Monday, March 31, 2008

But you told me you were reliable

I posted recently about web site hosting, but the question came up of how you measure the reliability of a web host. This is a pretty deep subject that you could write a book about.

Of course, to start off, you have to define some things, like what reliability means to you and how much you really need it. Are you running an ecommerce site that gets millions of hits and sales per day, with a minute or two of downtime or sluggish page loading leading to thousands in lost revenue? Are you running a private family wiki to plan your family reunion next year that probably no one will notice if it's down a day or two? How much is reliability really worth to you? You can find plans ranging anywhere from $4 to $400 per month for hosting services, all with different levels of guaranteed service and different amounts of storage space and file transfer or bandwidth.

Going back to what reliability means, we might ask what are the causes of unreliable data or data loss? Well, there's user error, such as deleting or saving over the top of a file. Then there is hardware failure where a drive actually crashes and everything on it is lost or the network is disrupted in some way and your data is temporarily unavailable. Chances are most hosts will have something in place to keep their hardware running, with some form of RAID and maybe even clustering. RAID is a redundant set of hard drives where one can die and the others keep running. Clustering is a similar concept, but instead of just redundant disks, you have redundant servers. Throwing a couple more disks in a machine is a lot cheaper than setting up a completely separate server, so be prepared to pay a lot more for clustering.

WestHost claims to have 99.9% uptime, which is about 40 minutes of downtime per month. Site5 is another host who has a 99.9% uptime guarantee, where you will get a prorated credit if there are unscheduled outages over 45 minutes in a month. How do you verify that? Well, you can look to someone like Netcraft who monitors the web and tells you all sorts of things like what operating systems web servers are running and how long they have been running since they rebooted. They also have a page that shows hosting providers and shows how quickly they respond and how much downtime they have experienced. That chart is nice, if your host is one that has paid to be included on it.

In order to recover from PEBKAC errors (problem exists between keyboard and chair), look for a host that provides the ability to create cron jobs, which are scheduled tasks you can use to back up your files, so in case you delete or save over something, you can recover it. You'll probably have to set these up yourself. If you have enough disk space on your host's server, you can backup to that same server, but you'll want to backup to another location as well. Don't schedule so many offsite backups that you use up your monthly bandwidth quota, though.

Many companies will have a 30 or 60 day money back guarantee or a free trial period. Talk to people you know about how they like their host. Look at what kind of tech support availability they have. Although many companies will let you get by without a contract, most will give you a pretty decent discount for prepaying a year or two in advance, so you'll want to check to see how much of that is refundable if you want out after the guarantee period.

So, when choosing a host and a plan, it all depends on what you need and what you are willing to pay. No matter how much you pay and how foolproof your host's backup plan seems, never trust a single layer of backup. The key word is redundancy. How redundant? At least one layer deeper than you think you'll ever need.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Where'd my stuff go?

As more and more people are uploading their lives to the Internet, it's becoming more important to pay attention to privacy policies and how stable your hosting company is. If you're using free services like Blogger, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Docs, etc. you're at the mercy of the company who is holding onto your data. If you're just using a hosting company, you're in charge of all your own data, but there's still not much you can do about it if they go down. Of course, they can always take you down if they receive a copyright violation notice from anyone.

Kaushal Sheth recently posted about his web hosting woes, when his host died one day. He's moved on to a more stable one, Host Monster. WestHost is a good one that looks to be good, stable, and a pretty good price.

Wherever you end up, prices are low enough that you want to shop around and really make sure you get the service you need. Look for the availability of server side scripting languages like PHP and databases like MySQL or PostgreSQL. Many hosts have free applications you can use for hosting your blog, but as long as they have a database and programming language support, you can always upload your own applications. You don't have to use their wiki or photo sharing program. Just find an open source one and upload it yourself.

I personally use mostly the free services provided by companies rather than put together my own fully integrated site, but that is mostly because my research is headed in that direction - using existing Web 2.0 tools to collaborate and integrate content with other people, since that's what the majority of web users, who are not necessarily programmers, are going to be doing.

Whatever direction you end up taking, create a backup plan. After you've lost your entire life's work, it's a little late.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Doctor G: You need a PPT transplant

Eric Zeman recently posted about a failure of Google Docs, after over a year of using it with no problems. So what was the problem? Although you can export to a .doc or a .xls file, you can't export a powerpoint file. The presentation software only allows you to export a PDF or text file. I assume that support is coming, but it could be a dealbreaker right now.

I haven't used Google Docs a ton yet, but from what I remember, the word procesor and spreadsheet functionality has been there for longer than the presentation functionality. None of it is very advanced, but it covers the needs of probably two thirds of the users out there. OpenOffice is a step up, and MS Office is another step up. OpenOffice is probably good enough for 95% of the users, with only a small number actually needing MS Office. We won't go into the differences between Office 2007 and previous versions here.

The cool thing about Google Docs, however, is the collaborative features which are not present in other office suites. You can have multiple people editing the same document at the same time, and the changes that are made are logged. You can easily share a document with others to view or to edit, without ending up with multiple copies of your file sitting on email folders and saved random places on hard drives and USB drives. There's no question who's got the latest version.

Another feature of the presentations is that you can launch a presentation and then people can join in your presentation via the web and chat along with you next to the presentation pane. Add voice from Google Talk to the presentation, and you've got a sweet product. Actually, I'm hoping they'll add video to their Google Talk application as well so I can get off Skype.

I recently sat in on a presentation by a company Xapio that claims to have solved all of these problems with tracking versions of documents and who has read or otherwise accessed them. However, all their product consists of is a special mail server that strips out attachments, saves the attachment on their server, and sends the link. They can then log who downloads the file using that link. That's nice, but you still end up having to download the file and work with it on your local machine. What if you have a bunch of people working on a document together? You'll have all the versions of the file saved on their server, but only if they have been emailed back and forth. They were doing some cool things with protecting confidential information from going out via email, and the lawyers will love that you can log whether or not someone has read a document you sent them, but it's not really collaborative.

Microsoft is so far missing the collaboration boat as well. They have Sharepoint, but it suffers from the high cost, confusing licensing terms, and of course the security and administration headache that comes from using MS products. Sharepoint has real-time presence information, wikis, blogs, calendars, document collaboration features, etc. Some large enterprises with large IT budgets are obviously going to be better off using Sharepoint, but small companies, nonprofits, students, families, etc. can have pretty much the same thing using free tools hosted on a server they don't have to manage.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

New Way to Cheat

We had another person this week open up a website in full view of our test proctors to look up the answer to a question on the web-based test they were taking. Really? You're taking a test. Of all the ingenious ways one could think of to cheat, that's what you come up with? Of course, the really novel ways to cheat on our tests probably take more energy and time to pull off than just taking the tests, so it's not worth it.

An interesting company, Microvision, looks to have some cool laser-based projection technology that may make it easier to cheat in certain situations. Of course, there are many appropriate applications of their technology, but as with anything, there will be inappropriate uses as well.

A pair of glasses that can show video to the wearer could be used for many things, per their website, such as giving a speech, reading email, watching movies, viewing schematics while performing repairs, and more. Hook it up with a GPS and you can see a friend or acquaintance coming from several blocks away or follow directions to a restaurant. Or cheat during a test.

Of course, the cool products they have displayed on their website are much more interesting to me than facilitating bad behavior. The PDA-sized projector is pretty cool. The Heads Up Display (HUD) for cars will surely be common soon, so you can follow directions reflected off your windshield instead of having to look down to the nav screen mounted in the dash.

Hopefully professors and other teachers will embrace new technology and encourage students to use it for good purposes rather than be scared of it and ban it or (even worse) ignore it. Those who teach will have to adapt and choose different assessment methods that are not quite so prone to cheating as multiple choice tests. On second thought, that would require change - we'd better start thinking of something else.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I don't Stumble that much, but I found this video recently doing so.

It's an amazing awareness test, as part of an ad campaign sponsored by the mayor of London. You can watch it without sound, but it's a little better with sound.

How many did you see? 12, 13, 14? You simply have to watch the video again after you've seen it once.

There's so many possible applications of this video. Of course, their message at the end is a great one, but you could apply it to other situations as well.

I met recently with my employees and we talked about some of the distractions that they face while working, such as computer games, texting, and IM. I hesitate fully banning any kind of diversion for days or times when it is slow, but when there are piles of things to do and people to help, I don't understand at all that they don't see all this stuff they should be doing. How do I make them be aware if they don't want to be?

Friday, March 7, 2008

The River of Doubt

I read the book The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey before the semester started, but now just as we're getting to Spring Break and the book is due back to the library I've got just a moment to post about it.

This is one of those books that could be made into a three part movie and there will still be pieces left out. It was put together over about four years by former National Geographic writer and editor Candice Millard, based on diaries, letters, magazine articles, and books written by those involved in the expedition.

It recounts Theodore Roosevelt's journey with his son Kermit along with several others to explore Rio da Dúvida or River of Doubt, now renamed Roosevelt River, a tributary of the Amazon in Brazil. I won't do it justice here, but this was an amazing story. After Roosevelt had been out of the presidency for a term, he decided to run again, but was defeated. In order to overcome his depression from losing so badly, he decided upon this expedition. It was supposed to be somewhat of a token expedition down a tame, well-known river, similar to his hunting trips to Africa, but it ended up being a battle for survival down a completely unknown river deep in the rain forest. Roosevelt eventually died from the illness and injury he sustained on the River of Doubt.

The rich description of the teeming wildlife, both flora and fauna, and how they have specialized and adapted to remain hidden from predators and maintain symbiotic relationships with other life in the rain forest is such that you can picture yourself floating down the river on one of the heavy dugout canoes they used through piranha-infested waters. Between fighting the wildlife, a lack of proper supplies, and disagreements amongst themselves, it is a wonder they completed their journey.

The entire time they floated the river, the natives who lived along the river were watching them, in disagreement about what to do with these invaders. It was only the lack of a centralized leadership among the native tribes which led to indecision about whether they should allow Roosevelt's team to pass that saved them from being killed by the Indians.

As dark and terrible as this sounds, the book is a testament to these strong men who were able to survive based on their will to live and their strength, and makes this such an amazing story. There are so many details I should list, but you will be better served by reading the book than listening to me rave about it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Doctor X: Open wide and say Ahh

I was curious about how easy it really is to open a DOCX file and what the XML underneath really looks like. So what was the natural thing to try? I created a one word document in Office 2007 and opened it in Notepad. Aha! It looks like garbage. It's not XML after all.

Well, that's what I thought until I googled it and found that a docx file is really just a zip file. Excel and Powerpoint files should be similar to the Word ones, but I haven't tried opening those up yet. If you change the file extension from .docx to .zip, you can open the file in your favorite compression program (Winzip, PKZip, WinRAR, Windows' Compressed Folders, etc.) Within that zip file, you'll find any pictures you insert into your document and various other files containing the content and formatting.

I haven't delved into it yet, but according to Microsoft you should be able to update a bunch of files in a batch process, which seems like a cool idea. Others complain that as a standard, the OOXML format doesn't cut it. They're being investigated by the EU for vote rigging to get their format ISO-approved. Others point out that with Bill Gates gone, Microsoft is trying to change to fit in better with the new collaborative culture, but that their own company culture may be too deeply ingrained for them to be able to truly play nicely with others - like the bully that beats up on the other kids, then goes home and cries that he has no friends.

When OpenOffice 3.0 comes out later this year, it should have support for for OOXML, which will be nice. I haven't heard much about whether OpenOffice will take any GUI lessons from Office 2007, but I doubt they will. Keeping the classic look is a selling point to many who are frustrated with the new GUI. I personally think that Microsoft changed the look and feel of their product in order to make it harder to use other office suites. It is a difficult transition to 2007, but people will do it because they are addicted to using the latest version of MS Office. Look at when the released Internet Explorer 7. Everyone complained that things moved around and it was more difficult to use, how they put the Stop, Reload, and Home buttons in different places and hid the menu bar, but no one complains anymore. You get used to it quickly, but then try going back to using IE 6 or Firefox and things aren't where you relearned that they should be. It makes Firefox feel old and clunky and hard to use. I think that is their goal now in the office suite market after testing reaction to a minor GUI change in their web browser. As people force themselves to learn Office 2007, it will become easy and intuitive, but they will forget how to use the classic GUI and will feel lost when trying to use OpenOffice. So I'm really torn when it comes to OpenOffice copying Office 2007's GUI outright, but I do think Openoffice should at least try to round off some edges and make it look a bit more modern.