Posts filed under 'Reviews'

A story about exceptional service

security01.pngRecently I found myself constrained by the puny 200GB of my Mac Book Pro and I bought a 500GB Seagate drive to replace it (a fast 7200 rpm one).
The Macbook Pro has no easy access for the drive so you have to resort to dismantling the case to access it. This put me off replacing the drive because I would probably be voiding the warranty and was running the risk of damaging this expensive piece of equipment.

I’ve been filling the drive with pictures from my recent camera purchase and I couldn’t put it off any longer, so I bought the new drive and went online to find some good tutorial on how to crack open the Macbook Pro case.

After a few searches, I noticed that many people were referring to the iFixit.com website. It was very easy to find the tutorial I was looking for, I didn’t have to register, and each step was made very clear and simple.
It took no time to open the case and replace the drive.
I was very happy with that find.

Now, that’s not the end of the story.

A couple of days before I replaced the drive the left fan of the laptop suddenly became noisy. This would happen a few times a day, at random, and would last 10-20 minutes.
My only solution to get this repaired was to get to the local Apple service shop. Even though I knew exactly which part number was to be replaced, they still wanted me to:

  • go across town to visit them so they could see for themselves what the problem was: annoying because the problem was intermittent so I may have to go for nothing.
  • wait for the part to arrive a few days later.
  • go back to leave the laptop
  • go again to collect the repaired laptop the next day or so. So all in all: about 6h spend travelling back and forth + no laptop for a couple of day + the risk that some indiscreet technician start looking through my personal stuff.

Instead, I went back to the iFixit website:

  • identified my machine
  • found out the list of spare parts available from their store
  • added the fan to my cart
  • paid for it.
  • found a guide that showed how to replace the part.

That took me all of 10 minutes; I placed my order on Thursday and the next Monday I received the part … halfway across the globe!

I also got a survey request from iFixit and left some comments, from which I got back two nice detailed email follow-ups, one from the CEO saying they were implementing my remarks as part of their site improvement efforts.

Well, I thought I would share this story. It’s not that often that you get excited by an online vendor that not only does its job well but goes beyond expectations.

Add comment August 26th, 2009

Sysadmin: SQL server performance madness

Technology I’ve just lost 2 days going completely bananas over a performance issue that I could not explain.

I’ve got this Dell R300 rack server that runs Windows Server 2008 that I dedicate to running IIS and SQL Server 2008, mostly for development purposes.

Dell PowerEdge R300 Rack servers

In my previous blog entry, I was trying some benchmark to compare the performance of Access and SQL Server using INT and GUID and getting some strange results.

Here are the results I was getting from inserting large amounts of data in SQL Server:

Machine Operating System Test without Transaction Test with Transaction
MacbookPro Windows Server 2008 x64 324 ms 22 ms
Desktop Windows XP 172 ms 47 ms
Server Windows Server 2008 x64 8635 ms!! 27 ms

On the server, not using transactions makes the query run more than 8 seconds, at least an order of magnitude slower than it should!

I initially thought there was something wrong with my server setup but since I couldn’t find anything, I just spend the day re-installing the OS and SQL server, applying all patches and updates so the server is basically brand new, nothing else on the box, no other services, basically all the power is left for SQL Server…

Despair

When I saw the results for the first time after spending my Easter Sunday rebuilding the machine I felt dread and despair.
The gods were being unfair, it had to be a hardware issue and it had to be related to either memory or hard disk, although I couldn’t understand really why but these were the only things that I could see have such an impact on performance.

I started to look in the hardware settings:

Device Manager

And then I noticed this in the Policies tab of the Disk Device Properties :

DISK Device Properties

Just for the lulz of it, I ticked the box, close the properties

Enable advanced performance

And then tried my query again:

Machine Operating System Test without Transaction Test with Transaction
Server Windows Server 2008 x64 254 ms!! 27 ms

A nearly 35 fold increase in performance!

Moral of the story

If you are getting strange and inconsistent performance results from SQL Server, make sure you check that Enable advanced performance option.
Even if you’re not getting strange results, you may not be aware of the issue, only that some operations may be much slower than they should.

Before taking your machine apart and re-installing everything on it, check your hardware settings, there may be options made available by the manufacturer or the OS that you’re not aware of…

Lesson learnt.

Add comment April 12th, 2009

Technical ebooks: some publishers don’t get it

Stupid thingsI like buying technical books.
Unfortunately, here in Hong Kong, we have less choice: there are not that many technical bookstores that cater for English-language books and the selection is rather limited.

So whenever a book isn’t available here, I buy it online as a PDF.
It’s cheaper, saves postage and I can keep them handy on my desktop computer at work and my laptop.

I love Safari and being able to access such a large library of books online in such a flexible way is great, but if you’re not in the US, the experience is not always that pleasant, with the site sometimes becoming a bit too slow for comfort.

GraphitiTek by Charles Kalpakian

The publishers I regularly buy ebooks from are O’Reilly, when they make the PDF available, and Apress.

O’Reilly’s PDF may have your subscribtion details embedded at the bottom of each page.
It’s perfectly reasonable and doesn’t ruin the experience: I can still search, copy snippets to the clipboard and print the book if I need to keep an annotated copy.

Apress encrypt the PDF with your account email. Again, that’s fine by me, they don’t prevent me from using the book and it’s not a great annoyance to have to type the password to unlock the book.

Now comes Wrox (Wiley): they publish fine books and even have some available as ebooks.
The biggest issue I have though is that they assume that people who buy their books are all potential criminals:

  • The book is as expensive in paper as it is in ebook format. That can’t be right: ebooks have zero reproduction cost while paper books have huge material costs.
  • The ebook version needs to be registered with Adobe Digital Editions that locks it to a particular machine.
  • You’re only allowed to download the ebook to 4 different PCs and you’ve got 2 weeks to do so.
    This seems fair, but it’s not: if I change OS or PC, I’ve already burnt 2 licenses.
  • You can’t copy/paste more than a page at a time, up to 10 pages every week… that’s just a bit silly.
  • Can’t copy any of the artwork, diagrams, etc.
  • Doesn’t say anything about what happens if Adobe drops their particular DRM software or if I need to use the book on the next laptop I’ll buy a year from now.
  • Adobe Digital Edition only supports Windows and Mac and a Sony reader. So using Linux (even though Wrox plublishes books about it) or a Kindle or any other mobile device is out of the question.

So the net advantage of buying an eBook from Wrox (Wiley) is: your guess is as good as mine.

Yeah, you can buy each chapter as a PDF: great value, at US$4.99 per chapter, the book is costing you nearly US$100. You can get the fully printed version for half the cost…
Still, I’ll concede that being able to download a particular chapter can be useful.

The bottom line is: if your book gets printed, it’s going to be pirated and distributed for free in ebook format within a couple of weeks of being published.
While thinking they are protecting their copyright, Wiley is in fact punishing people who buy their books.

I’ll stick with Apress and O’Reilly I think. At least I don’t feel treated like a thief.


12FEB2010 Update: Wrox is now trying DRM-free PDF ebooks. We can only applaud this decision. While the offering is still limited at the moment, most or all of their books will eventually be available DRM-free.


Bookshelf by Charles Kalpakian

3 comments March 11th, 2009

Sysadmin: file and folder synchronisation

Technology Over the years I’ve struggled to keep my folder data synchronised between my various desktop and laptops.

Here I present the tools I’ve tried and what I’ve finally settled on as possibly the ultimate answer to the problem of synchronising files and folders across multiple computers:

Sync Files

rsync

I’ve tried rsync, which is a great Open Source tool to securely synchronise data either one-way or both-ways.
It’s very efficient with bandwidth as it only transfer blocks of data that have actually changed in a file instead of the whole file. It can tunnel traffic across SSH and I’ve got a few cronjobs set up between various servers to back-up files daily.

It’s only weaknesses are that:

  • Every time it runs, it needs to inspect all files on both sides to determine the changes, which is quite an expensive operation.
  • Setting up synchronisation between multiple copies of the data can be tricky: you need to sync your computers in pairs multiple times, which quickly becomes expensive and risky if you have the same copy across multiple computers.
  • It doesn’t necessarily detect that files are in use at the time of the sync, which could corrupt them.

unison

It a folder synchronisation tool whose specific purpose is to address some of the shortcomings of rsync when synchronising folders between computers. It’s also a cross-platform Open Source tool that works on Linux, OS/X, Windows, etc.

Unison uses the efficient file transfer capabilities of rsync but it is better at detecting conflicts and it will give you a chance to decide which copy you want when a conflict is detected.

The issue though is that, like rsync, it needs to inspect all files to detect changes which prevents it from detecting and propagating updates as they happen.

The biggest issue with these synchronisation tools is that they tend to increase the risk of conflict because changes are only detected infrequently.

WinSCP

WinSCP Is an Open Source Windows GUI FTP utility that also allows you to synchonise folders between a local copy and a remote one on the FTP server.

It has conflict resolution and allows you to decide which copy to keep.

It’s great for what it does and allows you to keep a repository of your data in sync with your local copies but here again, WinSCP needs to go through each file to detect the differences and you need to sync manually each computer against the server, which is cumbersome and time consuming.

General Backup tools

There are lot more tools that fall into that category of backup utilities: they all keep a copy of your current data in an archive, on a separate disk or online. Some are great in that they allow you to access that data on the web (I use the excellent JungleDisk myself) but file synchronisation is not their purpose.

Now for some Captain Obvious recommendation: remember that file synchronisation is not a backup plan: you must have a separate process to keep read-only copies of your important data.
File synchronisation will update and delete files you modify across all your machines, clearly not what you want if you need to be able to recover them!

Revision Control Systems

Revision control software like cvs, subversion, git, etc are generally used to keep track of changes of source code files; however, they have also been used successfully to keep multiple copies of the same data in sync.
It’s actually exactly what I use for all my source code and associated files: I have a subversion server and I check-out copies of my software project folders on various computers.

After making changes on one computer, I commit the changes back to the server and update these changes on all other computers manually.

While great at keeping track of each version of your files and ideally suited to pure text documents like source code, using revision control systems have drawbacks that make them cumbersome for general data synchronisation:

  • you need to manually commit and update your local copies against the server.
  • not all of them are well suited to deal with binary files
  • when they work with binary files, they just copy the whole file when it changed, which is wasteful and inefficient.

Revision Control System are great for synchronising source code and configuration files but using them beyond that is rather cumbersome.

Complex setup

All of the above solutions also have a major drawback: getting them to work across the Internet requires complex setup involving firewall configurations, security logins, exchange of public encryption keys in some cases, etc.

All these are workable but don’t make for friendly and piece-of-mind setup.

What we want from data synchronisation

I don’t know about you but what I’m looking for in a synchronisation tool is pretty straightforward:

  • Being able to point to a folder on one computer and make it synchronise across one or multiple computers.
  • Detect and update the changed files transparently in the background without my intervention, as the changes happen.
  • Be smart about conflict detection and only ask me to make a decision if the case isn’t obvious to resolve.

Live Mesh folders

Enters Microsoft Live Mesh Folders, now in beta and available to the public. Live Mesh is meant to be Microsoft answer’s to synchronising information (note, I’m not saying data here) across computers, devices and the Internet.
While Live Mesh wants to be something a lot bigger than just synchronising folders, let’s just concentrate on that aspect of it.

Installing Live Mesh is pretty easy: you will need a Windows Live account to log-in but once this is done, it’s a small download and a short installation.

Once you’ve added your computer to your “Mesh” and are logged in you are ready to use Live Mesh:

  • You decide how the data is synchronised for each computer participating in your Mesh:
    you’re in charge of what gets copied where, so it’s easy to make large folders pair between say your laptop and work desktop and not your online Live Desktop (which has a 5GB limit) or your computer at home. You’re in control.
  • Files are automatically synchronised as they change across all computers that share the particular folder you’re working in.
    If the file is currently used, it won’t be synced before it is closed.
  • If the other computers are not available, the sync will automatically happen as they are up again.
  • There is no firewall setup: each computer knows how to contact the others and automatically -and uses- the appropriate network: transfers are local if the computers are on the same LAN or done across the Internet otherwise.
    All that without user intervention at all.
  • Whenever possible, data is exchanged in a P2P fashion where each device gets data from all the other devices it can see, making transfers quite efficient.
  • File transfers are encrypted so they should be pretty safe even when using unsafe public connections.
  • If you don’t want to allow sync, say you’re on a low-bandwidth dialup, you can work offline.
  • The Mesh Operating Environment (MOE) is pretty efficient at detecting changes to files. Unlike other systems, in most cases it doesn’t need to scan all files to find out which ones have been updated or deleted.

Some drawbacks

  • It’s not a final product, so there are some quirks and not all expected functionalities are there yet.
  • The Mesh Operating Environment (MOE) services can be pretty resource hungry, although, in fairness, it’s not too bad except that it slows down your computer’s responsiveness while it loads at boot time.
  • You can’t define patterns of files to exclude in your folder hierarchy.
    That can be a bit annoying if the software you use is often creating large backup files automatically (like CorelDraw does) or if there are sub folders you don’t need to take everywhere.
  • The initial sync process can take a long time if you have lots of files.
    A solution if you have large folders to sync is to copy them first manually on each computer and then force Live Mesh to use these specific folders: the folders will be merged together and the initial sync process will be a lot faster as very little data needs to be exchanged between computers.

Bear in mind that Live Mesh is currently early beta and that most of these drawback will surely be addressed in the next months.

Conclusion

I currently have more than 18GB representing about 20,000 files synchronised between 3 computers (work desktop, laptop and home desktop) using Live Mesh.

While not 100% there, Live Mesh Folder synchronisation is really close to the real thing: it’s transparent, efficient, easy to use and it just works as you would expect.

Now that Microsoft has released the Sync Framework to developers, I’m sure that other products will come on the market to further enhance data synchronisation in a more capable way.
In the meantime, Live Mesh has answered my needs so far.

References

3 comments January 19th, 2009

Sysadmin: Macbook Pro, after the honeymoon

security01.pngI’ve been using the MacBook Pro I introduced in my previous blog entry for a few weeks now.
Between love and frustration I hang…
Here is a review of our relationship so far.

The Great

Hardware delight

Whether running OS/X or Windows 2008 I’ve got no major complaint about the performance of the machine. It’s fast, stable (except sometimes it’s not waking up from sleep or it does but the screen remains black). The screen is nice and vibrant, I just love the magnetic power connector and the small size of the power adapter. I have a few complaints though, see below.

OSX battery Power usage

For such a large and powerful laptop I’m pleasantly surprised with the duration of the battery under OSX: I’ve been able to watch videos for 3h, full screen, without trouble and overheating (although I would lower the screen brightness to reduce consumption).
I haven’t had such luck under Windows 2008 where I’ve been struggling to find the right power settings balance, but remember that’s a server OS and it’s not really meant to be run on a laptop.

The Ugly

The mouse

You wonder why Apple, in all its hardware expertise could design the mighty-mouse with a single big button that can still do right-clicking but can’t give us the same thing with the enormous single-button of the trackpad.
Now the new models -just released this week- have done away with the button entirely, which may be just as well although I’m curious about how well the drivers will work under Windows.

Mouse acceleration in OSX is pretty frustrating to me. When you’ve got a large screen, you’re endlessly shuffling the mouse to get that pointer in the right place. It feels slow, inaccurate and is extremely irritating after a while. The problem is even worse when you’re working in OSX under VMware Fusion: while it might still be usable under OSX, the difference is really severe and unnatural in Windows.
This does not happen under bootcamp though where mouse acceleration behaves as you would expect (for windows).
I’ve tried a number of utilities (iMouse , SteerMouse and others) but none gave me what I needed.

The keyboard

The keyboard feels great to type on, with a nice spring and softness. There are a few issues though:
Why is the Return key so small compared to the right Shift?
The rule is that the more a key is used, the bigger it is, yet the Enter is rather small, it’s the same size as the caps lock which serves almost no useful purpose in comparison.
The arrow keys are also minuscule, another probable example of Apple choosing form over function. The lack of delete key forces you to type both the fn + backspace keys instead, which is an unnecessary pain, it’s not like understanding the difference between delete and backspace is that confusing to people using a complex machine like a computer.

The lid

I love the way the hooks for the lid come out just when you close it. It makes for a neat screen without protruding bits of metal or plastic.
My main issue with the lid is with its limited opening angle: if you’re just a little tall and you place your laptop on your lap then there is no way to open the screen enough to have it properly face you.
This is also an issue if you place your Macbook Pro on a cooling pad or a riser that’ll put the laptop too vertical (for instance to free some space around it when using an external keyboard): you just can’t use these devices.

The sound

That one really makes me mad: the MacBook Pro has audio issues that you won’t even find in a US$15 MP3 player and it’s totally unacceptable.
When idle, I can hear hissing sounds that vary in power and frequency if I slide the volume control; when playing music, there is a lot of noise and “cutting” sounds between songs.
These are not noticeable when using the integrated speakers but,they become really annoying once you use earphones.
I am sorely disappointed with sound quality to say the least.

Electronic noises

On top of the annoying sounds from the sound chipset, the LCD inverter also makes a hissing sound that increases in volume when I lower the LCD brightness…
Coupled with that, the processor also makes a hissing noise when it gets into its C4 power saving state…
The noise is probably not high enough to get the laptop fixed but it might be great as a mosquito repellent.

Boot ‘song’

Apple knows best and they know that your only aim in life is to become a poster boy for the brand.
When booting/rebooting your mac, it likes to play its welcome song that says “hey, over here, I’m a mac and I’m telling the world I’m booting up. Everyone listen how awesome I am!”.
The perverse thing is that even if you have earphones plugged in (as in: you don’t want to disturb people around you) the boot song will be played on the speakers…
Of course, there is no option anywhere to disable it.
Apple knows best.
After much trials, I found that booting under OSX, lowering the volume to zero, then rebooting under windows and changing the volume there would be OK: no more booting song -at least for now- and I can still change the volume in OSX and Windows.

Conclusion

Would I buy a Mac again knowing what I know now?
Mmmm, probably not.
I find the annoyances a bit too much relative to my expectations and my usage scenario. To be fair, it’s not all bad and most of the time I’m happy with my mac but I find myself trying to avoid the things that infuriate me and it’s not really what I want from a laptop; it’s supposed to liberate me and give me the freedom I need to get things done, not get in the way.
Re-adapting to a strangely layout keyboard, having to deal with Apple’s brand awareness arrogance, battling with stuff that you just normally take for granted, all this is a bit too much of a price to pay for what is essentially for me a Windows development machine.
I prefer to waste my time actually getting things done rather than searching forums on how to keep Windows and OSX time in sync or bring back my machine for repair if a CD stays stuck in the CD Drive.

So, let’s say that our relationship is more ambivalent than needed to be.

References

Other links to pages of interest.

2 comments October 19th, 2008

SysAdmin: Installing Windows Server 2008 x64 on a Macbook Pro

security01.pngMy trusty old gigantic Sony Vaio is about 4 years old. It served me well and still works but it’s about to become my main development machine for the next couple of months and I can’t afford to have it die on me during that time.
It was time to get something as gigantic and more up-to-date in terms of technology.

I use VMware on my main desktop to keep multiple OS setups that match typical configurations of my customer’s machines.
This allows me to test my software before deployment and make sure everything works as expected. It saved me many times from strange bugs and I would consider these final tests to be a mandatory step before deployment.
My old trusty vaio would be hard pressed to run any of these without slowing down to a crawl.

I looked at some possible replacements. Initially I checked Lenovo’s offerings but they don’t seem to offer anything in large screen size (WUXGA 1920×1200) (Note, actually, they have, but not really for me).
Dito for Dell, not counting their humongous XPS M1730 luggable gaming machine that was wayyy over the top as a work computer, not to mention probably heavier than its volume in pure gold.

On a hint from a friend I checked out Apple’s online store and saw they had a nice Macbook Pro configuration. I went to check it out in the retail store close to my office and they had that exact specification in stock, so, in what must have been the highest rated expense/time-to-think ratio of any decision I ever took, well, I bought it…

The spec, some bragging rights:

  • Macbook Pro 17″
  • Core Duo T9500 2.6GHz processor
  • nVidia 8600M GT 512MB graphics card
  • 200GB 7200rpm drive
  • Kingston 4GB DDR2 667MHz RAM
  • Hi Resolution 17″ 1920×1200 glossy screen

It’s a very nice machine, Apple knows how to make nice hardware, there is no question there.
OSX has some cool features, some of them still a bit foreign to me and some minor annoyances are creeping up, like Thunderbird’s not picking up my system date and time settings and displaying the date in the wrong format (a pet peeve of me), probably not Apple’s fault but annoying nonetheless.
So far so good and while I don’t mind using OSX for my browsing, email and creative stuff, that machine is meant to be running Windows Server 2008 x64 as a development platform.

Why Windows Server 2008 x64?

Well, it has some excellent features, a smaller footprint than Vista, all the aero eye candy, is apparently noticeably faster than Vista and has none of the nagging security prompt (you are considered administrator though, so keeping safe is entirely up to you).
The 64 bit version can also address the full 4GB of RAM without limitation and all server features are optionally installable.
By default, the installation is actually pretty minimal and you have to set services and options to get Windows configured as a proper workstation. It is after all, meant to be a server.
Oh, I almost forgot that there is also support for HyperV, although you must make sure you download the right version (if you list all available downloads in your MSDN subscription, you’ll see some that are explicitly without that technology).

Installing Windows Server 2008 x64 is remarkably easy.

  • Get your hands on the ISO from your MSDN subscription or an install DVD from somewhere else (like a MS event, or even as a free 240 days download from Microsoft).
  • You’ll need to repackage the ISO as it won’t work properly (something to do with non-standard file naming options).
    It’s fairly easy if you follow the instructions from Jowie’s website (cached version): you can get the ImgBurn software for free as well, which is a good find in itself. It should’t take more than 30 minutes to repackage the DVD.
  • In OSX, go to Applications > Utilities > Boot camp and follow the instructions on screen.
    You will be able to resize the default partition by just moving the slider. I left 60GB for OSX and allocated the rest to Windows. The good thing is that OSX can read Windows partitions, so you can always store data there. Windows however, can’t read the HFS+ mac file system, although there are some third-party tools that can do it [1] [2] [3].
  • Insert your repackaged DVD and Bootcamp will have rebooted the machine.
    After a few minutes of blank screen (and no HDD activity light to let you know something is happening), windows setup launches.
  • You will be then prompted with the choice of partition to install to.
    Select the one named BOOTCAMP, then click the advanced options button and click format. From there one, windows will install everything, then reboot, then carry on installing, then reboot one last time.
  • Now, insert your OSX recovery CD 1. It should automatically launch the driver installation.
    Once done, you’ll reboot to a nice, full-resolution windows prompt.
  • All drivers will have been installed correctly except the one for Bluetooth. To easily solve that issue, just go to Spencer Harbar’s website and read how to install the Bluetooth drivers. Takes 5 minutes tops.

The final touches

A few notes to quickly get things running as expected.

  • Get the most of your configuration by following the list of tweaks from Vijayshinva Karnure from Microsoft India.
  • There are more tweaks, and even more tweaks available as well (don’t forget to enable Superfetch).
  • Microsoft has a whole KB entry on enabling user experience.
  • In the Control Panel > System > Advanced System Settings > Advanced > Settings > Advanced > Processor scheduling, set to Programs instead of Background services.
  • Activate your copy of Windows using Control Panel > System.
    I was getting an error code 0x8007232B DNS name does not exist error. To force activation, just click on the Change Product Key button and re-enter the same key you used during install.
    Windows will activate straight away.
  • When booting your Macbook, press the Option key and you will be presented a list of boot choices.
  • You can check on Apple’s Bootcamp webpage other information about how to use the track pad, keyboard layouts etc,

References

22 comments August 31st, 2008

“Apple’s OS Edge Is a Threat to Microsoft”. Really?

BusinessBusiness Week has a recent article where the author foresee the demise of Windows in favour of Apple’s OS.
Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking I was reading one of these overenthusiastic 1925 popular-science article promising us that within just a few years we would all use our own flying car to get to work.
Yeah, right, mine is parked right under my window.

The basic premise of the article is that Apple will attack the corporate market through the back-door, using the iPhone and its forthcoming development platform.
The author contend that development to the iPhone will drive interest in the Mac and allow Apple to displace Windows by offering more business-related applications that would eventually not require Microsoft’s OS running side-by-side in your Mac, freeing you of the dominance of the evil empire.
Please read the article first. Done?
Hmmm…
Ok, let’s see…

First, let’s be nice: if Apple want to eat at Microsoft’s dominance of the OS market, then all the better: more competition will drive innovation and choice, which is always nice.
There is certainly some truth to the idea that Apple could offer some useful tools and technologies to the corporate world.

The problem is that author of the article was a bit too much of a Mc Fanboy(TM) to make his arguments compelling.

Let’s start direct quotes from the article.

Speaking of the ability of the Mac to quickly switch from a Windows application to a Mac by using a keyboard shortcut:

“Windows users, in the very near future, will be free to switch to Apple computers and mobile devices, drawn by a widening array of Mac software, without suffering the pain of giving up critical Windows-based applications right away.”

Useful as it may be, it’s forgetting one thing: if you need to be able to run your windows application under a Mac, you will need to give Microsoft money for the Windows license, making the newly found convenience of running the two OS together seamlessly a fairly expensive one, both in terms of computer resources and money.
While it will interest a lot of people and they may use their windows apps on Apple hardware is this really compelling enough to make it a viable migration path?

About the new Mac OS kernel:

“That kernel has proved easily adaptable across the entire Apple product line, from highly complex servers all the way down to the relatively simple iPod Touch. Such modularity allows Apple to add whatever functions are necessary for each product environment—all while maintaining cross-product compatibility.
By contrast, Microsoft has held on to an OS tethered to the 1980s, piling additions upon additions with each upgrade to Windows. With last year’s arrival of Vista, Windows has swollen to 1 billion bytes (a gigabyte) or more of software code. The “Mach” kernel of the Mac OS X, however, requires less than 1 million bytes (a megabyte) of data in its smallest configuration, expanding modestly with the sophistication of the application.”

All this is so silly and skewed that I wonder where to start.
First, kernel size is irrelevant: a basic kernel functionality does not make an operating system. Additionally, I doubt that we’re comparing the same functionality and for desktop or server applications this is utterly irrelevant.
For small devices Windows has its own flavours and they can quickly be deployed to almost any hardware with minimal effort.
Applications built for Windows built for mobile devices can be ported to Windows without too much trouble, and vice versa. Whatever platform you’re developing on, applications for small hardware are always an exercise in compromise: there is no way that you can just recompile an app for a different target and have it just work beautifully in any device. A mobile app must take care of power requirements, limited screen estate, memory and CPU limitations and specific usability issues like the presence of a touch-screen instead of a keyboard and mouse.
The point is that you have to take the platform into consideration when crafting software. Besides, using .Net makes it fairly easy to develop applications for any flavour of Windows. Additionally, whether the OS under the XBox is different or not from the desktop version of Windows is also irrelevant: you can develop games under the XNA platform that compile and work just the same under Windows as they do on the Xbox.

Now, for the argument regarding the “additions upon additions” made upon Windows that contribute to its bloat, it’s an easy shot to make and an unfair one: Apple has had no regards for its legacy applications and since its primary market was consumers, it could get away with making each of its major OS release incompatible with the previous one.
We can argue whether it was a good thing for Microsoft to keep all the quirks from previous releases of its operating system alive but we must not forget that in the corporate world, Windows has close to 100% market share on the desktop.
What that means is that Microsoft could not afford not supporting business applications across versions. it would have been suicidal to even envisage dropping compatibility.
If Apple ever get into that corporate market above a few percent it will have to guarantee compatibility between versions of its OS and programming tools if it wants to have any chance at being taken seriously at all.
When companies spend money developing an application that is critical to their business, they don’t want to hear about its supporting OS becoming incompatible every couple of years.
Apple would have to support and maintain compatibility for at least 10 years for every major OS version. So far Apple hasn’t shown that it was capable of that type of commitment.

Amipro 3.1 on my computerA small digression.
A couple of weeks ago I found some old files of mine on a floppy.
They were Ami Pro files, made at a time when Ami Pro 3.1 was the best word processor around.
Problem was that I could not safely open these files any longer: filters for various word processors would mangle the complex layout of the pages, making them un-usable. Out of curiosity, I found a full version of the original Amipro 3.1.
I had no expectations of being able to run that setup package. After all, Ami Pro 3.1 came out in 1994, before Windows 95 was even released!
Well, I clicked on that setup.exe file and watched the installation process go through… Everything went fine.
Surely, I thought, there is no way this is going to run under Windows XP. It’s going to crash for sure.
I double-clicked on the 16 colour icon and lo and behold, the whole thing actually ran! Flawlessly!
I was able to open my old files without any issue, save them under another format. Everything worked, miraculously.
That application was written at a time the Internet didn’t even exist yet I was able to install and run it without problem on a current operating system.
Back to our regular schedule.

“Despite Apple’s relative scarcity on corporate desktops, Mac laptops are already well accepted within the enterprise, with a market share of more than 20% and growing. For business travellers, the new MacBook Air, some three pounds lighter than comparable Windows-based laptops, already offers one huge advantage.”

First, Apple has a almost 20% market share on overall laptops sales only, not corporate sales.
Second, that figure is for the US only. Apple’s laptop market share in the world is certainly not bad, but it’s a quarter of that figure, making adoption of Apple laptops outside the US very small indeed.
Third, while Apple laptops are certainly sexy, they bring their own issues to businesses: lack of in-house serviceable parts, issues with making them fit into a complex infrastructure, hardware and software compatibility problems.
Bringing Macs into your organisation can be painful. Of course, it’s never impossible, but beyond simple setups, it takes time, energy and money to make stuff work seamlessly.
So I contend that, unless you have a serious commitment to Apple, most of the Macs getting into companies are for simple usage: fetching emails, browsing, making presentations and maybe Photoshop, although it seems that the application that was once the sole reason for some to use macs is now going to switch side, at least for a little while.
For Macs to become a first-class corporate platform would require that Apple makes a very serious commitment to cross-platform development to make applications work on Windows as well.
I seriously don’t think that the ability of Macs to run Windows side-by-side will do much: as mentioned above, the expense incurred offers no real benefit to businesses and having to support both platforms would increase the cost of ownership because of the upfront cost of buying and installing multiple OS, 15% higher average cost of Apple laptops compared to other similarly specified laptops and the cost of maintaining and supporting multiple hardware and OS stacks.
Slickness can only get you so far I suppose.

“While Mac desktops offer a growing number of superior features over Windows desktops”

Seriously dude, what superior features?

“Apple’s recently introduced Leopard servers compete in a market of unhappy Vista server buyers where Microsoft’s market share is only 40%. Leopard has a decent chance to expand from its small beachhead.”

Huh? Vista servers?
WTF is that?
You can’t be talking about Windows 2003 because it’s actually a rock-solid platform and there isn’t much to complain about.
Windows 2008 is just coming out and it looks just as promising.
Apple has some seriously nice server hardware, it’s so beautiful to look at all this engineering that it gets me all hot and bothered.
Seriously though, on the server side, Leopard would not be in competition with Windows but with *nix.
Server-side applications like ASP, Exchange, Sharepoint, SQL Server and the myriad other Microsoft-only server software will only work on Windows.
Apple is not going to compete as a platform for hosting these which means it will host services traditionally found on Linux/Unix/BSD systems.
In that *nix camp Apple would certainly be a good contender, although it would have to prove that it can compete with the low license and hardware cost of its competitors and offer more.

One more thing to remember: Apple is in the hardware business: it uses software to lock people into its hardware business.
I’m all for competition but at least using Linux or Microsoft products doesn’t lock me into a single hardware/software platform pair: I have orders of magnitude more choices when it comes to my servers, desktops and laptops than what Apple can offer me.
Apple products may be slick and beautifully engineered but they certainly don’t offer more freedom: chose an iPhone and get stuck with a single network provider, buy an iPod and get stuck with iTune, buy a mac and get stuck with Apple, limited software offerings, no serious games and limited hardware support.

One other thing to keep in mind is that Microsoft has acquired a huge weight in terms of software development power: new technologies have been pouring out of Redmond at a pace that is impossible to follow.
The number of developers and companies able to develop software for Windows platforms is wayyy above what Apple can dream of at the moment (we’re talking about millions of developer making a living off Windows).
Apple will need to make serious efforts to woo the huge amounts of developers it needs to bring enough business and non-business applications to its platforms before it can become a serious competitor to Windows in the corporate world.
Whether Apple has the capacity and will to do that instead of remaining a consumer-oriented company remains to be seen.

That being said I wouldn’t mind developing software for Apple platforms. I would love to be able to use a generic “surface laptop”, a sort of larger iPhone that could be used by sales people for taking orders and showing off new products.

Anyway, the point of all this was simply to offer a modest reality-check to an article that should have been a bit more measured and balanced in its fanboy-ish enthusiasm.

1 comment April 13th, 2008

SysAdmin: When your computer becomes forgetful

BusinessSometimes your computer crashes without reason. It happens at any time, for no particular reason.
Other times you’re trying to install a new OS on a brand new PC and at some point, it fails, reboot itself or just hangs.

A couple years ago I had this really depressing experience with a brand new system I was building. All the components were newly bought, but installing the OS (a Linux distro) used to fail almost at the end of the process.
No matter how many times I tried, I could never get to the end of it.
By clever subterfuge I managed to get it installed only to have it crash on a regular basis.
It was unstable, unreliable and after two days wasted banging my head against the walls, I gave up…

Memtest86 Well, no for too long. A flash of inspiration came to me and I popped in the install CD and ran the only utility that was available at the prompt: memtest86.
That simple tool is a godsend (if I may appropriate the word from the believers. I promise to give it back). After running its various memory tests for 10 minutes it reported errors in one of the RAM sticks installed on the motherboard.
All that aggravation for a puny bit that was not remembering its state…
I promptly returned the RAM and tested the new one for a few hours until I was confident there was no issue with its chips and went my merry way to install the OS I so desperately needed. All went without a hitch.

So my advice is: go to the memtest86 website. Burn the bootable ISO and test your PC from time to time, especially if you have strange intermittent issues that you can’t pin down to a simple software problem.
You’d be amazed at the number of times I had to ditch a stick of RAM… memtest86 saved by sanity countless times.
By the way, consider donating a little bit if it helped you too. That’s always cheaper than a session with a shrink…

Add comment September 20th, 2006

Software: Cheap Microsoft Licenses

BusinessI’m not particularly pro -Microsoft but I’m not against it either.
I love Linux, got my RHCE (Red Hat Certified Engineer) a bit more than a year ago and I love Open Source, Linux and all things GNU.

The only thing I really dislike about Microsoft is its marketing, its pricing, its Genuine (Dis)Advantage that nags me every time I need to install something and its lack of openness when it comes to inter-operability with other competing implementations (here I’m particularly thinking about its network protocols that the Samba team tries to decipher and re-implement as an Open Source platform).
On the other hand, Microsoft is made of great programmers, great minds that you can watch on Channel 9 and read on their insightful blogs.

Microsoft is really (I mean REALLY) pro-developer: they understand that the Operating System alone is nothing without lots of applications sitting on top of it, and they offer developers a lot of goodies.
One such useful programme is +Microsoft Empower for ISV_. It’s a simple membership that allows a small software company (ISV meaning Independent Software Developer) to own a number of licenses for its internal use at a fraction of the price it would normally cost.
What you get is pretty wide for a small business: 5 licenses for Windows XP (whatever version), 5 licenses for Microsoft Office, 1 license for Windows 2003 Server and Exchange, SQL Server, SharePoint Portal, a MSDN Premium Subscription that covers almost anything else, including 5 licenses for Visual Studio 2005 Pro.
You also get access to MSDN downloads, beta software and tons of libraries, SDK, etc. A MSDN subscription alone is about US$2000…
The Empower ISV programme is quite cheap and depend on the country you are in.
I paid mine HK$4,260 about US$530.

To get all this you need to register as a Microsoft Partner (that’s free), then apply for the Empower for ISV programme by making a promise to release a commercial software within 2 year at most. You need to give some details and pay your due. After a few days, you get confirmation if your application is accepted or not.
As far as I know, you need to be a company and have a company website, but that may not be mandatory in all regions.
The software you get is the normal US version plus whatever local version there are for your region. My bunch of DVD came in Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, some in Korea and Thai too.
At least, the English version is supplied. For some software, you also get the multilingual version that include European languages as well.
You manage your licenses by login under your MSDN account.

Really, it’s a nice touch from Microsoft to give us poor developers access to all this for such a reasonable price. I can only encourage other small software companies and independent developers to do the same.

Add comment September 18th, 2006

All sites won’t work with IE7

technology01.pngI installed a beta of IE7 last week and was quite pleased at the new interface and tabbed browsing, which has been available to Opera and Mozilla used and many other browsers for years. However, looking good and being slick and more standard-compliant hasn’t been enough to keep it on my machines.

Continue Reading Add comment May 31st, 2006

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