Friday, 29 May 2009

Le VPN - Il marche maintenant!

The company I work for has sites in several European countries. A few of these are wholly owned, but many are business partner type set-ups. One of the latter was in France; but last year, we bought out the partner and the business is now wholly owned by us, and the business is run as a separate concern.

The long term plans are to get them to use the same systems as the rest of the group; but this is taking a bit longer as we are in the process of implementing a new ERP system and it has to work for us first before we put them onto the same system. However, we have set-up a VPN connection, got them to transfer to using our mail server, linked in their DNS and the AD and started them Video conferencing, so they are now looking more to us for support.

Working with the staff there is OK; all but a couple of older ladies speak some English and even they manage to understand me most of the time. One young lady in particular is native French but speaks fluent English and German; she can even switch language mid sentence. It makes me feel very inadequate (but then I remind myself that I speak binary and hexadecimal!) Like most people of my age, I did learn French at school; but that was over trente years ago. Even then, it was definitely the "la plume de ma tante" style of speaking. I'm sure that I could have played the part of Officer Crabtree in 'Allo, 'Allo with great effect!

We wanted to use our equipment over there so that we could manage it, but the former partner company, whose systems the site still have to use for the time being, insist that they want to control the connection. We occasionally get problems with the VPN - their router plays up and the connection doesn't get re-set properly, so I have manually do it from our end. A bit frustrating as we seldom get issues like that within the sites in the UK.

This week there was one such incident. However, this time it was worse than normal, as all attempts to get the VPN running again failed. The funniest part was whan they asked me to speak to the ISP helpdesk in France; they gave me a telephone number over there which I called. After about 2 minutes, I got through to a very nice young lady - in India! Fortunately, her English was better than my French!

After several exchanges of emails and various tests, we did actually get it running again. Although this is a slower way of dealing with people, it works well in multi language situations as each side gets the chance to think more carefully about a response - there isn't the pressure of a live conversation. Having said that, most of the people that I have to deal with do manage to make themselves understood. I do try to speak their language - but usually, they smile slightly then politely suggest that we should stick to English. Clearly, my French hasn't improved since Mme Vincente tried to teach me to correctly conjugate my verbs back in the late 60's. Ah, zut alors!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Netbook update

I managed to catch the CEO this morning to talk about his experience with the Inspiron mini. He has been using it for a few days now, including the weekend and has had the chance to try it on a short trip.

Generally, he is very impressed by it. He thought that the screen might be a bit too small, but he found that he was working a bit closer to it when he was on the plane, so didn't really have an issue. He has been shown how to find the screen magnifier, but prefers to change the font size instead.

The battery was conditioned before he took it away and he is getting just over 3.5 hours life - he feels that this is enough for most things. I discussed getting him a second battery to keep as a standby, and I may do this, but at the moment, it's not a priority.

When it is on his desk, he uses an external monitor - there have been a couple of issues with getting the screen resolution right and we tried using several devices including a wide screen monitor but that didn't make a lot of difference. He seems happy enough with the one he is now using running at 1024 x 768. The re-installed O/S appears to be working as well as if it had been factory installed.

It doesn't have a specific docking station, so we are using an old Belkin port replicator device; that works just fine. I did discuss him having one for use at home as well; not a particular need, but I think he may think about it again later.

As indicated, most of what he looks at are emails, some documents, spreadsheets and occasional web pages. He also has Messenger running so that he can talk with his son who is at Uni. The device handles this well; there is no sign at the moment (early days I know) of any real speed issues. He has shortcuts to data on our data store and can access these really easily; he also used the VPN connection to get access over the bank holiday and reported no problems with anything.

So far, a definite 2 thumbs up from him and from us. He has even been talking about getting a couple more; primarily for use by some of the other senior managers throughout the group.


The CEO came back to the office today and he is even more impressed with it than before. He did say that a couple of programs seemed to run a bit faster than on his old laptop - I think because it hasn't built up all of the various junk that accumulates as you use these devices.

He did make a point of saying that he can fit into his suitcase for when he and his wife go on holiday. I suggested that she might not be too happy (I know she won't be!) and that she might object quite strongly to him adding into his luggage. He said it is small enough that he can sneak it in without her knowing - oh well, I don't think I'll be invited to sit on their table at the Christmas party this year!

Monday, 18 May 2009

Notes on a Netbook

We’ve just bought a new lightweight notebook for the CEO – a Dell Inspiron Mini 12.

I thought that I would do a review of this as it’s a new product and a number of people have expressed interest in knowing how we got on with it.

First the background – the CEO does a lot of travelling and wants to be able to work wherever he is. He has a laptop that he is happy with, but in the past few months, some airlines are getting a bit restrictive on hand luggage, so he wanted to try and get a lighter device that could be packed in his bag.

He has tested a smart phone – the HTC Touch Pro and thinks that this is good for the email side of things, but the screen and keyboard are too small for him to use for more than very basic functions – he needs to refer to spreadsheets, documents etc so he really needs a larger device.

I checked out the details of several models of the smaller notebooks including the perennial favourites of senior management, the Sony Vaio. However, the Inspiron is much cheaper at just over £300 – he decided that at that price, he could swallow wasting the money if he didn’t like the device, or if it proved not powerful enough for what he needs to do.

We placed the order and it took a bit longer than most items that we’ve ordered through Dell; it appears that it is only currently manufactured in China, so that’s not really surprising. It actually took just under three weeks; we normally get stuff within 7 days. Mind you, as they are closing their place in Ireland, we may have to get used to waiting a few extra days.

When it arrived, everybody’s first impression was one of astonishment – it is so small and light. At 1.2 kg, it is just a bit more than a bag of sugar, but it actually feels lighter. It has a smooth shiny top lid (ours was black) and it looks very professional. The trim inside is silver with the new flatter touch pad – and the action of the pad is very smooth and positive.

Start up seemed a little bit slower than a normal laptop, but not by much. Once we had gone through the normal Welcome to Windows menu items, the unit seemed to operate pretty much as might be expected. I’ve not used a device with the Atom processor in it, and if this is anything to go by, it seems to do the job.

The notebook comes with an integrated web cam, and the aperture is tiny – less than 5 mm across (no that’s not a typo – 5 millimetres). However the clarity is really excellent and the necessary software is quite easy to use. The screen generally is easily readable even though the surface is quite shiny – we tried it with the blinds on the windows up and even with a strong outside light, it was still easy to read.

The device has built in network (100Mb not gigabit), wireless connection and Bluetooth facility. We tried all of these and the connection was smooth and quick to set-up in each case, just like a standard laptop. It doesn’t have an optical drive as the case just isn’t thick enough at less than 10 mm – but there are USB ports and also ports for microphone and audio output.

Unfortunately, it comes with Windows XP Home edition – no good for connection to a domain. I was a bit surprised at this and queried why – however, it appears that almost all of the mini notebooks are loaded with Win XP HE. The few exceptions are the Sony Vaios and some of the HP models which have Vista Business.

As Win XP HE is no good for us, and we have a spare copy of XP Pro, we decided to try and install this. The installation took about the normal length of time for a new install. At this point, some of the drivers for the integrated hardware would install, but most wouldn’t. However, we then installed the service packs – once they were on, we were able to get all of the drivers loaded OK.

At this stage, we have Office 2003, Adobe Acrobat 9, our ERP software, patching software, and anti-virus software all installed. Our tests seem to show that is noticeably slower than a normal laptop, but certainly not to an unusable degree. Generally, the windows seem open quite smoothly and programs starting up do not take an unreasonably long time.

We are currently trying to condition the battery – it seems to last about 2 hours at the moment. We’re also going to install a USB modem for mobile broadband. In the meantime the CEO now has a USB mouse and a port replicator set up on his desk to use with it and we’ve supplied a mini USB mouse for him to take with him on his travels.

I’ll get some feedback from him and post it in a couple of weeks after he has had the time to get used to it.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam .................

We had a slight problem yesterday – access to the Internet became a bit flaky. People kept calling to say that access was denied or sites were taking a long time to open. At first, we thought that this was just people being impatient, but quickly we realised that there was a problem.

The firewall device seemed to be struggling a bit – the connection log showed a very high level of packet transmission. That wasn’t too unusual as our current connection gets maxed out on a regular basis and we have seen it much worse. A few tweaks and it all seemed OK – so we thought no more of it.

Later in the afternoon, we had the same problem; tweak again, all OK – but then it happened again very quickly afterwards. A brief discussion and it was decided that we should re-boot the device to clear anything that was cached that might cause a problem. One quick reboot and everything was hunky dory.

When I got into the office this morning I was a bit surprised to find about 20 or so emails that were exact duplicates of ones that I had received yesterday. I asked around and a number of other people had the same problem. I did a few checks, but couldn’t see any problems. There seemed to be the usual level of network activity – nothing that would indicate any issues so I put it down to the previous day’s problems.

Over the next couple of hours, I worked on various items including a few support issues. During that time, I received several more emails, some internal, some external. Around mid morning, I thought about it and realised that I had actually received no new external mail, they had all been duplicates. I did a quick check using an external mail service, and realised that there were no incoming or outgoing mails at all.

The guys and I did some tests and quickly realised that something was seriously wrong with the firewall – it was running like a 3 legged dog and several pages of the control menu just would not open at all. We called the support team at the mail service and they checked but confirmed mail was coming in – so we called the vendor of the firewall. They checked but also found that it was running slow so they escalated the problem to the manufacturer.

About an hour later, we got a call from the vendor – the support guys from the manufacturer had found that there were a lot of emails in the cache of the device – about a 1000 or so. They said that they would run a script to clear the cache and expected that this would fix the problem. About 20 minutes later, they phoned back again – it wasn’t a thousand, but one hundred thousand! - and more coming in by the second.

Eventually, they cleared the cache and the email started to move, and our spam mailbox suddenly started to groan under the weight of the mail. It was all from one IP address in Japan, to one mailbox, with one subject line. A quick calculation showed over 10,000 incoming mail every hour. To deal with it, we set-up a PC logged on with the user account for the spam mailbox, and then we set a rule within Outlook to delete the incoming mail from the specific sender. Once this was set running, we could see the incoming mail, but also see it being deleted – it was really cool to watch.

All in all, we feel pretty good about it; once the problem was identified, we had a solution really quickly. Yes we did have a period of a couple of hours with no email, but no-one actually realised this. One of the directors did have an issue with trying to send an important mail to a potential client; but I was able to do that for him using a specific backup external mail facility set-up for that purpose.

After identifying the problem we had outgoing mail within about 15 minutes – incoming mail took slightly longer because of the backlog of garbage, but still less than 30 minutes. The staff were all kept informed – but later it seemed, most of them hadn’t even realised that there was a problem until they got the email from me to tell them about it.

I’m going to sit down with the guys in the next few days – we will draw up a brief outline of what happened and will use that to see if there was anything else we could have done to (1) prevent it, (2) detect it, (3) prepare for it happening again. This will be added to our Business Continuity / Disaster Recovery Plans

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Hanging on the telephone

A couple of years ago, I highlighted that the company telephone systems were getting very old – one of the PBX switches was so old that parts were no longer available for it, and support for all of the systems was very limited. On top of that, the systems needed very specific handsets which were getting harder to source if we needed to replace them, and many of those we had were in very poor condition. I also felt that the telephones didn’t really meet our needs as they had limited functionality.

I spent quite a bit of time looking at various options for replacing these and had numerous meetings with potential vendors. I did some comparisons and produced a short list; those were then invited to put together a final presentation. After about 4 months work, I eventually decided to buy a Mitel system through BT.

I have to say that the new system is really good; it has great functionality and I think that it is really easy to use. Mitel provided a couple of trainers, access to an online training system, some documentation and advice – and the engineers were really helpful. I made the documentation available to all staff and took the time to go around every single member of staff to show them how to do the basics, and how to get access to the online training material.

But even though it is such a good system, there are a number of issues. Incoming calls can now be routed between offices, and yet I regularly hear people advising customers that they have dialled the wrong number and they make the caller re-dial instead of just transferring the call. The other day one of the senior managers wanted to have a 3 way conference call, and couldn’t remember how to do it; he had to phone up the IT office from another phone to ask how to do it whilst the customer waited on the other line.

There are still some people that haven’t recorded their voicemail message after almost a year of use; of those that have, many just use it as an answer phone and still don’t appreciate that there is so much more that they can do with it. I really can’t see why it’s such a problem for them.

However, this technophobia didn’t come as a complete surprise to me; when we ordered the system I decided not to take all of the additional functionality as I suspected that most of our staff would struggle to learn just the basic operations. I suggested that once they had become comfortable with the new phones, we could look again at the optional extras.

Last week, I took a couple of people up to the Mitel head office (a big thanks to them for their hospitality) specifically so that they could see some of the additional functionality. Much of this is based around the concept of unified communications and having previously seen this, I’m impressed by the possibilities. The two people that I took with me were equally excited – within a matter of minutes, they were discussing how all of this could be used to provide efficiencies.

Unfortunately though, I am a bit concerned about getting the go ahead for this from the board; I don’t expect the new functions to come cheap, and it is going to be difficult to predict a valid return for the investment. If it is used properly, than there is no doubt that we will see some useful improvements, but I am not certain we can count on people to actually use the new functions properly. (Yes, I am having another go at our technically challenged staff.)

Part of the problem is clearly that people are naturally reluctant to change the way they work. This is especially true if they have been doing things a particular way for some time. Although I’m trying to make things easier for everyone, and make their working life better, they don’t always see it that way. From the user’s point of view, it’s no fun being told to do something a specific way if it makes no sense to you and when you try to do your best, you get made to feel stupid.

But we have to be able to communicate, and the new technology is important in making sure that this is efficient and cost effective. We have to find a way to get everyone to make the best of this – both for their sakes and for that of the company.

Friday, 1 May 2009

I see you - can you see me?

My first experience of video conferencing was because the company that I was working for needed a way to communicate between sites. At the time, they had 2 sites in the South West and one in the Midlands; people spent hours travelling between sites, just for a 1-2 hour meeting. They felt that audio conferences just didn’t meet their needs, which is why they travelled for face to face sessions.

The MD had received an invite to a presentation showing how video conferencing worked and he was so impressed, he bought the equipment on the spot (he was a bit like that). The supplier made sure that he knew it would use ISDN, so we had the lines installed before the equipment arrived. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to supply anyone to set it up and show us how it worked, so I had to trawl through the manuals to work it out for myself.

For about the first 6 months, we had problems; mostly down to people unable to work out how to use the remote control handset (yes really). There were some technical issues to do with line usage that I finally managed to get straight by talking with my colleagues at the other sites. Later, we started to call some sites in Northern Ireland on a regular basis – again a few issues to start with, but once we hammered out the protocol of who called who, it all ran very smoothly.

At one stage, the staff involved in Quality Control on all of the sites were calling each other up on a weekly basis to discuss procedures and how they could deal with some fairly major changes to meet customer requirements. The VC sessions allowed them to respond far quicker than had been the case previously and this was the primary reason that the customer continued to send the business our way.

My current company has sites right across the UK and Europe; the CEO and other senior managers used to spend a lot of time travelling at quite a cost to the business. I proposed the VC option shortly after I started and at first, the reaction was less than overwhelming. However, I got a really good IP based solution installed and set-up the connection between the two main sites. They were totally bowled over. In fact, it went down so well that we were told to roll this out across the group – we had each site connected within a few weeks.

Again, the first 6 months were the hardest bit – people will play around with the settings! Eventually though, things settled down and the VC units really began to pay for themselves.

Now people will argue about the true cost savings – everyone has their own way of calculating these. Basically, I just work out what the saved travel costs are (fuel, trains, hotels, etc); although you can also include saved time not spent in travelling to be more accurate. Based upon just travelling costs, in the first year alone, we saved about 5 times the amount the units cost us to buy. In the second year, we saved over £100,000.

The really interesting thing is how people re-act in VC meetings; when we first started, they were very self conscious and nervous about talking. However, in a very short space of time, this changed – in most cases, before the end of the VC session you would see that people were just talking as normal, they forget that the other people are miles away. Although it was generally just managers at the start, now all staff take part; we had one meeting a while back, where some of the goods in staff were taking part in a session to discuss a new procedure with their colleagues from the other site.

Unfortunately though, we are getting a few issues currently – the bandwidth on the Internet connection is getting crowded and we desperately need more than we have available. Hopefully, we should see this sorted in a few weeks time, but long term we really could use a decent fibre connection. (Stephen Carter, minister of communications; are you listening?)

As you may gather, I’m a big fan of video conferencing – it saves money, time and improves communications. It does also allow you to appear really professional if it is done right. As a business tool, it’s suitable for most SMEs, not just the big boys. For those interested in environmental issues, it’s a really great way to reduce the carbon footprint caused by travelling and very cost effective.

However, I have also seen the next generation of video conferencing – Telepresence. (Link below)

It is really astonishing and I want it now! You have to see it to really appreciate it – but there are some videos on websites that give a good idea of how it works and just how good it really is. As far as I am concerned, the only bad thing about it is the price tag. I foolishly asked what it would cost us, and 2 years ago it was just over a million dollars US (probably the same amount in sterling now). This is a bit on the high side for us – I don’t think that I can persuade the board that it is worth spending that kind of money.

For those companies that have multiple sites, particularly if they are some distance apart, video conferencing is a really good way to keep people in touch without breaking the bank. With all of the environmental pressures, I’m sure that in the future we will see the take up of video conferencing increase; this has to be good for everyone.