Thursday, July 27, 2006

Mathworks links for revenue

Mathworks has announced a couple of new links between Matlab/Simulink and third party software. One to TIs Code Composer Studio, an IDE for DSP design and another to ModelSim, the circuit design software.

Once a link was considered just a new feature rather than a whole product. I haven't studied the two links to know if they are extensive implementations, or basic. Either way, they are just plumbing. But at $1000 and $2000 respectively, it seems that Mathworks sees plumbing as big business.

That doesn't really happen much in hardware now, the cable costing as much as the equipment it plugs into. But hardware doesn't have so many proprietary interfaces, and internal secrets, meaning that anyone who cares to can make cables.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Extinction level events in software

If you read this site for news, skip this item, it is just speculation.

I sometimes think that the software industry, scientific software included, can behave a bit like evolution. When times are good, lots of diversity occurs- the space of possibilities and choices is explored. When times get lean, the fit survive and the population (of users) dwindles for those that are not.

A software companies can exist on small user bases, as long as one person has the inclination to answer the phone and use a CD copier. But every so often, there is an extinction level event, a stepwise change that can kill off the weak (or just unlucky) and those that survive move into the territory relinquished by the dead. In evolution, think asteroid killing off the dinosaurs leading to the domination of mammals. In software it is things like the release of a new operating system.

Reasonably healthy software has died out in the past because it had been written for an outdated technology and wasn't successful enough to invest the development time to update to new technology. It happens less now than it used to. When I first learned to use a computer in the early 80s, it happened all the time. Every new technology was incompatible with the last. These days the platform providers make huge efforts to reduce this. I am sure most Windows XP software will work just fine on Vista, but some won't. Just as most OS X software runs on MacTel, but not all.

What got me thinking about this was the last piece about Multicore support. Is the coming of multicore computing a slightly slower extinction level event, like, say, global warming. At first it seems pretty harmless. Even more than the coming of Vista and 64bit platforms, multi-core promises complete compatibility.

But like global warming, it fundamentally changes the eco-system, and particularly for scientific computing. A lot of algorithms, have been studied and optimized in minute detail. Within a few percent, you should expect common algorithms, like say ANOVA, FFT, or basic linear algebra to be similar speeds on all of the systems that provide them. But optimizing algorithms for parallel computation is very different and is also somewhat less studied. There is a lot of work to be done by all the providers to make the shift. Nothing may be seen on the surface but lots of money will be spent behind the scenes.

It is not just that the weak will not keep up with improvements, but as multicore architecture is based around reducing clock speed, while adding more cores, those that don't shift may appear to get slower, while those that do will get faster.

Those that were once at least adequate, may very soon appear unfit. It may be in the small print of new features, but keep your eye on whether your prefered system starts claiming improved multi-core support over the next couple of years.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Stata prices by speed

Statistics software Stata is now available in a new flavor- Stata MP. From the user point of view, this is exactly the same as Stata SE except a lot more expensive. The differerence is that its number crunching is multi-threaded over multiple CPUs, if you have them.

While the concept of paying more for a higher performing version is alive and well in hardware, where the same chip often comes at a variety of clock speeds, it has largely died out in software.

Many years ago, when a math coprocessor was an option on a PC, you got different versions of software that would make use of it or not. The problem was that with the 486 came on-CPU coprocessors, and they quickly became the norm rather than specialist extras. Very soon it stopped looking like there was a fancy version of the software that did something extra, but that the other version was a just a crippled version.

I think trying to revive this pricing model won't work. Multi-core computing will sweep in very quickly; Intel has indicated plans to reach 32 cores by 2010. But for most that is just a detail, what matters, as always, is that the computer you buy tomorrow will be faster than the one you have today- unless you have the crippled single thread version Stata SE.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Software upgrade pricing strategies

Having been stung recently with a big servicing charge on my car, and being short on news this week, I thought I would do a survey of upgrade pricing strategies for different software companies.

Many people only look at the purchase price of software and do not consider the long term cost of buying into a technology. If you plan to stay up to date with new developments, compatible with other people using the same software, and compatible with future OSs and other technology, then you should also consider how much the software company will take from you tomorrow.

Today I will look at the upgrade route to staying up to date. (I will save service for another day). The survey is simple it is the upgrade fee from the most recently superseded version, as a percentage of the current purchase price. Where possible I have used US$ prices without special offers or discounts. When those were not available, I used Euro or GBP distributors prices.

The survey does not take into account how major the upgrade is or what the purchase price of the previous version was.

The results surprised me in their range. Here they are with the most painful first....

Matlab - not available (continous service renewal required)
TecPlot 360 80% (includes a year of maintenance sold separately for 15%)
TecPlot Focus 80% (includes year of maintenance sold separately for 20%)
O-Matrix 59%
Gauss 52%
Maple 50%
Mupad 50%
MathType 40% (from any previous version)
Scientific Word 35%
Scientific Workplace 35%
Endnote (download) 37%
Endnote physical box 33%
Minitab 33%
MathCAD 30%
Origin 27%
Mathematica 24%
Stata 18%

Caveat Emptor!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

MathCAD security vulnerability revealed

Like most interpretted systems, MathCAD suffers from the need to pass source code of your work to others for them to be able to use it. Like many systems, it tackles this with an option to encrypt the source code and give password access control to it.

An analysis of the vulnerabilities of the MathCAD implementation was released a couple of days ago on a Russian "security" site.

It turns out to be shockingly simple to bypass. Essentially, open in a text editor, find the "is-locked" attribute and type "false". The article also describes how to change content, fake the timestamp, and re-lock it.

If you were relying on this to secure your property or control modification, consider your work now open-source and meddled with.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Clearspeed accelerator goes mainstream

At the risk of this turning into an HPC site, here is another story on high performance computing...

ClearSpeed Technology are a UK startup who make a neat co-processor board. Slot one of these 96 core boards into your PC and you get a boost of 50Gflops at the cost of 25W of power and a few thousand dollars!.

So far they seem to have mostly been involved in expensive specialist systems, partly because you need to optimize your code to take advantage of it.

This week though, they have signed an OEM deal with IBM which will put the boards into the IBM System Cluster 1350 product. This will be very important for raising their profile, driving support for the platform and making them some sales.

They have also made a start on cultivating third party software support, announcing this week, Mathematica support, with a claimed "quadruple performance". I think we can expect to see more such announcements in the coming months.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Mupad 4 released

Last year I wrote quite a pessimistic piece about Mupad's problems and argued that they needed a compelling upgrade to make enough money to avoid last August's near bankruptcy but that they probably lacked the resources to produce one.

Well the upgrade is here, just in time for the summer, and I feel a little more optimistic, but not because of the upgrade.

The headline feature is "a new uniform user interface for all supported operating systems". Does this mean some backward incompatibility to try and draw users up to Mupad 4? It goes on "is platform independed [sic] and provides more formatting features" though none are explicitly listed.

On the computation side, top features listed are some new elliptic and Jacobi functions, improvements to symbolic factoring, anti-aliased screen graphics, and around 30 other changes that seem too trivial to note (eg
"The option Column of output::tableForm has been renamed to Columns.").

It's not a compelling upgrade at all, so why do I feel more optimistic for them?

Well, at the same time as launching the upgrade, they re-designed their website and it shows a different attitude than before - much more commercial. There is a new web store (though you have to buy in Euros), a big list of new international distributors, and a price list focused on using the existing user base (eg upgrades at 50% of a new license fee). The shyness about making money that was exemplified by the previous free versions of Mupad has gone.

There is also a news item "
SciFace cooperates with the university of Kassel" suggesting some new research backing, but there are no details and no mention on Kassel's site, so this may be mostly cheerleading to raise users confidence in future development.

Whether the new focus on the "bottom line" will be enough, time will tell, but at least there is fight.