Monthly Archives: January 2011

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Useful Links: January 2011

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

Also, these posts appeared on the Fujitsu UK and Ireland CTO Blog and were either written, or co-authored, by me:

Waffle and randomness

With hindsight, it’s probably not a good idea to stand in front of a lorry…

Imagine the situation: you’re just stepping out onto a Zebra crossing (you have right of way) and you see a seven-and-a-half-ton truck, 10 or 20 metres away, still moving at around 30mph with the driver looking down as if he is reading a newspaper, a text message on his phone, or something similar; you shout a warning (“Oy!”) and step back, slapping your hand on the side of the truck as it drives past but it continues its journey, as if nothing had happened.

That’s what happened to me this morning and it made me angry. I’ve spent enough years driving cars (and developing a sixth sense when I was a motorcyclist) to watch out for things like this, but imagine if I had been an elderly person crossing the road, or a child. I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.

A few seconds later, the truck stopped at a set of traffic lights so I ran down the road and challenged the driver. I may have used a few choice words (I almost certainly did) but he denied that I was on the crossing as he approached (how would he know – he wasn’t even looking ahead!). Standing in front of the truck, I got my phone out to take a picture of the registration plate and the driver actually drove the truck at me as if to push me out of the way! There was no way he would deliberately run me over but he jumped out of his cab and grabbed my phone, telling me he would give it back (throw it under the truck more like) when I moved. For the next few minutes he refused to give it back to me, driving the truck at me once more as I protested to get my phone back. At one point he got out of the cab again and grabbed me by my jacket collar to move me out of the way (I’m seventeen and a half stone – but he was taller than me, stronger than me, and bloody annoyed with me). Eventually, after calming down and noticing I was shaking (showing some humility at least) the truck driver returned my mobile phone and we agreed that we would go our separate ways. I was still shaking, and I didn’t manage to record the registration number of the truck but it belongs to Biffa, a waste management and recycling company, and I’m sure they will be able to track it, should they so desire…

Throughout the incident, which probably lasted at least five minutes and was right outside a busy London railway station, during the rush hour, people stood and watched. Some took pictures with their mobile phones but no-one called the police when I called out and asked them to, on at least two occasions. I may have been stupid to pick an argument with someone who was prepared to drive a lorry at me but really, London commuters, are you really that self-absorbed that you won’t help someone out after seeing them being subjected to threatening behaviour bordering on physical assault?  Even if you didn’t want to “get involved”, you could have asked me if I was alright after the truck was driven away.

After travelling a couple of stops on the tube, I saw some British Transport Police officers and I asked for advice. The officer I spoke to was very helpful, including giving me the number for the Metropolitan Police but, I honestly think that reporting the incident will be a waste of my time and theirs. I have no evidence (only a blurred, shaky camera phone picture of the truck driving away, in which there are no identifiable markings) and, despite the city being littered with CCTV, the police have much bigger priorities.

Looking back, with slightly less adrenalin being pumped around my system, I can see it was not wise to put myself in a dangerous position but there is no excuse for deliberately driving a lorry at me. I’m sure the driver is a decent guy, just as pumped up by the situation as I was but, more to the point, if Biffa’s operatives are driving without due care and attention, the next person to cross the road in front of them might not be so lucky. As one of my (female – i.e. not testosterone-fuelled) colleagues observed, hopefully the incident will make this truck driver think more carefully about his actions, even if he won’t openly admit that he made a mistake. And I should be grateful that the worst thing to come out of this for me, was needing to replace my damaged iPhone headphones.

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London Bloggers Meetup (#LBM): January 2011 – 10 lessons and tips for blogging

A couple of nights ago, I went along to the London Blogger’s Meetup – which is basically a big social event for bloggers! It’s wierd, most of the bloggers I meet normally are in tech but I’m never stopped to think that an event like this doesn’t just attract geeks like me (duh!).  I’m a bit shy at these things, but I did meet some great people – as well as lusting after the Dell Vostro V130 laptop that was given away.

The highlight of the evening though was Andy Bargery’s short presentation giving 10 lessons and tips for blogging.  Andy has shared the Prezi and I’ve embedded it below:

Technology

Tablets: How will they impact your enterprise IT?

It seems that last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) can be summed up with one word:

“Tablet”.

Even though Steve Ballmer, CEO at Microsoft, demonstrated an HP “slate” running Windows in last year’s CES keynote, Apple managed to steal Microsoft’s thunder with the iPad and this year’s show saw just about every PC manufacturer (and Fujitsu is no exception) preparing to launch their own model(s).

Tablet computers aren’t new but Apple’s iPad has revitalised the market – I recently wrote about this when I examined the potential impact on desktop managed service – and one report I read suggested that there were over 80 tablets launched at CES!

For many years, CIOs have been standardising end-user computing environments on Intel x86 hardware and Windows operating systems, with appropriate levels of lockdown and control which makes it all the more interesting to see the variation in hardware, form factor and operating system in these new devices.

Our IT departments will struggle to support this plethora of devices yet IT consumerisation will force us to. But this isn’t a new phenomenon – ten years ago I was working in an organisation which was trying to standardise on Windows CE devices as they provided the best application support platform for the business, whilst the execs were asking for BlackBerrys so they could access e-mail on the move.

Guess what happened? We ended up with both.

And that’s what will happen with next-generation tablets, just as for smartphones. To some extent, it’s true for PCs too – the hardware and the operating system have become commoditised – and our task is to ensure that we can present the right data and the right applications to the right people, at the right time, on the right device.

Which brings back around me to my opening point: tablets featured heavily at CES but tablets are just one part of the IT mix. Will your organisation be supporting their use in the enterprise? And do you see them as serious business devices, or are they really just executive toys?

[This post originally appeared on the Fujitsu UK and Ireland CTO Blog.]

Motoring Photography Technology

Hardware lineup for 2011

This is a bit of a copycat post really but I saw Mike Taulty and Phil Winstanley‘s hardware lineups and thought it was a good idea. So, here it is, a summary of the technology I use pretty much every day and how I see that changing this year.

Car: Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI 170 S-Line

Audi A4 Avant 20 TDI 170 S-LineMy wife and I have been Volkswagen fans for a few years now (we find them to be good, solid, reliable cars that hold their value well) so, a couple of years ago, when I heard that Volkswagen and Audi were being added to our company car scheme, I held back on replacing my previous vehicle in order to take advantage. I did consider getting a Passat but the A4 (although smaller) had a newer generation of engine and lower emissions, so it didn’t actually cost much more in tax/monthly lease costs.

After a year or so, I’m normally bored/infuriated with my company cars but I still really enjoy my A4 – so much so that I will consider purchasing this one at the end of its lease next year. My only reservations are that I would really like something larger, sometimes a little more power would be nice (although this has 170PS, which is pretty good for a 2 litre diesel) and I do sometimes think that the money I contribute to the car might be better spent on reducing the mortgage (I add some of my salary to lease a better car than my grade entitles me to).

Either way, it’s on lease until I hit 3 years or 60,000 miles, so it’s a keeper for 2011.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Phone: Apple iPhone 3GS 16GB

Apple iPhone 3GSI actually have two phones (personal and work SIMs) but my personal needs are pretty basic (a feature phone with Bluetooth connectivity for hands free operation in the car) and I recycled my iPhone 3G when I was given a 3GS to use for work.

After having owned iPhones for a few years now (this is my third one), I don’t feel that the platform, which was once revolutionary, has kept pace and it now feels dated. As a result, I’m tempted by an Android or Windows Phone 7 device but neither of these platforms is currently supported for connection my corporate e-mail service.

The main advantages of this device for me are the apps and the Bluetooth connectivity to the car (although I needed to buy a cable for media access). I use Spotify and Runkeeper when I’m running but there are a whole host of apps to help me when I’m out and about with work (National Rail Enquiries, etc.) and, of course, it lets me triage my bulging mailbox and manage my calendar when I’m on the move. Unfortunately, the camera is awful and it’s not much use as a phone either, but it does the job.

I could get an iPhone 4 (or 5 this summer?) but I’d say it’s pretty unlikely, unless something happened to this one and I was forced to replace it.

Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadAfter several weeks (maybe months) of thinking “do I? don’t I?”, I bought an iPad last year and I use it extensively. Perhaps it’s a bit worrying that I take it to bed with me at night (I often catch up on Twitter before going to sleep, or use it as an e-book reader) but the “instant on” and long battery life make this device stand out from the competition when I’m out and about.

2011 will be an interesting year for tablets – at CES they were all over the place but I’ve been pretty vocal (both on this blog, and on Twitter) about my views on Windows as a tablet operating system and many of the Android devices are lacking something – Android 3 (Gingerbread [correction] Honeycomb) should change that. One possible alternative is Lenovo’s convertible notebook/tablet which runs Windows but features a slide out screen that functions as an Android tablet (very innovative).

I may upgrade to an iPad 2, if I can get a good resale price for my first generation iPad, but even Apple’s puritanical anti-Adobe Flash stand (which means many websites are unavailable to me) is not enough to make me move away from this device in 2011.

Verdict 8/10. Hold.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 250GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220My personal preference for notebook PCs is a ThinkPad – I liked them when they were manufactured by IBM and Lenovo seem to have retained the overall quality associated with the brand – but, given who pays my salary, it’s no surprise that I use a Fujitsu notebook PC. Mine’s a couple of years old now and so it’s branded Fujitsu-Siemens but it’s the same model that was sold under the Fujitsu name outside Europe. It’s a solid, well-built notebook PC and I have enough CPU, memory and disk to run Windows 7 (x64) well.

Unfortunately it’s crippled with some awful full disk encryption software (I won’t name the vendor but I’d rather be using the built-in BitLocker capabilities which I feel are better integrated and less obtrusive) and, even though the chipset supports Intel vPro/AMT (to install the Citrix XenClient hypervisor), the BIOS won’t allow me to activate the VT-d features. As a result, I have to run separate machines for some of my technical testing (I’m doing far less of that at work anyway these days) and to meet my personal (i.e. non-work) computing requirements.

My hope is that we’ll introduce a bring your own computer (BYOC) scheme at work and I can rationalise things but, if not, it’ll be another two years before I can order a replacement and this will soldier on for a while yet.

Verdict 6/10. Holding out for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10In its day, my netbook was great. It’s small, light, can be used on the train when the seatback tables are too small for a normal laptop and I used mine extensively for personal computing whilst working away from home. It was a bit slow (on file transfers) but it does the job – and the small keyboard is ideal for my young children (although even they could do with a larger screen resolution).

Nowadays my netbook it sits on the shelf, unloved, replaced by my iPad. It was inexpensive and, ultimately, consumable.

Verdict 2/10. Sell, or more likely use it to geek out and play with Linux.

Digital Camera: Nikon D700

Nikon D700After a series of Minoltas in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve had Nikon cameras for several years now, having owned an F90x, a D70 and now a D700. I also use my wife’s D40 from time to time and we have a Canon Ixus 70 too (my son has adopted that). With a sizeable investment in Nikon lenses, etc., I can’t see myself changing brands again – although some of my glass could do with an upgrade, and I’d like an external flash unit.

The D700 gives me a lot of flexibility and has a high enough pixel count, with minimal noise and good low-light performance. It’s a professional-grade DSLR and a bit heavy for some people (I like the weight). It’s also too valuable for some trips (which is when I use the D40) but I always miss the flexibility and functionality that the D700 body provides. Maybe sometimes I think some video capabilities would be nice but I won’t be changing it yet.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 320GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)It’s been three years since I bought my MacBook and, much as I’d like one of the current range of MacBook Pros it’ll be a while before I replace it because they are so expensive! In fairness, it’s doing it’s job well – as soon as I bought it I ungraded the hard disk and memory, and whilst the the CPU is nt as fast as a modern Core i5 or i7, it’s not that slow either.

For a machine that was not exactly inexpensive, I’ve been disappointed with the build quality (it’s had two new keyboard top covers and a replacement battery) but Apple’s customer service meant that all were replaced under warranty (I wouldn’t fancy my chances at getting a new battery from many other PC OEMs).

I use this machine exclusively for photography and the Mac OS suits me well for this. It’s not “better” than Windows, just “different” and, whilst some people would consider me to be a Microsoft fanboi and an iHater, the list of kit on this page might say otherwise. I like to consider myself to have objective views that cut through the Redmond or Cupertino rhetoric!

So, back to the Mac – I may dive into Photoshop from time to time but Adobe Lightroom, Flickr Uploadr, VueScan and a few specialist utilities like Sofortbild are my main tools. I need to sweat this asset for a while longer before I can replace it.

Verdict 5/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers)

Apple Mac MiniMy Mac Mini was the first Intel Mac I bought (I had one of the original iMacs but that’s long gone) and it’s proved to be a great little machine. It was replaced by the MacBook but has variously been used in Windows and Mac OS X forms as a home media PC. These days it’s just used for iTunes and Spotify, but I plan to buy a keyboard to have a play with Garage Band too.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs, but it’s more than up to this kind of work and it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI’m not a gamer – I sold my Playstation a few years ago because the driving games that I enjoyed made me feel ill! Even so, I was blown away by the Xbox with Kinect when I saw it last month. I bought myself a 250GB model and now Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports have become family favourites (with a bit of Dance Central thrown in!). I can’t see myself getting into first person shooters, but I can see us doing more and more with the Xbox, particularly if I can use the Connect 360 application to hook into my media library. The final piece of the jigsaw would be BBC iPlayer on Xbox – but that looks unlikely to come to fruition.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, Dell PowerEdge 840, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo

As my work becomes less technical, I no longer run a full network infrastructure at home (I don’t find myself building quite so many virtual machines either) so I moved the main infrastructure roles (Active Directory, DHCP, DNS, TFTP, etc.) to a low-power server based on an Intel Atom CPU. I still have my PowerEdge 840 for the occasions when I do need to run up a test environment but it’s really just gathering dust. Storage is provided by a couple of Netgear ReadyNAS devices and it’s likely that I’ll upgrade the disks and then move one to a family member’s house, remote syncing to provide an off-site backup solution (instead of a variety of external USB drives).

Verdict 6/10. Hold (perhaps sell the server, but more likely to leave it under the desk…).

Technology

The generation game

Creating innovative ways to align IT with business needs is one of the main functions of our office. Ever since the early days of computing, IT departments have been trying to close the gap between end user requirements and service provision. Now changing attitudes to work are a frequent topic of conversation and, whereas we’re often talking about technological change, a number of recent events have highlighted the wider social impact.

In the last 20 years, we’ve seen some pretty significant advancements – not only in terms of technology but in attitudes too:

  • Do you remember the typing pool? In 2011, the idea of a room full of secretarial staff employed to type memos dictated by management seems absurd!
  • There was a time when Microsoft’s vision of a computer on every desk and in every home seemed like science fiction but today we use a plethora of personal computing devices.
  • In the early 1990s, radio pagers were used for communications and only the duty manager had a mobile. Now our smartphones have more computing power than the PCs of that era.
  • Bulletin boards, accessed via modems, and Ceefax, accessed through television, have been replaced by the worldwide web, itself transformed beyond recognition into today’s massive content distribution system that is becoming embedded in many elements of our lives.

Even this blog post is an example of changing attitudes: it’s informal but written for a customer audience; unedited by the marketing department but with clear expectations as to what is acceptable to discuss in a public forum. It’s unthinkable that we would have been able to communicate like this more than a few years ago.

Generation Y, or the millennial generation, as we term those born between 1980 and 2000, is witnessing ever-increasing technological change and expects major social changes too. Horizontal silos are forming within organisations, loosely based around generations of employees who think and communicate in entirely different ways. Take these examples:

  • Formality. We work in a very informal society and it’s rare to refer to colleagues, senior management, or even customers, using their title and surname.
  • Speed. We expect results: faster; and accuracy is often less important than speed of access to information (we can refine the details later – but need to make decisions now!).
  • Quality. Whereas previous generations expected a device or product to last for years, younger generations are happy to replace it with a newer model much more quickly. This affects buying patterns, but also the standards to which goods and services are produced.
  • Communications. Whilst older generations will send a birthday card, generation Y is happy with a message on Facebook. Baby boomers and generation X may communicate by phone or e-mail but generation Y uses text messages, instant messaging and social networks.
  • Familiarity. Whereas baby boomers may like to see pages with detailed information about a given topic; generation Y is happy with snippets of information.
  • Deference. Previous generations were taught to defer to their elders but today’s young people are much more prepared to challenge and question.
  • Education. A degree is no longer an indicator of excellence; instead, it’s expected from almost everyone.
  • Recession. The generation entering the workplace now is the first that will, in all likelihood, earn less than their parents (and yet have higher expectations).

Every generation brings a new approach and some people find the resulting changes easier to adapt to than others. In a few years’ time, today’s graduate entrants will be running our businesses and it seems that, as we experience an accelerated pace of technological change, there’s also an accelerating gap in attitudes between generations.

For many years, we’ve been trying to align IT to business needs and it’s still a challenge at times. Perhaps now is the time to start thinking about the social needs of business end users, before that gap widens too?

[This post originally appeared on the Fujitsu UK and Ireland CTO Blog and was jointly authored with Ian Mitchell.]

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Diagnosing connection issues on my ADSL line

For months now, I’ve been complaining about my ADSL connection and I’m pleased to say that I think I’ve found the issue: it looks as though I had too many TCP/IP sessions open (multiple computers, browser tabs, etc.) and so some connections were getting dropped, so I increased the maximum on my router from the default 192 to the maximum 512.

In the course of my many months of investigation, I did find a lot of useful information though, so I thought it was worth sharing here, for future reference.

The first port of call is often the BT speedtester.  This requires Java to run but it’s likely your ISP will require you to run three separate tests at least one hour apart on this (which can be difficult when the tests don’t complete properly, as in my case) before they will even consider reporting an issue to BT.

Your ISP may have some tools that can help too – for example, mine (PlusNet) has a gateway checker (to see where my connection leaves their network and hits the Internet) and an exchange status checker. Using the exchange status checker, I could see there was an outstanding fault in the exchange and the ISP chased BT to investigate.  Sadly that fault was not related to my problem but it did at least let me know that BT’s infrastructure could have been part of the issue.

It does help to think about things logically – are the issues really speed related, or are you getting lots of disconnections but quite rapid response (as I was)? Does the issue occur on more than one operating system (e.g. Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android)? If you’re only having problems on one device, consider whether that device might have a configuration issue (e.g. incorrect DNS settings).

Get ready to put on your propeller head. There are a lot of factors that affect your ADSL connection speed and quality.  PlusNet has a support article to help explain some of the issues involved in diagnosing broadband speed faults and a broadband terminology guide (although it’s hard enough for me to follow, let alone the average consumer).  I found some really helpful people on my ISP’s support forums and one of the best resources they pointed me at was the Kitz ADSL information index.  Some of the information there was extremely technical but it helped me to understand some of the statistics on my line and to work out what speed my line should be able to support (around 6.5Mbps) in my case. It also gave me a much more detailed line check/exchange status check.

Some of the pointers that could have been useful, had I followed them up, included:

  • “Pairing” my ADSL router with the BT exchange equipment (i.e. making sure they both use the same chipset). For this you will need to know the local and remote vendor identifiers.  My router didn’t expose the remote end, so it was difficult for me to test that but, for example, if you know that the exchange equipment uses a Broadcom chipset then you can try and get hold of an ADSL router that uses that chipset too.
  • Some consumer ADSL routers can be modified with unofficial firmware to expose more settings.  Examples include the Linksys WRT54G (OpenWRT) and the Netgear DG834 (DGteam). Other routers cannot and have fairly basic user interfaces – even my ISP told me to avoid the Thomson router that they currently ship (mine is an elderly Solwise SAR110 and I can even configure it from a command line if necessary).
  • Signal to noise (SNR) ratio can affect a lot of lines and changing this might help.  I found that my SNR margin (basically the amount of tolerance to noise on my line) was quite low at 5.5 dB (I’ve seen as low as 3.5, although the actual noise is pretty constant at 32.5dB) and, had I worked out how to increase this, I could potentially have found a more stable connection (albeit at a slightly lower speed) and then worked back to find the optimum setting (thanks to Garry Martin for that advice).
  • Improving the physical connection by removing the ring/bell wire is a possibility, but probably not advisable since it requires interfering with the linebox (technically this is BT’s property). Another option (not suitable for all connections though – you need an NTE5 linebox although BT says 70% of homes have one of these) is to install a BT Broadband Accelerator/Iplate.  BT Total Broadband customers can get one of these for just the cost of postage (although PlusNet is a BT subsidiary, they don’t have the same offer) but they don’t cost much from the BT Shop.

So you can see that diagnosing ADSL connection issues is far from straightforward; however there are a few things to try that can yield significant results. I’m still trying to work out why my IP Profile has dropped in recent months to 5500Kbps (from 6500, which should be achievable based on the attenuation figure of 32.5), and why my line has interleaving enabled (again, based on the attenuation/loop loss, I’m only about 2.3km from the Exchange). I’ve also ordered an Iplate and it will be interesting to see what (if anything) the resulting speed increase is.

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