Vertical Monitors

Vertical Monitors

Whilst I’ve been using a multiple monitor setup at home and work for many years only for the past year have I been using one of the two in vertical/portrait mode, and I’m hooked.

The benefits for using multiple displays over a single display has been researched numerous times over the years. Estimates on the amount of productivity gain that can be made vary from 20% to 42% in the research I have seen, but even at 20% the second monitor soon pays for itself. Jon Peddie Research (JPR) in their 2017 research found a 42% gain in productivity based on the increased number of pixels available via multiple screens. And whilst some of this gain can be made from just larger screens as opposed to more screens there are certainly ease of use advatanges to multiple screens and several studies sponsored by Dell have found the user experience to be more pleasureable with multiple screens. I find using several screens an easier way of arranging windows than trying to arrange them on one large monitor.

“We found that users of multiple monitors have an average expected productivity increase of 42%,” said Dr. Jon Peddie, President of Jon Peddie Research.

University of Utah study showed that a second monitor can save an employee 2.5 hours a day if they use it all day for data entry.

“The more you can see, the more you can do.” Jon Peddie, 1998

But what about having monitors in portrait mode, well the Jon Peddie research also stated that additional benefit could be had by reducing scrolling for information.

“Having one of the monitors in portrait mode adds to productivity by eliminating the need to scroll.”

After taking a week or so to get used to the portrait mode I quickly found its benefits. It’s ideal for viewing anything that requires vertical scrolling, e.g. web pages, code, log files, Jira backlogs etc. In a quick test of a code file in VSCode I could see 62 lines of code on my 24inch hortizontal monitor, but 120 lines when the file was moved to the vertical monitor. Not only do you reduce scrolling but there are advantages in being able to see more of a document in one go, helping you visualise the problem.

On a side note the Xerox Alto, which was the first computer designed to support a GUI based OS, had a vertical screen to represent a document layout.

twomonitors_small

Over the past decade or more displays have moved to widescreen format and many applications have tailored their UIs to fit this trend. This means that having all portrait monitors can quickly lead to some frustrations and the need to horizontally scroll, thus reducing the additional productivity gains. This is why I have found that (for me) the ideal setup is one landscape display and one portrait display (as in the image above).

With this formation you can use the display that is best suited to the task at hand, and so you have the best of both worlds. Combine this with a few simple keyboard shortcuts to move things between monitors and you’ll find soon be loving the layout. In Windows using the Windows key and the cursor keys together can quickly move and dock windows. Linux distros vary.

Since I made the switch to one vertical at work I have had numerous colleagues see the benefits and be converted to this layout, so if you have a monitor that is capable of being turned vertically then I recommend you give it a go and see how you get on. You might get hooked!

 

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Building a Python Flask Web UI For Raspberry Pi Sure Elec LCD

Building a Python Flask Web UI For Raspberry Pi Sure Elec LCD

In an earlier post I outlined how I setup a Sure Electronics LCD screen with my Raspberry Pi 3 using a Python driver. Whilst updating the LCD via command line is immensely useful I decided to build a UI to control the LCD send messages too it. By using a browser based UI I could update the LCD screen from anywhere. Essentially this was a chance to play with a Python web framework and write some code!

BlogFlaskUISureElecLCD2 

I’ve passed the UI’s URL round my family’s devices at home and they now send me messages whilst I’m in my study working/playing.

The end result can be found in my GitHub repo.

As my driver was in Python and I’m enjoying coding in Python at the moment I decided to use a Python Web framework to serve the HTML/JavaScript UI and host RESTful services on the server side to accept LCD commands. After some reading I went with Flask which  seemed perfect for my needs. I could have gone with Django but Flask seemed for appropriate for my needs. For a good comparison see this CodeMentor.io post. For a great tutorial on Flask checkout this series by Miguel Grinberg and this great post by Scotch.io.  

Building the server side web framework was easy and logical in Flask and I was able to get something setup in one file which served my needs. However after reading some Flask best practices I spread my solution out into a more appropriate structure. Flask will seem familiar to web developers with experience of ASP.net MVC, Web API, Node/Express etc. You define routes to handle incoming requests. The key aspects my solution are outlined below. I am running the Flask server directly on my Raspberry Pi and using it to serve the pages and host the services for commanding the LCD screen.

To install Flask (on a Pi) first install Python Pip (a popular Python Package Manager) via “apt-get install python-pip” or “apt-get install python3-pip” (for a Python v3 specific Pip) and then install Flask via “pip install flask”.

Flask comes with a small lightweight development server which runs your app in Dev mode and also auto restarts after code changes. I found this fast and robust enough for my needs. 

Lets check out the main parts of the code:

run.py:  This is the entry point for the app. When run it calls run in the app file and here I have optionally passed IP/Port I want the app to run on which enables the app to be exposed to the internal network so I can connect from other machines on the network. 

from app import app 
if __name__ == '__main__':
    app.run(host="192.100.100.100", port=5000)

app/__inti_.py & config.py: This is the app initialisation code and where it points to the config.py file where config settings can be set for the app.

app/views.py: This is the heart of the app. After importing the relevant python components and instantiating the Smartie LCD driver (from previous post), the routes for the app are defined.

@app.route("/")
def show_homepage():
    return "Home Page!"

@app.route("/lcd")
def show_lcdpage():
    name="Jeff"
    return render_template("lcd.html", name=name)

The route for root will just return the text “Home Page” whereas the route for /lcd will call render_template to return a templated HTML page (lcd.html) and passes any relevant data (e.g. “Jeff” which is irrelevant in this example”). Templates will be covered shortly below.

@app.route("/lcd/clear", methods=["POST","GET"])
def display_clear():
    smartie1.clear_screen()
    return "Success"

@app.route("/lcd/displaymessage", methods=["POST"])
def display_message():
    if not request.json:
        abort(400)
    smartie1.clear_screen()
    smartie1.backlight_on()
    smartie1.write_lines_scroll(request.json['Lines'])
    return "Success" 

Any POST or GET on http://SERVERADDRESS:PORT/lcd/clear will result in the smartie drivers clear screen method being called. A POST to “/lcd/displaymessage” will be validated to ensure that the request contains JSON data and then the data will be passed to the driver for display.

/app/templates/lcd.html: This is the main HTML page that enables the user to type the messages to display.

BlogFlaskUI2

The CSS and JavaScript used by this page is found in the static folder and referenced in the usual way………….

<!-- CSS for our app -->         
 <link rel="stylesheet" href="/static/lcd.css"/>

<!-- JS for our app --> 
<script type="text/javascript" src="/static/lcd.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

So we need to ensure that the flask server returns these static files, but we don’t want to have to define  a specific app.route for each one so instead we use this one in our views.py :

@app.route('/<path:filename>')  
def send_file(filename):  
      return send_from_directory('/static', filename)

This basically states that any requests for a file path are sourced from the /static folder directly. So we can just place any files in the static folder that we want to be served directly (the CSS and JavaScript files in our case).

/app/static/lcd.js:  From this JavaScript code we can consume the services hosted by Flask for our application. It’s using the XMLHttpRequest object to make AJAX requests to the Flask server. The SendCommand function takes callback methods which will be called on success or error.

function SendCommand(url, httpVerb, data, successCallback, errorCallback){
                
  var dataToSend;
  if(data!=null){
      var dataToSend = JSON.stringify(data);          
  }
   var request = new XMLHttpRequest();
  request.open(httpVerb, url, true);
  request.setRequestHeader('Content-Type', 'application/json; charset=UTF-8');
   request.onload = function() {
      if(this.status >= 200 && this.status < 400){
          // success here
          var returnedData; 
          if (this.response != null){
              successCallback(returnedData, this.status);
          }                                                                        
      }
      else{
          //error returned from server
          errorCallback("Error response returned from server", this.status);
      }
  }
   request.onerror = function() {
          errorCallback("Error contacting server", this.status);
  }

  if (dataToSend != null){
      request.send(dataToSend);
  }
  else{
      request.send();
  }
}

That’s mostly it. Run the app by running the run.py module (e.g in the Python IDLE or terminal) and direct your browser to http://SERVERADDRESS:5000/lcd.

The code for my Python driver and this web app is available on GitHub here https://github.com/RichHewlett/smartie and https://github.com/RichHewlett/LCD-Smartie-Web.

Using a Sure Electronics LCD with the Raspberry Pi using Python

Using a Sure Electronics LCD with the Raspberry Pi using Python

After receiving a new Raspberry Pi 3 at Christmas I quickly set off looking for uses for this wonderful machine, and quickly found myself hooking it up to an LCD display. This post covers the Python driver I used and modified, as well as some other useful resources.

RPi3

Firstly as an owner of the original Raspberry Pi model B I was pleasantly surprised how capable the Raspberry Pi version 3 is. The performance is much improved and the new built in wireless is a superb addition which makes this version of the Pi more  usable and reduces the friction caused by having too many USB devices hanging off it like a mutant spider. The Pi v3 is powerful enough to be used as a basic workstation and I found myself working on it directly (within Raspbian OS) making the coding workflow more enjoyable as a result than the previous models. Also the as VNC Server is now built into the Raspbian OS it makes setting up the Pi as headless very easy. In fact once you have installed Raspbian and setup VNC then you can run it with just the power supply connected which makes it use little space and you can locate it anywhere.

SureElecLCD1Once my Pi3 was up and running I decided to connect an old LCD matrix screen to it. This LCD is Sure Electronics 20×4 screen which I bought years ago to attach to my HomeServer but never got around to it. The LCD has a USB interface and was used on Windows via the LCD Smartie application. A quick google showed that LCDProc is an equivalent tool for using LCD screens with Linux, and I found some useful tutorials (e.g. here & here). You can install LCDProc via “apt-get install lcdproc”.

I only had limited success with LCDProc but soon realised what I really needed was a programmatic way of controlling the LCD as opposed to a general display tool, so after some more googling I found a few variations of python drivers were being used to control similar LCDs, and this “Smartie” driver by Steve Davis worked best for me, which in turn was inspired by this driver. These drivers use the “pyserial” Python module, easily installable via Python PIP package manager:

“apt-get install python-pip” or “apt-get install python3-pip” (for python v3 pip)
followed by “pip install pyserial==3.0”.

RaspberryPiWhilst the smartie driver initially worked I found that it failed to work after a reboot. After some serious head scratching I realised that it would always work after running LCDProc, meaning the initalisation code for LCDProc setup up the LCD successfully for the Python driver to communicate.  After digging into the Sure Electronics manual and digging into the source code for the SureElec driver for LCDProc (here & here) I was able to find the initisiation command codes for the LCD and add this to the smartie python driver. This enabled the Python driver to be used without relying at all on LCDproc or similar software.

 I have also added some new functionality to the driver which includes flashing, wrapping text and scrolling multiple lines etc. Also included is a demo function that runs through the various functions provided by the driver to show what’s possible and to help testing after making any modications. My updated driver can be found on my GitHub repo (https://github.com/RichHewlett/smartie). With this driver i was able to control my LCD backlight, display text and get a temperature reading. The fact that it was writen in Python was a bonus as I find Python a great langage for coding fun projects.

SureElecLCD2

If you have a Sure Electronics LCD you may be able to take this and use it, or modify it as required, although there are many variations of these devices. Once you have connected your LCD and rebooted the machine just check that the LCD is on the right USB port in Linux (e.g. /dev/ttyUSB0) and that the user has permissions on that port. If you have a Sure 16×4 screen then this will probably work by modifying the SCREEN_WIDTH constant to 16. If you have a different LCD Screen then you may need to modify the initalisation codes and command strings that get sent to the LCD by each method. A good source of refercence is to check out the LCDProc source code for their bundled drivers as they support many screens.

In the next post I’ll cover my next step of building Python Web App using Flask to control the LCD screen from a browser.

Archiving Adobe Lightroom Back Ups with PowerShell

Archiving Adobe Lightroom Back Ups with PowerShell

LightroomLogoIf you are an Adobe Lightroom user it is critical to have regular backups of your photo library catalogue. Luckily this is a simple task thanks to the fact that Lightroom has features built in to regularly taka a backup for you (which in effect means making a copy of your current catalogue file into a new location in the location you have specified in the user preferences of the application.

For information on how to configure the backup settings in Lightroom check out this Adobe link: https://helpx.adobe.com/lightroom/help/back-catalog.html

Lightroom unfortunately does nothing to clear out old backups and prior to Lightroom version 6 these backups were not even compressed, which together can mean the space required to store backups grows very quickly. It was always frustrating as the catalogue files can be compressed by a huge margin (80-90% in cases). Luckily newer versions of Lightroom now compress the backups into zip files which makes their size much less of an issue.

Anyway for those familiar with PowerShell I have a script that I use which after each backup to remove old backups, compress the new backups and move the backup to a new location (to a separate drive to guard against drive failure).

powershellLogo1The script is called LR_Zip_Tuck as it zips the backups and tucks them away. There are two versions of the script. V1 is for Lightroom versions before V6/CC as it includes the additional compression step which is no required since Lightroom V6. This still wo9rks with Lightroom V6 but is slower , and so V2 of the Script is recommended.

The script first waits until the Lightroom application is no longer running before proceeding. This means that you can run this script on exit of Lightroom as it is still backing up (if you have it set to backup on exit) and it will wait until Lightroom has finished (I run it from a desktop shortcut when I still in Lightroom or it is backing up on exit).

## check if Lightroom is running, and if so just wait for it to close
$target = "lightroom"

$process = Get-Process | Where-Object {$_.ProcessName -eq $target}

if($process)
{
	Write-Output "Waiting for Lightroom to exit..."
	$process.WaitForExit()
	start-sleep -s 2
}

It then loops each folder in the backup location looking for catalogue backups that Lightroom has created since the last time the script was run. It then copies it to the off drive backup location and then deletes local the file.

## loop each subfolder in backup location and process
foreach ($path in (Get-ChildItem -Path $LocalBkUpFolder -Directory))
{
	## find zip file in this folder and rename
	$path | Get-ChildItem | where {$_.extension -eq ".zip"} | Select-Object -first 1 | % { $_.FullName} | Rename-Item -NewName {$path.Name + ".zip"}

	## move file to parent folder (as dont need subfolders now)
	$SourceFilePath = $path.FullName + "\" + $path.Name + ".zip"
	Move-Item $SourceFilePath -Destination $LocalBkUpFolder

	## copy zip to remote share location
	Write-Output "Tucking backup away on remote share"
	Copy-Item $NewFileName -Destination $RemoteBkUpFolder

	## delete folder
	Remove-Item -Recurse -Force $path.FullName
}

It then does some house keeping ensuring that only the configured number of old backups exist in the local and remote locations (ensuring that the oldest are deleted first). This prevents the backups building up over time.

## cleanup zip files (local)
Remove-MostFiles $LocalBkUpFolder *.zip 8

## cleanup zip files (remote)
Remove-MostFiles $RemoteBkUpFolder *.zip 20

That’s about it. The scripts are available on my GitHub repo here (as LR_ZipTuck_V1.ps1 and LR_ZipTuck_V2.ps1).

Refreshing the Nexus 7

Refreshing the Nexus 7

Google’s Nexus 7 table caused quite a stir when it was released in 2012 with its low price combined with the excellent specifications it offered. It proved very popular and rightly so. Fast forward to 2015 and the Nexus 7 is very much, sadly, showing its age. Google have proved good to their word and have provided Android updates to the Nexus 7 which has provided the latest features of Android to the Nexus 7’s owners but the device just does not have the hardware to run the latest Android versions with the performance owners came to expect. Android 5 upwards runs painfully slow on my device, and each update has done little to remedy this fact. My Nexus 7 had become almost unusable.

There are a few ways to improve the performance including a factory reset, tweaking some performance settings but none of these provided much improvement. The factory reset worked the best but only for a short time and even then it never matched the performance of the original out of the box experience.

Eventually I rooted the device and installed CyanogenMod and have not looked back since. The experience is like the Nexus 7 was originally and the device is now used daily. It is slick and smooth, albeit on an old version of Android. Security updates aside I don’t mind being behind the curve on Android if it means I get a useable tablet. It’s been three months since I moved to CyanogenMod and its been rock solid all that time.

DSC00186_TsStep by step instructions on rooting the device and installing CyanogenMod can be found at the link below on the CyanogenMod wiki. The Nexus 7 2012 version being called ‘Grouper’. Don’t forget to also download Google Apps for Grouper so as to have access to the Google Play App Store to be able to download all your apps (this is covered as an optional step in the last section of the wiki article).
How to Install CyanogenMod on the Google Nexus 7 (Wi-Fi, 2012 version)

I installed the version CyanogenMod 10 (Android 4.3 Jelly Bean) on mine which is not too far from the original Google build. There are many versions of CyanogenMod  for the Nexus 7 linked from the link above including version 11 & version 12. I went with version 10.2.1 on mine, from here. I may experiment with upgrading to CyanogenMod 12 at some point but for now I’m happy. I also repeated the process for my son’s Nexus 7’s and each time the process was simple and effective.

Backing Up Your Blog Content Using HTTrack

Backing Up Your Blog Content Using HTTrack

I’m pretty strict on making sure I have my data backed up in numerous places and my blog content is no different. I would hate to lose all these years of babbling. In this post I cover how I back up this blog, and this will apply to any blog engine or indeed any website.

This blog is hosted on WordPress.com and I trust the guys at ‘Automatic’ to keep my data safe, but accidents do happen. Ideally I want an up to date backup of this blog together with any images used. Personally I?m not too concerned about having it in a WordPress format but rather actually prefer having the raw content that I could use to recreate the blog elsewhere.

The HTTrack Tool

The tool I use is HTTrack (http://www.httrack.com) which is a web site copying tool. It essentially re-creates a working copy of the site on the local disk (which you can navigate in a browser too). The tool has many features and includes command line interface which makes it easy to run via a scheduled task. The various command line switches are documented here http://www.httrack.com/html/fcguide.html , but I use this simple command below:

C:\HTTrack\httrack.exe http://richhewlett.com -O c:\TargetFolderPathHere

For interest the –O switch tells HTTrack to output the site to disk and hence produce a copy.

You can create a Windows Scheduled Task that periodically runs this command line and you have an automated backup. I personally go a bit further and wrap this command into a Windows PowerShell script. This script creates new folder each time with the current date and implements error handling which writes to the system eventlog.

This script is an example only and comes with no guarantees that it will work for you without modification:


#===============================================
# Backup blog to disk using HTTRACK
# (Created by Rich Hewlett, see blog at RichHewlett.com)
#==============================================
clear-host
write-output "---------------------Script Start--------------------"
write-output " HTTrack Site Backup Script"
write-output "-------------------------------------------------------"

# set file paths
$timestamp = Get-Date -format yyyy_MMM_dd_HHmmss
$TargetFolderPath="F:\MyBlogBackUp\$timestamp"
$HTTrackPath="C:\HTTrack\httrack.exe"

write-output "Backup target path is $TargetFolderPath"
write-output "HTTrack is at $HTTrackPath"

# set error action preference so errors don't stop and the trycatch
# kicks in to handle gracefully
$erroractionpreference = "Continue"

try
{
    write-output "Creating output folder $TargetFolderPath ..."
    New-Item $TargetFolderPath -type directory

    write-output "Download data ..."
    invoke-expression "$HTTrackPath http://MyBlog.com -O $TargetFolderPath"
    write-output "Done with downloading."    

    write-eventlog -LogName "Network" -Source "HTTrack" -EventId 1 -Message "Downloaded blog for backup"

}
catch
{
    # error occurred so lets report it
    write-output "ERROR OCCURRED DURING SCRIPT " $error

    # write an event to the event log
    write-output "Writing FAIL to EventLog"
    write-eventlog -LogName "Network" -Source "HTTrack" -EventId 1 -Message "Download blog for backup FAILED during execution. $error" -EntryType Error
}

write-output "------------------------------------Script end------------------------------------"

I run this job monthly via a Windows scheduled task.

UPDATE: A working Powershell script can be found on my GitHub site.

Using WordPress Export Feature

If you run a WordPress blog you can also do an export via the Dashboard which will export all site content (including comments) which is useful. In addition to the above raw HTML backup above I also use the export tool periodically manually (and therefore infrequently). For more information on this feature check out http://en.support.wordpress.com/export/

How to Backup To USB Drive Only If It’s Connected

How to Backup To USB Drive Only If It’s Connected

A key part of most personal data backup strategies involves backing up data to an external USB drive but I don’t want to leave it constantly connected. In this post I cover how to backup to an external drive using a scheduled automated process but only if the external drive is connected at the time.

I don’t believe in leaving external backup USB drive always connected to my system (PC or Server) to avoid the data being corrupted or deleted. Also if the backup drive is for off-site storage then its not possible to be always connected anyway. Using the steps below I can perform a full data backup by simply physically connecting the drive (connecting a USB drive or docking the SATA drive into a USB dock for example), and then leaving it overnight. In the morning I can safely physically disconnect it and store it without even having to log onto the machine.

The basic flow:

1) Assuming that the machine is always on, which my server is, a scheduled task runs every night and executes a backup script (regardless of the backup drive being connected or not). If your machine is not always on then vary this by setting the scheduled task at a time when the machine is usually on.
2) The script checks for the existence of a specific folder on the connected drive (e.g: U:\backup\). If the drive isn’t connected then the folder path won’t exist and the script just exits happily. However, if the drive has been connected then the folder path will exist and the backup script will continue and copy over the data.
3) After a successful backup the script safely disconnects the USB drive. This step is technically optional as Windows supports pulling a USB drive out without doing a soft eject but its highly recommended to tell Windows first to avoid data corruption.
4) Optionally you can also output a backup log somewhere to enable you to check the logs periodically without having to reconnect the USB drive to verify the job worked.

More detailed steps:

Firstly connect the external USB drive and make a note of the drive letter it uses. Changing the drive letter to something memorable might help (B for backup, U for USB, O for Offsite etc). We’ll use U for this example. Next we need to write a DOS command script, a simple program or Powershell script to perform the backup of the data using the backup tool of your choice. I use Robocopy to copy the files via a Powershell script and below is a simplified version of my script.

#==========================================================================================================
# Checks for presence of offsite backup USB drive, and backs up relevant data to drive if present,
# exits gracefully if not present. Run script everynight and it only backs up data when offsite
# USB external drive is turned on.
#==========================================================================================================
clear-host

# set file paths and log file names
$timestamp = Get-Date -format yyyyMMdd_HHmmss
$LogBasePath="D:\Logs\OffSiteUSBBackup"
$LogFile="$LogBasePath\USBBkUp_$timestamp.txt"
$USBDriveLetter="U"
$USBDriveBackupPath="U:\Backup"

# set error action preference so errors don't stop and the trycatch kicks in to handle gracefully
$erroractionpreference = "Continue"

try
{
	# Check USB drive is on by verfiying the path
	if(Test-Path $USBDriveBackupPath)
	{
		# now copy the data folders to backup drive
		invoke-expression "Robocopy C:\Docs $USBDriveBackupPath\Docs /MIR /LOG:$LogFile /NP"
		invoke-expression "Robocopy C:\Stuff $USBDriveBackupPath\Stuff /MIR /LOG+:$LogFile /NP"

		# Copy the log file too
		invoke-expression "Robocopy $LogBasePath $USBDriveBackupPath\Logs /MIR /NP"

		# Sleep for 60 to ensure all transactions complete, then disconnect USB drive
		Start-Sleep -Seconds 60
		Invoke-Expression "c:\DevCon\USB_Disk_Eject /removeletter $USBDriveLetter"
	}
}
catch
{
	# Catch the error, log it somewhere, but make sure you still eject the drive using below
	Start-Sleep -Seconds 60
	Invoke-Expression "c:\DevCon\USB_Disk_Eject /removeletter $USBDriveLetter"
}

It is key to include in the script a check for the existence of a specific folder on the drive letter belonging to the external drive (U in our example). Only if its present do we continue with the backup.

I make sure that Robocopy logs the output to a file and that file is on the server and copied to the USB drive (as a record of the last backup date etc). I also report the running of the PowerShell script to the Eventlog for reporting purposes but this is outside the scope of this post.

It’s safer to tell Windows that you’re gonna pull the drive out and so I call  USB_Disk_Eject  from within my script, passing in the drive letter. I then wait 30 seconds to ensure the drive has had sufficient time to disconnect before I exit the script. There are a few tools available for ejecting USB drives such as Microsoft’s Device Console (DevCon.exe) but I use USB Disk Ejector (https://github.com/bgbennyboy/USB-Disk-Ejector).

Now set up a Scheduled Task in Windows to run the script every night at a set time.  As the script is scheduled to run every night all I have to do if I want to perform a back-up is connect my backup drive and leave it until the morning. The script will run overnight, find the drive, backup and disconnect. In the morning I can just physically disconnect the drive safely without having to log onto the machine. Periodically I’ll check the backup logs and the backup drive to make sure all is well and to check remaining drive space etc.

UPDATE: A working Powershell script can be found on my GitHub site.

Do you like this approach? Got a better idea? Let me know via the comments.

The End Of TechNet Downloads Raises The Barrier To Entry For MS Techies

Microsoft unfortunately recently announced the demise of the TechNet Subscription. Whilst I appreciate that TechNet download abuse must contribute towards the availability of pirated products, I still think that this is a short sighted move by Microsoft. The MSDN subscription will continue  (for now) and anyone making money from privacy will be able to cover the extra cost of an MSDN subscription. Few individuals, however, are able to afford an MSDN subscription to feed their enthusiasm for Microsoft products. Nor would they want to with attractive alternatives being available from other vendors.

My concern is that the barrier to entry for being a Microsoft Technology IT Pro and Developer was just raised significantly. In my 2009 post on Microsoft making it too expensive for developers to experiment with Azure, I outlined how critical it is to make your products available to both current and future upcoming developers. Microsoft responded over the last few years by offering free Azure websites, reducing prices and offering improved MSDN offers. This has reduced the barrier to entry for Azure for developers, but Microsoft has now raised it for IT Pros and the enthusiast market. 

TechnetDownloadsAccording to Microsoft, evaluation versions of OSs will be available for download. I think that 90-180 day trials are very valuable but historically they have only been available for the latest products. Great if you want to try out Windows Server 2012 but not if you need to experiment with Windows Server 2008, which is a major flaw to this approach. Also short trial periods such as those found with client OSs are a real frustration. Virtual Labs are excellent for targeted training of specific features but are not a replacement for the real world experience of running a real instance.

But surely it’s all running in the cloud now anyway? Well perhaps in the future the idea of running servers locally will be a strange concept but we are a way yet from that being the norm. The Enterprise IT Pros and Developers of today and more importantly the near future will need to be skilled in running servers locally for some time to come. Running virtual servers in the cloud might be an option for some and may be the future but it’s expensive to do this currently and techies will not be exposed to those server maintenance activities that are abstracted away by cloud providers.

TechnetDownloads2There is a large home server enthusiast community that will rely on TechNet to evaluate and run Windows Server products. This is a vibrant, active community and one that happily shares detailed technical knowledge with the wider world and feeds the Microsoft Technology communities. With the death of Windows Home Server, and now TechNet, these enthusiasts will now start to look for alternatives. There are by comparison plenty of non-Windows choices in this space (Linux/BSD).

The cost of a TechNet subscription seems to have dropped to a bargain price over the last few years, perhaps too low, and Microsoft could have gradually increased the price over the next few years to make it less attractive to those looking to avoid buying retail versions and yet continue as a mechanism for Microsoft enthusiastic techies to access Microsoft Operating Systems. 

In summary I think that Microsoft have needlessly raised the barrier to entry for experimenting and learning Microsoft Technologies and makes alternative platforms more attractive. This move will in the long run surely push enthusiasts and young upcoming techies into the arms of Linux/BSD.

PIN Protect Those Android Purchases

PIN Protect Those Android Purchases

Kids love playing on tablets and smart phones, and I think the excellent Nexus 7 will be a popular choice for Christmas Stockings this year. Apparently though in-app purchases for children’s mobile games are costing parents around the world nearly $1.5 billion a year, and there are often stories in the press of individual children accidently racking up huge bills for their parents. Regulators around the world are starting to look into this practice Screenshot_2012-11-03-15-47-07but until then lock or disable your phones/tablets ability to make these purchases before handing it to a click happy child.

On android follow these instructions to setup a PIN within the Google Play App and then use that PIN to protect all app purchases (see screenshot on the right).

If you’re an Apple user then since version 4.3 iOS apparently requires the user to enter their iTunes password for in-app purchases by default.

Installing Team Foundation Server on Windows Home Server 2011

Installing Team Foundation Server on Windows Home Server 2011

Twelve months ago I wrote a post documenting “installing Team Foundation Server 2010 on Windows Home Server” which has proved very popular. Well things move on and since then Microsoft have released a new version of Windows Home Server (WHS 2011). There are many differences between V2 of WHS compared to V1 but the main points for the purpose of this post are that WHS 2011 is build on top of Windows Server 2008 R2 (compared to Windows Server 2003 for V1) and controversially the Drive Extender technology has been removed. Whilst Drive Extender was no doubt useful for storage pooling it did make installing applications like TFS a little concerning. As described in my original article I wouldn’t install an application or a SQL Server database into the Drive Pool (it just feels wrong to me and wouldn’t trust it) and I stick by this especially as it’s been suggested that one of the reasons for Microsoft  removing DE was due to it not playing nicely with enterprise applications that would be targeted for use on the new Small Business Server Essentials product range with which WHS 2011 shares it’s code. No DE means you can install TFS now to whichever drive wherever you like in WHS 2011, and the fact that it’s built on the excellent Server 2008 base means it benefits from stability and performance improvements this brings. I’ve not found any issues with TFS on WHS 2011 and don’t expect to (although its not supported so you install it at your own risk). I think that WHS 2011 will make an even better TFS server than WHS V1.

Other than the decision of where to install TFS due to DE, the installation instructions are the same as in my original post. After installation I recommend installing the TFS Power Tools and then configuring TFS backups as described in these posts: Backing Up TFS 2010 Using PowerShell: Part 1, Backing Up TFS 2010 Using PowerShell: Part 2 and Backing up TFS 2010 with new Power Tools Backup Plan.

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