What’s so good about Cornwall?

You know I write a lot of stuff in this blog that represents an; occasionally sideways but pretty much always negative view on the IT industry in Cornwall, and I think I’m qualified to write in that way – I have carved out my career thus far in the county and struggled on through lean times and adversity all the while fighting the good fight in the name of what?  Personal fulfilment, some vague hope that I’m, in some way, working for the betterment of all IT in Cornwall, perhaps just because that’s the way I’ve been taught it should be?

It’s tough to not give up entirely and become all bitter and twisted as the good intentions on that score have tried their utmost to erode away……..

Hang on…..delete delete delete!  I rambled on far too long there spouting heroic undertones that all IT Managers have to undertake, but no, this is intended to be a positive post, I promise!  Sure, we all face challenges in our jobs – mine might not be all that different to yours…..

But as a county Cornwall still waits to play catch up.  I was in (or rather out and about) when the big society change hit the first time – the two final remote bastions of the UK IT wasteland; Scotland and Cornwall were struggling to hold out, and then the northmen were defeated, finally modern thinking arrived and with it a deeper understanding of the IT function and its role in the commercial entity.

And so we sat and waited for the £300 a day contracts to roll in to the South, and commercial acceptance, to really move our industry forward, out from under the protective parenting of the Accounting departments and part-time management and muddled thinking that the IT Department was simply a place that ordered the ink cartridges.

Only it didn’t come.

I recall when the shift occurred in Scotland, and honestly it’s really not just a money thing, there were some seriously large innovation projects and progressive forward momentum, investment and perhaps more importantly understanding – the commercial sector started to get IT and get it right.  The remuneration bit was a natural evolution, I suppose initially set to attract in experts from elsewhere but slowly bleeding out to the general workforce.

It was a widely held thought in Cornwall (certainly amongst my peers in any case) that we’d be next but a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then and the whole landscape remains fractured and collectively little progress seems to have been made.

Why is that?  I mean it’s not like we’re a million miles behind, and looking at some of the stuff going on there are signs, there’s some good noises coming out of parts of the county and some innovative and progressive start-ups plying their trade, but boy are there some stinkers too!  And so we appear to remain to preserve of the garden shed industry – and herein lies, I think, one of the biggest parts of the problem.

The work ethic.

You can almost see the parallels to the old school miners – you know, those old Cornish guys who travelled the world over taking their skill to the mines of the world.  They had grit and determination, and you can still see it now commercially.

The only problem is that lost in the determination is the need to engage in joined up working – the concept that everyone pulling together as one is what’s required, yes, I’m actually suggesting that individual work ethic is part of the problem.

Quantify it?  Sure.  Consider twenty employees all working away in silos (remember them?) – three are stars and the rest, well we don’t work with the rest do we?  So the stars crack on, head down, pushing forward whilst the others lose ground. Now.  Would you rather have all twenty moving forward at a more measured pace, progress individually might be slower but collectively……

And this is what we have here in Cornwall.  We have conscience and we have persistence and we have the desire to do good – but it’s still raw and it needs nurturing and more importantly an investment of attention and time as well as a plan.  It needs organisation it needs investment it needs infrastructure (yes BT, I’m looking at you!)

And this……this is where the managers come in!

The heat is gone….

First off why is it that in this day and age we feel the need to have to constantly come up with interesting and witty blog post titles?  Not that I’m saying that’s what I do (or what this blog does) but I happen to be pretty proud of this recent one!  Of course it is only really relevant to people from the 80s or before…..Anyway, moving swiftly on this is, of course, about server room air conditioning, why wouldn’t it be?!

When I first arrived at ISSG all those years ago I was faced with a sys admins nightmare, yep you guessed it – the old “servers on a rickety table” scenario.  The obligatory school-style tables, you know the ones, square steel legs and a thin wood-like substance screwed on top, the kind you can tip over with one finger.

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That and atop them a pair of seriously heavy servers from back in the day when weight meant power and quality. It was instantly obvious that some serious upgrading would be required to fulfil the brief of a “proper” network.  (from the job description I took “proper” to mean secure and robust, IE: MS domain!)

The early plan was set, we’d install a decent level of resilient hardware, since we were talking active directory and exchange and of course heeding Microsoft’s instructions we would need two.  A couple of decent mid-range servers, redundant bits and bobs, a Domain Controller and an Exchange server one thing was immediately obvious…..

The table simply wasn’t going to take it!

After some of the anticipated corporate tooing and froing we have a server “room” or to put it correctly a couple of stud walls boxing in the comms kit that was situated in the corner.  But you know what, it’s plenty good enough, so with corner of the room enclosure holding the comms kit we were nearly prepared for our servers.

The final thing prior to our investment was to get some cooling in.  I’ve never really delved to deeply into the theory of cooling, but I assume that if electronics equipment is kept in a (more or less) constant environment it lasts longer.  Unfortunately this does not take into account an old building, more importantly an old buildings wiring.

The servers were definitely mid-range, but decent, in a SME I suppose you could classify the cost as high, but the combined cost (inclusive of the server room works) didn’t even equate to the amount that was being spent on Telephony, and small potatoes when compared to the department annual spend.  Even so the cost of the exercise proved to be too rich, and so the trade off was to _only_ afford a small, portable, AC unit.

This aforementioned unit (a “Dalek” according to the original supplier) was powered from a good old three pin plug, and did well to last as long as it did but sadly it expired (or should that be it was exterminated?!) over the New Year, but that’s ok, due to to the awful wiring we’ve cooked our servers a few times since installation – a scenario I hope to never have to repeat, arrive in the office on a Monday morning and the first sign of worry was the lack of noise, open the server room door and it’s like exiting a plane in Egypt (something I have experienced!) with a blast of hot air in the face, to then find your rather expensive servers are literally too hot to touch!

Well we finally sorted that out – step forward dry-it-out.com and with the assistance of some extremely dodgy builders we now have one of these installed – http://www.dry-it-out.com/MSR18

It’s great, but the cable poked out of the wrong side, so all of the nice holes drilled in the old building wall had to be abandoned in favour of hanging the indoor unit on the “new” stud wall of the server room.  I was worried about vibration and noise, I needn’t have been, it’s whisper quiet – it seems really efficient, 19 degrees with hardly any effort, and what’s more it’ll resume working _if_ we get any of those dodgy Penzance brownouts!

So all good right?  Well here’s the rub….the server room has an air gap or two, and this system is obviously so powerful that a 6 x 8 room isn’t enough for it, so it’s proceeded to suck all of the heat (and apparently quite a bit of moisture too) out of the main office too!  I’m not sure if it’s too cold just yet, but boy is it noticeable, iffy storage heaters in our main office too, so we’re relying on an oil filled heater for now.

The point is that this only reinforces my belief in the crucial point of getting a server environment just right – our servers have failed on several occasions, we’ve lost drives and PSUs for fun (one more recent critical event saw us lose two drives from a RAID5 over a weekend) and if this has in any way been helped along by the poor cooling situation……well…..it’s partly down to me isn’t it?

Next job….expanding foam and door draft excluder!

Backup/restore!

So I moved the blog to a different server, this is good practice apart from anything else….but it’s cool, I’m good and prepared this time – I backed my shit up!  Sat there with a tarball and a blank ‘press install errr, hang on a sec there’s no sodding restore button!  Not time to panic yet, lets break out the search engine before the world ends – what I love about the internet nowadays, everything is there for you…..but isn’t it great when you reach out for help and first time…..

A very simple call for help on my part and one basic web search later I stumble upon my new best friend! Take a bow Pascal! ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4lhxMcjFVM ) and what’s so great about peer support – someone either has the problem, fixes it and decides to share with the world….just because – I like that!

So the blog moves, the backup plugin works, and I am now imbibed with the power to RESTORE!

Mind you…..did I say Pascal was my new best friend?  He’s ok, he got my posts back, but the only problem is that of the 3000 comments this blog has only about 3 of them are not spam….. :/

Next stop, finding a way to stop those damn bots!

Web/social media presence for Small Business on no budget?

Here’s a little secret…..having an easy to access and regularly updated website and social media presence is not the domain of the richer SME’s and larger corporates, never has been, you don’t need to employ content managers or developers, you can, to a reasonable degree, simply do it yourself.

I’ve long been an advocate of DIY web, purely because to buy in the skill can be expensive. By that I don’t just mean aforementioned staff, I also mean a site provided by a third party. History, as well as my own experience, is full of examples where a “proper” commercial website has cost a shiny shilling.

Where given the chance I do take the DIY approach a stage further as I have some prior commercial development experience so can add bespoke databases and scripts to sites, but what I add in geekyness I struggle to make up in design etiquette and time usually causes problems, hence the current (soon to be previous!) amount of CMS in the ISSG site.

But it seems the old commercial obstacles; pressure to keep headcounts low and staff wage bills much the same, as well as a desire to be seen to have a “professional” presence, overrule the need to actually spend some time in development of content. Seen it a million times….

This is not about lamenting the past though – let’s ignore the fact that a commercially bought-in website often ages very quickly (a lot of commercial developers only offer remedial changes only, so if you’ve not got the CMS ability built-in….) and can be very expensive.

We are no longer in the good “old” days of the 90s where a developer pitching a bespoke site for £75,000 loses out to another one that pitched it for tenfold! Nope, the austerity is gone and so are the big money sites – I’ve got nothing to prove it but I bet that company who eventually did pay three quarters of a million now have their own internal developers!

So, in part due to some recent conversations about a local charity but extending that to small business, I plan to produce a lightweight guide to how to setup a basic, but functional web presence, but also extend it into the burgeoning world of social media.

Let’s start off with a caveat here – you may have heard the expression “Content is king” this is the single most important thing! It might go against every trend there is, keep it simple, keep it short, etc, etc, but no…..on the web, waffle.

You may have also heard something about SEO or Search Engine Optimisation, if you’re very unlucky you may either; have worked with an SEO or possibly even have one working for you now (if you do you have my permission to fire them today!) – The thing is that yes, what they do does work – but in essence what they do is flip a web search and perform it on YOU!

Huh, what? Yep, seriously. I mean like all things there are going to be some really great SEO firms out there – you know, they charge you peanuts and are constantly helping you improve, but the chances are that after the initial round of meetings you get a report once a month a few paragraphs on how your ranking has improved or why it’s not.

Binning our SEO was one of the first jobs here, they were largely ineffectual, missed a few glaring issues with the existing website(s) and the market is such a specific one that our web presence, no matter how unprofessional would do the job on its own.

With the changes due to the way search engines work code will work harder to interpret your search criteria and AI (Artificial Intelligence) algorithms will try to better understand what it is that you’re searching for. This sort of seismic shift happens on a regular basis in computing, with the small stutters forward in processing power, regular operating system updates, core software version updates, etc.

In fact in some cases it’s accelerating. We support PCs (well, until recently anyway) with operating systems from DOS (I know) through to Windows 7, one of my recent drives has been to obliterate anything older than XP, and a lot of the XP machines are now gone/updated to Windows 7 (no Vista here thank you!)

So the computer industry is used to change, regular and often frighteningly “complex” (Office 2003 to Office 2007 anyone??) and yes, sometimes the effect on the users is not anticipated, but we are getting off the point here somewhat. The point is that it’s very possible to get bogged down in singular thinking or the thought that “its fine as it is.”

With regards web presence let’s look at it. Everyone could and probably should have a website, email address, etc. But the local plumber down the road, you know the guy with the slightly rusty blue van, he won’t need to be too in-depth about his services beyond his normal patch – a Law firm in Sydney won’t care that he can come out to fix leaky pipes 24/7, but you would far rather call him on his mobile to report a leak than drop him an email. BUT the small firm on the local industrial estate that manufactures replacement imperial valves and (can if required) ship them worldwide and that Law firm over the other side of the world we spoke of….their building is 250 years old and still has many original features.

You get the idea. And yes, sad as I am to admit, this is straying close to the marketing function, but the Information Technology / Systems field has evolved and grown and in a lot of cases is the glue for a lot of businesses these days – if they realise it or not.
The first stage in deciding just how much relevance or reliance you place on your web presence is to work out just how appealing your product or service would be to who and where those who are! And that is most definitely a marketing function.

Consider previously referenced charity. A local (to Cornwall) site of scientific interest – fabulous equipment in some cases examples of machinery that simply does not survive elsewhere IN THE WORLD! These guys have people from all over the globe travelling over to see them and their exhibits. So the worldwide relevancy is very high, and therefore a web presence is essential.

Now, what they actually produce is very limited, it’s very much a visitor attraction, so no complicated e-commerce required. There’s a possibility that buying tickets online might be relevant, but this isn’t Disneyland (other theme parks are available!) It’s more of a turn up, pay, stroll around. Geeky science types by appointment.

And so a perfect “customer” for the sort of presence I’m talking about here. And this is a neat place to tie things up for now. I’m going to break the guide up into sections, but the plan is to, eventually, compile it into a PDF for free download, but for now here’s an idea of what I plan to cover, in order.

Content (what, how much, where), Website (setting up, managing), Social Media (What, when, how often), Communication (types, seriousness, reliability) and anything else I can’t think of now.

References;
http://mashable.com/2012/03/22/google-semantic-search-seo
http://www.webpronews.com/ceo-says-seo-a-waste-of-time-2007-02
http://www.binkd.com/social-media/seo-companies-waste-of-time/
http://reciprocalconsultingblog.com/search-engine-optimization/6-seo-tactics-waste-your-time/
http://www.webmarcom.net/blog/bid/37862/Why-SEO-Is-A-Waste-Of-Time-And-Money-Tips-To-Improve-Conversions
http://mashable.com/2012/01/13/google-search-plus-your-world-seo/

It must be that time of year….

…..for a blog post!

Seems the main blog at rikzblog.co.uk has fallen over, who said upgrading wordpress was a straightforward job?! (Scratch that, I used a “proper” FTP client, it seems that Firefox’s EXCELLENT addin FireFTP was the problem, it simply wasn’t uploading all of the files in the upgrade folders)

In any case, in my absence there’s been a bunch of stuff going on, as you might expect, big boom in the form of the DC dropping TWO drives on the same weekend, still really picking through the mess of that if I’m honest.

New software, new hardware, new challenges, all met with the usual stoicism and humor on my part of course!!

I’m currently testing Office 2013, and I LIKED 2010, so what about 13…..you know it’s not that bad at all, worth the money?  Possibly another blog post, but it’s good!

And then new tech, well new to me or the business, tablets, new smartphones (which, annoyingly, my three year old can unlock?  That’s it, _definitely_ fat fingers on my part!) and a new building – more on that later!

If I don’t get back this way before, hope the big mean outsource don’t getcha over the holiday 😉

Oh look, it’s snowing….