Fight in ice hockey 2009It’s been a pretty amazing 48 hours or so in the mega-cloud vendor space. We’ve rather lazily got used to continual price reductions from AWS, but this round of Google vs AWS price reductions are pretty special even given this context.

First Google announced some very big price reductions – it was the storage pricing that really grabbed my attention, at 2.6 cents/GB. But for the majority of workloads the compute costs are the dominant component, and so the 32% reduction in compute costs is probably more significant for many. It’s a minor point, but the Google announcement mentioned “reintroducing Moore’s Law to the cloud“, but Moore’s Law is of course finally running out of steam, e.g. according to Intel it’ll be game over by 2020.

AWS have responded with this, but interestingly seem to be calling time on the race to the bottom, knowing that they have a much more credible enterprise offering than Google I suspect. On S3 they’ve almost matched Google but not quite at 3 cents/GB reducing to 2.75 cents/GB with volume. Perhaps the bit that I’m most excited about is the price reduction of the M3 instance range by a whopping 38% (e.g. an m3.large in US-East is reducing from $0.225/hour to $0.140/hour), given that the M3 range is often our preferred weapon of choice these days. That’s a massive bang for your buck.

The next obvious thing to look out for is what Microsoft do with Azure pricing – the assumption is that they will match AWS as per their previous announcement to “peg” their pricing to AWS. Ouch – imagine being an exec and getting out of bed in the morning to find out that you need to drop your prices by 30-80% across the board!

[ADDED 2nd April - Microsoft have done just that - see announcement on their blog here]

So what conclusions can we draw from all this? Well here are mine:

  1. What’s cheapest today is not necessarily cheapest tomorrow – so optimise costs for the long term, not the short term. OK, if you just want some server or storage capacity for a short time then go with the cheapest I guess, but in reality I’m talking about enterprise workloads and it’s never “a short time” – storage is for life, not just for Christmas :), and the cost of moving between providers might outweigh any benefit. Also, the costs are now so low for some workloads (e.g. if I’m playing around with some feature on AWS) that they are trivial anyway – so convenience and sticking with whatever minimises any usage friction are paramount for me.So rather like when choosing a bank to save your money with, where you might want to go for the savings account with the best long term track record of consistent high interest rates rather than the headline grabbing “bonus” offer – when selecting an IaaS cloud provider it’s their trajectory that matters (and hence their ability to leverage mega-scale). It’s not a great time to be a sub-scale (and sub-scale these days still means freakin’ huge) cloud provider unless you’ve got some specific niche offering…
  2. In general, we don’t recommend buying AWS Reserved Instances (RIs) for longer than a 1 year term. The 3 year term often makes more financial sense at that moment in time, but in reality the prices are dropping quicker in a year than the additional saving. This makes sense really, as AWS virtually created the IaaS market only 8 years ago, so a 3 year commitment is still a lifetime in this market.In fact, now is a great time to buy 1 year AWS RIs as it’ll be a few months (you’d have thought!) until the next round of potential price drops – maybe timed to coincide with the next AWS Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas in November – so you’ll get the maximum saving. An exception to my point here is that sometimes 3 year RIs are useful for projects where the TCO needs to be completely fixed and predictable – i.e. cost predictability for a business case is the primary requirement.
  3. A mild concern about where all this is heading – in my view there’s enough competition in the market at present for it to be healthy (i.e. the consumer is winning at the moment), but there is a risk that all but the most massive cloud service providers are squeezed out and the resulting oligopoly means that prices start to creep up again. You could argue that Microsoft’s price pegging announcement is an early sign of an oligopoly forming – reminiscent of the behaviour of the supermarket sector in the UK (where 4 retailers have 76.5% of the market). We’re a few years away from this risk so I don’t think this should infuence enterprise’s investment and vendor selection decisions today.

We’re loving it – what a great time to be migrating customers’ IT workloads to a cheaper, more agile platform where the price is only going down!

wind-battered union jack at the Cobb at Lyme Regis, Dorset Photo: Richard Austin / Rex Features via BBC News

A wind-battered union jack at the Cobb at Lyme Regis
Photo: Richard Austin / Rex Features via BBC News

If the wind and rain storms hitting the UK right now teach us one thing, then it’s to be ready for every eventuality. The UK is taking the brunt of everything the Atlantic can throw at us. We’ve all seen the evening news reports of terrible flooding in the Somerset Levels and the rail line swinging in mid air at Dawlish.

You cannot fail to admire the resilience of those impacted.  We salute you.

I’m not going to stray into the politics of it all.  Leave that to the professionals and the pundits. But it does seem an apt moment to remind ourselves of the vital importance of business continuity planning and having a proper disaster recovery strategy in place.

Ok so DR planning may not be the sexiest gig on the planet, but it does offer a hero factor at times when DR needs to be invoked for real, such as when water starts come up through the floor or trees crash through your buildings where you keep your servers.

Regular readers of this blog will know we’ve seen very successful strategies using on-premise IT estates, data centres, external hosting, and the Cloud. One great example I’d think is worth highlighting again today is the innovative approach to using the power of the AWS Cloud for disaster recovery.  Tech journalists as well as Amazon picked up on the outstanding work done by Paul Armstrong and others at Haven Power, part of Drax Group.

Here’s their story.

Read Haven Power’s story on the Smart421 website here

Find out more on the on the AWS website here

Discover more of our blogs about Amazon Web Services here

Blogs on Cloud

Our Cloud architects will be available to discuss this and other engagements at the Cloud Expo Europe, at London ExCel on 26-27 February.   You can find Smart421 on the AWS Village (stand 1070)

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Getting ready for the 2014 conference season, it struck me that the technology revolution has moved from “E” to “D” – by that I mean Digital has replaced Electronic (as in E-Commerce) as the new “must have” conference title.

I remember back in the 1970’s when Digital was replacing Analogue – with the mass introduction of digital watches and calculators – so it amuses me to see it re-cycled. Obviously the generation adopting the word today don’t see the irony in it – nor do the companies inventing Digital divisions.

The serious point is that we’re struggling to articulate the impact of disruptive change on many axis simultaneously. Led by Cloud and Mobile and closely followed by Social Media, Big Data, the need for a secure on-line Identity and even ‘wearable’ technology (back to my old digital watch again) how do enterprises encapsulate the change ?

Cloud is probably the easiest to grasp as it is the most mature and is already releasing its technology potential, but now it needs to be recognised as commercial disruptor – it has already impacted traditional hosting vendors and subjugated “lock-in” contracts they felt were safe. Cloud provides not only a natural ‘leap frogging’ for new entrants into markets by reducing up front set up costs, but can also be a defensive strategy for those businesses trying to adapt to meet rapidly changing customer expectations and behaviours.

Mobile is a key driver changing behaviour – where the acceleration of mobile and tablet (e.g. non-PC) platform adoption is changing the location of the commercial interaction with customers. The mobility of smart phones and tablets has released the consumer from a seat at the desk (office or home PC) and consumers are “inviting” enterprises onto their commuter trains or into their sitting room as they ‘browse in the morning’ and ‘buy in the evening’.

Social Media has benefited from this informal interaction and given access to every review, post, tweet and blog – allowing research ahead of an eventual instore or online purchase – and making C2C communications the primary channel for feedback. Not only do we look up facts at the dinner table using our smart phones but we’re looking at everyone else’s opinion of that new camera, car or city-break as part of the selection process.

All that “opinion” needs a home and – adding it together with all the data produced from location tracking, monitoring and automated machine to machine communication – we have the exponential growth in the volume of data. Then you need tools and techniques to analyse that data (back to Cloud again).

Consumers are also demanding personal interaction which drives the need for Identity – allowing industries to start to drive up the quality and richness of exchanges to enhance customer experience.

So finally I come back to my original question – is my old Digital watch trendy again ?

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Kerry Vince interviewing Robin Meehan, CTO at Smart421

Kerry Vince interviewing Robin Meehan, CTO at Smart421

Smart421 sponsored the Market Trends Report at the Nimbus Ninety IGNITE event this week. Robin Meehan (@SmartCTO) was a member of the panel that discussed the key themes and observations unearthed by the Market Trends survey.

I took the opportunity to catch up with Robin after the panel session, to discuss these points with him in a bit more detail – here’s the transcript of our conversation…

(Kerry Vince) What is Smart421 all about?

(Robin Meehan) Smart421 is a UK focused Consultancy and Systems Integrator. We’re wholly owned by the KCOM Group, a FTSE250 company, which gives us the financial backing we need to service the markets that we do.

(KV) And which industry sectors do Smart421 operate in?

(RM) This is generally highly regulated commercial sectors such as retail and London Market insurance, telco, travel and logistics such as shipping, railways and airlines and the like.

(KV) How does Smart421 adapt to disruptive market trends?

(RM) As CTO, my role is to keep adapting the services we offer to help our customers maximise the benefits from disruptive market trends – whether it’s cloud adoption in the UK rail sector for ATOC, mobilisation of enterprise functions for shipping companies, or taking the fear out of big data implementation for companies like Aviva.

In terms of how we do this – it’s the whole lifecycle really from engaging with the business stakeholders through our Business Architecture team to refine what the real opportunities are, then Enterprise Architecture to shape a portfolio of change initiatives and roadmaps, to Solution Architects who work with our customer’s delivery teams to execute those roadmaps, followed by a 24×7 ITIL-based support model to give rock-solid support to those implementations.

(KV) The Market Trends report found a high percentage of organisations have to fundamentally change their business models, how they communicate with customers and the way they deliver their products and services as a result of emerging digital technologies. Does this align with your experiences?

(RM) Yes – absolutely, although we find the market to be quite polarised – some sectors are just traditionally slow to innovate, but it always surprises me the range of “visions” out there. Some CTOs are driving real change via sensible risk-managed adoption and some most definitely are not!  As an example, we implemented an extension of Haven Power’s IT estate using Amazon Web Services in order to provide a tailored disaster recovery solution – they could have gone down a more traditional (I’d say old-fashioned!) disaster recovery route but now more than a year and a half later this is massively paying off for them. With the cloud model, they now have a data centre extension strategy that is way more flexible than they ever had before. They are using it for many IT workloads, other than disaster recovery, to drive changes about how they serve their customers and perform analytics.

(KV) Few organisations feel fully prepared for the opportunities and threats that digital disruption presents but sense this could enhance long term growth. So is it a case of nerves of the unknown? Is it even possible to be fully prepared?

Kerry Vince interviewing Robin Meehan, CTO at Smart421 for blog(RM) It’s easy to delay due to fear, even though you know there is business value in it – “we’ll do that in the next year’s budget” – we don’t know everything and so we’ll do nothing.  My advice; get out there and do SOMETHING.  Low risk, low cost – sure, but get some validated learning done.  It’s not expensive – especially in a cloud-enabled world. For example, we ran a big data cluster on Amazon Web Services in the insurance sector and showed that the cost of a daily analytics operation was of the order of £20/day. We also showed that we had mechanisms to reduce that by a factor of 10!  So – jump into the unknown blindly?  No – that’s foolhardy and might get you sacked.  But take some measured steps and just accept you won’t have complete insight as to where it might lead?  Absolutely…maybe that’ll get you promoted!  In fact, that exactly what happened for the customer I just referred to.

(KV) Mobile and cloud computing remain at the leading edge of technology. How intertwined are these technologies in unlocking true potential?

(RM) For me, in the enterprise space, the key intersection between the growth of mobile and cloud computing is that customers don’t want to bring their peaky and unpredictable mobile traffic into their corporate data centres. Organisations have spent years pursuing security and maximum utilisation, so using a cloud environment to handle the mobile load – and typically an API management product to secure, throttle and manage the service calls back to the business – makes a lot of sense.  And it’s a whole lot quicker to deploy and more flexible too, so fits nicely with the agile development methods used for the inherently “visual” mobile development projects.  For example, one of the mobile apps we implemented in the insurance sector uses a “database-as-a-service” model as there are no sensitivity issues with this particular dataset.

(KV) Company size seems somewhat related to adoption of big data initiatives. Is there more opportunity for small companies than they realise?

(RM) There are a few factors at play here.  Big data is generally collected and owned by big organisations – not a universal truth but true more often than not.  And they’ve also got another advantage – they’ve typically been doing it for a long time and have a heritage in large scale BI and data warehouse implementations – as they traditionally also had the deep enough pockets to implement them.  But the key transformative effect in the big data space is not really the creation of new technologies (though that is moving at an amazing pace – as Hadoop is joined by others – Accumulo, Storm, Stinger initiative, Impala etc) – it’s the new economic model that is driving adoption – with the happy marriage of cloud + big data meaning that the entry barrier has dropped from £500k up to £1000 down – making it within the reach of very small companies.  There’s a whole bunch of startups that I encounter who are doing exactly that.

(KV) Financial restrictions are a principle barrier to new technology being implemented. Does the emphasis on budget restrictions result in other significant barriers being underestimated, such as a lack of key skills or security?

(RM) Skills are definitely an issue.  If you want a pay rise at the moment, just edit your CV and cross out “CIO” and put “data scientist” instead.  Organisations have no choice about embracing disruptive trends (eventually) – you can’t hold back a tide this strong. But they DO have a choice about how they execute to harness them. For example, you can build up an internal “centre of excellence” if you feel this is differentiating for your organisation (unlikely for an insurance company!) or use a 3rd party to obtain the capabilities more quickly and at an ‘economy of scale’ that is difficult to do internally.  Smart421’s business is based upon the 2nd approach.  For example, for one mobile telecommunications company, over the last 2-3 years we have designed, implemented and supported around 700 or so virtual machines running on Amazon Web Services. Providing them with the agility and cost saving today, not once they’ve got an internal team up and running.

We experience the security side more often as an “early days” customer objection when someone has as a serious and clear concern.  For many IT workloads (but not all of course!) this is NOT a barrier. The patterns and best practices exist to overcome any CISO concerns.  But my key advice is, if your organisation doesn’t REALLY want to do it, then don’t hurt yourself on that hill just now.

(KV) My last question is, there is almost an equal split between technology and business stakeholders for new IT services. Are there any concerns in the rising power of non-technology leaders in decision making?

(RM) I see this as a positive trend. As we know, the CIO and their functions need to be an enabler and work in concert with their peers at the top table. Too much power either way is a negative thing, i.e. passive IT departments who speak when they are spoken to or IT departments who push technology on their customers without really understanding what they need (not want!).  One thing is for sure, regardless of the technology aspect of any disruptive trend, this is ALL ABOUT CHANGE – running change programmes, driving through change – and as we all know, change is HARD. So leadership, and the vision and the energy to go with it, are absolutely key.

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Robin Meehan

Robin Meehan, CTO at Smart421
Photo by Jim Templeton-Cross

“The acceleration of disruptive change is the key theme from this year’s study – acknowledged by a staggering 97% of the companies surveyed – and echoing what we are seeing amongst our customers.

Enterprises are rushing to meet the demands of mobile adoption (78%) as buying behaviour change with consumers “inviting” enterprises into their sitting room via the tablet device and Social Media gives open access to product reviews – making independent C2C communications the primary channel for feedback.

Cloud too is set to release its potential, with 62% looking to invest in it. Now recognised as a commercial game changer and not just a technology play, it is set to meet the needs of the information explosion and the speed of change.

However, be warned: those organisations without a coherent IT strategy are likely to suffer as competitors rapidly embrace these new disruptive technologies.

For established organisations, being able to harness and exploit these new disruptive technologies brings commercial opportunities, allows new business models to surface and creates new forms of data. Monetising your enterprise assets will depend on the degree to which you are willing and able to integrate data back into the IT estate you already work with.”

Robin Meehan
Chief Technology Officer and Director of Principal Consultancy
5th November 2013
Speaker Profile

Get a copy of the Nimbus Ninety IGNITE Market Trends Report by emailing us today:

It caught my eye the other day that Microsoft announced an equivalent to Amazon Web Services’ Direct Connect offering, i.e. the ability to connect from your premises to your cloud deployment without going over the Internet. The press release says this capability is “expected to be available in first half of 2014” – and I assume that this initial launch will be US only with Europe to follow later, although it doesn’t say.

Smart421 was a Direct Connect launch partner in the European region for AWS back in Jan 2012, although the initial US launch was way back in August 2011. So going on that basis, I can now put a crude estimate on how far behind AWS the Azure platform really is – at least two and a half years :)

Anyway, now is as good a time as any to share some brief stats from our real world experience of deploying Direct Connect for the European region. I’m not aware of much data in the public domain about Direct Connect latency measurements in the European region – so if you know of some, please comment on this post to let me know.

On a 1 gigabit connection, for an ICMP (i.e. ping) round trip we typically see a latency of circa 12-13ms for Direct Connect versus 33ms via a VPN over the Internet, i.e. about a 60% reduction in latency.


This data needs to be considered carefully as there are a multitude of factors at play here depending on the specific customer environment and requirements – such as the Internet connectivity for the VPN, and crucially where the customer “on-premises” equipment is in network terms with respect to the AWS Direct Connect location in London Docklands. Also any comparison will vary depending on time of day etc. I’m deliberately not providing any stats on achieved bandwidth here as there are just too many factors involved – principally that the limiting factor is likely to be any MPLS connectivity involved in the architecture rather than Direct Connect itself.

Still – it’s interesting data nonetheless…thanks to ‘Smartie’ Wayne for compiling the data.

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MB 1987 RiverIn the 1980’s, I was a typical PITA user, developing applications behind the backs of the IT department, even bringing my own PC and software into work. Eventually the IT department ‘took me under their wing’ and I was the one fighting off guerrilla developments from the user community, but by providing them with better, faster and more flexible technology, we won the day.

Now I find myself on the other side of the fence again.

I don’t develop anymore, but I’m watching the world of Cloud encourage self-service in the technical user community and leave IT departments behind. It’s a theme I have returned to before – the “democratisation of compute power” – served up brilliantly through the AWS IaaS model. We’ll see more examples of this at the AWS Enterprise Summit mid-September that Smart421 is sponsoring.  ( hashtag #AWSsummit )

However, it’s not just the Cloud that is challenging IT departments.

Mobile too seems to be spawning a new generation of Garagists*.  Either bright individuals buried in large companies or small one or two man bands creating mobile applications – building on core components (hosting/logon/mapping/location) provided by Apple, Google etc. by adding layers of creativity.

So what’s the problem – the real point here ?

The issue is security. When I was hacking out applications and getting sneaky access to CRM databases and pricing algorithms, everything was safe inside the corporate firewall. Nowadays it is mobile and cloud based.

Both of these technologies I wholeheartedly support, but like everything it has to be done in the right way. So if it was up to me again, I’d develop a Cloud strategy and Mobile architectural guidelines ASAP – before the Horse has bolted, the Cat is out of the bag and the Gorilla (sic) is in the mist.

* “The word Garagiste refers to the great Enzo Ferrari’s hatred of the multitude of talented, but small, Formula 1 teams that were emerging out of Britain in the late 50′s and early 60′s … were basically garage workers (grease monkeys in less formal parlance) compared to the engineering might of his Scuderia Ferrar. These teams didn’t produce their own engines or other ancillaries (aside from BRM), specialising mostly in light, nimble chassis”.

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Positively Noctilucent:  not all clouds were created equal

With just 3 weeks to go until its Enterprise Summit in London (17 Sept), Amazon Web Services (AWS) is on a bit of a roll. ( hashtag #AWSsummit )

Research reports by analysts at Forrester and at Gartner have shown again AWS’ leadership position in a significant way.  For those still looking for evidence that Cloud Computing is a robust alternative to on-premise compute and storage, these reports are as close as you are likely to get to an objective viewpoint.

In June, Forrester Research published its ‘Wave’ report on Enterprise Public Cloud platforms, Q2 ( get the reprint here or via short URL ). In it, the authors Rymer and Staten took all the mainstream IaaS / PaaS / SaaS vendors (except absences e.g. Savvis) and analysed from a number of viewpoints: rapid developers, coders, DevOps pros, and application development & delivery (AD&D).

Incidently, they also registered a blurring of the lines between the widely accepted stratified offerings software-as-a-service (SaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS),  But I digress. You should read the report.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) came out the strongest of all vendors across three of our four developer segments.

In August, Forrester’s arch rivals Gartner published its Magic Quadrant report on Cloud IaaS  ( get the reprint here or via short URL ). Analyst team Leong, Toombs, Gill, Petri and Haynes put AWS way out in front.  Other mainstream vendors (including Savvis) looked like a tightly bunched peloton on their now-famous 2 x 2 matrix.

Research clients of Forrester and Gartner place a lot of currency in these types of reports; substantial IT deals are decided on the strength of vendors’ positioning and analyst opinions.  Of course, analysts don’t always get it right, but when it comes to Cloud they have for the most part been prescient.

Regular readers of the Smart421 blog will know only too well that we have been uncharacteristically vocal of our support for the AWS Cloud technology stack.  This is only because a number of UK enterprises have already engaged Smart421 to architect, deliver and support solutions on the AWS Cloud.

If you’ve registered to attend on 17 September, you’re in for a treat with a great agenda.  If you’d like to have a more pointed conversation with our Cloud Architects or Senior Management team, please fee free to visit our special microsite to book an on-site meeting.

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Infrastructure Architecture is dead, long live Infrastructure Architecture.

Cloud infrastructure has changed the role of the infrastructure architecture into one of a virtual architect. The tin and wires approach, the HA and DR, the test and release and following the sun have all been replaced by Cloud infrastructure. Careful sizing, location, rack allocation etc. are unnecessary for most applications.

The desktop environment is changing radically: desktop management, massive rollout projects and investment decisions obsolete.  The use of virtual terminal software returns the desktop to the server. BYOD removes the need and ability to direct the desktop and mobile landscape. Network architecture is increasingly virtualised both within the virtual datacentre, between datacentres and client devices.

It is hard to imagine that bastion of physicality the Infrastructure Architect dealing with purely virtual server  communicating on a virtual network and that it can be assembled from their own virtual device. There is as serious point to this, as it depends on the Application Architect to design in such a way that enables the full power of the cloud to be used.

Not that it is anything new, just more pressure on the Application Architect.



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So at Microsoft TechEd Europe this year the strapline from the keynote was; It’s Time . It’s time for us to utilise the Cloud on our terms. I also thought there’d be time at the airport last Friday to write this blog but no chance, no time, just waiting in queues…if only they’d used Azure Topics to route us effectively…

So what sticks in my head my regarding the The Cloud OS: It’s Time theme? Hybrid Solutions , it was a theme repeated throughout the week, with many of the breakout sessions highlighting the progression in Microsoft products whether it be SQL, BizTalk, Office or .NET and the new features to support on-premises and cloud solutions.

With integration at the heart of most things we do at Smart421, I was interested to see Microsoft’s vision for integration particularly given the recent announcement of Windows Azure BizTalk Services (WABS) and I thought I’d briefly describe how the new features may be utilised.


Connect to the Cloud. BizTalk 2013, now includes Azure Service Bus adapters for simplified Azure connectivity. Why would you use this? The integration pattern discussed was Store and Forward, where an organisation may wish to insulate an on premises version of BizTalk from peaks and spikes or when destination systems are not online. By utilising Azure Service Bus queues to store messages, the on-prem BizTalk server is then free to process messages at it’s capacity or when destination systems are available.

Run in the Cloud. Due to large footprint of the BizTalk Server product, you may be able to save a considerable amount of time with Azure IaaS. Creating Dev and Test environments could be reduced to minutes with ready made BizTalk images ready to spin up at any time.

Build for the Cloud. WABS provide an easy way to expose service endpoints in the cloud, making B2B message exchange potentially simpler without having to expose on-prem services through a DMZ. EDI message exchange was given as an example, with ready made EDI adapters making EDI processing simple again potentially saving time.

With regard to the roadmap for WABS it will come as no surprise to hear that many of the BizTalk Server features will be finding there way into WABS but rest assured the investment in the on-prem version will continue for some time yet. If you’re an existing Microsoft customer and already bought into their stack, there is undoubted flexibility provided by the combination of on-premises, cloud infrastructure and platform services. As always, understanding how best to utilise what and when will be the challenge.

In my next blog I hope to talk in a bit more detail about some of the new features in SQL2014.

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