Book review: Getting started with Raspberry Pi (so what exactly is it for?!)

A few weeks ago, we were visiting friends who have a teenage son. He’d received a Raspberry Pi for Christmas but was struggling to understand what to do with it.  You see, he’d loaded Raspbian, fired up Scratch, etc. – but still had a pretty big question: what could he do on the Raspberry Pi that he couldn’t already do on his Windows laptop?

That made me stop and think. You see, for as much as I think the Raspberry Pi is a fantastic device for low-cost computing – and a great entry point for those who have a TV but not a PC;  many UK families already have at least one PC – indeed I used to think I was in the minority with my assortment of computing devices but even non-geek friends have multiple laptops (kids need them for school work, parents for their professional work), smartphones/tablets, and games consoles.

So what can the Raspberry Pi do that a PC can’t?  For starters, the GPIO pins mean it’s (potentially) easier to interface with other hardware. Secondly, the lower price point means that, if you blow one up, it’s less of a problem than a PC.  Also, as someone whose computing education started out with logic gates and boolean algebra, it allows one to get a lot closer to core computing principles – you can directly interact with a Pi in a way that’s not possible (or at least not as simple) with modern PCs.

That didn’t help my friends’ son much – although I did help to configure their router to allow him to run a Minecraft server, which scored me a few Brownie points…

Even so, I decided to buy a book to investigate further – partly with my friends’ issue in mind but also out of interest for myself. The book I selected was Getting Started with Raspberry Pi (Make: Projects/O’Reilly) by Matt Richardson and Shawn Wallace and it really is a pretty good introduction.  In a handful of easy-to-read chapters it skims the surface of getting up and running, understanding some Linux essentials, Python, Scratch, interfacing with other boards like Arduino, basic I/O, and working with webcams and Internet resources. Plenty of food for thought, to develop ideas for new projects (I still want to explore options to control a train set with some sort of Pi/Arduino setup when I find the time…). It doesn’t go deep, but nor should it – as one Amazon review says “You will need to be comfortable with computers in general, but if you’re, say, happy installing software on your standard Windows machine, you’ll be fine”.

I’ll be handing my copy over to my friends’ son – to see what a 15 year old makes of it… in the meantime, if you’re struggling to see the purpose of a Raspberry Pi (except as a small, inexpensive general purpose computer), this book might help to generate some ideas.

Book review: Microsoft Office 365: Exchange Online Implementation and Migration, David Greve/Loryan Strant

Every now and again, I get asked to review a technology book. My response is usually something along the lines of “sure, send me a copy and I’ll take a look”. Experience suggests that dead tree editions are more likely to get read than a PDF but sometimes I’m just busy and it takes a while. That’s not because I’m lazy – it’s because if I review a book I want to take the time to review it properly and write a considered response – not just bang out a blog post because the publisher is nagging me for a review…

Unfortunately, this particular publisher was chasing me just 48 hours after they ordered me a copy (and several days before I’d received the book!) and, just a month later (in the middle of the summer holiday season) they are still pushing…

So, here goes. A very short, not very thorough, view on Microsoft Office 365: Exchange Online Implementation and Migration, by David Greve and Loryan Strant (@TheCloudMouth).

As I’d expect from a book written by a couple of MVPs, this book covers all of the basics of implementing the Exchange Online elements of Office 365. Importantly, it doesn’t just concentrate on the enterprise elements, including information for those getting started with the Office 365 plans for small business and professionals, highlighting some important limitations (although not all – as I found recently, the P1 plans don’t include two factor authentication, which is something that users on competing platforms are being encouraged to use).  The book continues to take a logical approach, working through the administration portal and on to integration options – even considering the practicalities involved when the available options from Microsoft are less than desirable,  recommending some alternatives to consider.  Unfortunately the space given to working from the command line in PowerShell (a useful tool in the Office 365 administrator’s arsenal) is very limited.

Moving on through enterprise integration options, preparing for, and performing both simple and hybrid migrations (including supporting infrastructure, such as Active Directory Federation Services), it seems that the authors have covered a variety of scenarios, with many screen shots and diagrams provided to illustrate key points in the process. One criticism is that the screen shots can, in places, feel as though they are being used to pad out the text – presumably the target audience consists of experienced administrators and they shouldn’t really need screen shots of EULA dialogues – after all, this is not “Office 365 migration for dummies”! Finally, the book examines some important post-migration considerations and highlights additional resources.

When I previously reviewed a book from the same publisher, I remarked on the high cover price. Well, I’m pleased to say that this one is a much more reasonable £24.99 ($39.99) and that there are online discounts and free shipping, as well as reasonably-priced eBook options. Indeed, very sensibly, the print and eBook bundle only costs a little more than the print copy on its own.

If you get the chance to read the book properly and you have some comments (perhaps even based on experience of following its advice, as I would have like to have done), then please leave a comment below. Maybe, together, we can crowdsource its review!

Microsoft Office 365: Exchange Online Implementation and Migration by David Greve and Loryan Strant is published by Packt Publishing.

The theory of disruptive innovation (from The Innovator’s Dilemma)

I always like the idea of reading more business books, but somehow that doesn’t often transition to reality as I tend to use my travel time to listen to podcasts, catch up on email or Twitter and I’m more likely to read a novel or a magazine before I go to sleep at night.

Even so, I have a few business books on the go at the moment and, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M Christensen.

It’s a bit old now (first published in 1997) and not the easiest read in the world  as it gets a bit repetitive with it’s “tell them what you’re going to say, say it, tell them what you said” approach, nevertheless the author puts forward some interesting theories that are already making me think differently about some of the business decisions I’ve witnessed recently.  In this post, I’ll highlight some of the book’s key points and then I’ll follow up later this week with my thoughts on current IT industry issues and trends.

The book is predicated on the idea that there are two forms of innovation in technology:

  • Sustaining technologies foster improved product performance.
  • Disruptive technologies often worsen performance in the near term, and bring to market a very different value proposition. Typically though, these are cheaper, simpler, smaller and more convenient.

In part 1, the author looks at why great companies fail:

  • Sustaining technology innovations sound great – after all, everybody wants improved performance, don’t they? As it happens, no they don’t: sustaining innovation can lead to companies providing more than customers want or are prepared to pay for. This leaves an opportunity for new market entrants with disruptive innovations.
  • It’s also true that customers may not want disruptive technologies, at least not until a market has been created by others. The problem for established vendors is that, by the time the market is proven, it’s too late (or too difficult) for them to adapt. On the flip side, Clayton Christensen highlights that it’s very rare for new entrants to succeed in marketing sustaining innovations.
  • Another concept the book describes is that of value networks: these may be based on rank order of product characteristics but also on the cost structure required (e.g. margins, etc.). The principle is that technologies with attributes that are only valuable in networks with low gross margins will be ignored by those looking for high margin business. As companies grow, it gets harder to continue the same rate of growth so they start looking for bigger bets.
  • In the book, Clayton Christensen describes a technology “S” curve of performance vs. time or engineering effort. The trick is for companies to switch technologies at the right point on this curve (where a new technology rises to intercept an established technology) but, whilst this works for sustaining innovation, it’s less applicable for disruptive innovation as each new technology has different attributes of performance. Consequently, new entrants get their commercial start in emerging value networks before invading the established networks.
  • Established players can usually create the required technology to match disruptive entrants but it becomes a management decision about resource allocation (known as the “impetus to innovate”) – which would you do, given the choice of sustaining innovations to meet the needs of important customers or investing in disruptive innovations with small markets and unclear needs? And it’s this decision that, all too often, leaves the door open for others – maybe even for others from inside the organsation who leave to create a new venture.
  • Christensen highlights that disruptive technologies don’t match the “S” curve and, typically they improve at a parallel pace with the established value network. Instead of looking for the point where new intercepts old (as with sustaining innovation), the aim is to look for the point where the emerging (disruptive) technology intercepts the market need.Impact of sustaining and disruptive technological change
  • New technologies may well intercept the old ones if the trajectories are different and this allows new entrants to join established value networks (because progress has diminished the differences between technologies). Put differently, once two technologies can both meet a need, the fact that one can do it better ceases to be of competitive relevance.Innovation and value networks
  • For established vendors, Christensen suggests it’s not a problem of being sleepy or of arrogant management – often the disruptive technology simply didn’t make sense (in their value network) – at least not until it was too late. It’s a lot easier to companies to move upmarket into established value networks, but harder to go down. Essentially, middle management will screen innovation projects from deep within organisation by only sponsoring those likely to succeed – i.e. those with a clear market demand. This market demand can be attributed to three factors:
    1. The promise of up-market margins.
    2. Upmarket movement of many customers.
    3. Difficulty cutting costs to move down-market profitably.
  • This creates a vacuum downmarket for new entrants with disruptive technologies and cost structures that are better suited to competition.

Part 2 of the book looks at managing disruptive technology change:

  • In addressing the challenge of allocating finite resources to innovation projects with unclear returns, one approach is to spin out a new organisation. This new organisation can develop new products without the constraints of the old business, then bring back its values back in house (perhaps replacing most of the old company) once established. It’s also possible to do this with organisational units within a company but resource allocation is a challenge and often fails. The key appears to be embedding independent organisations with different value networks – for example to be able to “get excited about a $50,000 order” when the company is used to $1m orders! Each organisation has to be free to persue its own customers as a separate organisational unit and to compete.
  • Another point that Clayton Christensen makes is that leading in developing and adopting sustaining technologies gives no discernible competitive advantage. On the other hand, leadership in disruptive technologies creates enormous value. Effectively there is a trade-off, exchanging market risk (i.e. the risk that an emerging market might not develop) for competitive risk (entering a market against entrenched competition).  Because markets that do not yet exist cannot be analysed, in order to confront disruptive change, it is necessary to plan for learning and discovery rather than execution.
  • It’s also important to recognise that a failed idea is not the same as a failed business. It’s common for a business to abandon it’s original business strategy after implementation highlights what would/wouldn’t work in the market. Chritensen suggests that guessing the right strategy at the outset is less important than running out of resources or credibility before iterating towards a viable strategy.
  • On the other hand, failed ideas are a different story when it relates to management careers where a failed idea/project can block career progress so we’re generally often unwilling to take on the risk of disruptive technologies. As failure is intrinsic to the process of finding new markets for technologies we have to plan to learn rather than plan to execute. Often this means using discovery-driven planning (identify assumptions upon which business plans/aspirations are based) to test market assumptions before committing.
  • Markets for disruptive technologies often emerge from unanticipated success and Clayton Christensen suggests that discoveries come from sharing how people use a product rather than listening to what they say. In effect, he advises getting out of labs and focus groups, and creating knowledge from discovery-driven expeditions into the marketplace.
  • Even if people have the capabilities to tackle innovation, the organisation in which they work may not. Clayton Christensen suggests looking at organisational capabilities in terms of resources, processes and values. In their startup phase, resources (people) are important to a business; later, the emphasis shifts to process and value. Even with change management, processes are not as flexible as resources (we can train people to be multiskilled) – and values are less so. If an organisation lacks capabilities the options are:
    • Acquire a new organisation.
    • Try to change processes and values.
    • Create a separate, independent, organisation.
  • In the last of these, physical separation is less important than a separate resource allocation process.
  • As we experience performance oversupply, performance attributes change such that, for example, as a product meets market demand for capacity, size, reliability, price etc. become differentiators. When this is completely played out, the product becomes a commodity. Effectively, differentiators lose value when features and functionality exceed market demands.
  • Clayton Christensen attributes a customer buying hierarchy to Windermere Associates’ that identifies four phases of functionality, reliability, convenience and price. Another conception of evolution/technology adoption comes from Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm with innovators/early adopters, early majority, late majority [and laggards]. Using this model there is a price premium for early adoption, reliability is important for the early majority, and convenience for the late majority.Technology Adoption Process
  • The same attributes that make disruptive technologies worthless in mainstream markets become strong selling points in emerging markets – as disruptive technologies tend to be simpler, cheaper, more reliable and convenient. Therefore, Christensen suggests three strategies to deal with performance oversupply:
    1. Move upmarket: command a premium for better performance.
    2. Move with the customer, introduce new, disruptive technologies.
    3. Market to convince the customer that they need better performance.

There’s a lot more detail in the book and, although it can be heavy going at times. The writing style, together with notes at the end of each chapter betray the research/academic focus, which provides good accountability but is not easy to skim.

Throughout The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton M Christensen uses the disk drive industry as an example (along with other examples from the excavation and steel-making industries) but I can see some parallels with cloud computing too. In my next post, I’ll explain my thinking, but in the meantime I’d like to throw out a question:

Is cloud computing disruptive or is it a sustaining technology?

Finally, if you, like me, find these theories interetsing, you might also be interested in the Disruptive Library Technology Jester, who has produced a pocket-sized graph of the theory of disruptive innovation.

Book review: Windows Server 2008 Administrator’s Pocket Consultant (Second Edition), William Stanek

A few days ago, I reviewed John Savill’s Complete Guide to Windows Server 2008 and now I’d like to introduce another book for Windows Server administrators – William Stanek‘s Windows Server 2008 Administrator’s Pocket Consultant 2nd Edition, published by Microsoft Press.

Whereas John’s book is a heavyweight reference volume for use by designers and administrators alike – the Administrator’s Pocket Consultant series is intended to be transportable – although it does push the definition of “pocket-sized” somewhat at almost 700 pages.  Nevertheless, this book works through many of the key activities that a Windows Server administrator can expect to perform, organised in a logical flow from an overview; to deployment; managing servers, monitoring services, processes and events; automating tasks, policies and procedures; enhancing security; using and administering Active Directory, including user and group account management; managing file systems, drives, volume sets and arrays, including file screening and storage reporting; sharing data (and auditing access); backing up and recovering data; managing TCP/IP; and administering network services such as printing, DHCP and DNS. 

It’s the sort of book that can be used by an experienced administrator to just dip in and refresh their memory on a particular topic, or read from start to finish for an administrator who is new to Windows Server or updating their administration skills to include Windows Server 2008 R2.

And R2 is an important distinction – this book is not just in it’s second edition – it has been updated to cover Windows Server 2008’s second release (Windows Server 2008 R2) – in that the Windows Server 2008 topics have been updated to include any changes that R2 has brought.  What this book doesn’t cover though is some of the newer Windows Server roles and features – like administering Remote Desktop Services.  And, whereas it talks in detail about the Distributed File System, new R2 features such as BranchCache barely get a mention, nor does DirectAccess.

It’s a difficult balance – after all, this is a pocket consultant – i.e. a smallish book to consult when you need to know something – but I’d really like such a guide to include all of Windows Server’s functionality – even if it can’t drill down into detail on them all (after all, it doesn’t claim to be a complete reference).

At the end of the day, this book aims to be practical, portable, and to provide answers for day-to-day administration of Windows Server 2008 R2.  On the whole, it achieves that goal – and it’s is well laid out, with plenty of illustrations and list of actions to take for a given scenario – but it misses some key functionality that many Windows Server administrators will encounter.

If you’re looking for a portable Windows Server reference book, Windows Server 2008 Administrator’s Pocket Consultant 2nd Edition is available from all major booksellers and use the code MVPT894 for a 40% discount on this book at Microsoft Press until the end of April 2010.

Book review: Complete Guide to Windows Server 2008, John Savill

A couple of years back, I was invited out to the Microsoft Campus in Redmond to learn about Windows Server 2008.  It was a fantastic week – not just because it was my first trip to Redmond but also because I met so many great people – many of whose work I had been reading in books, magazines and on the ‘net for years.  One example was John Savill, who, at the time, was working on a book… a rather big book as it turns out – and his publishers sent me a copy to review.

It’s taken me some time (I did plan to use it for my MCSE to MCITP:EA upgrade in 2008) but here’s what I found when I read John Savill’s Complete Guide to Windows Server 2008, published by Addison Wesley.

At over 1700 pages, this is not a lightweight read.  Having said that, it’s title of “complete guide” is pretty accurate – going right back to a history of Windows (although using the abbreviation of WNT for Windows NT is not something I’ve seen anywhere else, and was somewhat confusing).  Although the book is written in a style that makes it very readable, it’s size means that it’s not something that can easily be read in bed, or on the train, or anywhere really – and that means it’s most use as a reference book (a digital copy is available to purchasers of the hardback edition, but only for 45 days… not really much use for a book this size).

But what a reference book it is!  I’ve read many texts on deploying Windows and none have ever taken me through a network trace of a PXE boot, removing the need to press F12, or the structure of the XML that describes a Windows image.  Sure, we now have tools like the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit but John explores Windows Deployment Services (and the Windows Automated Installation Kit) in great detail – just the sort of detail I would need if I was an administrator looking to discover how Windows works and how to make it work for me.  These are just a few highlights though from one example of the 24 chapters (plus how to quick reference and index) – indeed I’ll list them here to show the breadth of coverage for this book:

  • Windows 101: Its origins, present, and the services it provides
  • Windows Server 2008 fundamentals: navigation and getting started
  • Installing and upgrading Windows Server 2008
  • Securing a Windows Server 2008 deployment
  • File system and print management features
  • TCP/IP
  • Advanced networking services
  • Remote access/securing and optimising the network
  • Terminal Services
  • Active Directory Domain Services (introduction)
  • Designing and installing Active Directory
  • Managing Active Directory and advanced concepts
  • Active Directory Federated Services, Lightweight Directory Services, and Rights Management
  • Server core
  • Distributed File System
  • Deploying Windows
  • Managing and maintaining Windows Server 2008
  • Highly available Windows Server 2008
  • Virtualisation and resource management
  • Troubleshooting Windows Server 2008 and Vista environments
  • Group policy
  • The command prompt and PowerShell
  • Connecting Windows Server to other environments
  • Internet Information Services

Each chapter goes into great detail, with plenty of screen shots, and command line output; yet remains extremely readable because the approach taken is to set the scene, before drilling down into the detail – rather than swamping the reader with a mountain of technical know-how.

If I had one tiny criticism, I’d say that there were a (very) few occasions when it left me hanging by referring me to the Microsoft website for more information (e.g. for details of storing BitLocker encryption keys in Active Directory); however, in general, this book provided me with the right balance between readability and technical detail – and I would not hesitate to recommend this text to anyone who works with, or is looking to learn about, Windows Server 2008.

Book review: Active Directory Disaster Recovery, Florian Rommel

Florian Rommel: Active Directory Disaster RecoveryA few months ago, I was asked if I would write a review of a new book about Active Directory (AD) disaster recovery (DR) and I was more than happy to do this – especially as I’d just finished writing an AD design for a DR infrastructure at my organisation. The book in question was Florian Rommel’s Active Directory Disaster Recovery book, which claims to offer expert guidance on planning and implementing Active Directory disaster recovery plans.

AD DR is an important topic. Stop to think for a moment about how many services are reliant on this critical piece of many enterprises’ infrastructure and then consider what would happen if the AD was corrupted and no-one could log on…

…and that’s why this book is potentially useful to so many administrators charged with the correct operation of Active Directory (including troubleshooting and recovering from any issues).

The book starts out by explaining why organisations need a DR plan for AD (rather than just relying on the multi-master replication model), before moving on to look at AD design principles. The trouble is that those principles do not fit with Microsoft’s current advice for domain and forest design and there’s also the question of whether such design concepts even belong in a disaster recovery book (it could be argued that, if you’re reading this book, then you should already know about AD – indeed, the back covers says that the book “expects the reader to be familiar with the basics of Active Directory and Windows servers”).

After two chapters of rather slow introduction the real content starts and subsequent chapters cover: designing and implementing a DR plan; strengthening AD for resilience; acting on the failure of a single DC (and then recovering from that failure); recovery of lost or deleted objects; recovering from a complete AD failure (shouldn’t that come after the single DC failure?); recovering from hardware failure; common recovery tools; and, finally, an example business continuity plan.

Regardless of whether I agree with the advice in this book, the simple fact is that I found it very difficult to read. Not because it’s technical but because English does not appear to be the native tongue of either the author or the editorial and production team. As a result the text doesn’t scan well and is too informal in places – it felt more like the technical documentation I read at work than a professionally published book. That may sound like the pot calling the kettle black but I’m writing this on a blog (where opinion should be expected) and my prose is not subject to the review, proof reading and editing that a book should be (nor do I charge you to read it).

I really want to say good things about this book as Florian Rommel clearly knows a lot about the subject. I have no doubt that he put a lot of work into its production (and I would have done a much better job of the AD design I mentioned at the head of this post had I read this book first) but the author seems to have been let down by the reviewers (James Eaton-Lee and Nathan Yocom) and by his proof reader (Dirk Manuel). I spotted a few errors that should have been picked up before publishing and there is far too much written that appears to be opinion rather than fact backed up with credible examples (in fairness, there is a bibliography but it would be better if there was a clear link between the content and the referenced source). Crucially though, for a book published in June 2008, four months after the release of Windows Server 2008, there’s no mention of any of the Active Directory changes in Microsoft’s latest server operating system.

Sadly, the end result does not justify the cover price of £36.99 or $59.99.

Active Directory Disaster Recovery by Florien Rommel is published by Packt Publishing (ISBN: 978-1-847193-27-8)