Useful links posts – where to go now

At the end of 2012, I said I would stop creating the monthly “useful links” posts that I’ve been collating for the last few years.  The information is still available – it’s just not in a blog post – the place to look is my Delicious feed (or via Twitter @markwilsonit, prefixed [delicious]).

Microsoft Consulting Services’ sporting analogy

Earlier this week I was at a workshop where Microsoft Consulting Services described their potential to engage with clients/partners on five levels, using a sporting analogy

  • Owner: full responsibility from design to implementation and go live.
  • Manager: lead in design and control – architect designs and have user experience lead, lead developer, lead test.
  • Player: Provide consultants for key point activities.
  • Coach: Work alongside individuals with a particular focus on skills transfer and mentoring.
  • Commentator: Review designs, plans, code, scripts.

Someone suggested it’s actually a football analogy and doesn’t work for their sport (Rugby Union) but I disagree. Regardless, the real point is that the relationship can work at one of a number of levels.  Would be interesting to hear what people who’ve engaged with MCS feel about this though…

Problems removing storage resources from Windows Azure virtual machines

Last year, I wrote about creating a virtual machine on Windows Azure, using the IaaS capabilities of the platform.  My free 90 day subscription is coming to an end so I needed to remove all resources before they become chargeable (running or otherwise). The problem was that, after the deleting the virtual machine, I couldn’t remove the storage because:

Storage account […] has 1 container(s) which have an active image and/or disk artifacts. Ensure those artifacts are removed from the image repository before deleting this storage account.

That wasn’t too helpful as I couldn’t find anything that looked like an “image repository” in the management console.  Thankfully I found the answer on StackOverflow.com:

“[…] even if you’ve already deleted all of your Virtual Machines and it shows 0; there still will be artifacts under the disks tab”

Book review: The Archers Archives

Most people who read this blog do so for technology content of some sort (although I have to accept there may be some stalkers too…). Readers seem to tolerate my occasional rants and wandering off to a bit of photography or motoring from time but I’m not sure there are very many fans of The Archers subscribed to my RSS. Or maybe there are?!

I’ve been listening to “the world’s longest running soap opera” for a few years now but the fact that Auntie Beeb makes it available as a podcast is a huge advantage. Now I don’t have to be close to the radio (or digital alternative) at a certain time and I don’t have to inflict my daily catch-up on family members who are less interested in the goings-on in Ambridge (although I was amused and maybe slightly concerned a few years ago when my son, then aged-about-4, started to repeat “for more information go to bbc dot co dot uk slash archers” and danced around to the “dum di dum” theme as I was listening in the car!)

My Archers addiction is only a few years old though (I did listen for a while on the radio a few years before that), but I sometimes start to wonder what a certain reference might mean, when the day’s script hooks back into something from the distant past. So I was especially pleased to receive a copy of The Archers Archives in my Christmas stocking.

Produced for the Archers 60th anniversary (so not covering the last couple of years), this book walks though all of the major events since the programme’s inception, including interviews with the actors and actresses who play the major parts, as well as key members of the production team.

There’s some interesting information on the BBC website but I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone who enjoys the Archers and is intrigued to know more about the history of Ambridge and its community.

Installing a 64-bit guest operating system on Oracle Virtual Box

With no need to run a Windows infrastructure at home these days, recently, I began to plan to move from a Windows Server at home to a Linux-based machine for basic services like DNS, DHCP and TFTP.  Initially, I plan to build a virtual machine before switching back to native configuration when I’m happy that all is working as it should be.

The target hardware is the “low-power” server that I built a few years ago, based on an Intel Atom 330 dual core CPU. Whilst this does provide 64-bit processing capabilities, it lacks VT-x so is unsuitable for Hyper-V.  Consequently I installed Oracle Virtual Box as a free type 2 hypervisor and began to install an Ubuntu Server (12.04 LTS) virtual machine.  This failed, complaining that the underlying architecture was i586 and that the 64-bit image I was using needed an i686 CPU.

According to a post on the Ubuntu forums, to run a 64-bit guest in Virtual  Box, I need to enable Intel VT-x (or AMD-V). As that’s not an option for me, I had to revert to 32-bit build but it’s something useful to remind myself of as my virtualisation knowledge is a little rusty these days…

Where’s the line between [IT] architecture and design?

This week, I’m attending a training course on the architecture and design of distributed enterprise systems and yesterday morning, somewhat mischievously, I asked the course instructor where he draws the distinction between architecture and design.

We explored an analogy based about a traditional (building) architect in which I suggested an architect knows the methods and materials to use but would not actually carry out the construction work. But the instructor, Selvyn Wright, made an interesting point – if we admire a building for it’s stunning architecture, often we’re talking about the design. Instead, he suggested that architecture is a style or philosophy whereas design is about the detail.

In the UK IT industry, the last 10 years or so have seen a trend towards “architect” job roles in business and IT. Maybe this is because the UK is one of the few countries where to be a great engineer is discouraged and technical skills are undervalued, rather than being held up as a worthy profession.

In reality, there is a grey line between an architect and a designer and I had frequent conversations with my previous manager on the topic (usually whilst discussing my own development on the path towards enterprise architecture – another commonly mis-used term, probably best saved for another post). Regardless, architecture and design do get mixed (in an IT context) and there comes a point in the transition when one can look back and say “ah yes, now I understand”.

I suggest that point is when someone is able to abstract the logical capabilities of a system from the technology itself. At that point, they’ve probably crossed the line from a designer to an architect.

In other words, an architect can understand the business problem from a logical perspective and create one or more possible solutions. The required capabilities are the logical model and the physical elements are those which need be bought, built or reused to match those capabilities. Architecture is about recognising and employing patterns.

Having decided what an architect is, we come to the issue of design. Indeed, design is a word more often used in a creative sense – a website designer, for example, has a distinct set of skills that are very different to those of a website developer. Ditto for a user interface designer or for a user experience designer. Within the context of the architect vs. designer debate, however, a designer can be viewed as someone whose task it is to work out how to configure the physical elements of the solution and create designs for elements of software applications, or of IT infrastructure.

Architect or designer, either way, I still struggle with the term “architected”. Designed seems to be a more grammatically correct use of English (adding further complexity to the design vs. architecture debate) but it seems increasingly common to architect (as a verb) these days…

Short takes: cyber security; stock images; PowerPoint presenter view; smart TVs, iPads and YouTube

Lots of ideas for blog posts this week but limited time to commit pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard for that matter. Here are the highlights of what might have been…

Cyber security

Last year, I assisted one of the lecturers at University College London (UCL) with some “expert” opinion on the bring your own device phenomenon, for a module as part of the MSc course in Human Computer Interaction. It seemed to go reasonably well and I was invited back to speak on this year’s topic – cyber security.  I can’t claim to be an expert, but I could present some supplier-side views on the UK Government’s “10 steps to cyber security” advice which seems very sensible but is also based on aspirational and tactical solutions which could be costly to implement in full, so need to be considered with an understanding of the relative risks and an eye to the future.

For anyone who’s interested, my presentation is available for viewing/download on SlideShare, although it’s very visual – full narrative is available in the notes.

[slideshare id=15977303&doc=ucl-cybersecurity-130113165157-phpapp01]

 

Searching for good images

I’m a fan of full-page images on slides and limited text. I find it keeps the audience engaged and listening to the presenter, rather than reading pages of bullet points.  The down side is that it can be very time consuming to find the right images, especially without access to an account at a good stock library.

As my presentation to UCL was as in individual, not representing my employer, I was able to use images licensed for non-commercial use under Creative Commons and Compfight is a great tool for searching Flickr for these.  I’ve attributed all of the photographers used in the deck above, and if you don’t have access to iStockPhoto, Fotolia, etc. then this can be a good way to find images.

PowerPoint Presenter View

I’ve blogged before about PowerPoint’s presenter view and I’m amazed that more people don’t use it (although, the people who don’t are generally fans of dull corporate decks with lots of bullet points – yawn!). Somehow though, my PC had reverted to not using it, and I needed to Google to find where the option is in the PowerPoint 2007/2010 ribbon!  In the end, it was this Cybernet New post that showed me the important option: on the Slide Show tab, in the Monitors section.

YouTube smart TV and mobile apps

I wanted to re-watch a presentation that I’d missed last year and that I knew was on YouTube. Given that it was nearly an hour long, I thought the comfort of my living room would be a good place to do this, using the YouTube app on my smart TV. It was. At least until I lost the stream part way through and the Samsung YouTube app refused to play ball with the fast forward control. Another annoyance was that the “Watch Later” functionality in YouTube isn’t recognised by the a-little-bit-dumb app on the “smart” TV, so I needed to add the video to another playlist first.

Eventually, I finished up watching the second half of the video on my iPad. Here, again, it’s useful to know that the built-in iOS YouTube app is feature light and that there is a newer version available from Google in Apple’s AppStore.

Instead of innovating, Adobe proves that if it looks too good to be true it probably is…

Yesterday, I spotted tweets and blog posts suggesting that Adobe was giving away its CS2 and Acrobat 7 products (which date back to around 2005) for free.

My initial thoughts were:

  1. Surely not?
  2. What an innovative way to tackle piracy and competition!

If you’re confused by my thinking here, Adobe is under increasing pressure from piracy and from open source alternatives (e.g. GIMP instead of Photoshop). Giving away an older version of the software lacks some of the later bells and whistles, and might introduce issues on newer hardware and operating systems but brings people into the Adobe ecosystem from where, hopefully, they will upgrade/expand into other Adobe products.

Apparently not. It seems that Adobe has shut down the CS2 product activation servers, and made alternative arrangements for registered users (thanks to Tim Biller for that link).

Whilst software and serial numbers have both been (and continue to be) published on official Adobe servers, with no extra terms displayed regarding limitations of their use, Adobe are stating elsewhere that these keys are only for use by existing CS2 customers:

“Effective December 13, Adobe disabled the activation server for CS2 products and Acrobat 7 because of a technical glitch. These products were released over 7 years ago and do not run on many modern operating systems. But to ensure that any customers activating those old versions can continue to use their software, we issued a serial number directly to those customers.  While this might be interpreted as Adobe giving away software for free, we did it to help our customers.”

I applaud Adobe for thinking of its customers on legacy products but their good intentions do seem to have backfired a little. With this latest statement, instead of doing something truly innovative, it seems that Adobe has simply proved an old adage:

“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

The benefits of IP TV in my living room

Our living rooms have become a battlefield: Microsoft, Apple and Google each want to control our entertainment experiences, integrating TV, PC, smartphone (and games consoles); then consider Samsung, Sony and the other consumer electronics giants – all of whom want a slice of the digital media consumption cake – there’s certainly a lot at stake as existing media consumption models start to crumble and new business models are established.

Until fairly recently, I was resisting any temptation to bring more technology into the living room, especially as my “black loud crap” (19″ hi-fi separates to you and I) was banished when Mrs W and I became an item all those years ago. I’m not much of a gamer but I do have an Xbox 360, which also doubles as quite a decent DVD player/media hub (especially since the BBC released iPlayer on Xbox). We don’t have a BlueRay player, I think 3D TV is a gimmick and music is on an old iPod, hooked up to some speakers in our garden room, served up from Spotify on my phone/PC/iPad, or streamed from a iTunes/Spotify on a Mac using an Apple Airport Express. All very 2005.

But then I bought a new television.

Much to my surprise, the SmartTV capabilities on the new telly impressed my wife (who saw the potential for the kids accessing the CBeebies website, etc. from the TV, still under our control) as the Samsung rep took us through the motions in a local Currys/PC World store (by co-incidence, the same rep was working in John Lewis, where we actually bought the TV, a week or so later). I wasn’t sure how much we’d use other apps, but having BBC iPlayer, and to a lesser extent ITV Player (hopefully to soon be joined by 4oD and Demand5), running directly from the TV has real benefit.

Since finding that the Wi-Fi connection in my living room wasn’t up to the task, and putting in a HomePlug Ethernet solution from PowerEthernet, I’ve become more and more convinced that IP TV is the way forward. Catching up with the latest BBC natural history series, Africa, with my kids a couple of evenings ago I was streaming BBC iPlayer content in high definition without a hiccup. When the PVR failed to record a critical episode from Masterchef: The Professionals, our TV’s YouTube app came to the rescue. And, over the weekend, I decided that watching Vimeo on my computer screen was too restrictive, so I connected the Vimeo app on the TV to my account and started to surf through my “Watch Later” list. That’s more like it! New apps seem to be coming all the time – Spotify was a recent addition, as was TED (only a few days ago).

Of course, I can access the same content on a tablet, or a smartphone, or a PC – but the television is still the focal point of our living room and, by integrating my online video consumption into the broadcast mix, it’s suddenly a lot more convenient. I haven’t even started to consider the possibilities of streaming music, photos and video from the computers in the house although a neighbour did drop by to test his XBMC configuration on my TV before he commits to purchasing, and plugging a USB flash drive into the TV to look at some photos/home videos is certainly very convenient.

In less than two months I’ve gone from “there’s nothing wrong with my old Sony Trinitron” to “what, no high definition?” and “I’m sure we can stream from the Internet”.  Something else has changed too: whilst the majority of our TV content still comes from the BBC, or Channel 4, I’m watching more stuff from the ‘net – whether it’s Vimeo, YouTube, TED, the Red Bull Channel, or the BBC Sport app (which, incidentally, showed a great video of [Sir] Bradley Wiggins performing The Jam’s That’s Entertainment at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year after-show party).

For a long time I’ve heard talk of IP (Internet Protocol) taking over from broadcast TV. Now, it seems, this may actually have become a reality…

Hardware lineup for 2013

For the last couple of years, I’ve written a post about my “hardware lineup” – the tech I use pretty much every day (2011, 2012) and I thought I’d continue the theme as we enter 2013.

In these times of austerity, there’s not a lot of scope for new geek toys (some more camera lenses would be great, as would a new MacBook) but there’s no harm in a bit of aspiration, and it’s always interesting to take a look back and see how I thought things would work out and how that compares with reality.

So here’s the tech that I expect my life will revolve around this year…

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

My company car was replaced in April (a nice 40th birthday present) and the Volkswagen Tiguan I drive will be with me for at least 3 years. Whilst there are plenty of more capabile 4x4s and the space afforded by a 7-seater might be nice at times, “the Tig” has been great – my family all love the high riding position, my wife is happy swapping between this and her Golf (she should be – they are practically the same underneath the covers!) and, whilst I miss some of the refinement of my Audi, I get a lot more for my money with the Volkswagen.  Putting a retractable towbar on this car has created new possibilities too, allowing me to use a 4-bike towbar-attached carrier for family cycle trips.

Verdict 8/10. Hold (tied into a 3-year lease).

Phones: Nokia Lumia 800 and Apple iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3GSNokia Lumia 800My initial enthusiasm for the Nokia Lumia 800 waned considerably, after Microsoft announced its Windows Phone 8 plans and the handset lost 60% of its value overnight.  That means I won’t be trading it in for a new model any time soon and, depending on whether Windows Phone 7.8 ever makes it out of the door, I might consider looking at options to run Android on the (rather nice) hardware instead.  Still, at least we got an update a few months ago that, finally, enables Internet Sharing on Lumias (Windows Phone 7.5 supported this capability, but the Lumia 800 firmware did not).

I still have an iPhone 3GS provided by my employer (and my iPad) to fall back on when apps are not available for Windows Phone (i.e. most of the time) and, whilst I’m unlikely to get another smartphone from the company, I am considering a second-hand 4S to replace this as the 3GS is getting a bit long in the tooth now…

(Lumia) Verdict 5/10. Hold, under duress.
(iPhone) Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadMy iPad never replaced a laptop as a primary computer but it’s still great as a Kindle, for catching up on social media content, and for casual gaming (read, occasional babysitter and childrens’ amusement on long car journeys). I was disappointed to have to pay to replace it after the screen developed a fault, but there’s no reason to trade up yet and there’s still nothing that comes close to the iPad from a media tablet perspective (except newer iPads).

If anything, I might consider a smaller tablet (maybe a Google Nexus 7 or an Amazon Kindle Fire) but and Apple’s decision to stick with a 4:3 screen ratio on the iPad Mini means I have little interest in that form factor (it’s almost the same hardware as my current iPad, albeit in a smaller package). If I were to get a new tablet, it’s more likely to be something that could really be a laptop replacement – perhaps a Microsoft Surface Pro? We’ll see…

Verdict 7/10. Hold, although it’s getting old now.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220This PC is my main computing device. I’d love a ThinkPad, but the Lifebook is a perfectly capable, solid, well-built notebook PC, although I frequently find myself running out of memory with the number of tabs I have open in a typical browsing session! A recent hard disk failure meant my free space dropped (my 250GB drive was replaced with a 160GB one) but it’s due for replacement soon.

I’ll be looking for a smaller form-factor device to reduce the weight of my work-bag – at least until BYOC becomes a possibility (an ultrabook, Surface Pro, or a MacBook Air would be nice, but not available to me on the company’s catalogue).

Verdict 6/10. Unlikely to be with me for much longer now, although still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work.

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

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Yet again, this device has hardly seen the light of day. Usurped by the iPad, it now runs Ubuntu and is only ever used for tech projects (e.g. uploading software to my Arduino). My kids have one too but even they are frustrated by the small screen and tend to use my wife’s notebook PC instead.

Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100I still love my DSLR and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.  Newer bodies offer video but I don’t miss that, and the low light performance on the D700 is pretty good, even 2 years after launch.

The P7100 continues to function as my carry-everywhere camera (it lives in the car), offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like.

(D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold.
(P7100) Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)My MacBook is getting old and, although I upgraded to a 750GB disk, I’m struggling with disk space whilst 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive.

Still too expensive to replace, I think this will last another year, at least…

Verdict 4/10. Hold.

Media: Samsung UE37ES6300 Smart TV

Samsung UE37ES6300My most recent technology purchase, this replaced an aging (c1998) Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT and has given us back a lot of space in the living room! I’ve been really impressed with the Smart TV functionality (more on that over the next few days) and Internet-connected television is now an integral part of my media consumption habit.

In time, it may be joined by a sound bar (to improve the experience when watching films) but at the moment the TV’s built in speakers will have to make do.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

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

(+ iPad, Lumia 800, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers, Samsung UE37ES6300)

Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year – except for the addition of a Smart TV – and I still haven’t re-ripped my CDs after the NAS failure a couple of years ago. I still haven’t bought the music keyboard and this PC’s role as a multimedia PC for the office with Spotify, iPlayer, etc. has been replaced by a Smart TV in the living room.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs but it may be brought back to life as a media server as it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should to make full use of it but the arrival of BBC iPlayer and the death of our DVD player promoted the Xbox to be our living room  media centre, at least until the Smart TV arrived (and the two still complement each other). My sons are reaching the age where they play games too now, so the Xbox is starting to get a lot more use.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, various USB HDDs

The Atom-based PC still provides infrastructure services for the home, whilst one ReadyNAS is used to back up my work and the other has still not been recovered from its multiple disk failure a couple of years ago. I recently bought a 3GB Seagate Backup Plus Desktop drive to replace an assortment of smaller USB hard disks and am preparing to supplement this with suitable cloud storage as we become more and more reliant on our digital assets.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

New toys from 2012: Arduino Uno, Raspberry Pi, Canon ImageFormula P-215 document scanner

At the end of my 2012 post, I mentioned a few potential purchases and I did pick up one of the first Raspberry Pi computers, which is a fantastic hobby/educational machine to use with or without my children.  I also started to play around with electronics using an Arduino – which is great fun – and I hope to be doing more with both of them this year (more Raspberry Pi postsmore Arduino posts).

I’m slowly regaining control over my filing with the aid of a dedicated document scanner. It doesn’t matter to me that it’s portable, but the fast duplex scanning to PDF and multiple sheet handling (with very few mis-feeds) is a huge step forward compared with the all-in-one printer/scanner/copier I have in my home office.  Mine was an “Amazon Warehouse Deals” purchase (which saved me a few pounds) and the advertised condition suggested it may have a scratch or two but it seems to be in perfect condition to me. It will certainly be a big part of my push to digitise much of my paperwork this year.

(Raspberry Pi) Verdict 10/10. What’s not to like about a computer that costs just £25?
(Arduino Uno) Verdict 10/10. Inexpensive, with loads of scope for electronic prototyping and a thriving community for support.
(Canon P-215) Verdict 9/10. Impressive scanner, although a little on the expensive side.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostat, Romotive Robot, Lego Mindstorms

Of course, as a geek, I have my eye on a whole host of potential purchases and these were two that took my fancy in last year’s post, plus one more that I’ve had my eye on for a while (may be something for the kids to get and Dad to play with?).  In all honesty, I’m not sure that I’ll be buying much at all this year, but anything I do is likely to be in the general electronics, robotics and home automation field.