Seven technology trends to watch 2017-2020

Just over a week ago, risual held its bi-annual summit at the risual HQ in Stafford – the whole company back in the office for a day of learning with a new format: a mini-conference called risual:NXT.

I was given the task of running the technical track – with 6 speakers presenting on a variety of topics covering all of our technical practices: Cloud Infrastructure; Dynamics; Data Platform; Unified Intelligent Communications and Messaging; Business Productivity; and DevOps – but I was also privileged to be asked to present a keynote session on technology trends. Unfortunately, my 35-40 minutes of content had to be squeezed into 22 minutes… so this blog post summarises some of the points I wanted to get across but really didn’t have the time.

1. The cloud was the future once

For all but a very small number of organisations, not using the cloud means falling behind. Customers may argue that they can’t use cloud service because of regulatory or other reasons but that’s rarely the case – even the UK Police have recently been given the green light (the blue light?) to store information in Microsoft’s UK data centres.

Don’t get me wrong – hybrid cloud is more than tactical. It will remain part of the landscape for a while to come… that’s why Microsoft now has Azure Stack to provide a means for customers to run a true private cloud that looks and works like Azure in their own datacentres.

Thankfully, there are fewer and fewer CIOs who don’t see the cloud forming part of their landscape – even if it’s just commodity services like email in Office 365. But we need to think beyond lifting and shifting virtual machines to IaaS and running email in Office 365.

Organisations need to transform their cloud operations because that’s where the benefits are – embrace the productivity tools in Office 365 (no longer just cloud versions of Exchange/Lync/SharePoint but a full collaboration stack) and look to build new solutions around advanced workloads in Azure. Microsoft is way ahead in the PaaS space – machine learning (ML), advanced analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) – there are so many scenarios for exploiting cloud services that simply wouldn’t be possible on-premises without massive investment.

And for those who still think they can compete with the scale that Microsoft (Amazon and Google) operate at, this video might provide some food for thought…

(and for a similar video from a security perspective…)

2. Data: the fuel of the future

I hate referring to data as “the new oil”. Oil is a finite resource. Data is anything but finite! It is a fuel though…

Data is what provides an economic advantage – there are businesses without data and those with. Data is the business currency of the future. Think about it: Facebook and Google are entirely based on data that’s freely given up by users (remember, if you’re not paying for a service – you are the service). Amazon wouldn’t be where it is without data.

So, thinking about what we do with that data: the 1st wave of the Internet was about connecting computers, 2nd was about people, the 3rd is devices.

Despite what you might read, IoT is not about connected kettles/fridges. It’s not even really about home automation with smart lightbulbs, thermostats and door locks. It’s about gathering information from billions of sensors out there. Then, we take that data and use it to make intelligent decisions and apply them in the real world. Artificial intelligence and machine learning feed on data – they are ying and yang to each other. We use data to train algorithms, then we use the algorithms to process more data.

The Microsoft Data Platform is about analytics and data driving a new wave of insights and opening up possibilities for new ways of working.

James Watt’s 18th Century steam engine led to an industrial revolution. The intelligent cloud is today’s version – moving us to the intelligence revolution.

3 Blockchain

Bitcoin is just one implementation of something known as the Blockchain. In this case as a digital currency.

But Blockchain is not just for monetary transactions – it’s more than that. It can be used for anything transactional. Blockchain is about a distributed ledger. Effectively, it allows parties to trust one another without knowing each other. The ledger is a record of every transaction, signed and tamper-proof.

The magic about Blockchain is that as the chain gets longer so does the entropy and the encryption level – effectively, the more the chain is used, the more secure it gets. That means infinite integrity.

(Read more in Jamie Skella’s “A blockchain explaination your parents could understand”.)

Blockchain is seen as strategic by Microsoft and by the UK government and it’s early days but we will see where people want to talk about integrity and data resilience with integrity. Databases – anything transactional – can be signed with blockchain.

A group of livestock farmers in Arkansas is using blockchain technology so customers can tell where their dinner comes from. They are applying blockchain technology to trace products from ‘farm to fork’ aiming to provide consumers with information about the origin and quality of the meat they buy.

Blockchain is finding new applications in the enterprise and Microsoft has announced the CoCo Framework to improve performance, confidentiality and governance characteristics of enterprise blockchain networks (read more in Simon Bisson’s article for InfoWorld). There’s also Blockchain as a service (in Azure) – and you can find more about Microsoft’s plans by reading up on “Project Bletchley”.

(BTW, Bletchley is a town in Buckinghamshire that’s now absorbed into Milton Keynes. Bletchley Park was the primary location of the UK Government’s wartime code-cracking efforts that are said to have shortened WW2 by around 2 years. Not a bad name for a cryptographic technology, hey?)

4 Into the third dimension

So we’ve had the ability to “print” in 3 dimensions for a while but now 3D is going further.Now we’re taking physical worlds into the virtual world and augmenting with information.

Microsoft doesn’t like the term augmented reality (because it’s being used for silly faces on photos) and they have coined the term mixed reality to describe taking untethered computing devices and creating a seamless overlap between physical and virtual worlds.

To make use of this we need to be able to scan and render 3D images, then move them into a virtual world. 3D is built into next Windows 10 release (the Fall Creators update, due on 17 October 2017). This will bring Paint 3D, a 3D Gallery, View 3D for our phones – so we can scan any object and import to a virtual world. With the adoption rates of new Windows 10 releases then that puts 3D on a market of millions of PCs.

This Christmas will see lots of consumer headsets in the market. Mixed reality will really take off after that. Microsoft is way ahead in the plumbing – all whilst we didn’t notice. They held their Hololens product back to be big in business (so that it wasn’t a solution without a problem). Now it can be applied to field worker scenarios, visualising things before they are built.

To give an example, recently, I had a builder quote for a loft extension at home. He described how the stairs will work and sketched a room layout – but what if I could have visualised it in a headset? Then imagine picking the paint, sofas, furniture, wallpaper, etc.

The video below shows how Ford and Microsoft have worked together to use mixed reality to shorten and improve product development:

5 The new dawn of artificial intelligence

All of the legends of AI are set by sci-fi (Metropolis, 2001 AD, Terminator). But AI is not about killing us all! Humans vs. machines? Deep Blue beating people at Chess, Jeopardy, then Google taking on Go. Heading into the economy and displacing jobs. Automation of business process/economic activity. Mass unemployment?

Let’s take a more optimistic view! It’s not about sentient/thinking machines or giving human rights to machines. That stuff is interesting but we don’t know where consciousness comes from!

AI is a toolbox of high-value tools and techniques. We can apply these to problems and appreciate the fundamental shift from programming machines to machines that learn.

Ai is not about programming logical steps – we can’t do that when we’re recognising images, speech, etc. Instead, our inspiration is biology, neural networks, etc. – using maths to train complex layers of neural networks led to deep learning.

Image recognition was “magic” a few years ago but now it’s part of everyday life. Nvidia’s shares are growing massively due to GPU requirements for deep learning and autonomous vehicles. And Microsoft is democratising AI (in its own applications – with an intelligent cloud, intelligent agents and bots).

NVIDIA Corporation stock price growth fuelled by demand for GPUs

So, about those bots…

A bot is a web app and a conversational user interface. We use them because natural language processing (NLP) and AI are here today. And because messaging apps rule the world. With bots, we can use Human language as a new user interface; bots are the new apps – our digital assistants.

We can employ bots in several scenarios today – including customer service and productivity – and this video is just one example, with Microsoft Cortana built into a consumer product:

The device is similar to Amazon’s popular Echo smart speaker and a skills kit is used to teach Cortana about an app; Ask “skillname to do something”. The beauty of Cortana is that it’s cross-platform so the skill can show up wherever Cortana does. More recently, Amazon and Microsoft have announced Cortana-Alexa integration (meanwhile Siri continues to frustrate…)

AI is about augmentation, not replacement. It’s true that bots may replace humans for many jobs – but new jobs will emerge. And it’s already here. It’s mainstream. We use recommendations for playlists, music, etc. We’re recognising people, emotions, etc. in images. We already use AI every day…

6 From silicon to cells

Every cell has a “programme” – DNA. And researchers have found that they can write code in DNA and control proteins/chemical processes. They can compile code to DNA and execute, creating molecular circuits. Literally programming biology.

This is absolutely amazing. Back when I was an MVP, I got the chance to see Microsoft Research talk about this in Cambridge. It blew my mind. That was in 2010. Now it’s getting closer to reality and Microsoft and the University of Washington have successfully used DNA for storage:

The benefits of DNA are that it’s very dense and it lasts for thousands of years so can always be read. And we’re just storing 0s and 1s – that’s much simpler than what DNA stores in nature.

7 Quantum computing

With massive data storage… the next step is faster computing – that’s where Quantum computing comes in.

I’m a geek and this one is tough to understand… so here’s another video:

Quantum computing is starting to gain momentum. Dominated by maths (quantum mechanics), it requires thinking in equations, not translating into physical things in your head. It has concepts like superposition (multiple states at the same time) and entanglement. Instead of gates being turned on/off it’s about controlling particles with nanotechnology.

A classical 2 bit on-off takes 2 clock cycles. One quantum bit (a Qubit) has multiple states at the same time. It can be used to solve difficult problems (the RSA 2048 challenge problem would take a billion years on a supercomputer but just 100 seconds on a 250-bit quantum computer). This can be applied to encryption and security, health and pharma, energy, biotech, environment, materials and engineering, AI and ML.

There’s a race for quantum computing hardware taking place and China sees this as a massively strategic direction. Meanwhile, the UK is already an academic centre of excellence – now looking to bring quantum computing to market. We’ll have usable devices in 2-3 years (where “usable” means that they won’t be cracking encryption, but will have initial applications in chemistry and biology).

Microsoft Research is leading a consortium called Station Q and, later this year, Microsoft will release a new quantum computing programming language, along with a quantum computing simulator. With these, developers will be able to both develop and debug quantum programs implementing quantum algorithms.

Predicting the future?

Amazon, Google and Microsoft each invest over $12bn p.a. on R&D. As demonstrated in the video above, their datacentres are not something that many organisations can afford to build but they will drive down the cost of computing. That drives down the cost for the rest of us to rent cloud services, which means more data, more AI – and the cycle continues.

I’ve shared 7 “technology bets” (and there are others, like the use of Graphene) that I haven’t covered – my list is very much influenced by my work with Microsoft technologies and services. We can’t always predict the future but all of these are real… the only bet is how big they are. Some are mainstream, some are up and coming – and some will literally change the world.

Credit: Thanks to Rob Fraser at Microsoft for the initial inspiration – and to Alun Rogers (@AlunRogers) for helping place some of these themes into context.

Short takes: SSH, custom ports, root and Synology NASs

This blog has been much maligned of late… I’d like to get more time to write and I have literally hundreds of part-written posts, some of which are now just a collection of links for me to unpick…

In the meantime, a couple of snippets that may be useless, or may help someone one day…

Using SSH with a custom port number

My Synology NAS complains about poor security if I leave SSH enabled on port 22. It’s fine if I change it to another port though (security by obscurity!). Connecting then needs a bit more work as it’s ssh user@ipaddress -p portnumber (found via the askubuntu forums)

Logging on to a Synology NAS from SSH as root

On a related topic, I recently needed to SSH to my NAS as root (not admin). ssh root@ipaddress -p portnumber wasn’t authenticating correctly and then I found Synology’s advice on how to login to DSM with root permission via SSH/Telnet. It seems I have to first log on as admin, then sudo -i to elevate to root.

Synology Hyper Backup and DSM update failures

I have a Synology DS916+ NAS and, for the 9 months or so, I’ve been using it to back up my photos to Microsoft Azure. I’ve realised that they are being backed up in a format that’s unique to Synology’s Hyper Backup program, so I should probably see if there is an alternative that backs up the files in their native format but, more worryingly, this afternoon I noticed that backups had been failing for a few days. The logs weren’t much help (no detailed information) and a search on the ‘net didn’t turn much up either. For reference, this was the (very high level) information in the logs when viewed in the Hyper Backup GUI:

Information 2017/07/08 03:00:02 SYSTEM [Azure Blob] [Backup Photos to Microsoft Azure] Backup task started.
Error 2017/07/08 03:00:33 SYSTEM [Azure Blob] [Backup Photos to Microsoft Azure] Exception occured while backing up data.
Error 2017/07/08 03:00:36 SYSTEM [Azure Blob] [Backup Photos to Microsoft Azure] Failed to backup data.
Error 2017/07/08 03:00:36 SYSTEM [Azure Blob] [Backup Photos to Microsoft Azure] Failed to run backup task.

(Since then, I’ve found how to view detailed backup logs on a Synology NAS, thanks to a blog post by Jonathan Mumm, though in this case, the logs didn’t shine much of a light on the problem for me.)

I wondered if there were any DSM updates available that might fix things but, when I checked for updates, I got a message to say “Insufficient capacity for update. The system partition requires at least 400MB”. Googling suggested lots of manual file deletion and I was sure this was just a buildup of temp files (maybe to do with the failed backup), so I decided to reboot. After all, what do you do when a computer isn’t working as expected? Turn it off and on again!

After rebooting, attempts to update no longer produced an error (simply confirming that I’m up-to-date with DSM 6.1.2-15132) and the backup is now running nicely (it will take a few hours to complete as I added a few months’ worth of iPhone photos to the NAS earlier in the week, around about the time the backups started failing…)

My first few weeks with a Synology Diskstation NAS

Earlier this summer, I bought myself a new NAS. I’d lost faith in my old Netgear ReadyNAS devices a while ago, after a failure took out both halves of a RAID 1 mirror and I lost all the data on one of them. That actually taught me two important lessons:

  1. Data doesn’t exist unless it’s backed up in at least two places.
  2. RAID 1 is not suitable for fault-tolerant backups.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, my new model is to get all of the data into one place, then sync/archive as appropriate to the cloud. Anything on any other PCs, external disks, etc. should be considered transient.

For the device itself, it seems that there are only really two vendors to consider – QNAP or Synology (maybe a Drobo). I chose Synology – and elected to go with a 4-bay model, picking up a Synology Diskstation DS916+ (8GB) and kitting it out with 4 Hitachi (HGST) Deskstar NAS drives.

Unfortunately, I had a little hiccup in that I’d ordered the device pre-configured. The weight of the disks was clearly too much for the plastic drive carriers to cope with but, once again, span.com sorted things out for me and I soon had a replacement in my possession.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been building up what I’m doing with the Diskstation: providing home drives for the family; syncing all of my cloud storageacting as a VPN endpoint; providing DHCP and DNS services; running anti-virus checks; and backing up key files to Microsoft Azure.

This last workload is worthy of discussion, as it took me a couple of weeks to push my data to the cloud. Setup was fairly straightforward, following Paris Polyzos (@ppolyzos)’s advice to backup Synology NAS data in Microsoft Azure Cool Storage but the volume of data and the network it had to traverse was more problematic.

Initially I had issues with timeouts due to a TP-Link HomeplugAV (powerline Ethernet) device between the ISP router and the DNS server that kept failing. I worked around that by moving DNS onto the NAS, and physically locating the NAS next to the router (bypassing the problematic section of network). Then it was just a case of waiting for my abysmal home Internet connection to cope with multi-GB upstream transfers…

I have no doubts that this NAS, albeit over-specified for a family (because I wanted an Intel-based model), is a great device but I did need to work around some issues with vibration noise. It’s also slightly frustrating that there is no integration between the DHCP and DNS services (I’ve been spoiled working with Windows Server…), the Security Advisor reports are a bit dramatic, and some of the Linux commands are missing – but I really haven’t found anything yet that’s a show-stopper.

Now I need to get back to consolidating data onto the device, and moving more of it into the cloud…

Preventing vibration noise on a Synology NAS

My Synology Diskstation NAS (DS916+) has been a great purchase but I have had some issues with noise from vibration. Over a course of a few weeks, complaints from family members meant that I had to move the NAS from my desk, onto the floor, then into the garage (before I brought it into the kitchen to be next to the Internet connection – but that’s another story). You should be able to hear the noise in the video below (though it seems much louder in real life!):

As can be heard, the vibration noise reduces when I put pressure on the chassis. It seems that it’s actually caused by the screw-less drive carriers that Synology use on their NASs.

Thanks to advice from Chipware on Reddit, I was able to add some sticky-backed Velcro (just the fluffy side) between the disk carrier and the disk, and on the outside of the disk carriers. They now better fit the NAS and, crucially, the Velcro serves as a shock absorber, preventing any more vibrations…

And, at just £2 for a metre of sticky-backed Velcro (which I only used a few centimetres of), it was a pretty inexpensive fix.

Chipware says in his post that:

“I definitely think the 4 Velcro pieces connecting the sled to the cage solved the problem. The pieces between drive and sled connection provides negligible dampening.”

I initially only put 4 pieces on the outside of the carrier (2 of them can be seen in the picture) but my experience was that adding 2 more pieces on the disk itself (underneath the carrier) also helped. Of course, your mileage my vary (and any changes you make are at your own risk – I’m not responsible for any problems it may cause).

After making these modifications there’s no more noise, just a relatively quiet fan noise (as to be expected) and the NAS is back on my desk!

Journey through the Amazon Web Services cloud

Working for a large system integrator, I tend to find myself focused on our own offerings and somewhat isolated from what’s going on in the outside world. It’s always good to understand the competitive landscape though and I’ve spent some time recently brushing up my knowledge of Amazon Web Services (AWS), which may come in useful as I’m thinking of moving some of my computing workloads to AWS.  Amazon’s EMEA team are running a series of “Journey to the Cloud” webcasts at the moment and the first two sessions covered:

The next webcast in the series is focused on Storage and Archiving and it takes place next week (23 October). Based on the content of the first two, it should be worth an hour of my time, and maybe yours too?

 

Microsoft finally releases an iSCSI software target as a free download

For years, if you wanted to get hold of the Microsoft iSCSI software target (e.g. for testing Windows clusters without access to “proper” storage), you had to rely on “finding” a copy that a Microsoft employee had left lying around (it was officially only available for internal use). Then came advice on extracting it from Windows Storage Server. Now it’s finally been made available as a free download for Windows Server. Fantastic news!

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…).

Connecting multiple ReadyNAS devices to a single UPS

It seems to be ReadyNAS week at markwilson.it because that’s what I’ve spent the last couple of days working with but the ReadyNAS really is a stonking piece of hardware (think of it as a £150 Linux box with built-in X-RAID) and mine will soon be providing the storage for a Windows Home Server VM (yes, I know the ReadyNAS can do loads of the things that WHS can, but I work with Microsoft products and it’s about time I had a serious look at WHS).

Anyway, my ReadyNASes are running off an APC Smart-UPS 1500 but only one of them has the USB connection to monitor the UPS status. It turns out that’s not a problem as the latest versions of the ReadyNAS software (RAIDiator) allow one ReadyNAS to act as a UPS status server for the others.

I think this needs at least v4.1.5 of RAIDiator (my ReadyNAS “UPS client” shipped with v4.1.4 and I updated it to v4.1.6, meanwhile the “UPS server” is running v4.1.5) but there is an option on the Power page in FrontView (the ReadyNAS web administration console) to define hosts that are allowed to monitor the attached UPS (where a physical connection to the UPS exists).

ReadyNAS UPS server

Similarly, on a ReadyNAS that is not physically connected to a UPS, it is possible to specify the IP address of a ReadyNAS that is connected to the UPS.

ReadyNAS UPS client

With these settings enabled, both ReadyNAS devices can cleanly shutdown in the event of a power failure.

I wonder if my Windows Server 2008 host can also monitor the ReadyNAS and shut itself down in the event of power loss too…

Physical disks can only be added to Hyper-V VMs when the disk is offline

I don’t often work with passthrough disks in Hyper-V but, after configuring my Netgear ReadyNAS as an iSCSI target earlier this evening, I wanted to use it as storage for a new virtual machine. Try as I might, I could not get Hyper-V Manager to accept a physical disk as a target, despite having tried both SCSI and IDE disk controllers. Then I read the information text next to the Physical hard disk dropdown in the VM settings:

“If the physical hard disk you want to use is not listed, make sure that the disk is offline. Use Disk Management on the physical computer to manage physical hard disks.”

Doh! a classic case of RTFM… (my excuse is that it’s getting late here). After taking the disk offline I could select it and attach it to the virtual machine.