Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Server Server Server Everywhere

The last 24 hours have been a pain in the bum, firstly because I've got man flu and keep coughing hunks of lung butter, but mainly because I've been in a quandary about servers.  Specifically I've an idea to design and build a system, which uses a server to host a database on the back end to store the data, I've been playing with MySQL for this very purpose and am happy to proceed on technical ground.

But, and its a bit But... I'm not entirely sure what to do about a server in general, I have set up a virtual machine hosting the server on my laptop, so wherever I go I have the server on a local looping back address, great for development.  I can copy this virtual machine to other physical hosts.  I could even place the development virtual machine (after a security check) on the final host system showing the whole thing to the world at large.

My trouble comes when I think about that final host... Will it be a box in my front room attached to my anaemic cable modem?  Will it be one of my physical Dell servers, which I buy hosted rack space for at a data centre?  Will it be a hosted server I buy/rent from a data centre?

These questions have no easy answer.  Especially as my project has £0 financing until at least in the late alpha stage, when I intend to tout it to a few known interested parties to see if they want to run with it as a concept and pay the bills at my end.

Certainly to host it myself on a box in the front room is free, I can even select to set up the linux server as "Free Software Only".  To demonstrate the system on such a slow uplink however could be detrimental, so what about the hosted offerings?

To rent 2U space (this is two wrack slices in a data centre) was not too bad in London, with unlimited I/O with the server for customers, and a simple sign up process the two hosts I looked at were decent enough... but you could not bring the machine yourself, you had to ship it to them, and it had to pass safety checks and power checks and be of a certain age.  Neither of my servers passed any of these checks online, let alone in person, they're slightly battered, old, Dell 2650's.  Running a vulnerable (to hack) version of Ubuntu Server... Plus, to ship the machine to them for checking would cost almost as much as I paid for the machine in the first instance.

To rent a hosted solution seemed to be the way to go, a little more expensive per hour of operation then using my own machine, but with the advantage of their support and their network behind it.  My only concern was to ask whether the data on the machine remained wholly and under my sole ownership.  They said it did, but reading the small print of two different hosting solutions I noted phrased such as "access to your data, files and programs, maybe deemed necessary at any time and shall be left accessible to the root or administrative users by your assigned administrator".  Essentially, saying they're going to look at the files at any time...

Is this a problem?  For my purposes 99% of the time, no, I only planned to place compiled binaries and a database on the machine, none of my intellectual property (IP) would be at risk.  Though, its not he IP we're worried about, its that pesky database.

Specifically the users database, these days you have to be very careful storing other peoples personal information, and in a secured database or not, if the machine is not physically on your premises you have you be very careful with your EULA wording to ensure that those signing up to your service know where the box is.

All very tedious, and means I need to go run around checking legal loops before committing to a hosting plan, for what should be a simple enough progression of a small, un-funded, project.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

PC Specialist - Review

My new laptop then, I ordered it from PC Specialist, and I have come to my blog to make a fair and even handed appraisal of what they're up to... because, they maybe a PC Specialist, but customer service specialist they are not.

First of all, when you order you're presented with an excellent price and a miriad of choices to configure your machine, I agonized over this and then went for a fairly powerful machine (Core i7-2670M Processor, 8GB of RAM and an nVidia GT-540M graphics card) and was happy to do so with the reassuring reviews and testimonials on the PC Specialist site.

However, I did have a pre-sales query, this was handled, and I placed my order.  From there on, the customer service level dropped a little.  Not drastically, just enough to get me worrying, and even to make my wife ask questions - never a good thing.

So, according to the rather complex diagram on the site:

My order should have gone through pre-production into building out to Awaiting Dispatched and then out the door.  All good, I even bought "Silver Extra Care Delivery (Mon-Fri before Noon)" so on Monday this week I was happy to see (last thing) my machine move through building through quality control and into "Awaiting Dispatch".  I assumed I'd missed Mondays courier, so expected to see the machine ship Tuesday and be in my sweaty eager hands Wednesday...

But no, the machine did not ship, Wednesday afternoon still with no sign of it shipping I sent them a message asking "Is there a problem?"  No, no problem, came the reply, it'll dispatch and be with you Thursday.

Its Thursday right now, its after noon, clearly it didn't ship.

So I contact them, and I am assured it's shipping and gets moved up the queue (a head of who knows) and is supposedly shipped.  Save for two problems, when I put the consignment number into the DPD tracking website it says "Your search did not find any matching tracking. Please refine your search criteria."  And I have no faith that their customer service reps actually action what they've said they action.

Assuming it has shipped I'll have my hands on it tomorrow Friday, meaning of the entire length of my order it spent 4 whole days and one part day sat "Awaiting Dispatch".  Combine this with it sitting in "pre-production" for three working days (and a weekend - so five days) and you can see that nothing quite matched their own vaunted processing and production diagram above.

I'm not going to knock the quality of the product, I have after all not received it yet, but I am going to say that their customer service is neither transparent, nor objective.  You ask questions and you don't always get answers to the question posed, you get generic replies.  And their dispatch process is clearly not working as it appears it should, with "< 1 day" shown, how long did it take my boxed up laptop to travel from the testers bench to the dispatch gate?... Four days by all accounts, that's pretty poor when it was build in less than half a day...

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Fining Insurance Companies

Am I the only one who finds it a little absurd to hear of Direct Line being fined for tampering with customer complaint files before submission to the regulatory body... How is fining them telling them off?.. All they'll do is pass on the cost of the fine to the already adversely affected customers in the form of higher premiums.

Surely to punish the insurer they should have enforced a drop in the amount of money they could charge for products for the next year... "24p per customer" or some such thing would be a fine, it would tell them off, and would enforce higher customer service standards as they would be scared of getting another fine.

Gah, the world whirls around and insurers charge what they like, and now the regulator enforces things in the most customer unfriendly way!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

New Laptop Ordered

So, I've decided on my laptop specification and I ordered it... I've gone for a completely custom machine, without any Operating System.  Yes, after all my seeking I found a vendor able to produce me the machine I want without any Operating system.  The saving I made not having the operating system was significant.

So, I've had an Intel Core i7 Quad Core mobile processor (infact its HT, so its got 4 real cores and can run 8 threads) with 8GB of 1333Mhz DDR3 RAM and a dedicated 2Gb nVidia 540 GT Graphics card... its a 15.6" form factor.  All for under £550!

The only place I've skimped is on the hard drives, where I've gone for just a single 250GB 5400 RPM SATA drive, but this is mainly due to drive shortages following on from the flooding in south east Asia.

But this is a lot of processing power for the money, the same power from DELL costs over £1250 on the XPS 15 product line, and it seems impossible to get the Windows License refunded from anyone.

I will be going shopping for a new 15.6" carry case/shoulder bag.

And my chosen Operating System is going to be a Ubuntu derivative, I had toyed with Linux Mint being my chosen distro, but having used it for a few days on a virtual machine I'm not happy with it.

But my favourite distro is Ubuntu, the base from which Mint came, and also the inspiration of different offerings with the KDE shell, Gnome Shell (with and without Unity) and Xfce.  So I think I'm now going to go with Ubuntu to use Gnome as and when I like, but with the Xubuntu-desktop package installed so I can use the Xfce interface whenever I like.

Where as...

I knew this would come... India is complaining about the, rather disappointing India Special Top Gear shown over Christmas : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-16526687

And of course the show is not very serious and full of toilet humour, unlike India which is very serious and devoid of toilets; unless you count shitting in the street of course.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Custom Laptop For Virtual Deeds

Happy New Year folks.  I'm having a real sort out of my computer equipment, I've just finished clearing up my desk, setting new power bars onto the wall, and clearing out a load of mess from under my work area.

Part of this effort is because it was getting to be a real mess under there, part of it is because I needed to clean the machines, as they've got a years worth of skin flake dust in them.  But it is mainly because I'm going to be getting a new laptop, and this laptop is going to be a beast with an i7 processor capable of VT-d (direct device IO for virtual machines).

So, I needed to sort out my real machines which could become virtual boxes.  I may come back with some pictures of the beast of a laptop I'm going to buy later, but its a race between a completely custom machine from PCSpecialist:

Or an off the shelf machine from Dell...

I would of course love it to be a sexy thing like the new Asus Zenbook

But as I'm a mortal man with a wife to support, I can't justify over a grand for the machine.

In fact its interesting the Dell Prices, I'm going to end up specifying a really low spec DELL and then buying the parts for it from other places, their XPS 15 machine, putting 8GB of ram into it costs over £200... buying an 8GB (2x4GB) Samsung brand SODIMMs from Amazon is only £35.  So how do Dell justify the hike?  They don't....

My major stumbling block is not the cost of the machine though, its trying to ensure all the parts I buy are going to work under the Linux environment I put on, I want to base the machine on Ubuntu or even vSphere and then host virtual machines on it to do my work (hence the need for VT-d).

But Dell don't supply, or easily make available, a way to get the refund on the Microsoft License, which I don't want.  Microsoft say its up to the reseller of Windows to refund you, Dell say "not us".

Interestingly, Canonical (the maintainers and supporters of Ubuntu) taut Ubuntu Dell partnerships on their site.  When you go ask DELL however, they say "not us".