Thursday, February 14, 2008

Information technology governance

Problems with IT governance

Nicholas Carr has emerged as a prominent critic of the idea that information technology confers strategic advantage.[5] This line of criticism might imply that significant attention to IT governance is not a worthwhile pursuit for senior corporate leadership. However, Carr also indicates counterbalancing concern for effective IT risk management.

The manifestation of IT governance objectives through detailed process controls (e.g. in the context of project management) is a frequently controversial matter in large scale IT management. See Agile methods. The difficulties in achieving a balance between financial transparency and cost-effective data capture in IT financial management (i.e., to enable chargeback) is a continual topic of discussion in the professional literature[6], [7] and can be seen as a practical limitation to IT governance

Relationship to other IT disciplines

IT governance is supported by disciplines such as:


There are quite a few supporting mechanisms developed to guide the implementation of information technology governance. Some of them are:

  • Control Objectives for Information and related Technology (COBIT) is another approach to standardize good information technology security and control practices. This is done by providing tools to assess and measure the performance of 34 IT processes of an organization. The ITGI (IT Governance Institute) is responsible for CObIT
  • The ISO/IEC 27001 (ISO 27001) is a set of best practices for organizations to follow to implement and maintain a security program. It started out as British Standard 7799 ([BS7799]), which was published in the United Kingdom and became a well known standard in the industry that was used to provide guidance to organizations in the practice of information security.
  • The Information Security Management Maturity Model ISM3 is a process based ISM maturity model for security.
  • AS8015-2005 Australian Standard for Corporate Governance of Information and Communication Technology

Others include:

  • BS7799 - focus on IT security
  • CMM - The Capability Maturity Model - focus on software engineering

Non-IT specific frameworks of use include:

  • The Balanced Scorecard (BSC) - method to assess an organization’s performance in many different areas.
  • Six Sigma - focus on quality assurance

Rethinking the Cell Phone

An Israeli startup has made a modular mobile phone that can work on its own or slip into other electronic devices. Will it catch on?

Mini mobile: The Modu, a cell phone slightly larger than a domino, is designed to slip into other electronic devices, such as picture frames, stereo systems, and bigger phones.
Credit: Modu Mobile

If you could reduce a mobile phone to its essence, it would look like the Modu. This tiny phone, which is slightly larger than a domino, is capable of sending and receiving calls and text messages. It can store contacts and MP3s with up to 16 gigabytes of storage capacity, and it has a small but usable screen and a sparse keypad that lacks numbers. Launched this week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the Modu can be used as a stand-alone phone. But more important, it can also be slipped into a variety of "jackets," such as in-car MP3 players, Global Positioning Systems, and larger cell phones, that expand the Modu's functions and change its look.

Modu Mobile, the Israeli startup that launched the phone, is hoping to change the way that consumers think about their handhelds, explains Itay Sherman, the company's chief technology officer. Today, people generally have one phone that they use all the time, and they use it for a year or two because it's too expensive to buy a new model more frequently. But Sherman says that the idea of one phone for all occasions doesn't mesh with people's lifestyle. Sometimes you want to walk around with the smallest possible phone, he says; other times you want a good messaging device with a large keyboard, or a media player with a large screen. "Instead of buying a completely new phone, the jacket enables you to switch."

In making the Modu, Sherman says, there were a number of technical considerations. While semiconductor technology is at the point where chips are small enough to easily fit into the mini mobile, his team also had to shrink the phone's other features, such as the screen, keypad, and battery. The display, for instance, needed to be specially designed: it uses organic light-emitting diodes and is a mere one millimeter thick. (See "Super-Vivid, Super-Efficient Displays.") Knowing that it would be impractical to put a full, numbered keypad on the Modu, Sherman says, his team designed a simpler keypad that lets people access menus on the screen, similar to those of MP3 players. The lithium-ion polymer battery, which uses the same basic technology as traditional phone batteries, was customized to be thin and long, while still providing about 3 hours of talk time and 100 hours of standby.

Once a user plugs the Modu into a jacket, however, the features improve. "The jacket may also have a battery," says Sherman, and the combined device shares the load between the two batteries. "It extends the talk time and standby time."

One of the main innovations, says Sherman, is that the software that runs the Modu automatically reconfigures when it is put in another device. A resource file defines the way the Modu and jacket will work together. "Every jacket you plug into, you'll get a completely different experience, yet it keeps the basic functionality in all cases so that it's familiar to the user," he says.

Beyond cell-phone jackets, Modu Mobile will offer other consumer-electronics devices in which the phone module can be inserted, improving the basic functions of the device. For instance, a camera with the Modu could wirelessly send pictures to other phones, and a car entertainment system designed for the Modu could let a user access his MP3s while enabling hands-free calling.

This isn't the first time that consumer-electronics companies have tried to build modular phones, says Avi Greengart, the research director for mobile devices at Current Analysis, a market research firm. He points to IXI Mobile, the maker of the Ogo mobile messenger. "It had the notion of connecting multiple devices together via Bluetooth," he explains. A user would have a basic storage module and then connect to a large display or media player. However, the technology didn't catch on because few people think to buy a shell of a media player and then the other pieces to make it work, Greengart says.

Greengart is skeptical that the Modu will take off. "It makes sense on paper, but in the past, every effort to create modular types of devices has failed because [the companies] miss the way consumers actually buy products," he says. "It requires a change in consumer behavior ... Consumers don't buy [multiple] modules at once or have the foresight to know that they're going to want more ... down the road."

Modu Mobile hopes to buck the trend by getting people used to thinking in terms of jackets and the Modu. "We want to educate the market on the flexibilities and offerings," says Sherman. The company's first products will be available in October in Italy, Russia, and Israel. The initial package, which will include the Modu and two phone jackets, will cost 200 euros, an amount that the company expects will be subsidized by cell-phone carriers. In 2009, the company will extend to operators in the rest of Europe and in the United States, Sherman says.

Greengart admits that by inking deals with major carriers in the three initial countries, Modu Mobile has overcome one of the hurdles in making a marketable phone. "Oftentimes, the biggest challenge with a mobile device is just getting it in front of the consumers," he says. "They have carriers in Israel, Italy, and Russia. We'll see how much weight they put behind it."

The Modu is a different idea, and "the industry could use more 'different,'" Greengart says. But it will be hard for the company to gain traction in the mobile market and, especially, compete with Apple's popular iPhone. "I hate to say it because it sounds cliché," admits Greengart, "but no matter what jacket you slip this thing into, it's not going to be an iPhone."

Discovering Novel Pathogens

Next-generation sequencing uncovers disease-causing microbes.

Mystery microbes: A next-generation sequencing technique allowed researchers to identify the virus that likely killed three transplant patients who received organs from the same donor. Because the technique is "unbiased," it could pick up the virus even though it was highly dissimilar at the nucleotide level to its nearest viral kin, lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV). In the top panel, cells infected with the new virus have been stained using antibodies against LCMV and its relatives. In the bottom panel, individual virus particles (denoted with arrows) are revealed by electron microscopy.
Credit: New England Journal of Medicine

The next-generation sequencing technology that was harnessed to assemble the entire sequence of James Watson's genome has been put to a new and potentially life-saving use: identifying novel pathogens. After several other identification techniques failed, the new sequencing approach was used to discover a never-before-seen virus that was likely responsible for the deaths of three transplant patients who received organs from the same donor.

The technique, called unbiased high-throughput pyrosequencing, or 454 sequencing, was developed by 454 Life Sciences, owned by Roche. This is the first time it was used to probe for the cause of an infectious-disease outbreak in humans, and experts say that it could ultimately usher in a new era in discovering and testing for agents of infectious disease.

"This is going to begin to allow us to understand the etiology of infections that had previously gone undiagnosed," says Richard Whitley, professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who was not involved with the research.

Last spring, several weeks after receiving organs from a single donor, three Australian transplant patients became ill with fever and encephalitis; within six weeks of the operation, all three had died. When traditional methods failed to identify the cause of the patients' deaths, the Victorian Infectious Disease Reference Laboratory turned to W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Laboratory for Immunopathogenesis and Infectious Diseases at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, for assistance.

To find the mystery pathogen responsible for the deaths, Lipkin's team extracted RNA from the tissues of two of the patients and prepared the sample by treating it with an enzyme that removed all traces of human DNA; this enriched the sample for viral sequences. The researchers then amplified the RNA into millions of copies of the corresponding DNA using a reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Usually, PCR requires some advance knowledge of the sequence in question because it relies on molecular primers that match the string of code to be amplified. But 454 sequencing avoids that problem by using a large number of random primers.

The resulting strands of DNA were sequenced using pyrosequencing, which determines the sequence of a piece of DNA by adding new complementary nucleotides one by one in a reaction that gives off a burst of light. Pyrosequencing allows for fast, simultaneous analysis of hundreds of thousands of DNA fragments. Although traditional pyrosequencing generally produces relatively short chunks of sequence compared with earlier sequencing techniques, 454 Life Sciences has improved upon the technology such that longer reads are possible.

When 454 Life Sciences used this technique to sequence James Watson's genome, its approach was nearly identical. Lipkin's modification was to eliminate human DNA so that only the mystery pathogen's genetic material would remain.

Once the sequences were generated, Lipkin used computational techniques developed in his laboratory to filter out any remaining human sequences (which sometimes linger due to the presence of human RNA) and to piece together the many sequence fragments into longer strings. Of the more than 100,000 sequences initially produced, a mere 14 matched viral proteins in a database of all known microbes' sequences.

"If we had used a different sequencing strategy--one that gives you shorter reads--or if we had not used the sample preparation to enrich [for viral sequences], we would never have captured those," says Lipkin.

The virus from the patients' tissues was most closely related to a pathogen called lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV), which is known to cause meningitis in humans. While LCMV has been implicated in transplant-associated illness before, the sequence of the new virus was different enough that existing methods could not have detected its presence. The results of the analysis were published online last week in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Once it had characterized the LCMV-like virus, the group was able to design probes to test specifically for its presence. The group found evidence of the virus in several tissue samples from all three transplant recipients.

Unbiased high-throughput pyrosequencing has become a critical tool in Lipkin's lab, which is a member of the World Health Organization and helps train and equip public-health workers around the world. Lipkin has successfully used the technique to identify 20 viruses to date, including the Israel acute paralysis virus thought to be responsible for colony collapse disorder in bees. "There are all sorts of things that we've been able to identify using this approach," says Lipkin. "It's really quite powerful."

Because the sequencing technique is not biased toward known organisms, it is ideally poised to track down previously unknown pathogens. "We're finding the needle in the haystack, even without knowing what the needle looks like a priori," says Michael Egholm, vice president of research and development at 454 Life Sciences and a coauthor of the NEJM report.

"There's an enormous amount of uncharted territory in microbiology," says Lipkin. As many as 40 percent of cases of central nervous system disease cannot be traced back to a specific culprit. For respiratory illness, the figure is 30 to 60 percent. In the United States alone, 5,000 deaths each year result from unidentified food-borne infections. "The advent of molecular tools like the one we've described here will be important in identifying the pathogenesis of a wide variety of diseases, acute and chronic," says Lipkin.

According to Whitley, understanding the microorganisms that cause these diseases could lead to more effective treatments.

As powerful as 454 sequencing is for discovering new pathogens, it is not fast or cost efficient enough for use in routine screening of transplant tissue. But microbes discovered using this technique could be incorporated into existing screening techniques. "As we do more and more transplantation medicine," says Lipkin, "it's going to become critical that we find faster, more efficient, less expensive ways to screen to ensure safety."