Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Email means webmail, right?

Interesting observation.

Back in February we upgraded our campus email service, which also meant upgrading our webmail provision. Previously our webmail provision really only supported 400 users before becoming unusable. Our new upgraded service is sitting at 2000 concurrent sessions (plus or minus 500).

A couple of weeks ago it broke. Classic thick client email (thunderbird, pine, mail.app, outlook/imap) stayed working. The old unlamented webmail service which we'd kept going because of initial teething problems with the new service stayed up. Only the new webmail service was offline.

A year or so ago, one would have expected to see a spike in connections from thick clients. It didn't. It might have been a little busier, but not by much. What rapidly ended up waving its legs in the air was the old slow unreliable webmail service.

Students didn't try using thick clients. The meme appears to be that email is now something accessed via a web browser, accessible anywhere you have a web connection including your phone.

Interesting implications. Providing a hosted Google Docs like service might have even more ...

Albany, or Microsoft joins the cloud

Microsoft has confirmed testing of Albany, basically a repackaging of Windows Live@edu with the Office Live features included to form a Google Apps killer.

Given that Microsoft derives a large proportion of its income from the Office suite this is especially interesting as the economics of providing Albany, in terms of server infrastructure and the likely revenue gained from initial subscriptions to the service when it goes to production are unlikely to be in Microsoft's favour.

This suggests to me that Google Apps, and the GooglePack StarOffice download, as well as the availablity of good free office software such as Open office and IBM Symphony must be gaining ground, perhaps because of the unpopularity of docx and the office 2007 upgrade.

Microsoft is unlikely to admit to this, and there are no real metrics to show if this is the case. As we know Open Office downloads don't mean the same thing as copies in active use, and there are enough apocryphal stories out there, even have a few myself that suggest that Open Office is frequently downloaded yet little used.

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that the use of Google Apps for shared document editing and publishing coupled with the rise of ultra portables such as Asus's Eee has started a drift away from Microsoft signficant enough to cause concern in Redmond

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Not daylight savings ...

The weekend before last, the last weekend in march was not the end of daylight savings, last weekend was. Why? because all the eastern states (SA, TAS, VIC, ACT, NSW) had finally agreed a new common daylight savings regime of first weekend in October to first weekend in April.

This did kind of leave WA, who were a year into their daylight savings trial using the old NSW last weekend in October to last weekend in March kind of in the lurch, but if the decide to go permanently for daylight savings they can change their enabling legislation appropriately.

Anyway this meant a festival of patching around Easter to make sure that servers were updated. And on the whole, most vendors provided patches or update tools that worked. Microsoft, typically wanted to charge $4000 for a Windows 2000 patch on the grounds that the OS was no longer on the supported list, when it took all of 15 minutes to script the registry change, but that's life.

Noting changed on the 'wrong' weekend and everything changed on the 'right' weekend.

Except for people's calendars on smart phones- some phone companies even stuffed up the timezone change- and people using hosted calendars such a google calendar which, being hosted overseas, hadn't caught up with all our changes.

However, not many dead, advance publicity about potential calendar problems got rid of most of the problems, and warned people to double check.

The message however to take away is not how well we did patching things, but just how prevalent the need to patch things was, and consequently the need for legislators to be aware of the need to get these changes in place in plenty of time and to avoid making ad hoc last minute changes the way they did for the Commonwealth Games or the Sydney Olympics.

These changes cost, time money and people. The update strategies need to be planned and tested.

As it was it wasn't the obvious things but things like car park machines, which these days are basically small networked computers, and building management systems that caused the problems, not the computers on desks and in data centres. This stuff is pervasive, and any change is automatically a big change ...

The $83 machine gets networked ...

Having built a linux machine for $83 I thought it would be worthwhile putting it on the internet. Since for aesthetic reasons the ppc imac is the linux machine in the study this meant getting an internet connection out to the garage.

I could have run a bit of duct out there and run a 10m patch lead through it but that had the disadvantage that I'm committed to keeping the machine in the garage, which if we ever get round to building the shed cum studio will not the the case, and I have the hop of eventually getting the machine inside.

So I bought a linksys wireless bridge. Initially I tried ebay, but in fact the cost of a new unit from a discount box shifter was about what they went for on ebay give or take a couple of bucks so I just bought a new one and I was pretty glad I did.

From the manual installation sounds a cinch - you just plug and go.

You don't. The instructions imply that you plug it into your network, run the configuration tool, which magically finds it, you configure it and away you go.

Well there are a couple of problems with this.

Firstly you need a windows pc to configure it. Well fortunately the old windows laptop has not yet ended up running xubuntu - perhaps this is a reason for it not to - and the default address of the box is in the 192.n.n.n address space and guess what our home network is in the space. Fortunately the work around is fairly simple - unplug the windows pc from the network, set a static address of 192.n.n.n-2 with a subnet mask of ff.ff.ff.0 and connect it directly, configure it, revert the windows box to dhcp, power cycle the linksys box and hey presto, you have network!

Moved it to the linux box out in the garage, and yes we have a signal. It works - most of the time. The only problem is that the linksys box tries to keep an open wireless channel, which means that if our Telstra wireless gateway restarts - which it does every two or three days - it gets confused and needs to be power cycled, as it thinks it has an open channel and the Telstra supplied box just ignores it

So we have network, and another problem. The version of ubuntu I'd built the pc with had fallen off long term support, so that meant an upgrade to get the latest version. Downloading the cd was a challenge, basically it wouldn't - too slow too many timeouts - until I got into work on Monday and managed to download it manually with a wget command.

Rebuilt the pc - fortunately I'd had the wit to put /home on a separate filesystem so I didn't lose any data, and there we were. Ubuntu 7.10 on a box running in my garage. Total cost of the project $187.

We'll ignore the hard question as to whether it was worth it. I had some fun and learned a few things along the way :-)

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

OOXML is now an ISO standard

ISO have validated OOXML as a standard, something I personally find disappointing.

Tom Robertson, Microsoft's head of interoperability and standards, said: "Open XML joins the ranks of PDF, HTML and ODF among the ranks of document formats. I think it makes it easier for governments to offer users choice."

No. It was never about choice. It was about restricting choice. It was about mandating a format that was not under the control of any one vendor, and which we could then guarantee interoperability and longevity, something that has not been the case with Microsoft formats in the past. If you adopt a vendor format we no longer have neutrality. If we have choice we have compatibility issues, and the fear is that with Microsoft their sales people will start whispering in CIO's ears "don't worry, use our technology, it's validated as open" and we'll continue the stranglehold Microsoft has on the Office software.

If, as I've blogged elsewhere, we have a common document format and all software has to use it all the problems of vendor monopoly disappear, yet unlike the bad old days we can continue to share and interchange documents.

Having two 'standards' blows that away.

Google docs goes offline

Until recently you had a fairly binary choice for keeping notes:

  • Use an online wordprocessor and access your documents from wherever you had internet access

  • keep all your documents on a local box and carry it about with you

Both had problems. Now Google docs has added offline functionality which allows you to work on a document offline. Google isn't the first, I blogged about Zoho having this capability back last August, and many of the arguments remain the same.

Except for the prevalence of lightweight machines such as the ASUS EEE - these lightweight appliance style machines are finally here and suddenly the idea of living online with an access device but with some offline ability for trains and planes becomes highly attractive, especially as it allows you to keep all your documents offline so should your eee go amiss when travelling you havn't lost everything.