More Ammunition Against Cloud Services

I don’t like to say told you so, but …. told you so!

There are a lot of good people who used MegaUpload for legitimate purposes who have now lost access to their data.  I just hope that they have made backups of their own as I suspect it will be a long time before they can gain access to their data whilst the authorities search through the files looking for more evidence of copyright infringement.

I have and always will have a big problem with my data being stored on someone else’s servers that I personally do not have any control over.

See my previous rants on the subject:

Permalink to What happens to data when your cloud provider evaporates- – Computerworld

Permalink to VMware Cloud Goes Down

Permalink to Now it’s Amazon’s EC2 that proves my point!!

Permalink to The Cloud–An Example Of My Distrust of Cloud Computing

Permalink to The Cloud–What do I think-

I know it’s all negative, but I think everyone should have a healthy mistrust for personal data stored on the web, you just never know where it goes what it’s used for and if it’s important to you whether it will survive the demise of cloud providers.


Has Microsoft Lost Its Way With Development Environments And Tools?

As you probably know if you know me, as much as I do IT Consultancy and Support, the other big thread to my daily work is application development.  I have been deep in programming work for the last 6 months for Lloyds TSB Bank and more recently for a security company in Gloucester called Advantage One. Most of my development work is done in Microsoft Visual Basic using Visual Studio 2010 and I compile most of my applications against the Dot Net Framework 4.0.

A Bit Of My History

Being a developer for Windows is quite hard as Microsoft keep moving the goalposts.  I started programming when I worked for Lloyds TSB using Clipper for DBase databases (not a Microsoft product).  Later as Windows took off with Windows 3.1 I started using Microsoft Visual Basic (VB).  This went through versions 1 to 6 in as many years almost and each time new capabilities were brought in that you had to learn to use to get the best out of it.  Early on I was using ODBC (Open DataBase Connectivity) to connect to Access databases using Excel and programmatically using DAO to connect from within my applications. 

When I had just got my head round how to use DAO, the next Visual Basic release said that we should stop using DAO and move onto ADO (ActiveX Data Objects). So you start over and learn yet another methodology for talking to databases through your programs.

Just when I thought I had got that mastered Microsoft decided that VB had to change, if you wanted to move on beyond VB6; and you did if you wanted to take advantage of all the new shiny stuff that was in Windows XP and later in Windows Vista. So throw away everything you know about writing programs in VB6 and start afresh with VB.NET 2003. 

Suddenly, everything you could do without thinking, like populating a drop down list or accessing data was completely different.  Suddenly you had to import bits of the dot net framework into your program to get stuff that used to work without importing things in VB6.  It was a shock, all previous updates to VB were fairly straightforward.  This update stopped you working until you learnt all the new methods of going about programming.

In the background this was Microsoft coming up with an alternative to Java.  The Dot Net framework is a foundation on which you build programs like the JVM (Java Virtual Machine).  The idea of building Frameworks and Virtual Machines is to separate the key elements needed to produce programs like forms, buttons text boxes and the way your program manipulates files and databases, separate from the bare metal of the  operating system on which it runs. 

This means that if you want to implement the ability to run these programs on a different operating system like Linux or Mac OSX all you have to do is create a Framework or Virtual Machine that works on that platform and theoretically the programs that work against the Dot Net framework on Windows will now run without changing the source code on any of the other platforms that can run the framework.

Microsoft were envious of Java which was created by Sun who have now been taken over by Oracle, as it offered this cross platform environment that eluded their VB6 applications.  This is why we all moved to Dot Net. Suddenly MS had their own Java like platform.  Not only that, this platform was cleverer than Java because you could plug in any language you like to their framework, as far as I am aware the Java VM is only for the Java programming language. With Dot Net you can write in C#, VB, F# and Python and any other language if you have the time to write a language plug in for Dot Net.

There is a project called Mono which has implemented the Dot Net Framework on Linux, so now I can write programs for Windows in C#.NET and my code can be loaded in Mono and recompiled and will now work on a Linux PC. I haven’t actually tried it but that’s the theory! Great. So where is this rant leading?

Now To The Present

Well, just recently Microsoft did an early demo of Windows 8 and the presenter (Jensen Harris) went though the new interface, see it here:

the video is about two thirds of the way down the page. If you watch it, there was a key comment made at about 1 minute 20 into this clip, where Jenson says that the new applications that run in this cool new interface are built using standard web technologies, HTML 5 and JavaScript.

A lot of developers were up in arms at this, especially the developers who use Silverlight which is Microsoft’s version of Flash and is used on the Windows Phone 7 interface (see below):


As you can see its interface is pretty much identical to Windows 8 or rather it’s the other way around. 

You would imagine therefore that the Windows 8 interface would use Silverlight as well, but as per the video mentioned above, Jenson Harris said it was done using HTML5 and JavaScript.  I personally don’t have an issue with this as I am just as happy in HTML5 and JavaScript as I am in VB.NET or C#.Net, though I do find using HTML a bit tricky to get a database application working well without some of the rich controls you get in  VB.NET or C#.NET.

So in a stroke Microsoft pissed off a large quantity of Dot Net and Silverlight developers who could see all their time, effort and in most cases, cost, (training, books experience etc) flushed down the toilet!! All you need now to write applications for Windows 8 is HTML 5 and JavaScript, so you boys can all go home!).

I don’t read it quite as bad as that, as later in the demo it’s made clear that the old user interface can still be accessed and all your old style applications can be accessed through what might be termed the “classic” Windows 7 style interface. As developers though, we don’t like to think that all our work is now passé we want to be bleeding edge man!

The Big Picture

The bigger issue though for me is where are Microsoft going with all this? I can see if you take a short term cool and trendy (read air-head) approach, having your main Windows O/S look like Windows phone and be touch centric, you can then hop on the bandwagon, that thinks tablets are the ONLY way to run a computer in 2011 started by Steve Jobs and his iPad!

The best laugh is that it was actually started by Microsoft years ago (2001 era), when it developed its tablet interface version of Windows and Bill Gates famously opined that this would be the way ahead (how short some people’s memories are)!

As usual Bill was there first but Steve made it happen when technology was capable of delivering the idea.

So I can see there is some heritage to using tablet PCs within Microsoft and they feel that their next O/S must be capable of being operated with your fingers rather than a mouse and keyboard. 

The trouble is, this is the Apple view of the World, clearly they are a consumer based organisation.  I think Apple have in the main given up on the commercial World. They realised that after the success of the iPod then iPhone and finally iPad their “cool” products were suited better to Joe Public not business.  I think they realised that Microsoft has won that battle.  I think Steve Jobs wants to take the home Windows PC user away from Microsoft by offering the iPad for web browsing on the sofa and the iPhone for computing on the move.  Home users tend not to want to sit at a desk, they’d rather slop down in front of the TV with their netbook or iPad and multi-task between the two. 

My daughter Mary is a prime example of that, she always has her laptop on her lap, usually with Facebook and other websites open chatting with her pals and watching the television at the same time.  She claims that she can do both, in reality she’s doing both things badly, which seems to be the way with kids today, they have lots of buzz going on around them and claim they are multi-tasking.  They are not they are just flitting between different things and absorbing very little of it. But that’s a separate rant for another day!

I am sure if Apple found that owning the consumer space drove up demand for their products in the business world they would get back in, but at the moment that’s not likely to happen.

I think this idea of using a tablet on a sofa is consumer rather than business oriented, when I use a PC to do work I like to sit in a comfy chair at a desk with room around me for other papers and my printer and scanner and my full on audio system and two big screens. I am not the kind of user that this tablet oriented O/S is aimed at.  So is Microsoft reacting to Steve potentially muscling in on the private user space or are they now full of air-heads who think Apple is great and Windows is crap because it doesn’t look like an iPhone!!?? I hope wiser heads step in and start reminding the Windows UI team that some of us prefer a keyboard and mouse and don’t want to be in the front room in front of the telly.

Back To Developers

Ok so I can see why Microsoft might want to stop Steve stealing the Windows X Home Premium clientele, it’s a big market that Microsoft currently own, but Steve thinks he can chip away at it like he did with the iPhone against Nokia.  So I can see why you might make Windows 8 look like Windows Phone 7 and be ideal for tablets to try and fend off the iPad threat, but what if that really pisses off your Business customers, who pay a lot for their Windows infrastructure, Windows Servers, MS Exchange, MS SQL Server and vast numbers of Windows 7 Pro installations? I think that might be a mistake.

An even bigger mistake is to piss off your developer base. What is an O/S without any applications.  If you mess with us we’ll go elsewhere, nowadays there are plenty of lucrative alternatives such as developing for Android even IOS God forbid.

I always thought that Steve Ballmer understood the need for developers to make applications (NOT Apps) that made his O/S look good, see this clip:

Steve Ballmer–Developers


Trying to make Windows look “Cool and trendy” like the Mac, may seem sensible to the air-heads, but have they done any research into whether their massive user base actually agrees with that.  I don’t. I really don’t want my greasy fingers messing up my screen I am much happier with a mouse.

So as I see it, they have a lot of business customers who want to run productivity applications like Word, Excel, Photoshop and AutoCAD which now seem doomed to the “classic” Windows 8 interface, i.e. second class citizens.  They also  seem prepared to disenfranchise their key developers in favour of air-head HTML applications that probably run to a few hundred KB and are very limited in what they do.

Guess what, they will probably see developers jumping ship to more fertile shores like android or IOS and the business customers will follow the talent as they won’t be able to get the great applications that really do something of any use on Windows any more.

Own goal!!

Apple The Biggest Threat To The Internet

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia put into words what I have been thinking for a while about Apple (This excerpt from Andrew Charlesworth’s piece on Wales’ speech at Bristol University on 13th Jan 2011):

“The debate is a highly overblown issue,” said Wales in a response to question about his personal view of net neutrality. “A lot of the things that people are afraid of are in reality a long way from happening. The real threat comes from the apps model.”

Read more:


Apple has a completely different model to their computer ecosystem to Microsoft Windows based manufacturers.  One of the reasons I dislike Apple computers is the fact that Apple lock down their PCs so that a user cannot add their own components like additional RAM, bigger hard drives, replacement graphics cards etc.

I can understand on the one hand why as a company you would do this. If you want to ensure that your customers get a highly controlled experience with your products, stop the end user from messing their system up. 50% of the calls I get where clients have problems with their Windows PCs are down to the end user fiddling with their PC trying to add some new piece of hardware or software and getting things wrong, eventually getting to the point where they know they can’t sort it out themselves.

On the other hand though, I would still as an end user myself, support an end user’s right to mess their system up if they want to. They paid for the PC, why shouldn’t they feel free to try and modify or customise their system to better meet their own requirements.

PCs running Windows or Linux embrace this concept, the word PC stands for “Personal Computer”, to me that means it is mine not the bloody manufacturer who supplied it to me. If I decide to mess it up, as long as I understand that if after doing that, fixing it again might cost me some money then that’s fine.

Apple just want to keep everything locked down so that A) you can’t mess their computers up and B) if you want to do anything to modify your Apple PC you probably can as long as you pay them for the privilege of making that change.

This is where I part company with Apple, this locking down of PCs so that you must pay them to do even the most basic of upgrades is just sharp practice as far as I am concerned, especially when their equipment costs more than the equivalent PC anyway. (before I get loads of complaints from Apple fanboys telling me that ain’t so, I am basing my experience here in the UK and there is no question that Apple Macs cost more on identical hardware compared to Windows PCs, admittedly it’s not as bad as it was a few years ago but there is still a premium paid for a Mac).

Going Forward

Now given this history of wanting to lock down their system for the reasons above, the next step in Apple’s World dominance was to create iTunes.

Good idea in theory when the Music Industry was busy running away from technology and trying to sue everyone in the World for playing music on their PCs.  OK I know a lot of people have illegally downloaded music from the internet and I DO NOT condone that, you should pay for your music so that the artist can make a living and put food on the table. But nowadays most people listen to music on their PC/Mac/Linux box and being in digital format is VERY convenient rather than messing about loading disks onto a turntable or CDs into a player or PC.

So prior to iTunes you could only get music in digital format from illegal sources like LimeWire and at one time illegal Napster. 

Once iTunes was invented it was a good idea, except that Steve Jobs decided to make it a closed system, i.e. if you want to use their service you initially could only play the downloaded music on an Apple iPod or similar device.  Also the tracks were Digital Rights Management (DRM) protected which meant you could only play the vast majority of them if you had a current active paid for account with Apple. As soon as you stopped paying them your fee, the tracks wouldn’t play any more so you didn’t own the tracks you were effectively renting them.

Nowadays you can use iTunes + which derestricts the downloads but I assume that is much more expensive.

The trouble is I suspect that most users are blissfully unaware of these restrictions and will get a shock when they want to play a track on a 6th device in their house and can’t, or want to close the service and find that previously paid for tracks now won’t play any more!?

App Store

Now we have the “App Store”, this means that Apple want you to buy all your applications from them as well.  With all the restrictions mentioned above.

So now you are expected to buy your PC from Apple, if you want to upgrade anything you must buy it from Apple.  If you want some music you must buy that from Apple. If you want applications you must buy them from Apple!

I have heard that Microsoft are thinking about doing this as part of Windows 8, so that you buy all your software through their “App Store” subject to the legal battle over the name “App Store” they are both fighting at the moment.

Why this is a Threat

This kind of thinking by Apple is why they pose the biggest threat to the internet that I and Jimmy Wales are concerned about. 

I clearly remember my first experience of being “online” through CompuServe and after the initial euphoria wore off (after about 2 days) I became dismayed at the fact that I was effectively corralled within CompuServe’s walls.  AOL were up to the same thing at the time, it was a mess. 

Finally the internet took off and it was a breath of fresh air.  Suddenly there were millions of sites some good some bad, but all independent and the basis of something that was unrestricted.

Now you could find that niche information on a subject that was dear to you and probably only a handful of other people in the World, but because it was easy and relatively cheap to put up a website, people did and suddenly the entire human knowledgebase was accessible from anywhere in the World.

So why would I want to be restricted back into that coral that is a single vendor like Apple!? OK, I take arguments like its a great experience, you are safe from viruses and other malicious elements, but can’t everyone see that being forced to only buy everything from Apple is a BAD thing!?

I am worried that in their desire to be “trendy” and “cool” Mac users are encouraging the rest of the computer using world to get sucked into this round cornered hype that is Apple where you pay through the nose and increasingly you are being  locked down to only see what Apple wants you to see.



VMware Cloud Goes Down

Yet more woes for Cloud suppliers, this time VMware it appears an initial outage was fixed and then whilst the company was trying to figure out a procedure of how to prevent the outage occurring again in the process of doing that someone triggered a bigger outage. I just spotted this in Network World:

VMware causes second outage while recovering from first

This all goes to show that cloud systems are just as likely to be affected by human error as stand alone IT systems, another reason that they should be approached with caution and not accepted as the answer to all your IT problems. 

The words “snake oil” come to mind!!


What happens to data when your cloud provider evaporates? – Computerworld

Finally I think the rest of the industry is catching up with me!

What happens to data when your cloud provider evaporates? – Computerworld

This is what worries me about people who hurtle headlong into new technologies before they are mature and tested. Over the years I have learned in IT to wait and see if the concept really makes sense before adopting it. 

I really believe that the “cloud” is a bad idea the way it is currently implemented. Judging by the above article a few others are beginning to realise that as well.


Now it’s Amazon’s EC2 that proves my point!!

In my continuing rant about keeping away from the cloud, Amazon have just proved my point as their EC2 cloud storage system went down taking a number of web sites with it.  This outage was covered on Network World:

As you can see from the text, supposed safeguards that clients paid extra for where their website or application was hosted in what are termed “multiple availability zones”, did not survive this outage. The idea being that if you application or site is in more than one of these zones if a failure occurs in one zone the other ones you are in will take over keeping you running.  This however has proven to be no protection in this instance as people in multiple zones went down.

Again I would say that this is not just an Amazon issue I am sure all other cloud vendors could be hit in a similar fashion.  Systems in my experience can never escape from unexpected cascading events.

If you watch the video on the page linked to above, the concept of having your applications or sites spread across multiple cloud vendors was raised and the other big issue with current cloud services raised its head that of interoperability between different vendors.  If they used a standards based cloud operating system then you could theoretically have two vendors hosting your application or sites and if one goes down the other takes the strain, but I think this is a long way off. I would imagine this would be horrendously expensive as well which would put me off it even if it were possible.

My advice, stay well clear of cloud services until a mature standard emerges and unless you are a monster organisation that needs and can afford this kind of stuff possibly never use it.  Keep it all under your own control so that in the event of a disaster the person who it matters most to is in charge of getting you back up and running not some 3rd party monster that sees you as a small fish in its big pond.


Dust–PC Killer

I recently did an overhaul on one of my client’s PCs and as usual found a load of dust inside the machine. (It’s very important that I state up front that this is true of pretty much every PC I open up and have a look in, not just this particular client’s machine).

Most PCs get clogged with dust as quite rightly users do not want to have to take a screwdriver to their PCs, most being worried that they might damage the PC or get electrocuted.  I would certainly recommend that you leave the cleaning of your PC to  professional like me, but I would say that wouldn’t I. If you must do it yourself, make sure that you do the following:

  1. Disconnect the power – VERY IMPORTANT.
  2. Disconnect the PC from all devices like monitor, printer, keyboard and mouse.
  3. Get the machine into a place where you have plenty of light and easy access with a vacuum cleaner.

Before you get the PC case off, make sure you know what screws have to be removed or other connectors and make sure you keep them safe in a small container (you don’t want to suck them up into the vacuum cleaner!).

When you get the case open be aware that you must not hit any of the components inside with the vacuum nozzle as you may damage the PC. Also make a note of any connector wires inside the case then if you do dislodge anything you will know where to put it back. If in doubt take a picture with your digital camera before starting.

The areas to concentrate on are the fans and any grilles that protect the fans, also anything that has a set of cooling fins will inevitably be clogged up.

If you do this sort of cleaning about once every 6 months and each month just remove any dust from the external case vents without opening the case, you will probably extend the life of your PC by many years.

More Extensive Dust Removal

When doing an overhaul of a PC I take it to the next level and I certainly DO NOT recommend that end users attempt this unless they are familiar with constructing PCs as it involves removing the CPU fan and other case components.

As you will see from the pictures below, the client’s case had managed to gather quite a bit of dust from around its cooling fans and cooling fins:


This PC is a Shuttle model and because these are relatively compact designs, keeping dust at bay is a bigger concern with them as there is a more cramped interior as compared with a larger desktop tower case. As you can see from the image above, the area around the CPU was a place where dust had collected.  The CPU cooling vanes and fan had been removed already for this shot.

Other areas that had collected dust were as below:


The fan above is the main fan that pulls cool air from outside the case over the cooling fins that are attached to the CPU.

In the following picture you can see how dust has collected on the grille over the fans that extract hot air from inside the case to the outside world.


The following image shows the vents on the power supply and again dust can be seen building up on the vents and if you look carefully on some of the components inside the power supply. Another client who had the same model as this lost his PC when the power supply overheated and packed up.


How to Rectify This

The first step was to remove the CPU cooling fan and vanes. Once removed I was able to get the CPU out and give that a clean as well as removing the dust on the motherboard with the vacuum cleaner.  I then removed the old CPU thermal paste cleaned the surfaces and replaced with all new compound.

When I built these PCs about 4 years ago, I tended to be a bit over zealous with thermal paste. Nowadays I tend to put a bit less on, as the whole point of thermal paste is to make an air free bond between the CPU cooler and the top of the CPU. Too much paste will have the same effect as having an air gap.

If you just attached the cooling fins without using paste the small microscopic scratches in the surfaces would allow an air gap between the vane and the CPU.  The paste ensures that all heat from the CPU gets directly to the vanes with no loss during transfer caused by minute air gaps.

Once the CPU and vanes were cleaned and all dust blown from the vanes (I use an old tooth brush to get the really stubborn stuff), the assembly was put back in the case.

I also removed all fans and grilles and gave them a good going over with the vacuum cleaner and also used some General Purpose cleaner and a tissue to carefully wipe collected dust off the fan blades.  You must be very careful when doing this not to damage the blade or throw the fan off alignment as the whirring noise it will cause will drive you mad.

You can see the before and after on the main CPU fan:





There is still some really difficult to get at stuff near the centre of the fan but the main stuff has been removed off the vanes.

Below is the before and after shots of the main CPU cooling vanes:




As you can see the airflow now is not being impeded by the clogged dust.

The Benefits of Having This Done

Clearly  this is a bit of a job to do, but I think it is well worth it in these times of saving every penny. I reckon paying me for a couple of hours work cleaning and thus removing the danger of losing your PC due to overheating is worth it. Also you have the added benefit that because the cooling effect of the vanes and fans is improved the heat sensors will detect this and not need to force the speed of the fans up to compensate. This means a much quieter PC.

I often notice client’s machines are a lot noisier then they were, where the client may not.  This is because the client has not noticed the very gradual change over time, whereas I do as I have probably not not seen the machine since I supplied or built it.

So Siv’s rant of the day, keep your vents clean and periodically send the machine to your friendly neighbourhood IT guy to get it cleaned!!


The Cloud–An Example Of My Distrust of Cloud Computing

Following on from my previous rant about Cloud Computing and why I am not enamoured with it, today we have the news that Google managed to trash about 150,000 accounts (initially it was reported as 500,000 but then got revised down, probably after they found the backup and restored 350,000 of them)?

See the details here:

I don’t wish to bludgeon Google, I am sure Microsoft and Yahoo and others have had similar problems with their cloud based services as well, but it does illustrate the point I was making in my earlier blog post that you are risking a lot by placing your stuff into the cloud alone as you are totally reliant on the cloud provider not to lose your stuff.

I am sure that Google will have backups and get it all back, but this occurred on Sunday 27th February 2011 and we are now at Tuesday 1st March and not all accounts are restored yet so imagine if this had been a business cloud service that went down on a Monday and you can do no work until Wednesday afternoon?? I think the boss would be pulling his/her hair out by now!

Grab from Google showing the current status after some accounts lost.
Screen Grab From Google After Google Mail Accounts Lost

I rest my case.


The Cloud–What do I think?

The problem with the cloud from my perspective is that you are giving away control to a service provider.  That in itself isn’t too bad, I give away control of this website to my hosting company and so far it has been up and running with little problems over the years. So why is using the cloud any different to that. Well, the big difference is that if you are using the cloud for your business and you hang up your own IT for it, then you have put all your eggs in that provider’s basket.

I remember not so long ago there was a service called Google Video Store, loads of people paid for movies that they could download and play on their own PC. Because the movies were DRM (Digital Rights Management) protected, you could play them as long as Google’s DRM server could be contacted and your account verified as active. When Google pulled the plug unexpectedly as the service presumably wasn’t making money and the big studios were as usual shying away from internet downloads, the end users were left with movies they had paid for but now couldn’t play as the DRM server was gone.

To me this is the big problem with any cloud service, if the provider goes bust, or just decides they don’t want the service any more you could find yourself high and dry. If this is your IT system, who’s going to explain to the boss that your staff cannot do any work because:

    1. All your data is gone, locked away on the hard disk of a server in Texas that the administrators of your now defunct cloud service provider are selling off to pay creditors.
    2. You only have web enabled dumb PCs that can only run a web browser based Operating System.
    3. It will cost £X million and 10 days to put back your long gone IT infrastructure.

Internet Connection – As well as the above, on a day to day basis you may have the problem that if your local ISP goes down and you can’t access the internet your staff can’t do any work, at least at the moment if the net goes down your staff can still use their PC to do useful work whilst the internet connection is sorted.

Security – Another worry from my perspective as an IT consultant is security of your data. Who is to say that some unscrupulous employee at the cloud hosting company isn’t selling your trade secrets to either your competitors or some foreign power like China who will take what you have done and sell it at a price that puts your company out of business. Worse still what if the Cloud company itself is unscrupulous, we have seen so called good companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook do some pretty iffy things with user data over the years?

Performance – I cannot imagine yet doing stuff like CAD or Video editing over a web link. It’s possible if the cloud is behaving like a Terminal Services session and all your dumb terminal is doing is relaying what’s happening on the remote server, even then I think the capabilities of servers will have to improve dramatically for that sort of work to be done with significant amounts of end users.

I think that the  whole idea of using the cloud to do everything is too simplistic. A better idea is to use it for the things it is good at, providing a location for data that is accessible from anywhere in the World and as a secondary backup to your main IT, so that if you are working remotely and need access to your company resources you can get to them.

To me you can get all this now by installing your own copy of Windows Small Business Server and configure it for remote access. Immediately you have all the benefits of the cloud (perhaps not the scalability where a cloud provider can give you instant access to more storage and computing power) but you have all the main benefits like working on your data anywhere in the world as long as you have an internet connection and all the benefits of it being on your premises and under your control.