Archive for the ‘Hardware’ Category

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Server Reorganisation

May 25, 2009

It’s been rather busy of late and I’ve only just got chance to start posting again.  So I thought I’d best begin by posting about the weekend of the 8th, 9th and 10th of May.

We had spent several weeks planning the work for this weekend including having the first ICT team away day.  The aim of the day was to carry out a number of infrastructure changes to position us to be able to overcome a few historical obstacles and to position us for the future.

Friday 8th.
The work began at noon on Friday with the ICT team updating the software on the organisation’s servers.  Along with all of the usual Microsoft updates, there were a number of other administrative updates to go alongside.  This was also a valuable oportunity to have a good trawl through the system logs looking for anything else that might mean the servers were not running optimally.

Server Room Cabling

Server Room Cabling

Saturday 9th.
Saturday was predominantly a lift and shift day with four of us working in the tiny chilled server room to re-rack the majority of the servers into contiguous blocks to make space to rack more servers.  Incorporated into this work we racked up four new servers and a disk array – more about the specific purpose of these in future posts I hope.

Along with the physical arrangement of the servers, the work also began on recabling and relabeling the servers.  This was further complicated by the necessity to rack up the servers to a Raritan KVM and our UPS systems and an increase in numbers of servers certainly makes it more difficult to keep on top of this.

Sunday 10th.
After completing the cabling and labeling and having some discussions about strategies for software deployment for some upcoming end user hardware updates the day drew to a close with an afternoon of deploying a new network administration password and general testing.

Whilst not without issue, the weekend’s work has now opened up new opportunities for how to better use the ICT infrastructure to support the work of the Academy.

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Death of the iPod?

April 17, 2009

A little while ago I received a request for the installtion of Spotify on a work computer. I’d not heard of it at this point so I did some research and discovered that it was a piece of software that linked you to a massive library of music on the Internet. After a bit of discussion in trying to ascertain what the business case was for installing this to a work computer it faded away.

With greater news in the media recently I decided that I’d give it a go myself and see what all the fuss was about. A free version is available that allows you to listen to any track in the library, and you just get a few adverts every now and then – though a regular payment can eliminate these for uninterrupted listening. The application itself is very simple and is suspsciously similar to iTunes in styling which I guess makes it more familiar to a lot of people.

The quality of the audio was quite reasonable on my computer and in all for a free system it really does seem too good to be true. So is this the beginning of the end for the iPod and the death of the personal storage based media player?

Many journalists seem to think so but I would suggest that it is not.

I don’t think it will be long before the centralised storage access will become more available. The connectivity of devices such as the iPod touch (Wifi) and the iPhone (3G) mean that always on connectivity will allow access to these sorts of systems. This will be another leap forward in personal mobility of media, but there are a number of points that I believe will continue to see personal storage in effect (though probably combined with an online central storage option).

Power

The power requirements for streaming audio to your pocket device is such that battery technology will still have a long way to go. Imagine trying to get several hours play out of an iPod shuffle that is connecting to 3G. How efficient is that battery going to be?

Signal

It is realtively difficult to maintain signal quality in small devices with internal aerials and whilst it is obviously more commonplace these days with mobile phones to have internal aerials than it was say four or five years ago what is the transmission quality actually like? how often have you had a signal that wasn’t quite clear enough? That’s just on audio too which has been around for quite some time. Imagine the difference in data streaming. I assume some sort of buffering will be employed to resolve this, but if it isn’t buffering an entire track you may find that it just pauses at times detroying the listener’s experience.

Taking this further what happens in areas of no signal such as if you’re out hiking or possibly even on a plane or passing through a long tunnel on a train? A total lack of signal availability would effectively destroy your chance of listening to anything.

Range

The range of available tracks is growing all of the time. One of the first things I did when I tried Spotify was to try and find some tracks that I really liked to see if it had them listed. I would say that it managed to list about 50% of them … I didn’t count the karaoke only versions or covers recorded by another artist. Whilst I admit that this is going to grow extensively with a greater take up of such a service I do think that there’s always going to be something that isn’t available on it that I will want and in all likelihood will be likely to have or be able to get hold of in another format.

Podcasts

I actually rarely listen to music on my iPod unless I’m in the car. I more regularly listen to the radio (through an add-on to my iPod… I miss the inbuilt one on my old iRiver) or podcasts. It is not uncommon for me to re-listen to old podcasts (particularly technology related ones like Gartner and ones by the BBC). Some podcasts are always available for download, but others are subject to licensing restrictions which means that they are available for a limited period of time (e.g. BBC). Being able to store these allows me to listen to them in the way that I want.

So whilst I’m sure I could create a system that would allow me to securely stream media from a personal store (on-line or from my home) across the Internet I think that the limitations on power and connectivity will ensure that on device storage will continue to exist. I do think however that we will see more connected devices that allow access to on-line services like Spotify.

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Sharing Ideas and Good ICT

April 5, 2009

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation I’d been trying to put together for the best part of six months and this evening I’ve sent it on to the users who attended and who were unable to attend but showed an interest.  I realised at this point I hadn’t actually blogged about it so I thought I might put together a little post about it.

The aim was simply to share some ideas and some bits of ICT that could help people do their jobs quicker/better/cheaper/economically/more easily.  Many of these were based upon queries from users and solutions  found or in some cases pre-emptively finding options for issues that have yet to be raised.

A note was put into the staff briefing and some posters put up around the office to try and get people along to the presentation.  The attendance was surprisingly low and it’s unfortunate in terms of what people missed out on but I thought I’d highlight the areas that were discussed and some high level points on what was demonstrated and discussed.

The presentation was split into four main sections – software, hardware, web sites and engaging with the ICT team.

Software

  • Skype
  • Working with PDFs
    • Microsoft Office plug ins
    • PDF printers
    • PDF Bulder Toolkit
    • Drawloop.com
  • Public Folders in Outlook

Hardware

  • Photocopiers
    • Printing
    • Scanning
    • Secure printing & scanning
  • Data Capture
    • Dictaphones
    • Digital cameras
    • DigiMemo
    • MIMIO
  • Communication
    • Teleconferencing units
    • Audio/telephony cabling

Web Sites

Engaging with ICT

  • Service Desk
    • Queries
    • Training
  • Invitation
    • Project meetings
    • Team meetings
  • Communications
    • Presentations
    • Briefings
    • Mailings
    • Bulletins
    • Newsletters

I don’t plan on publishing the presentation widely as much of it is only directly relevant to Academy ICT users in the way it is presented, but the outline above gives an indication of the content and areas in which the user community is developing.

Hopefully some imminent developments might help create a greater sharing of such ideas and information within a community and build a better culture of knowledge sharing and management.

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Windows Mobile Keyboard

March 8, 2009

A little while ago I spent some time outside of work struggling with a particular application on my Samsung Omnia i900 mobile phone.  It seemed like it just didn’t work properly and I almost reported it to the developers as a bug.  Just before I did I came across another piece of mobile software and noted a very similar problem and this time something clicked and I realised what the issue really was.

The problem I was experiencing was that I could navigate within the applications using my physical pointer on the touch screen of the phone, but within some parts of the application there was just no response when tapping (or double tapping).  Using the inbuilt optical mouse button had an identical non-response.  Eventually I realised that the software had been written for Windows mobile devices that had a physical D-pad.

A D-pad (or directional pad) is typically found below the screen on a Windows mobile device and has five physical buttons.  One for return (usually in the centre) and four directional buttons (up, down, left and right).  Since the Omnia has no D-pad my next thought was to have a look through the inbuilt keyboard options for an on screen keyboard with directional buttons.

By default I use the “Samsung Keyboard” which does not have any directional buttons.  A quick search through the options showed that the “MS Keyboard” was the only one to have arrow keys.  I tried using this keyboard and it did indeed resolve the navigation issue in the applications.  the only problem is that whilst I could navigate using the physical pointer and the optical mouse with this keyboard it is slow and fiddly as the keys are simply so small.  I use my fingers to do most of my interaction with my phone so I decided to continue looking for another finger friendly solution.

My first investigation was in trying to find a “virtual” or “on screen” D-pad.  Unfortunately everyone’s favourite font of all knowledge (Google) didn’t yield any usable results and so I took a step back to see if there were any keyboards for Windows mobile that could be configured to have large directional keys.

This time my search was a little more fruitful.  PCM Keyboard is an incredibly flexible keyboard for Windows Mobile devices.  Using the Microsoft emulator for WM6, a base theme package for PCM Keyboard called “dream2“, some rough documentation and several hours of confusion and frustration later and I have managed to configure more than just a simple on screen D-pad.

My solution is “DPress” a theme for PCM Keyboard.  Copy the DPress.zip file to your Windows mobile device and place it into the same directory as your PCM Keyboard installation (check under Program Files on whichever storage area you installed PCM Keyboard to).  Select the options for installed keyboards and the options for the PCM Keyboard.  Select DPress and ensure that you select a keyboard type (qwerty and azerty are included).  Save the changes and then the likelihood is you’ll need to restart your device and reselect the PCM Keyboard as the input option to get the DPress keyboard.

Below are some screen shots on how to access the different displays of the keyboard.  Click on the thumbnail images for larger views.

The Default - lowercaseuppercaselower case keyboard left is the default keyboard view as one might expect. From here the keyboard layout can be changed through a number of key presses. The most obvious one is pressing the shift key. This will change the layout to upper case(shown on the right). Pressing and holding the shift button will enable what is in effect caps lock and the upper case layout will remain until the layout is again changed – e.g. by pressing shift once more.

A number of keys provide quick access to in-situ additional keys.  Pressing and holding vowel keys will give access to extended character sets, similarly pressing and holding space will give access to numbers, the comma button will allow access to emoticons and the return button will give access to some function buttons (options, cut, copy, paste).  Some of these are illustrated in the following screen shots.

quick-numbers quick-extended-characters quick-emoticons

Clicking the “.,123” button swaps to a numeric keypad (left image below).  Clicking and holding the period (“.”) button swaps to a symbolic keypad (middle image below).  Finally (and the one you’ve probably been waiting for) by clicking and holding the “.,123” button a D-pad is displayed (right image below).

numeric-keypad symbolic-keypad d-pad

Quite versatile for one keyboard theme on a mobile device? I think so.

I’ll be blogging about the pieces of software I had the issues with in the not too distant future, but in the meantime enjoy the DPress keyboard. It is provided as is with no guarantees and I’m sure it probably won’t display well on every Windows Mobile device, but if it doesn’t work why not modify it yourself and modify it to suit your purposes. That’s exactly what I did with the “Dream2” theme so ultimately my thanks go to the author of that theme and PCM Keyboard.

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BETT Show 09

January 14, 2009

As anyone who’s been following the RebootIT Twitter feed today will know, I’ve been at the first day of the BETT Show 09. BETT (or British Education and Training Technology) is an education focussed technology event with the global industry giants of IT such as Microsoft right the way down to businesses run by individuals providing specialised learning materials. Whilst the Academy is not dealing directly with educating students, we do work in the HE sector and so the suppliers are often the same. Additionally we do need to train our own staff in technology and so there’s some parallels there too.

I spent a few minutes at one of the two large Microsoft areas watching a demonstration of Microsoft Surface. This has been all over the Internet and in the media in general for some time now but this was the first opportunity I’ve had to see it actually being used. I had expected it to be a bit sluggish or non-responsive, but it was working really smoothly and Microsoft have obviously been investing in developing software specifically for using it in a school environment with a range of demonstrations including – wiping the screen to reveal an underlying image a bit at a time, building a photo collage and interacting with an intricate 3D model of the human heart.

The reaction from the audience was verfy positive and the people around me were audibly impressed with it. This became particularly so as small groups were invited up to have a go themselves with some of the software and they all had no difficulty with it finding the interface very naturalo and fluid to work with. It was interesting to note that Microsoft had adopted the use of some finger based pinching gestures that Apple have used on the iPhone … but these gestures seem to be appearing on many of the laptops these days as “gesture enabled glide pads”.

I had been looking forward to looking at some of the latest offerings from ASUS that might be useful for the Academy’s mobile workers. Unfortunately the tempting news item on the BETT web site about the new EEE tablet was a bit of a let down as there wasn’t one available at either of the ASUS stands. There were a variety of other ultra mobile laptop developers showing off their latest and greatest including Dell, HP and MSI.  I also got a close look at the Sony TT Series laptop.  Whilst the integrated web cam was not the best I’ve come across it is dockable and has the most amazing flexible screen I’ve seen – it looks much more durable than past Vaio machines.

I revisited a couple of suppliers who I spoke to last year to see what updates they had. The first was a supplier for AceCad DigiMemo a clipboard that acts as a real time scanner and captures whatever you draw or write. This can later be exported or even OCR’d (handwriting recognition). Their update was a plugin Bluetooth module for the clipboard, but at significantly over sixty pounds (+ VAT) I think most people would stick with the ubiquitous mini-USB cable that comes with the clipboard.

My other visit was to Mimio. They now provide a portable tablet device to remote control this portable interactive whiteboard and data capture system. This probably won’t be of much use in the Academy, but I can see how this would free a classroom teacher to be able to walk amongst the class whilst teaching and also allow children who maybe aren’t confident enough or are unable to stand in front of a class to use the system without leaving their desk. What I did discover however was that there has been a significant update to the Mimio Studio software and this is available from the Mimio web site as a free upgrade for existing customers.

The Academy York office has both of these technologies available for staff to make use of, but I’m hoping to run some sort of show, tell and use session in the not too distant future to highlight some of the underused and unknown technologies that the ICT stores have to offer.

BETT has a whole section on assistive technologies and since the Academy hosts and provides ICT support for JISC TechDis I also had a chat to some of the suppliers. One of particular note was HumanWare who provide a number of products for supporting people with visual impairments and visually related learning difficulties such as dyslexia. The item I found most interesting was an item called the BrailleNote – a kind of Braille laptop. It features WiFi, a Braille output, text to speech, and text entry for the onboard applications (word processor, e-mail, etc.). At the same sort of price as a low end laptop or a netbook this appeared to be a very functional and versatile device. Apparently there are cases that allow it to be worn at the waist and “used on the move” … but I’m not exactly sure how safe that is whether your sight impaired or not.

Specifically in relation to events I had a chat to some guys from TxtTools about their SMS system for use by the Academy at the larger events such as the Annual Conference or Academy Away Day. The system essentially allows the routing and collating of text messages for groups. This allows an events team to text delegates reminders or changes to an event schedule and delegates to text in responses for evaluation of a session or questions for a live debate. Whilst I think that an RF based remote control system would be good for a consolidated session such as a main presentations (allowing for instantaneous responses, feedback in zero cell reception areas and typically more sophisticated data collection), the SMS approach allows people who are spread across a site to have simple, direct and personal interaction with the event when it suits them. So if you’re attending one of the aforementioned Academy events in the furture it may well be worth ensuring you have your mobile phone with you to take advantage of this sort of offering.

An interesting theme throughout the event was that of robotics. Whilst not relating to the work of the Academy it was something you couldn’t really help but notice. As usual LEGO Mindstorms had a popular demonstration though they were having trouble with their coloured brick sorter when I wandered past – red and blue were good but yellow proved a bit of an issue for the new colour recognition sensor. There were also a couple of Wow Wee robots (such as Robosapien) suppliers providing programming software and another one from the Far East (probably Japan) that I’m sure was aimed at encourging kids to build little robots for the next series of Robot Wars. Finally Dell had brought along their robotic salesman.

I was hoping to get some information at BETT around Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), remote and self-supported computer based training systems (CBT) and services for broadcasting and arranging online learning sessions.

Most of the VLEs were heavily focussed on fulfilling the needs of primary or secondary education which was not surprising but I hadn’t expected the focus to be such that it really didn’t look professional enough to be used in a progressive corporate HE environment (for supporting the training of Academy staff). There was an organisation who support the leading open source VLE of Moodle, but I was amazed that there was no representative for Blackboard – the leading commercial package.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any CBT or broadcast based products to examine and talk to someone about. There were plenty of course materials bundled with the VLE packages on offer and also various video recording systems with online functionality, but there was nothing for really allowing the sort of CBT functionality and webcast/webinar functionality I was really looking for.

I came across many others at my day in BETT and apologies if you didn’t make it to my blog post … but from my point of view you just weren’t quite interesting enough for me to blog to the masses about – so please don’t take offence. Hopefully I’ll be able to use some of the informaiton and contacts I made to good use and progress the efficiency and effectiveness of the Academy’s ICT services.