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December 29, 2006

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Does I.T. Still Attract the Best and the Brightest?
NewsFactor Network (12/22/06) Ortiz Jr., Sixto

In response to the question of whether IT is once again luring the top minds after a long slump, Challenger, Gray, and Christmas CEO John Challenger answers that the IT job market is "mixed," noting that a third quarter rise in tech-sector job cuts is indicative "that companies are downgrading their outlook for the current year." Robert Half Technology executive director Katherine Spencer Lee has a more positive outlook, citing market growth driven by slight but notable pay raises. Hot areas in the IT marketplace named by Challenger and Spencer Lee include information security, software applications development, project management, Web development, and data warehousing; enthusiasm is waning for database administration, help/support desk staff, and other routine functions that can be easily offshored, according to Challenger. "It's interesting that IT workers are concerned about their jobs being outsourced while, at the same time, managers are concerned about finding enough quality talent," observes Spencer Lee, who says professionals capable of combining business savvy with IT knowledge will snap up the jobs that stay at home. To achieve success in the current IT job marketplace, prospective IT pros must realize that they can never stop learning and improving their skills, and that they must be flexible and diverse in their abilities. "Before your skills become obsolete, you want to be able to transform yourself into the 'next version' of worker that will be in demand," explains Challenger.
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Multicore Faces a Long Road
EE Times (12/28/06) Merritt, Rick

Not only did the electronics industry gain an understanding of the significance of multicore technology in 2006, but it realized just how much work is yet to be done. Multicore CPUs and embedded multicore systems arrived in 2006, and the number of cores on a die took the place of megahertz as the metric for microprocessors, all of which led to the acceptance by software developers "that programming as they knew it is not going to be the same any more--they will be doing parallel programming going forward," according to parallel processing pioneer and MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science Anant Agarwal. Computer scientists must address the lack of "algorithms, languages, compilers, and expertise" that faces parallel computing, says Microsoft Research manager of programming and tools Jim Larus, as well as "a lot of practical issues, like developing better support for multithreading, synchronization, debugging, and error detection." Larus also points out that a better understanding is needed of just how people want to use parallel programming. While some in the industry want to create automated tools to transfer legacy code to multicore, parallel programming languages will be needed, since work must get down to the algorithm level. No fundamental methods for parallel programming have been established, and researchers have found that no single technique for parallel programming is universally applicable, but possibilities are being explored, such as lightweight software transaction. The Multicore Association (MCA) has been formed to address the many problems facing the field, and the Embedded Microprocessor Benchmark Consortium (EMBC) has begun developing a standard suite of tests to evaluate the performance of multicore processors.
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UC Tech Funding Proposed
Sacramento Bee (CA) (12/28/06) Benson, Clara

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has added $95 million to his state budget proposal for technology research initiatives at several University of California universities, administrations officials announced on Wednesday. Schwarzenegger wants to make the state "number one in everything," says his communications director Adam Mendelsohn, who adds, "California is poised to be the leader in nanotechnology and ... green technology." Most of the research produced by these initiatives would be open source; some of the money would go to partnerships and private concerns attempting to create marketable products, but UC officials said no tax dollars would be spent on this proprietary research. "This is about two things," said executive vice president for university affairs Bruce Darling. "Building the kind of research and human capital pool that will sustain California well into the future, and making sure those innovations and technologies are translated into the marketplace." The Helios Project, which conducts research on sustainable energy, would get $30 million according to the Governor's plan, a BP project to create an alternative energy research institute would get $40 million, the California Center for Science and Innovation, a partnership between the university and private companies, would get $19.8 million, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and UC San Diego would receive $5 to help them compete for a $200 million federal grant for the construction of a Petascale computer, which would be the world's fastest.
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Takahashi: 10 Tech Trends of 2007
San Jose Mercury News (CA) (12/25/06) Takahashi, Dean

Staff members at the San Jose Mercury News gathered to make predictions of technology trends to emerge in 2007, some of which are simply continuations of predictions for 2006. Users will continue to have increasing control over technology and content, thanks to user-dependent technologies such as Digg, YouTube, Wikipedia, and the iPod. Applications such as games, social networks, rich media, and even GPS, will be designed specifically for cell phones, leading to their increased use as a multimedia tool. Microsoft's Vista will provide enhanced reliability, security, and compatibility, but since most business will wait for bugs to be worked out, it will not be ubiquitous for a few more years. Nintendo's Wii and DS have introduced a new audience to gaming, and the rising popularity and availability of "casual" games could make them a much bigger part of our lives. Privacy will decrease as a result of government spying, more records being kept online and on unsecured computers, and users of social networks divulging more personal information. Solar energy will be utilized more than ever, although entrepreneurs may not reach their goal of making solar thin-film technology available to the average consumer. IPTV will bring the potential of accessing hundreds of movies and TV shows on demand, and other movie downloading services will contribute to unprecedented availability. LED technology is entering the home, and many other venues, via LED bulbs that fit into traditional sockets, produce the same light as traditional bulbs, use far less energy than even fluorescent bulbs, and outlast both. As cell phones become equipped with GPS chips as a result of a federal requirement, locating others will become possible, and searches could be conducted based on a user's current location.
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Computer Warming a Privacy Risk
Wired News (12/29/06) Norton, Quinn

Cambridge University researcher Steven J. Murdoch has found a method for bypassing online anonymity systems by analyzing a computer's temperature over the Internet. The technique utilizes the phenomenon called "clock skew," where precise clocks in computers drift away from the correct time at varying rates, depending on heat. Every crystal has a unique clock skew, Murdoch says. A UCLA Ph.D. student displayed the ability to use clock skew to identify computers on the Internet through charting the timestamps of a machine's traffic, but this technique can get at best 64 fingerprints: a thousand computers connected in a network would contain 16 with identical clock skews. Murdoch became the first person to successfully carry out an anonymity attack online. He attacked Onion Router, or "Tor," a privacy system that allows users anonymous Internet access. He established a Tor network at Cambridge to try out his method. Murdoch says that in order to get the IP address of a hidden server on a Tor network, an attacker would request something complicated from the server, causing it to warm up, resulting in clock skew. The attacker then looks at computers he thinks may be the Tor server, searching for a change in skew over a few hours. He has found his match when he locates a computer with the specific change in its timestamps. Murdoch admits that it's not the ideal attack, but " it's a guide to what could be done in the future."
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Real Robots
Toronto Star (12/26/06) Gerson, Jen

A World Robotics Survey predicts that there will be four million robots in service by the end of 2007, and experts expect functional robots to be on the market within a decade, but robots are still far from being able to seamlessly interact with humans. Honda's ASIMO robot is able to recognize and react to human faces and postures, shake hands, climb stairs, and run. Stephen Keeney, one of the ASIMO project leaders, says, "We need a robot that can truly be useful in our world;" the goal behind the project is to produce robots that can provide aid to those confined to a bed or chair. Maria Bualat, leader of the NASA Ames Research Center's intelligent robotics group, says that while today's robots show progress, much more research is needed. She says, "You can tell it to go to an X and Y co-ordinate on a map and it will understand. But ask it to `go to my left' and it won't." Rather than making people adapt to robots, she wants to create robots that can operate in the unpredictable human world: "Getting the robots to gauge intent is still a bit of a leap. The robot has to be able to gauge where the human is, and to understand what we want it to do next." Robots that look exactly like humans are being designed for tasks that require interaction with humans, as they are thought to be better received by people, although the idea of the "uncanny valley" states that once they become life-like to a certain point, they will make people uneasy. Roboticist David Hanson is an outspoken advocate of making robots resemble humans as much as possible, as the Baby Boomer generation is on the verge of needing nursing care. He predicts that, "The computational and software capabilities (of robots) are going to be beyond human capability by 2025." Hanson views giving robots human faces as taking the invaluable step of "planting the seeds in technology of compassion and wisdom."
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Yahoo Research Goes Beyond Computing to Social Science
IDG News Service (12/28/06) Ribeiro, John

Yahoo Research has established a microeconomics department to look into how the company's products can deliver maximum value in addressing the needs of users, advertisers, and the company itself. Ethnographers, cognitive psychologists, and sociologists have been hired to develop media formats that will lead to the establishment of online communities. This interest in social communities has led to work on middleware technology specially suited for social networking, as the relational databases that were previously used for this purpose are better suited for business applications. Another aim is to achieve task-centric searching that is not keyword-based; instead it would analyze free text descriptions given by users in order to provide more helpful results. Yahoo head of research Prabhakar Raghavan says, "We have to get much smarter to understand and define the user's intent and deliver to that intent." A Yahoo research lab is being established in India, which will employ both computer scientists and staff trained in humanities-related disciplines such as economists and sociologists.
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New Program by UMass Amherst Computer Scientist Prevents Crashes and Hacker Attacks
University of Massachusetts Amherst (12/26/06)

A new program, named DieHard, has been developed by University of Massachusetts Amherst computer scientist Emery Berger and Microsoft researcher Ben Zorn to remedy problems caused by programming that doesn't make proper use of the large amount of memory on today's computers. While running, programs request chunks of memory space to store items such as images, but often items will be assigned a space that is already occupied, or space that is not large enough, causing overflows into other spaces. The result of these mistakes can be a crash, or worse. "Ironically, crashing is the best thing that can happen," says Berger. "An overflow also can make your computer exploitable by hackers." Another danger is that the location that a password is given can be the same for every version of a given program, allowing a hacker who has overwritten a password to find this address on all existing versions. To prevent these dangers, DieHard distributes groups of memory, assigns random addresses to items during each session, launches several versions of a program being run in case one starts to crash, and detects the probability that a certain bug has affected a user. Berger blames the current problems on programmers who are too worried about speed and efficiency, at the expense of security. "Today we have way more memory and more computer power than we need," he says. "We want to use that to make systems more reliable and safer, without compromising speed." Free versions of DieHard are available for non-commercial use for both Linux and Windows.
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Google's Open Source Airbag
InternetNews.com (12/27/06) Kerner, Sean Michael

Google is in the later stages of developing Airbag, a set of client and server components that can identify the cause of an application crash. The open source project contains client-side libraries that generate dumps and help send them to a crash server. A server-side library looks at the crash dumps and transforms them into information that can be used for debugging. Components can be taken from the project's Subversion (SVN) source control code repository. A tarball, a compressed archive of application files, is planned for release once Google feels the product is ready for the public. Google Software engineer Mark Mentovai says, "Because our project is so developer-centric, we don't feel compelled to provide a tarball too soon--the portion of our target audience that's comfortable with using in-development software is most likely also comfortable with source control systems like Subversion." Multi-form capability, among other things, is expected to be included in a Airbag 1.0 release. "For 1.0, we imagine that we'll be stable on all of our target platforms--Mac ppc, Mac x86, Windows x86, and Linux x86," Mentovai noted. Although there's no formal roadmap for the project, Mentovai says the informal mission statement "is to provide a set of crash reporting libraries that can be integrated into a large project, namely, Firefox." Mozilla has been discussing the possibility of incorporating Airbag into a new crash reporting system.
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Cybercrooks Deliver Trouble
Washington Post (12/27/06) P. D1; Krebs, Brian

A record-breaking rise in spam and more sophisticated cyberattacks were noted this year by computer security experts, who only expect worse things next year. "Criminals have gone from trying to hit as many machines as possible to focusing on techniques that allow them to remain undetected on infected machines longer," says Symantec's Vincent Weafer, while Postini estimates that over 90 percent of all email sent online in October was spam; computers controlled by cybercrooks, or "bots," are responsible for relaying a great volume of junk email. "We're getting an unprecedented amount of calls from people whose email systems are melting down under this onslaught," says Postini's Daniel Druker. Beyond Security's Gadi Evron reckons that at any given time there are 3 million to 4 million compromised computers actively relaying spam, while millions more are used to launch distributed denial-of-service attacks. In addition, he believes organized criminals will net about $2 billion in 2006 via "phishing" scams. Experts are also signaling that online crime is becoming a full-time venue for many, as evidenced by a movement of online criminal activity from nights and weekends to weekdays. Furthermore, experts are seeing an increase in the sophistication of techniques cybercriminals are using to dodge anti-fraud initiatives. Attacks that exploited flaws in software applications that operate on top of operating systems were also a notable development this year, as were increasing numbers of zero-day software vulnerabilities.
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NEH, Google Boost Internet Coding Project
UC Berkeley News (12/20/06) Maclay, Kathleen

Almost $300,000 in new funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from Google will allow a UC Berkeley project to continue work that is allowing users of native scripts to use the Internet. The Script Encoding Initiative (SEI) began four years ago and has encoded over 20 writing systems. The initiative plans to tackle eight scripts in 2007, and a similar number in 2008. Worldwide, there are over 80 writing systems not yet in the international character-encoding standard Unicode, half of which are used in languages spoken by linguistic minorities across the globe. These people must use nonstandard fonts that make Internet use extremely difficult, if possible at all. Deborah Anderson, a researcher in UC Berkeley's Linguistics Department and head of the SEI, says, "For scholars working with obsolete computing technologies, valuable data is destined for the electronic dustbin unless they are updated to modern computing standards. However, with these scripts in Unicode, accurate searching across the Web will be possible, and materials will be saved in a standardized format that will remain accessible for many years to come." The project aims to establish fonts for modern scripts that can be quickly utilized, as well as to discern the local conventions of each language, such as standard date, time, and currency formats, allowing the creation of software that is specific to a given tongue and the places it is used. Experts predict that given the slow pace of encoding, over 40 scripts will still not be coded in 10 years.
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UI, Berkeley Teams Test Program for Sharing Virtual Stage
News-Gazette (12/26/06) Kline, Greg

Researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of California, Berkeley have created Tele-Immersive Environments for EVEryone (TEEVE), an immersive 3D video-conferencing system that allows users to interact with 3D, rendered versions of each other in a virtual space. TEEVE was used in a 40-minute dance performance in which two groups of dancers located across the country from each other collaborated using big screens at two different locations, and smaller screens connected via Webcast. TEEVE data is collected by filming action and then breaking down its individual elements, such as eye movements. In combination with technology that allows this information to be coded and searched automatically, the 3D view produced by the system could represent a breakthrough in the field, and could be applied to gaming, physical therapy, and limitless other uses. There are still improvements to be made, but the dance demonstration shows the researchers' success in bringing together consumer products such as cameras and PCs with techniques developed by computer scientists that include efficiently transferring large amounts of video data across a network.
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Crowd Wisdom vs. Google's Genius
BusinessWeek (12/27/06) Holahan, Catherine

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, believes the same "wisdom of crowds" philosophy that has accounted for the success of Wikipedia can be applied to a search engine. The proposed search engine, Wikiasari, would present users with a list of sites turned up by their search, using technology similar to Google's, but Wikiasari would then allow them to re-rank the results in order of usefulness. Servers would then record these new results as well as the original query, applying them to future searches. Wales does not downplay the importance of algorithms in the search process, but insists that they need the help that only human intelligence can provide in order to be as efficient as possible. Wikiasari will be based on Apache open-source Web search software, and Wales will make the code publicly available. He does not expect Wikiasari to be an immediate Google-killer, as Wikipedia took approximately three years to grow into a truly useful tool. The version released in 2007 will serve as "starting point for people to play with," Wales says. While Wikipedia has always been a nonprofit, Wikiasari will be for-profit, but Wales points to the success of Red Hat as proof that contributors will not be alienated by being asked to help a company make money: "It's all about free licensing and sharing your work with others. [Contributors] don't care about people making money; they care about people taking their work and locking it up." The idea of using human intelligence in a search tool is not a new one: StumbleUpon allows users to see which sites have been rated favorably by users of other search engines such as Google, Yahoo, or eventually Wikiasari.
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Grid Computing Moves From Research to Industry
Cordis News Service (12/21/06)

The 3rd "GRIDS@WORK" event was held in Sophia Antipolis, France, from Nov. 27 to Dec. 1, hosting over 200 delegates from 25 countries who discussed industrial requirements concerning the implementation of grids as the driving force behind tomorrow's "network-of-networks." The event was put together by ETSI, INRIA, the European Network of Excellence CoreGRID, and ECRIM, who led the event. The central theme of the GRIDS@WORK week was how grids will be central to the creation of jobs and commercial products that target the enterprise market, promoting grid sharing initiatives that will establish a service-oriented infrastructure for business, industry, and society that is similar to a utility. Franco Accordino of the European Commission said, "Now we are in an evolutionary phase where industrial partnerships have been established to exploit the economic potential of the grid beyond research labs." The ETSI GRID Technical Committee has taken up the task of setting formal standards for Europe and testing specifications for grid interoperability. Many involved predict that Europe's advancements in the use of grids will serve as a "lighthouse" for the rest of the world. ECRIM's Bruno Le Dantec, head of CoreGRID's Administrative and Financial Coordination, said, "Through the organization of such an event, our Network of Excellence is advancing further towards sustainable integration by involving industrial stakeholders in defining strategies to achieve economic impact, becoming the European-wide research laboratory in distributed grid, peer-to-peer, and service-oriented technologies."
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Brazil Makes Strides in Software
OhmyNews International (12/22/06) Rix, Antonio Carlos

Brazil is experiencing significant growth in its international software trade, and hopes to continue increasing its global standing in the field. Not only are many Brazilian software companies exporting, but multinational companies are investing in the nation: IBM has opened development offices in there, and Dell, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard, among others, have R&D facilities in Brazil, according to Eduardo Victor, director of a Brazilian software company specializing in foreign trade operations. Victor also points out that Brazil produces world-class banking software, which, along with outsourcing, is the country's leading software export. He suggests an engineering exchange program that would benefit Brazil, other participating nations, and the engineers themselves; he is currently looking for people interested in the program. Victor and co-worker Menotti Franceschini say that Brazil has many universities with quality software engineering and telecommunication departments. They say the country is also full of "good professionals" and has "a stable economy now, and very competitive costs."
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Lessons for the Mentor
CIO Australia (12/11/06) Kunkel, Barbara

Barbara Kunkel, CIO of a national law firm and member of the CIO Executive Council, understands the need to help young people interested in IT develop their potential, and has created a summer university internship program to provide much-needed resources to her department, while helping young women get a foothold in IT. She lists five lessons she has learned from her work with the interns: Assignments given to interns must be clearly connected to the overall work environment and objectives so interns are constantly reminded that their work makes a difference; teams are preferable to working alone for interns; interns will get more out of their work if they are challenged to think creatively; communication is a top priority, as young people respond to feedback; and a social environment in the work experience is extremely important. Kunkel used these concepts to sculpt a "work curriculum," similar to that of a college course. By linking assignments with objectives, she could see the interns' confidence and creativity flourishing, despite their being intimidated by the scope of the task set in front of them. Each week Kunkel met with interns to talk about expectations. Kunkel also demanded communication from the interns in the form of a weekly email, discussing their current assignment, as well as emails introducing themselves to the entire IT department. She claims her experience proves that effective mentoring is an undeniable way to nurture talent, calling it "one of the highlights of my career."
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Making the Move to Multicore
SD Times (12/15/06)No. 164, P. 22; Morgan, Lisa L.

Designers of embedded and enterprise systems are interested in multicore architectures, which offer less power consumption and heat dissipation because multicore processors function at lower frequencies than unicore processors. Other advantages of a multicore architecture include faster speed, parallelism, and lower hardware and cooling costs. Most RTOS vendors support both Asymmetric Multiprocessing (AMP) and Symmetric Multiprocessing (SMP), while some blend the best features of AMP and SMP in a third mode known as Bound Multiprocessing (BMP). SMP's chief advantage is higher processing power than unicore processors, and small-scale embedded systems in need of a performance upgrade are best suited for SMP, according to Green Hills Software CTO David Kleidermacher. On the other hand, Wind River Systems CTO Tomas Evensen says SMP's ability to control all cores with just one operating system is ideal for larger enterprise systems, and he expects more AMP systems to penetrate the embedded domain because of their suitability for dedicated tasks. AMP allows the dedication of OSes, tasks, and peripheral usage to a single core on an as-needed basis, which some say simplifies the move from unicore to multicore designs in terms of debugging. BMP, meanwhile, can facilitate control of all cores by one OS while simultaneously enabling the dedication of tasks or resources to specific cores, which reduces overhead and boosts performance. Evensen says the mode varies for each application.
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Old File Formats Battle Extinction Threat
Techworld (12/19/06) Mellor, Chris

Several national libraries, research institutes, and IBM and Microsoft have formed Preservation and Long-tern Access through NETworked Solutions (PLANETS), with European Union financial support, to prevent a threatened vanishing of electronic document file formats that have fallen out of use. If the problem is not addressed soon, documents written in old applications will no longer be readable. Adam Farquhar, head of e-architecture at the British Library, which is leading the PLANETS Project, says, "As past and current computer hardware and software becomes obsolete, digital information reliant on this technology becomes increasingly hard to find, view, search and re-use. There is a growing consensus on the need to act now to avoid a gaping hole in our cultural and scientific record." PLANETS estimates that out of the 100 million documents produced in the EU each year that are worth saving, 2 million are in formats that are at risk of being lost, which means that millions of Euros worth of information is at risk. The IBM concept of a Universal Virtual Computer is being considered by PLANETS. The UVC is based on a paper by Raymond Lorie of IBM's Almaden Research Center, which states that "an application program written today would generate a data file, which is archived for the future. In order for the file to be understood at a later date, a program P would also be archived, which can decode the data and present it to the client in an understandable form. Program P would be written for a UVC machine. ... In the future, the UVC Interpreter interprets the UVC instructions that emulate the old instructions; that emulation essentially produces an equivalent of the old machine, which then executes the original application code. The execution yields the same results as the original program." The UVC offers a platform independent layer that would assure that the programs developed for it would run anytime, past or future.
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Work-Life Balance
Economist (12/19/06) Vol. 381, No. 8509, P. 97

Many organizations are coming to the realization that some Internet-based services created by the consumer technology industry are more capable of meeting their needs than those developed by their own IT departments. Employees have been using services such as Google Mail and Skype for some time, often against company regulations; but now these services for which no training is needed are being condoned and even promoted for their superior usefulness. A huge company such as Google is far more capable of making improvements on its Web-based software than an in-house IT staff, explains Arizona State head of IT Adrian Sannier, who has begun allowing students to take their "asu.edu" addresses to Gmail. He compares the advantage offered by Google's software to "receiving technology from an advanced civilization." Students can share calendars and coursework using the online word processing and spreadsheet tools offered by Google, and the only cost for the school is for support. Security is also an incentive to defer to Google, despite fears of placing data in the hands of another party: Sannier says he would only be able to have a staff of 30 dedicated to security, while "Google has an army; all of their business fails if they are unable to preserve security and privacy." A bundle known as "Google Apps for Your Domain," which includes a calendar and instant messaging, is currently in the beta-test stage, but Google enterprise division boss Dave Girouard claims that "tens of thousands" of organizations have expressed interest in replacing some of their current software systems with the suite. Though many companies will probably keep "mission critical" software in-house for the time being, some experts point out that many security threats are simply a result of traditional software firms being afraid of losing business.
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