGroup events I can assure you that the quality of the presentations and training available is of the highest quality. I am also looking forward to re-connecting  with some great friends such as Christian Belady of Microsoft, Tom Furlong from Facebook and others.   If you are planning on attending please feel free to reach out and say hello.   It’s a great opportunity to network, build friendships, and discuss the issues pressing our industry today.   You can find out more by visiting the event website below.

http://www.datacentres2012.com/

 

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This is just lost on so many companies / organizations…

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Having experienced nearly all of the pain and desire one could have in trying to scale out applications, operations, and infrastructure, I have become a huge proponent of blending efforts between Development with Operations.   Additionally I think the blend should include lower level stuff like facilities as well.  The entire online paradigm fundamentally changes how the problem space should be viewed.

With Concepts like NoOps, DevOps, and the like becoming fashionable in the Development community its probably no surprise that these issues are being addressed from people’s own comfort spaces.  To a development engineer – those Ops folks are crusty and cranky.   To an Operations engineer those darn developers don’t really code for long term operations.   Its always the ‘throw the code over the wall’ and the Ops folks will make it work mentality.   In reality both sides are right.

The simple truth is (in my opinion) that the University System is to a large degree failing the industry especially when it comes to developing for future platforms.   Graduates are coming out by the thousands versed in the development of  Java, Ruby on Rails, and insert your favorite flavor of high level web platform here.   The amount of graduates who understand the underlying systems, and more basically how things work are becoming rarer by the year.  Add to this mix an understanding of developing for code to RUN, and the infrastructural and operational requirements associated with it you are dealing with a very rare set of skill sets.   Many of the big companies who do build for the RUN of software (read as SAAS, large scale online services, etc) actually go through a bit of “re-education” with new hires to either teach them these skill sets for the first time, or “re-program” the bad stuff they learned out. 

I had a series of related things come through my inbox and a video shared with me from last years Velocity conference.   I think they are powerful thought provokers to read and watch.  

The first is the video from Velocity by Theo Schlossnagle, a founder and principal at OmniTI.  It is  somewhat skunk-worked under the heading of Career Development.   Theo takes this from the perspective of the individual, but it is easily applied to organizations at large. Its 13 minutes, but well worth the time.

http://velocityconf.com/velocity2011/public/schedule/detail/20406

The second is a post by Adrian Cockcroft from Netflix talking about the development and evolution of DevOps/NoOps in the culture there.   The approach is right on, although I think to a large degree some of the real “ops” stuff has been outsourced to the cloud provider.   That being said I think the mindset shown here from a broader “Development Responsibilities” is definitely in the right way to think about the problem space.   I have often talked about the NetFlix Chaos Monkey approach and just how powerful that paradigm is:

http://perfcap.blogspot.com/2012/03/ops-devops-and-noops-at-netflix.html

The last is actually a response to the Cockcroft post by John Allspaw who used to run Flickr’s Operations and is now at Etsy.  Who while arguing the benefit of a stronger Ops presence and involvement also highlights the benefits of having Development and Engineering more aware of their surroundings.

Happy Reading!

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The Cloud Cat and Mouse Papers – The Primer

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Cat and Mouse with Multi-national infrastructure –The Participants to date

There is an ever-changing, game of cat and mouse developing in the world of cloud computing.   Its not a game that you as a consumer might see, but it is there.  An undercurrent that has been there from the beginning.   It pits Technology Companies and multi-national infrastructure against local and national governments.  For some years this game of cat and mouse has been quietly played out in backrooms, development and technology roadmap re-works, across negotiation tables, and only in the rarest of cases – have they come out for industry scrutiny or visibility.  To date the players have been limited to likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and others who have scaled their technology infrastructure across the globe and in large measure those are the players that governments have moved against in an ever intricate chess game.  I myself have played apart in the measure/counter-measure give and take of this delicate dance.

The primary issues in this game have to do with realization of revenue for taxation purposes, Safe Harbor and issues pertaining to personally identifiable information, ownership of Big Data, the nature of what is stored, how it is stored, and where it is stored, the intersection where politics and technology meet.   A place where social issues and technology collide.   You might call them storm clouds, just out of sight, but there is thunder on the horizon that you the consumer and/or potential user of global cloud infrastructure will need to be aware of because eventually the users of cloud infrastructure will become players in the game as well. 

That is not to say that the issues I tease out here are all gloom and doom.  In fact, they are great opportunities for potential business models, additional product features, and even cloud eco-system companies or niche solutions unto themselves.  A way to drive significant value for all sides.   I have been toying with more than a few of these ideas myself here over the last few months.

To date these issues have mostly manifested in the global build up of infrastructure for the big Internet platforms.  The Products and Services the big guys in the space use as their core money-making platforms or primary service delivery platforms.  Rarely if ever do these companies use this same infrastructure for their Infrastructure as a service (IAAS) or Platform as a Services (PAAS) offerings.  However, as you will see, the same challenges will and do apply to these offerings as well.  In some cases they are even more acute and problematic in a situation where there may be a multi-tenancy with the potential to put even more burden on future cloud users.

If I may be blunt about this there is an interesting lifecycle to this food chain whereby the Big Technology companies consistently have the upper hand and governmental forces through the use of their primary tools – regulation and legislation – are constantly playing catch up.  This lifecycle is unlikely to change for at least five reasons.

  • The Technology Companies will always have the lens of the big picture of multi-national infrastructure.   Individual countries, states, and locales generally only have jurisdiction or governance over that territory, or population base that is germane to their authority.
  • Technology Companies can be of near singular purpose on a very technical depth of capability or bring to bear much more concentrated “brain power” to solve for evolutions in the changing socio-political landscape to continually evolve measures and counter-measures to address these changes.
  • By and large Governments rely upon technologies and approaches to become mainstream before there is enough of a base understanding of the developments and impacts before they can act.  This generally places them in a reactionary position. 
  • Governmental forces generally rely upon “consultants” or “industry experts” to assist in understanding these technologies, but very few of these industry experts have ever really dealt with multi-national infrastructure and fewer still have had to strategize and evolve plans around these types of changes. The expertise at that level is rare and almost exclusively retained by the big infrastructure providers.
  • Technology Companies have the ability to force a complete game-change to the rules and reality by completely changing out the technology used to deliver their products and services, change development and delivery logic and/or methodology to almost affect a complete negation of the previous method of governance, making it obsolete. 

That is not to say that governments are unwilling participants in this process forced into a subservient role in the lifecycle.  In fact they are active participants in attracting, cultivating, and even subsidizing these infrastructural investments in areas of under their authority and jurisdiction.  Using tools like Tax breaks, real estate and investment incentives, and private-public partnerships do have both initial and ongoing benefits for the Governments as well.  In many ways these  are “golden handcuffs” for Technology Companies who enter into this cycle, but like any kind of constraint – positive or negative – the planning and strategy to unfetter themselves begins almost immediately.

Watson, The Game is Afoot

Governments, Social Justice, Privacy, and Environmental forces have already begun to force changes in the Technology landscape for those engaged in multi-national infrastructure.  There are tons of articles freely available on the web which articulate the kinds of impacts these forces have had and will continue to have on the Technology Companies.  The one refrain through all of the stories is the resiliency of those same Technology Companies to persevere and thrive despite what might be crucial setbacks in other industries.

In some cases the technology changes and adapts to meet the new requirements, in some cases, approaches or even vacating “un-friendly” environs across any of these spectrums becomes an option, and in some cases, there is not an insignificant bet that any regulatory or compulsory requirements will be virtually impossible or too technically complex to enforce or even audit.

Lets take a look at a couple of the examples that have been made public that highlight this kind of thing.   Back in 2009, Microsoft migrated substantial portions of their Azure Cloud Services out of Washington State to its facilities located in San Antonio Texas.  While the article specifically talks about certain aspects of tax incentives being held back, there were of course other factors involved.   One doesn’t have to look far to understand that Washington State also has an B&O Tax (Business and Occupation Tax) which is defined as a gross receipts tax. It is measured on the value of products, gross proceeds of sale, or gross income of the business.  As you can imagine, interpreting this kind of tax as it relates to online and cloud income and the like could be very tricky and regardless would be complex and technical problem  to solve.  It could have the undesired impact of placing any kind of online business at an interesting disadvantage,  or at another level place an unknown tax burden on its users.   I am not saying this was a motivating factor in Microsoft’s decision but you can begin to see the potential exposure developing.   In this case, The Technology could rapidly change and move the locale of the hosted environments to minimize the exposure, thus thwarting any governmental action.  At least for the provider, but what of the implications if you were a user of the Microsoft cloud platform and found yourself with an additional or unknown tax burden.  I can almost guarantee that back in 2009 that this level of end user impact (or revenue potential from a state tax perspective) had not even been thought about.   But as with all things, time changes and we are already seeing examples of exposure occurring across the game board that is our planet.

We are already seeing interpretations or laws getting passed in countries around the globe where for example, a server is a taxable entity.   If revenue for a business is derived from a computer or server located in that country it falls under the jurisdiction of that countries tax authority.    Imagine yourself as a company using this wonderful global cloud infrastructure selling your widgets, products or services, and finding yourself with an unknown tax burden and liability in some “far flung” corner of the earth.   The Cloud providers today mostly provide Infrastructure services.  They do not go up the stack far enough to be able to effectively manage your entire system let alone be able to determine your tax liability.  The burden of proof to a large degree today would reside on the individual business running inside that infrastructure.  

In many ways those adopting these technologies are the least capable to deal with these kinds of challenges.  They are small to mid-sized companies who admittedly don’t have the capital, or operational sophistication to build out the kind of infrastructure needed to scale that quickly.   They are unlikely to have technologies such as robust configuration management databases to be able to to track virtual instances of their products and services, to tell what application ran, where it ran, how long it ran, and how much revenue was derived during the length of its life.   And this is just one example (Server as a taxable entity) of a law or legislative effort that could impact global users.  There are literally dozens of these kinds of bills/legislative initiatives/efforts (some well thought out, most not) winding their way through legislative bodies around the world.

You might think that you may be able to circumvent some of this by limiting your product or services deployment to the country closest to home, wherever home is for you.  However there are other efforts winding their way through or in large degree passed that impact the data you store, what you store, whose data are you storing, and the like. In most cases these initiatives are unrelated to the revenue legislations developing, but balanced they can give an interesting one – two punch.   For example many countries are requiring that for Safe Harbor purposes all information for any nationals of ‘Country X’ must be stored in ‘Country X’ to ensure that its citizenry is properly protected and under the jurisdiction of the law for those users.   In a cloud environment, with customers potentially from almost anywhere how do you ensure that this is the case?  How do you ensure you are compliant?   If you balance this requirement with the ‘server as a taxable entity’ example I just gave above there is an interesting exposure and liability for companies prove where and when revenue is derived.     Similarly there are some laws that are enacted as reactions against legislation in other countries.

In the post-911 era within the United States, the US Congress enacted a series of laws called the Patriot Act.   Due to some of the information search and seizure aspects of the law, Canada forbade that Canadian citizens data be stored in the United States in response.   To the best of my knowledge only a small number of companies actually even acknowledge this requirement and have architected solutions to address it, but the fact remains they are not in compliance with Canadian law.  Imagine you are a small business owner, using a cloud environment to grow your business, and suddenly you begin to grow your business significantly in Canada.  Does your lack of knowledge of Canadian law excuse you from your responsibilities there?  No.  Is this something that your infrastructure provider is offering to you? Today, no.  

I am only highlighting certain cases here to make the point that there is a world of complexity coming to the cloud space.  Thankfully these impacts have not been completely explored or investigated by most countries of the world, but its not hard to see a day/time where this becomes a very real thing where companies and the cloud eco-system in general will have to address.  At its most base level these are areas of potential revenue streams for governments and as such increase the likelihood of their eventual day in the sun.    I am currently personally tracking over 30 different legislative initiatives around the world (read as pre-de-facto laws) that will likely shape this Technology landscape for the big providers and potential cloud adopters some time in the future.

What is to come?

This first article was really just to bring out the basic premise of the conversation and topics I will be discussing and to lay the groundwork to a very real degree.  I have not even begun to touch on the extra-governmental impacts of social and environmental impacts that will likely change the shape even further.  This interaction of Technology, “The Cloud”, Political and Social Issues, exists today and although largely masked by the fact that eco-system of the cloud is not fully developed or matured, is no less a reality.   Any predictions that are made are extensions of existing patterns I see in the market already and do not necessarily represent a forgone conclusion, but rather the most likely developments based upon my interactions in this space.  As this Technology space continues to mature, the only certainty is uncertainty modulated against the backdrop of a world where increasingly geo-political forces will continue to shape the Technology of tomorrow.

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Open Sourcing our Operational Scale Tools–Meet Trigger

Not that long ago we made a decision to begin Open Sourcing some of our internal products and tools into the community at large.   There are some really interesting benefits for open sourcing some of these internally developed tools and as a company we begun to do some very interesting work in this space.  Some of our work has gotten quite a bit of attention such as SocketStream which is a very fast, real time web framework. 

Today I am very pleased to announce that we are open-sourcing one of the tools that we use to manage and maintain our network infrastructure.   We call it Trigger.  

Trigger is a Python framework and suite of tools for interfacing with network devices and managing network configuration and security policy. Trigger was specifically internally designed to increase the speed and efficiency of network configuration management.

Trigger’s core device interaction utilizes the freely available Twisted event-driven networking engine. The libraries can connect to network devices by any available method (e.g. telnet, SSH), communicate with them in their native interface (e.g. Juniper JunoScript, Cisco IOS), and return output. Trigger is able to manage any number of jobs in parallel and handle output or errors as they return.

If you think a tool like this would be interesting for you or your company feel free to give it a try.  The Open Source repository for it can be found here at :https://github.com/aol/trigger

For the complete set of documentation is hosted at ReadtheDocs:

http://readthedocs.org/docs/trigger

This is just the first of many internal efforts and tools that we plan to Open Source.  I will announce more tools in the coming months that have helped AOL to scale over the years.  Stay tuned!

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Cloud Détente – The Cloud Cat and Mouse Papers

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Over the last decade or so I have been lucky enough to be placed into a fairly unique position to work internationally deploying global infrastructure for cloud environments.  This work has spanned across some very large companies with a very dedicated focus on building out global infrastructure and managing through those unique challenges.   Strategies may have varied but the challenges faced by them all had some very common themes.   One of the more complex interactions when going through this process is what I call the rolling Cat and Mouse interactions between governments at all levels and these global companies.  

Having been a primary player in these negotiations and the development of measures and counter measures as a result of these interactions, I have come to believe there are some interesting potential outcomes that cloud adopters should think about and understand.   The coming struggle and complexity for managing regulating and policing multi-national infrastructure will not solely impact the large global players, but in a very real way begin to shape how their users will need to think through these socio-political  and geo-political realities. The potential impacts on their business, their adoption of cloud technologies, their resulting responsibilities and measure just how aggressively they look to the cloud for the growth of their businesses.

These observations and predictions are based upon my personal experiences.  So for whatever its worth (good or bad)  this is not the perspective of an academic writing from some ivory tower, rather they are  the observations of someone who has been there and done it.  I probably have enough material to write an entire book on my personal experiences and observations, but I have committed myself to writing a series of articles highlighting what I consider the big things that are being missed in the modern conversation of cloud adoption.  

The articles will highlight (with some personal experiences mixed in) the ongoing battle between Technocrats versus Bureaucrats.  I will try to cover a different angle on many of the big topics out there today such as :

  • Big Data versus Big Government
  • Rise of Nationalism as a factor in Technology and infrastructure distribution
  • The long struggle ahead for managing, regulating, and policing clouds
  • The Business, end-users, regulation and the cloud
  • Where does the data live? How long does it live? Why Does it Matter?
  • Logic versus Reality – The real difference between Governments and Technology companies.
  • The Responsibilities of data ownership
    • … regarding taxation exposure
    • … regarding PII impacts
    • … Safe Harbor

My hope is that this series and the topics I raise, while maybe a bit raw and direct, will cause you to think a bit more about the coming impacts on Technology industry at large, the potential coming impacts to small and medium size businesses looking to adopt these technologies, and the developing friction and complexity at the intersection of technology and government.

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