The ten principles of IT Management (and probably a lot of other jobs).

1. Work your way out of a job.

If there’s any procedure, task, or process that you have to carry out or manage more than once, you should consider automating it. What’s the point in you doing it, if a machine can? Of course, some things have to be done by a human, but can you streamline the task? For example, can you stop searching through event logs every week, and instead set up a monitoring system that will alert you by email and/or sms to certain types of errors?

2. Make life easier for users

Your users are customers. They pay your wages and are essentially the only reason you’re in the job. By making their life easier, you’re enabling them to make money for the business, instead of working the system. You’ll also be making them happier, and that’s a good thing.

3. Constantly evaluate costs, and try to reduce them.

Costs creep up. They always do, and forever will do. Keep an eye on them, and constantly try to think of ways that you can reduce them: do you need that old server, or can it be virtualised? Do you need all your mobile connections, or can you cancel some? Do you have any old printers that aren’t utilised enough? Get rid of them. Is your hardware vendor giving you the best deals? Are you out of contract with your telecoms firm, support firm, leased lines, printers, or anything else? If so, look for a better deal and/or renegotiate.

4. Constantly evaluate the business, and try to increase productivity.

Don’t take your eye off the ball with what the business is up to. It’s easy to focus on the day to day stresses of the IT function, and your pet projects, while the business starts running in a different direction, and before you know it, you’re off doing something that is hard work, and provides no benefit to the business, or you’ve missed an opportunity. Get involved in the different functions, like marketing, and strategy (even if your directors don’t actively involve you – just get in there anyway.)

5. Consolidate

One contract is better than two. Vendors fight harder for bigger contracts, and there are big efficiency savings to be made by consolidating. Multiple contracts for a similar service just wastes money, administrative effort, and doesn’t make the supplier work as hard for you.

Consolidation applies also to IT systems and infrastructure, of course, but only where sensible. One server can carry out multiple roles, but not at the expense of reliability, or necessary performance.

6. Be a pessimist – plan for disaster.

Shit does happen, and it will happen in ways that you didn’t predict. When setting up and supporting systems, ask yourself:

“How could this fail?”

“What’s the impact if it does fail?”

“How can i recover from failure?”

and

“How can I reduce the likelihood of it failing?”

Note that you can never completely prevent something from failing, but you can make it so unlikely that you don’t have to worry. Ideally, everything should have a redundant partner, ready to failover, but if that’s not possible, make sure to be ready to recover from failure, and mitigate the impact.

7. Be an optimist – plan for expansion and success.

As important as planning for failure, is planning for success. If you have 2000 users now, don’t spec a mailserver with just enough capacity to serve all of them just enough. Spec a server with enough capacity for 3000, or 4000, or 10000. Don’t spend more than you need to, but you can guarantee that if you only spec just enough now, it won’t be enough in a year or two.

8. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Try new things, and accept that not all your endeavours will work out well. Some may turn out to be awful, but some may turn out great. Try out new technologies, new systems, or even old systems that you haven’t tried before. If you don’t know how to do something, ask. And if there’s nobody to ask, do it anyway, and work it out.

9. Stay on top of technological progress.

Go to seminars, webinars, workshops, training events, trade shows, and new product demonstrations. It’s easy to get behind in IT, and you don’t know the things you don’t know. You can’t do many of the things before this item if you don’t know about the newest technology, systems, products, or services. Also, by keeping really up to date, you can help your business keep ahead of their competitors.

10. Network

And I don’t mean with ethernet cables. Networking is especially important if you work in a small IT team, partly because you learn best from others. You’ll learn what other people are doing, how they’re doing it, why, and who with. You’ll find out how to do a better job for your business, and make a better career for yourself.



Why are we running out of IP addresses? (About IPv4 and IPv6)

IP addresses are what computers and other networked devices use to identify each other on the network. This network could be your home wifi network, with two computers, a couple of iphones, a printer, and your ADSL router, or it could be the entire internet, with millions of connected devices. IP (version 4 – the “normal” version) addresses are made of 32 bits (thirty-two ones and zeros), written in the form of four “octets” (8 bits, or ones and zeros), separated by dots. Each octet can be any number from 0 to 255, because this is the number of different potential combinations of ones and zeros if you have eight in a row, like 11001001, for example.

So, if each number can be 0-255, and you have four of these numbers, there are 4,294,967,296 different potential addresses. Nearly 4.3 billion. That’s quite a lot, but not enough.

A home network might use a range of IP addresses that look like 192.168.1.x (where x can be anything from 1 to 254), and a big business network might look like 10.x.x.x or 172.16.x.x. Because you can change the numbers where the x’s are, you can give your network the ability to have different numbers of things connected. Being protected from the internet (a “private” network), these addresses can be (and are) used over and over again in homes and businesses all over the world. There are internet “rules” that tell people what IP addresses you should use.

Just so you know, the address 127.0.0.1 always means “loopback” or “localhost” or “home” – it’s commonly used for troubleshooting, as it is effectively the device’s own IP address. If you want to reach all the computers on a network, you use the IP address 255.255.255.255, or the “broadcast” address.

But on the internet, an address will more usually look a little different, and could be something like 209.85.143.99 (google.co.uk), 80.82.118.57 (this website), or 171.64.13.26 (stanford.edu). Everything on the internet needs to have a unique IP address, from websites, email servers, itunes, internet radio stations, your iphone, and your home ADSL router. There are some clever ways that internet service providers conserve the number of IP addresses they need to use, by re-using IP addresses that haven’t been used in a while (which is why your home IP address may change every now and then), or using “network address translation” techniques (essentially giving out “private” IP addresses and re-routing them) so that multiple devices can use the same “internet” IP address.

However, partly because there are increasingly more and more devices connecting to the internet, more servers, and more websites, but also due to IP addresses being handed out in blocks (resulting in many not being used, but not available for use by anyone else), we’re running low. Current estimates put the running out date as early as February 2011, but by clawing back some of the wastage, and using Network Address Translation, the internet should be safe for a while.

Long term, however, we need a new system. That system is IP version 6, which instead of 32 bits per address, uses 128 bits, and therefore supports 2128 or approximately 3.4×1038 unique addresses. By comparison, this amounts to approximately 5×1028 addresses for each of the 6.8 billion people alive in 2010. Actually, the primary aim of IPv6 was not really to provide such a huge number of addresses, but rather to enable devices to more simply allocate addresses, improve routing efficiency (less requirement to fiddle around with address translation or port forwarding), and add clever features such as authentication and data integrity.

Oh, because I know you’ll ask, IPv5 was an experimental streaming protocol, which is why we’ve gone from IPv4 straight to IPv6.

Globally, IPv6 is still very much in its infancy, with largely only the internet big players such as google beginning to roll it out. If you have new hardware and Windows Vista or 7, however, you can use it quite effectively in your private home network. On the internet itself, there’s not that much around yet. Facebook have an IPv6 address at http://www.v6.facebook.com/ and google have theirs at http://ipv6.google.com/, but without an internet-facing IPv6 connection, you won’t be able to get to those links, yet, as there are some issues to be overcome in combining the two addressing protocols. Possibly the biggest and most notable use so far of IPv6 was the 2008 Olympic Games – http://ipv6.beijing2008.cn/en (IP addresses 2001:252:0:1::2008:6 and 2001:252:0:1::2008:8), and all the network operations of the games were conducted using IPv6.

In a few years’ time, we’ll all be using IPv6 in one way or another, by using 4G mobile phones, connecting our homes to high-speed internet, accessing new websites and web services, and more; though IPv4 is going to be around for a long, long time.



Nottingham computer repair, covering sneinton, west bridgford and carlton.

I’m setting up a little evening and weekends service to the local area for people who need help with various computer issues, such as cleaning up virus infections, setting up new PC’s, helping to set up and secure wireless networks, and other computer repairs.

I’ve called it Eastside IT (since West Bridgford, Sneinton, Carlton, and surrounding are sort of on the East side of Nottingham…)

Worldcard mobile iphone app review

Having been to a few shows and conferences recently, and acquiring a number of business cards that inevitably end up loose in my pocket, bag, or on my desk, I decided I’d better have a look for an iphone app that could read and OCR business cards and import the data into my contacts.

So, I downloaded and installed Worldcard mobile from the app store (£3.49), and tried it out.

worldcard mobile

It works pretty well, you fire it up and are presented with a screen where you can choose to photograph a business card, use an existing photo, or use copied text from an email signature (which is a nice addition). Using the taking a photo option then simply gives you a screen with some border edges to get the image straight, and you take the picture. You need fairly decent light for this, and if the business card is laminated, you’ll need to be careful to angle it so you don’t get any glare. If mistakes are made, you can easily correct them in the app itself.

With almost all business cards, it works superbly, reading the text accurately, and placing the data in the correct fields (mobile, email, name, etc). The only issues it seems to have is with particularly colourful and strangely designed business cards. Once you’ve pulled the data out, Worldcard mobile will export it into your contacts, or you can choose to update an existing contact.

Ultimately, a very useful app. The text recognition isn’t perfect, but is good enough in 90% of cases.

Orange vs. Vodafone in Nottingham

The data coverage and bandwidth in Nottingham on Orange has been dismal for quite some time. I actually spoke to them last week about this, and they said that they’re aware of issues in Nottingham, as there are too few 3G masts, and one of them is faulty. They were rather hoping that things would improve once they merged the T-Mobile network into theirs (apparently around the 6th October), though as far as I can tell, it hasn’t.

The photo below shows two speed tests, run on iphones, with the same app, at the same time. The one on the left is on Vodafone, and the one on the right is on orange. You can see the Vodafone download speed is around 3Mbits/sec, which is comparable to ADSL. The Orange speed, on the other hand, is 0.24Mbits/sec; this is around just 6 times faster than a standard dial-up connection.

Total Cost of Ownership – missing benefits?

Total cost of ownership (TCO) is a measure applied to (usually) IT hardware to determine its true cost, and apply that to the cost-benefit analysis. It’s typically used to explain why (for example) a 3-year life cycle for desktop PCs might actually work out a lot less costly than replacing them every 5 years, due to most of the costs being involved in the management and maintenance of the unit itself, rather than the acquisition costs.

The management and maintenance costs usually increase as the hardware ages, partly due to the failure rate, service and support, but also the “cost” of an employee using slow hardware, and the extra time it takes to carry out their work. This cost is really visible when a machine gets so old and slow that the user struggles to operate with it, or the device actually fails. By then, however, the true cost has already exceeded the cost of a new device acquisition, so you’d have been better off replacing it before that point.

What is often missed, however, are the benefits of the new system, as many such benefits are either difficult to measure in financial terms, or they’re simply unknown until the new system is implemented. Of course, if you operate in a very small enterprise, spending too much time calculating the TCO, and attempting to identify the financial benefits of replacement systems could take so long that your time begins to affect the TCO itself, and you’d be better off making very rough estimates. Luckily, it is generally accepted that a 3-4 year lifecycle for desktop machines is appropriate in most cases, and it’s pretty safe to follow that sort of timescale.

“Unlimited” data tariffs: What’s a true fair use limit?

Unlimited mobile data

I’m with Orange for my mobile contract, and data hiccups notwithstanding, quite satisfied. When I signed up, however, I asked for their “unlimited” data tariff, which (at the time) I was told had a 500MB “fair use” limit. 500MB? Really? If 500MB is fair use, then what’s standard usage? Do Orange expect people to use less than a couple hundred MB per month? I asked them what they could do to increase the limit, and was told I could bolt on another 500MB for an extra tenner, but I (rightly) guessed that probably wouldn’t be enough either.
As it turns out, they’re able to bolt on one of the low-end datastick tariffs, which turns out as £9 for 10GB per month. Since then, I’ve been merrily downloading and munching on data without any fear of incurring extra fees.
I don’t believe that I’m a particularly heavy user – I listen to podcasts, a little bit of internet radio, use twitter a lot, a bit of web, a bit of facebook, various web apps, and a little video too. Yet, I consistently go over 1GB per month, and sometimes 2GB. If I’m using this, there must be a considerable number of people using significantly more.
What sort of data volumes do you reach per month? And what do you think would be a true “fair use” limit?

5 things that bug me about working in IT

IP addresses.You can’t take them with you. In a business with a number of offices or sites, you’ll have a collection of WAN IP addresses, and these will be pretty important to know. Routers all over the business will use them to route traffic to the different sites. Invariably, and usually for historical or internally political reasons, these connections may be with different ISP’s. However, if you want to change the ISP, you’ll have to accept that the IP address will change, and the amount of work that entails may well put you off changing ISP. The same (usually) goes for when an office is relocated – even if you retain the ISP, you may not be able to retain the same IP address.Whether IPv6 will affect this at all, I’m not sure. Certainly, the pool of available addresses will be so large that ISP’s won’t feel the need to hoard them, but the logistics of moving IP addresses (as far as the ISP is concerned) may still be prohibitively complicated.Still, wouldn’t it be nice if you could get what amounts to a MAC (Migration Authorisation Code) for your IP address, and switch providers without a massive overhaul of your router configurations?

Constantly growing system requirementsIn the past 10 years or so, I’ve always owned a car that had roughly the same size engine, though they have got progressively more efficient over that period. Over the same period, a desktop machine has gone from 256MB to 2.5GB of RAM. That’s a ten-fold increase, on a standard desktop machine. It’s not quite as simple to compare processors, since we’ve moved from single cores to multiple cores, but it’s safe to say that the computing power has increased dramatically, and so has the power consumption. Granted, the power consumption per unit of performance may well have improved, but keeping up with the system requirements of operating systems and general software can still be quite expensive.

The compromise between usability and security/uniformityThe most stable and secure desktop machine would be one that only has one user, no network connection, and one button (which would be an on/off button). The most “usable” machine (from the user’s immediate point of view) is the one where they can do anything they want, including installing hardware and software, browsing any site on the web, accessing any resource, and physically moving and using the machine anywhere they want, and using any connection. Of course, that scenario would last probably less than an hour before the machine was infected with malware, running slowly due to hundreds of software packages vying for resources, someone has accessed and transmitted confidential material, and put the business at risk. The compromise is somewhere in the middle. I’ve usually leaned towards a more libertarian view, allowing users to install certain software packages, and have a certain amount of control over their machines, while web traffic, data use, and email usage is logged and recorded (but rarely blocked). For notebook users, this is fairly critical, and in general it works fairly well, with users being aware that they’re being trusted to not abuse the responsibility they’re given. In a much larger organisation, this would be far more difficult to manage, so I’m fairly lucky in that respect.

Updates. For the past few years, I don’t think I’ve ever had a completely pending-update-free WSUS (the Microsoft server that allows administrators to control windows updates). It’s very difficult to keep up with the constant stream of updates from MS, and even once they checked and approved, you’ve then got to deal with users who will be annoyed and frustrated by the updates being applied, and (on occasion) a reboot being required. Updates to servers mean downtime for reboots, out-of-hours working to make sure users don’t get affected, and potential for problems if the update causes some unforeseen problem.But MS isn’t even the worst offender. Java seem to release updates to the runtime environment almost every month, and there’s no central management available. Adobe and Apple are just as bad, and Apple even try to bundle their other software packages with each update. It would be nice if MS, Adobe, Apple, Sun, etc, could all get together and establish a common update-approval management method.

Email. Email, essentially, is outdated, ill-conceived, awkward to manage and maintain, and doesn’t even do a very good job. Anyone who’s used (and understood) Google Wave realises that email must be on its way out soon. There is no real sender verification, spam and viruses are so massively intrusive that whole industries have developed around making email secure. The conversation style of email makes discussion (and business) difficult when dealing with more than two correspondents – send an email to two people, and get two replies. Trying to retain some sort of thread of the conversation is difficult at best, and with four or more recipients, practically impossible. Bringing someone into a discussion part-way through is difficult, as they cannot easily view the thread of conversation before them. Managing the size of mailboxes, archives, mailbox permissions, attachments, addresses, security and safety is far more work than it should be. I can’t wait for email V2.

Next time, I’ll find five good things about working in IT!