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Systems & Networks

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The perils of USB memory sticks

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

The Internet makes moving files around extremely simple.  Whether it’s sharing a photograph with family of Facebook or Flickr, or securely transferring a sensitive commercial document from a laptop to company server over a secure VPN connection, documents have never been more portable.

It makes the old practice of saving files on to a floppy disk in order to make it portable redundant.  And hurrah for that – it was slow, cumbersome and something never to rely upon – all it took was a bit of grit to get inside the disk or for someone to put it on top of a speaker and the data within was lost.

The USB memory stick has brought the sneakernet back into vogue.  Alas, it appears that a generation of users must relearn how to avoid the perils of the network…

Over the last year or so, we have been fortunate (!) enough to have worked with a couple of students from Huddersfield University on a sandwich placement year*.  Both students have worked on a variety of website projects – one on the graphical side, and another programming.  It’s certainly been an experience, and we have learnt as much as they have over that time!  (And no – never work with placement students is not of the lessons we’ve learned ;-)).

Back to the sneakernet, our computer games programming student thought that it would be a good idea to store his dissertation on a USB memory stick.  And that’s a reasonable thing to do – it can be easily transferred between student home and college and the library and his parental home and a printer as required.  But it’s not a reasonable thing to do if it’s the only place that the work is saved and a negligent worker at the printers pulls the stick out of a computer without properly dismounting it first.  That leads to data corruption and weeks of lost work with a deadline approaching – as our computer games programming student is now experiencing 🙁

This post isn’t an “I told you so” or gloat – he knows as much as I and I suspect I do that backups of important files should always be made – but instead a salient reminder for us not to be complacent.

There are many ways that backups can be made, each suitable for different tasks:

  • Formal backup procedure – Commercial users should certainly have a formal off-site backup procedure.  This can take the form of incremental backups over the Internet, or more traditional tape backups.  Do periodically review your backup procedure and ensure that backup policies are carried out regularly.
  • Automatic backups – For home users, your ISP, telecomms provider or another company may be able to provide automatic backups of personal files – such as documents or photographs – to “the cloud” – storage space on the Internet.  Check their privacy policies to make sure that you’re happy with how they handle your files first, but these services can be an easy and cost effective way of keeping a backup should a disaster occur
  • Dropbox – provides some free space to which you can automatically synchronise files to.  You can then synchronise these files with other computers, such as other desktops at home, laptops and even your smartphone.  We wouldn’t necessarily recommend storing anything too sensitive here, but it would be perfect for syncing university projects…
  • Manual backup – Ad hoc backups to disk, uploading to the Internet or email can be useful, although we wold suggest a more formal procedure for both business and personal use.

A running theme throughout all of these is that you should check out what the companies involved are doing with your files.  Make sure that you’re comfortable, and make a decision based upon the files you want to back up.  To be on the safe side, assume that uploading all your holiday snaps to Facebook will lead to the whole world seeing them!

Contact our Systems team on (01457) 819600 if you would like to discuss your business backup systems.

*Incidentally, I think that our computer games programming student took the phrase sandwich year far too literally.  His daily meat-slab sandwiches were immense!

Opening PDFs in Google Chrome

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Google Chrome is fast becoming my browser of choice, but it has a few annoyances which stops me completely dumping the once-excellent but now bloated Firefox.

One of these has been how Chrome handles links to PDFs.  Upon clicking them, the browser displays the PDF in its own  reader.  Whilst this is quick, the in-built reader is feature limited and doesn’t behave in the way I have come to expect a PDF reader to.

You can force Chrome to open PDFs in your default PDF reader (typically Adobe Reader) by following these steps:

  • Click the spanner button and select ‘Options’
  • Go ‘Under the hood’ or ‘Under the bonnet’
  • Select ‘Content Settings’
  • In the ‘Plug-ins’ section, click the ‘Disable individual plug-ins…’ link
  • Look for ‘Chrome PDF Viewer’ in the  list, and ‘Disable’ it.

Next time you click a link to a PDF, it will download the file so you can view it as you would normally 🙂

Software Annoyances

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Arrrgh!  Who at Microsoft thought it would be a good idea to make it impossible to view 2 presentations side-by-side in Powerpoint?

OK, I say impossible – they’ve apparently fixed the problem in the latest version, and there’s an horrendous kludge which means it can sort-of be done in Powerpoint 2007 (see below), but multi-screen displays have been commonplace for years now!

To workaround Powerpoint’s irritating window arrangement, follow these steps:

  • Open the 2 documents you’d like to view side-by-side
  • Click the top-left blob
  • Press the ‘Powerpoint Options’ button
  • Select ‘Advanced’
  • Untick “Show all window in the Taskbar”
  • Press the ‘OK’ button.  Your presentations will be contained within more manageable ‘child’ windows.
  • Irritatingly you can’t drag these out of the ‘parent’ Powerpoint window.  However, you can extend the window to fit your entire workspace, even across multiple monitors (if you’ve set your displays up to span)

What are your biggest software annoyances?   Let us know – we may know a workaround.

Cross Browser Compatibility

Monday, November 15th, 2010

ie6-logoRecently Internet Explorer 6 passed the grand age of 9, having first been thrust upon an unsuspecting world in 2001.

When it comes to using software, especially in a rapidly changing industry such as the Web, this is the equivalent of wearing flares and a tight shiny polyester shirt with a flower print even when not attending a 70s revival night, or creating a mixtape of Flock Of Seagulls and Human League tracks, despite the availability of Girls Aloud in high quality MP3 or lossless FLAC formats.

Internet Explorer 6 is a case of 2001: A Browser Oddity.  Despite this, up to a quarter of your web site visitors may still be using this antiquated technology.


Smartphone Touch Screens

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Is it me? Probably

I’ve put it off for long enough, the time has come to upgrade my mobile phone.  My contract expired 9 months ago (it was an 18 month contract), therefore since then I’ve been making a monthly payment towards the cost of a handset which is fully paid for.  I therefore feel I deserve the latest and best phone to justify my monthly expenditure, whether I need it or not.  So why haven’t I upgraded sooner?  Well, my existing phone does what I want and just keeps on working.

An Electronic Swiss Army Knife

Smartphones are excellent. With a single compact device in my pocket, a Nokia N95, I have access to:

  • a good quality camera with flash and an excellent macro (close-up) capability
  • email
  • Internet web browsing
  • sat nav
  • mp3 player
  • video player
  • personal organiser

and, of course, a mobile phone with good hands-free capability

The Years BB & BI (Before Blackberry & Before iPhone)

Sadly, most people don’t realise that smartphones have been around for years – they aren’t the new invention of Blackberry or Apple or any other kind of fruit.  The first effective incarnations were proprietary – custom developments by each phone manufacturer – then in 2001 along came the first device using the Symbian operating system, and Microsoft has been providing Windows Mobile since 2003.

My first real smartphone was a Nokia 7610.  “What do I want a phone with a camera for?”.  Well, I had no choice.  The other features I wanted came in a phone which had a camera, and actually, it was quite useful but dire quality.  Before the 7610 I’d had a Nokia 7110  which with its WAP browser (anybody remember WAP? Fish.Net used to have a WAP site) could possibly be described as having ambitions of smartphone.  So when I came to upgrade the 7610 its increasing unreliability meant I didn’t really hesitate and the Nokia N95 provided all the features I wanted, apart from, perhaps, battery life and being noticeably thicker than its predecessor.

So I’ve been reading my email, browsing the web and taking acceptable quality photos (camera, not photographer) for years.

What Next?  Bad Ergonomics – everything you touch turns to iPhone

Recently it’s been time for a mobile phone upgrade and the new kids on the block are Apple’s iPhone and Android from Google.  Android is now appearing on phones from virtually every manufacturer apart from Apple (no surprise) and Nokia who is still the proud parent of Symbian.  What the iPhone and Android have done is shown just how good and effective a touch screen interface can be.  So much so, that they’ve thrown away the keypad.

And that’s the problem – they’ve thrown away the keypad.  They’ve made you believe that buttons are bad – and they’re wrong.

The touch screens and user interfaces on both the iPhone and Android phones are a delight to use.  The creation of a pinch gesture to zoom is a piece of genius.  But often I want to use my phone without giving it my full attention, and most of the time the prime role for my smartphone is to simply make phone calls.

I need buttons I can feel, with a tactile response to let me know I’ve successfully pressed them.  This is particularly important when simply making a call or hanging up the phone, or when using the SatNav.  My phone sits in a cradle in my car and I can handle most of the call and SatNav functions without ever taking my hands off the road – I don’t need to look at the screen to work out which button to press.  When I’m not driving I can even text blind most of the time.  And all because I know the pattern of the buttons and can feel exactly where they are.  The same argument applies to the camera.  The N95, among others, has a dedicated shutter button which falls exactly in the right (handed) place when I want to take a photo.

And the touch-screen phones all have a lock button to prevent you accidentally ‘pressing’ buttons with the side of your face while you’re making a call!

My Choice

So what did I look at?

I spent a lot of time looking at the latest Nokias, Sony Ericssons, Samsungs and LGs and the Android phones from most of the above.  I decided an acceptable compromise would possibly be to have separate call and hang up buttons and leave the rest to the touch-sensitive screen.  But only the early Android phones – the HTC Tattoo and HTC Hero – have these buttons, and neither of these has a flash for the camera.  From the other perspective I looked at the Sony Satio and Vivaz as these both have good cameras.  Even the impending Nokia N8 unticks too many boxes.  Other compromises could have been the Sony Experia X10 Mini Pro or the Nokia N97 both with slide out keyboards.  But the latter is now relatively old for a ‘new’ (and expensive) phone and neither provide the call buttons particularly well

So what did i choose?

I realised that in every case I was compromising my choice of phone just to achieve an upgrade, none of the options ticked all the boxes that my current phone does.  Yes I would like a bigger screen and a thinner case and longer battery life, but…

So I’m moving over to a SIM-only contract.  I’m paying less, I’m getting loads more bundled minutes and texts and at last I’m getting bundled data.  For my phone I’m going to use a couple of cast-offs from around the office – primarily an N85, but I also have my old N95 and access to another N95.

I’m going to watch and wait.  Hopefully in the next 12 months or so phones will come along which put ergonomics back above fashion.  An Android with a keypad?.  I’m not sure if anything will actually appear.  In the mean time I’ll save money and step aside from the upgrade rat-race.

Do you take the Net for granted?

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

I’m writing this blog post in Notepad rather than our blog administration interface, because our Internet connection is down. It’s a BT problem affecting just the local exchange, but it’s knocked our operations sideways.

Given that our core services revolve around Web, Email and IT systems, it hits us in a particularly hard way – however, Internet downtime is likely to impact your business no matter what sector you work in.

Despite limited connectivity, our office is still open and we remain productive. So how have we done it, and how can you make sure you can work through Internet downtime?


Winter-proof your Company

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010


As the dream of a White Christmas rapidly turns into a sub-zero, ice-skidding, road-blocked New Year nightmare, you can turn to your IT system to keep your staff safe yet your company’s cogs turning.

Read on to find out how you can continue working throughout the snow.


To upgrade or not to upgrade?

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Don’t touch Windows 7 for a year,” screamed the Metro’s headline last Friday, “Software bugs are par for the course for newly released programs and operating systems are no exception“.

Whilst the free commuter rag The Metro is hardly held up as a paragon of journalistic excellence (with rehashed press releases and sound-bites spun into ill-researched stories), it does have an enormous circulation.  So when they run a tech story, a lot of people will read it and many will be taken in by it.