What is virtualisation?

SharingVirtualisation is one of those IT hot topics which encompasses a wide variety of meanings. But here we will talk about server virtualisation.

Server virtualisation involves making two or more “logical” servers on one physical server. That is, we have one “box” with one processor (though more are possible and will make things run better), one set of memory and one set of hard disks — but onto that, we build multiple instances of servers for various uses. Each of these servers is totally independent of the other and exists only in software — they are of course linked by the shared hardware. Each has its own name and network address, and can be rebooted without affecting the others on the same box.

Typically, these servers could be used for any function, but the specifications of the server must grow in accordance with their use. For example, a box with virtual servers which perform the functions of active directory, DNS, a small web server and printing will need fewer processors, memory and disks than one with a couple of databases running the corporate intranet and document management functions.

So what’s it for? If space and budgets are tight, it is useful to make the best use of hardware. Practices tend to deploy single applications to single servers. In the first example above, I would require four actual servers, but in the virtual world, only one. The magic lies in the fact that most servers run at around 5-10% capacity most of the time.

Virtualisation makes best use of this by consolidating many servers into one — some typical ratios are 10:1 and 15:1. This could save you a lot of time and money.

Virtualisation is also very quick if you need to roll out new servers with new applications or websites. Traditionally, you might have bought a new server, waited for delivery, constructed it and racked it into the cabinet, put Windows on and patched it. With virtualisation, you can simply build a new virtual server on an existing physical server and be up and running in hours rather than days or weeks.

Downsides? It is important not to overload the physical server with too many virtual servers and swamp its resources. The physical server you use also needs some redundant components — hard disks, power supplies, fans.

If you need to power down the box to make a change to one of these items, you will now be affecting many servers and functions rather than just one.

Cost, resource efficiency and speed of provisioning are the key drivers, although the price you might pay is having all your eggs in the same basket.

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Finding a simpler way of sharing

j0415858The following was written for Building Design Magazine by myself and published on 20th October 2006.  Though 3 years old, the principles of collaboration remained the same for Broadway Malyan and they continue to use Buzzsaw to this day.  The use of Redsky’s software remains were it’s strengths are – that of strong financial management and analysis.  The desire to move to lower cost, secure file sharing remained, but other projects (such as the practices gloablisation into the Middle East and Asia) took the time and budget required to implement and focussed it elsewhere.

Broadway Malyan has long been a happy user of Autodesk’s Buzzsaw project collaboration tool. But now the practice is migrating to a rival product, explains the practice’s IT director Simon Johns

Our use of extranets began five years ago when the need to be able to shift large amounts of project-related data to our clients and significant others in ever shorter time frames became an absolute necessity.

Email can be a great tool, but its use today has become somewhat of chore. It is able to move files about, but there are limits. It is not secure. It is not guaranteed. It does not handle files well — especially large ones associated with cad or graphics. Email is a common vector for viruses, spam, Trojans, phishing and a host of other nasties associated with modern living. In short, it is not suited for the secure, commercial, timely transmission of data.

Project extranets offer many features that enable the movement of files around the internet. With built-in file viewers, “anytime, anyplace” access to these files is possible. While there are many, many extranets-in-a-box to choose from, we chose Buzzsaw from Autodesk. To us, this seemed the obvious choice we had an existing investment in Autodesk’s Architectural Desktop and Buzzsaw integrates into this well.

Our file transmission is secure and guaranteed. Buzzsaw uses FTP to upload and download files. It is available as an application and also as a browser-based version, enabling access from anywhere. The application is easily installed and updated without any special permissions. When files are uploaded the project team is notified, and a link in the email can take you straight to the new files, which can then be viewed or downloaded for further modification. This feature has worked to Broadway Malyan’s advantage where project teams work in offices across Europe and with associate offices internationally. All have access to the same data in the knowledge that changes can be seen quickly and cheaply.

File access is recorded, with user, time and date information. This is often useful when one party forgets that they have reviewed drawings already and have had access to the information for quite a while.

The files in Buzzsaw are stored across the globe data is mirrored between sites in the US and Europe. This feature is something most architects (and, let’s face it, the larger practices are only really small to medium enterprises) could never afford out of their IT budgets. So the ability to buy web space in a cutting-edge project extranet, and buy into all features such as these, is almost a dream come true.

Buzzsaw offers many features that are useful to the construction process — there are many project management tools which are easily customised. But we at Broadway Malyan only use it for the storage of project files and a few other choice items. These project files could be AutoCAD drawings, and Buzzsaw’s ability to link in reference files automatically is a great time-saving feature and one of the reasons why we chose it. These could be large, print-ready PDF or JPG files for transmission to the printers or a repro house, thereby saving time and effort in burning CDs and biking, and allowing for documents to be worked on right up to the wire.

Our IT team also uses Buzzsaw for the delivery of new software packages, using higher bandwidth internet lines rather than dedicated quality lines. In this way they can move gigabytes of data to other office servers for local installation. We have rolled out our main cad package, Architectural Desktop, in this manner as well as many multi-CD graphics packages.

The management of Buzzsaw is simple and this simplicity is of great benefit to architects big and small, as it speeds up the publication process — which is, after all, why we are using it. But it also allows for precise publication to the correct people. This layer of integrity is easy to set up and no real understanding of computer security is needed.

So what is the future for Buzzsaw at Broadway Malyan? We have benefited greatly from its use, but we touch only the edge of the product and have no need for its more complicated features. With this in mind, over the coming months we will be migrating our projects and data to another system which will allow greater flexibility in the way we can operate our extranet. Unlike Buzzsaw, the new licensing model will no longer limit us to the amount of gigabytes stored on a foreign server or number of users able to access the site. We will be free to publish what we want to whom without having to think about the financial implications. This is not without its issues, but they become internalised and can be dealt with far more effectively. We already have the infrastructure; as a multi-national practice we have large network connections and the necessary security.

The software we will use is a spin-off from RedSky IT project portal Informate, which was purchased to give job leaders and directors better financial information in running their jobs. By switching on extra modules, Informate will be capable of replacing Buzzsaw, making the whole exercise sterling neutral (that is, the cost of buying Informate will be cancelled out by migrating away from Buzzsaw). There are many other features of this portal we will aim to exploit in future, but this one gives us dividends that make the project pay for itself.

The future of our project extranet can now be branded exactly as we wish, and who knows where it will end — maybe it will contain streaming movies of fly-throughs and other media-rich applications.

Buzzsaw is a great product which, in our opinion, is better than many of its competitors because it is simple to use. At the end of the day, what more could we want? But that very simplicity for us is its downfall when we can use another product to achieve the same aims at no cost.

l Buzzsaw details are available at www.autodesk.com/buzzsaw

l Information on RedSky IT (formerly Ramesys Construction Services) can be found by visiting www.redskyit.com

A faster, less clumsy way of file-sharing

Many pieces of software exist that enable file-sharing and collaboration, but it is worthwhile looking at wide area file services (WAFS).

WAFS work well over poor lines and allow separate offices to share files, both large and small, in real time. It can be a piece of software, but is generally is sold as a “black-box solution” — a piece of hardware with pre-loaded software.

WAFS works by caching copies of files — saving them on a small, quickly-accessible memory —from the primary site with the secondary site, that is, from head office with a site office. The caching can be “seeded” so that it can be performed on a local area network at high speed, before distributing to the remote site. This cuts down on the initial time to synchronise.

Once at the remote site, users access data and files as a normal file-share. Anything that has been cached already will be immediately available for work. Anything that it is not cached will take a little time to transfer to the remote site.

When a file is opened, it is locked at both ends so that only one person may access a file at a given time. When the file is saved, only the changes to the file are saved back across the network, not the whole file itself. This saves time and network bandwidth, further facilitating collaboration.

The fact that the file is in two places at once, in perfect synchronisation, means it need only be backed up in one place, for example, at the head office. This minimises the potential for error at the remote site, which usually has no IT staff. This serves business continuity strategies well.

Because files are cached, if the network goes down, the remote site can carry on working — if the remote site was working directly off the server in head office, then disaster would have struck. The files automatically synchronise when the network returns.

The better WAFS devices are also print servers, and provide Active Directory, DNS, DHCP and so on. In fact, they provide everything a remote site needs in order to function, and replace the need for any other server.

Anything this good has a downside, and that is price. A typical site can cost up to £10,000, but the main site needs a box too, so that cost can effectively be doubled.

However, weigh that cost against the price of a server, a back-up device, support and maintenance, and things begin to look a little better. Now add the benefits of real-time collaboration for your distributed team. You may just be onto a winner for all sizes of practice finding it difficult to operate at distance.

Many firms offer different flavours of WAFS, including Cicso, Blue Coat and River Bed.

Ofcom release BT from it’s shackles

Yesterday Ofcom announced that it had released BT from it’s shackles preventing it from selling discounted fixed line, broadband and TV – effectively letting the other providers such as Virgin Media, Talk Talk and BSkyB out compete.

BT has 14 million installed lines into UK homes versus 12 million for the others combined.  In my view that would still remain a significant amount of the market share, especially given that BT Openreach’s services including local loop unbundling at the exchange is utilised by all the 400 service providers who do not have their own network.

I would now expect a price war – which is great for consumers, assuming all other factors, such as quality, customer service and fault resolution remain the same.  My fear would be that in order to turn a   profit with lower tarifs being offered those very services will suffer.  We will see a balancing of the networks where they attempt to balance the service against the cost to optimise consumer take up.

BT’s share price rose nearly 5% yesterday on the announcement and nearly 2% today.

Freeware secrets

It is very easy to buy decent PCs these days that will fulfill most needs such as cad and graphics applications without spending a fortune. It is only when you wish to purchase specialist equipment such as lightweight laptops that the cost starts to rise.

Many paid-for office productivity applications, such as word processing and spreadsheets, could set you back in excess of £300 a licence, yet with a few small compromises one could pay absolutely nothing. Free applications exist that can read and write to the very latest versions of popular products such as Microsoft’s Office 2007. For example, I am writing this on an old Apple iBook G4 using Neo Office Writer which I have just updated to the latest release. The original program cost nothing, and the free update, which took 15 minutes to download and install, is fully compatible with Office 2007. I am using software that is functional, attractive and I can send my output to others. The interface is familiar, the way it works is familiar — I can perform all of the things I normally do in the paid for package on my desk at work. The old adage of people using 10% of the functionality should be remembered. Many applications offer a lot, yet most of us will never use more than a spell checker (and some of us not even that). Why pay for what you won’t use?

Neo Office is a Mac compatible version of Open Office, an easy winner for PC users. Open Office is readily available and supported by a large community of software developers. Sun Microsystems’ Star Office is based on Open Office. The software is now so popular that Microsoft’s Office 2007 will read and write Open Office file formats, so the compatability is complete; Open Office has always inter-operated with Microsoft file types. Upload it at http://www.openoffice.org, or for Mac users http://www.neooffice.org

Both the PC and Mac versions of the software include databases and presentation tools as standard. The presentation tools are not the best, but the quality of the speaker outweighs the quality of the slides. Like the other tools, the database is good enough for most users.

Google hosts applications online. Word processing and spreadsheet applications are now available. The files can be saved as Open Office format, Microsoft Office or Adobe PDF at no cost. They can be easily emailed using a Google Mail account. The software is free and works for Mac users too – though those who are using the Safari browser rather than Firefox may experience some problems. Word is that Google is developing more applications to add to its suite of tools. Go to docs.google.com, though you will need a google mail account — also free — to gain access.

My CV in Wordle format

My CV distilled using Wordle

My CV distilled using Wordle

Get the best out of your BlackBerry

There must be more to this BlackBerry malarkey than just email and a few other features of Microsoft’s Outlook such as the Calendar and Contacts. Isn’t there?

There is, in fact, a plethora of useful applications and gizmos which can extend the use of your BlackBerry beyond the irritation of those around you. For example, Impatica (www.impatica.com) produces a way to convert your PowerPoints into a format that can be shown on the BlackBerry. This is useful for both intimate presentations over a cup of coffee, and also for reviewing on the train home. It also produces a handy piece of kit that sits on the back of a projector and connects using the BlackBerry’s Bluetooth to present direct from the BlackBerry. The BlackBerry itself becomes the means of delivering the presentation, and because of its size it is a natural pointing device and becomes the means of scrolling through the slides.

Idokorro makes a number of handy pieces of software useful for both architect and IT manager alike. This Canadian company produces Mobile File Manager, which lets you browse and manage files on your network shares and intranet. You can even email files to yourself for editing and forwarding on.

“Impatica can convert your PowerPoints into a format that can be shown on a BlackBerry”

Idokorro also produces a client for Citrix — this will allow you to connect to your practice’s Citrix server to access applications that have been published there. Obviously some applications will work better than others such as office productivity tools, where screen size is not so important. Some will not such as cad or graphics tools, but it may be useful to get a feel for what is going on, like a quick review of a concept. Other tools, for example PDF writers, can be used this way, extending options for working away from the office.

Finally Idokorro also produces a Mobile Desktop client which can use either virtual network computing (VNC) or the connectivity found in Windows XP and Windows 2003 Server, called remote desktop protocol. The VNC cannot use encryption, but this is tempered by the fact that you are accessing PCs while effectively being inside your network. Remote Desktop is a lot smoother, and both have features to allow easy scrolling of a desktop on a small screen. This is a very useful tool for those who work in IT or other support functions as it allows the management of servers, as well as other important PCs.