Virtualisation – What does it all mean and do I need it?

You may have heard about Virtualisation, perhaps on the Web, maybe from an technology supplier. maybe even me! It’s sounds exciting but what exactly is it and is it something you need or even want? It’s a slightly complex thing to understand but I’ll try and explain it in simple terms.

Typically, you get a computer, with a processor, a hard drive and some memory. The operating system is installed on the hard disk, you load up your software in to the operating system and off you go (whether a laptop, desktop or server).

In the “olden days”, servers were usually tasked with one main task, such as Email, File storage or Database. As processing power became cheaper over time it became worthwhile to look at consolidating some of these services (which led to the release of Microsoft Small Business Server). As server technology became even more powerful the next stage was to look at physical server consolidation hence the birth of Virtualisation.

Virtualisation creates a layer where the client operating system (be it Windows Desktop or Server) is run on a Virtual Machine sitting on some kind of host server. So this leads to the next questions, what is a Virtual Machine? And what is a host server.

We’ll start with the host server as this is the foundation that everything sits on.

A host machine will typically this will be a relatively powerful machine, with large amounts of processing power, lots of disk space and ram. On this we install a base Operating system. The big names in Virtualisation are VMWare and Microsoft. Both offer a free (essentially unsupported) or paid for versions of the software (Microsoft offer it as a component within Windows Server 2008 and 2012) and as a stand-alone product (Hyper-V). We won’t look at licensing here as it’s outside the scope of this article.

Once we have the base Operating system installed and configured, we have something called a Hypervisor, which is the system that allocates and manages resources on the base server for the virtual machines.

Virtualization concept

So what is a virtual machine?

Essentially a Virtual Machine is a collection of settings, such as number of processors, size of disks, how much ram etc. The beauty of this is that physical hardware is now abstracted from the operating system, meaning that a standard (and consistent) set of components are supplied to the virtual machine which makes it hardware independent.

VMWare LogoApple Mac users have been using some of this technology for some time with software such as Parallels and VMWare which allowed them to run a Virtual Windows desktop on their Mac so they can run Windows Applications within their Mac. Microsoft brought it in to the mainstream with Windows 7 Professional and the XP mode which was provided to give some compatibility respite for older applications.

Here at The Engine Room we now use visualisation on almost all of our server implementations. With Windows Server 2012 Microsoft made it possible to run one physical and two virtual machines with one license, thus reducing the cost of having a virtualised environment. This means that with a single license you can have two servers running separate applications, such as one with Microsoft Exchange and run with File and Print services, all for the cost of one Server license! We also like using it because (most of the time) the server Operating system is quite reliable and it’s the hardware that can cause headaches. By removing the hardware from the equation reliability improves as will the process of managing upgrades (such as increasing capacity and performance).

Hyper-V-logo

So should you be using it? Server side it makes sense as it faciliates the use of additional servers without always needing new hardware (disk space and memory excepted) and an easy migration path to newer or different server hardware. Desk side it can make sense although really if you need to be using different platform applications I would seriously consider whether you are on the right platform or set up a dedicated machine in that function so you are not trading off performance or capacity for compatibility (see Roman’s article about that here).

Office 365 – Everything you need to know!

A little while I wrote a piece about choosing which edition of Office 2013 to get. Judging on the number of questions I get about Office 365 there seems to be some misunderstanding as to what it actually is.

O365 Logo

Many people see it as just a different way of getting the Office desktop software on their computer and paying monthly rather than buying a copy outright.

It’s not. It’s much more than that.

In a nutshell, Office 365 is Microsoft’s collective brand for their SaaS (Software as a Service) or Cloud portfolio. It comprises of a number of different elements, of which the key ones we will explore here.

Exchange Online

This is Microsoft’s Hosted Exchange service – rather than having your Exchange Server on a server in your office this is where your email is provided as a service. Key benefits are no server, no need to worry about backup and very high uptime or availability.

SharePoint with Office WebApps

SharePoint is an interesting one. In some respects it can be considered as a document management system, but really it fits in to the Intranet/Extranet space and allows you to publish documents, shared content etc to both internal and external parties. Additionally, it also comes with Office Web Apps which is essentially a cut down version of Word, Excel and PowerPoint which will allow you to edit documents within the Browser without having to have the applications installed locally, or needing to download the document before editing (which you still can if you want).

Lync

Lync is an internal communication system a bit like Skype except it’s a bit more private. It will link into your Outlook calendar so other people in your directory can see if you’re in based on your diary (it will also change to away if you’re away from your desk for a while) and there is a mobile app that you can have on your iPhone.

Office Professional Plus

The desktop software is the normal Office 2013 we already know. However this is the subscription version and (if you have it) will link in to your SharePoint site so you can access documents on your SharePoint site.

Additionally you can add things like Dynamics CRM online and other applications such as Project Professional and they will integrate in to your overall Office 365 package.

Do I need it?

It often depends on what you want and how you operate as a business. Personally, if you want a nice wrapped up solution that can provide a significant amount of your business technology in one place then I think it’s ideal. If you like running the very latest version of Office and other applications then it’s also ideal from a software lifecycle perspective and allows your entire organisation to be on the same version.

The big catch is that support from Microsoft directly is very limited and rely on Cloud Partners, such as us, to provide the skills in developing, implementing and supporting businesses using 365 as a platform.

If you’re giving it some thought and ready to start moving services in to the cloud then please get in touch to talk about this or any other Cloud services you might be considering.

Office 2013 or Office 365 – Which one should I get?

So this year saw the launch of Office 2013 and at the same time, Microsoft went all out with their SaaS (Software as a Service) offering – Office 365.

Office 2013Now on the face of it, both appear to be the same thing – one is a boxed copy of Office that you buy outright (roughly £180) and the other is a copy you pay £10 per month per user for.

O365 LogoSo you think…hey – this monthly thing sounds good. But wait, after 18 months it’ll cost me more than if I’d bought the product outright. So why would I want to subscribe?

They are not the same.

For some unknown reason Microsoft saw fit to change the licensing model of Office with the 2013 editions. Previously there was the ability to install (using the same license) a copy of the software on a laptop as long as it was in use by the same individual. Now the license is for one machine and one user. Microsoft originally even decided that once installed on a computer it was tied to that machine too, but backtracked after enough people complained that they’d need to buy another copy if they ever changed their PC.

The second massive change is the method of licensing the software. Instead of supplying a DVD and a key (for install and subsequent activation), with the boxed software you have to go through this convoluted process of setting up a Microsoft ID, entering the key from the box to register, then go to the download page and get a different key to then use to install the software. This is ok if there is just one of you, but if you have (say) 20 copies and want to be able to manage them, then you’re stuck. If you thought you could set up one Microsoft account to manage all of these licenses you’d be mistaken. There is no way to identify individual copies of the software and you’ll find yourself screaming when you can’t tell which key was used on which computer. Microsoft know this and admit it’s a problem but are not forthcoming with a solution. Arrrggghhhhh!

Not OK

In reality Office 365 is a bit more than just a subscription to Office 2013. We’ll explore that when we look at cloud computing but in this instance we’ll just look at the Office Suite itself.

Office 365 is licensed per user; currently each subscriber can install/use the software on 5 devices. So you can install it on your work desktop, work laptop, work tablet and home PC, as well as access it on your mobile device via Office Web Apps. Now if you are, like a great many, a user of several machines, then this makes financial sense, as ordinarily you’d now need to buy a copy of the software for each machine that you use. That could get quite expensive.

The other great thing about Office 365 is that as long as you continue to subscribe you are able to use the most current versions of the software. Availability of the latest version via 365 is not as rapid as via the retail or licensing channels but then you don’t have to pay extra for the privilege. And in any case, you possibly don’t want to be installing the latest version until a few months have passed or when you’re in a position to upgrade all your machines at the same time.

Lastly it is an easy way to standardize the software in your business and fix your software spend on a monthly basis. It also removes software from the PC upgrade cycle cost.

There is one big BUT of course. To use the software you have to continue to pay. If you decide at some point you don’t want to continue with it the software on your computers will stop working and you’ll need to either go out and buy the software, re-subscribe or license via other means.

It won’t surprise me that in the next edition or two, this will be the only way to use the Office suite of applications – the world is moving towards more subscription based models – the mobile phone companies have been doing this for years quite successfully and is now a proven model and indeed tends to tie in customers for the longer term.

So this Cloud computing thing – What’s it all about?

We are seeing more and more references to Cloud computing these days. It can mean any number of things, but we’ll look at what it means to us and how it can be applied to your business.

Cloud computing is commonly known as the sharing of resources, such as applications or services, via a decentralized network (typically the internet) known as a cloud.

CloudComputingA very obvious example of Cloud computing is something like GoogleApps. Everything you do is web based and the processing power and actual workings are taking place somewhere in the ether (cloud). The servers that provide the service provide the same or other services to other users in other parts of the world and by sharing these resources the cost of delivering the service tends to come down although this doesn’t necessarily make it cheaper.

So how can it fit in to your business?

Some of the main reasons to consider using cloud services these days are:

• Reduce your IT complexity
• Reduce costs
• Increase uptime and reliability
• Business continuity

Here at the Engine Room we use a small number of high quality cloud based services. These include Hosted Exchange, Cloud Backup, Office 365, VoIP and a number of web based systems.

The main types of scenario we find ourselves in is fully Cloud (using Office 365 and other services), or hybrid cloud where some services, such as file and print, is held internally on a server and others, email for example, are provided by a hosted Exchange provider. Which one is for you depends on a number of factors, but typically the distribution and number of users, volume of data and what line of business applications you run.

For the smaller business fully cloud based can make great sense as it removes the need for any complex technology on site, reduced hardware and software costs and lower overall system maintenance.

Cloud-ComputingFor larger businesses the case can be less persuasive for full cloud as your internet connection will be under a lot of pressure, and the cost of bigger connections can get quite serious, so hybrid tends to make more sense. Microsoft have stopped their Small Business Server suite of products (which included file, printing and email) so to replace this a mix of hosted email and local file and print makes sense as the licensing cost of the software for everything in-house can be quite substantial.

Cloud computing is here to stay and like Microsoft Office may ultimately be the only way to get the technology services we need.

So is Windows Phone 8 any good?

Image

It was with a feeling of trepidation that I decided to ditch Apple’s iOS after having been an avid iPhone fanboy since the beginning. I loved the simplicity, wealth of apps and the solid design. So why change?

I found myself in the Apple trap, where you feel compelled to get the latest and greatest just because it’s new. However, each edition tended to only bring small improvements and change, and after upgrading from a 4 to 4s I started to feel a little jaded by the whole thing.

So having seen Windows Phone 8 arrive, I decided to make the jump and try something new. Having used Windows 8 on my desktop , I figured it would make sense to try for a more seamless experience. At the time the HTC 8X was an o2 exclusive and the Nokia (https://www.o2.co.uk/shop/phones/nokia/lumia-920/) was a Vodafone exclusive so on a wet and cold December evening, I tromped off to the o2 store and bought a shiny new HTC 8X (https://www.o2.co.uk/shop/phones/htc/windows-phone-8x/). Everyone said I’d hate it and would be back to my iPhone in less than a week!

Now, as an aside, the guy in the o2 shop was amazing! I was determined to change phone, but he also managed to switch me on to a more appropriate tariff as well (saving £25 per month!).

So first thoughts – the Interface is simple and friendly. Windows Phone uses “Tiles” on the home screen – these can be dynamic and show you bits of content (such as the weather, or News for instance). Applications not on the home screen are all grouped together in a list (which can get quite long) but you can click on the Search item and lookup). Typically you’ll put your most useful or favourite Apps on the home screen in any case.Windows 8 Home Screen

Setting it up was easy – as it’s essentially Outlook on the phone, setting up my Exchange email account was a breeze, as was getting it connected to my SkyDrive (if you use Office 365 that’s equally easy to set up). Apps are installed via the “Store” App (and you’ll see a distinct lack of Apps compared to Android and Apple – more on that later) and is a fairly simple and straightforward exercise. I’ll admit to not having purchased any Apps so I cannot comment on what that experience is like.

Apps

Anyway, to ensure my commitment to this new phone, I cleaned up my iPhone 4s and gave it to my mum (who promptly fell in love with it – but that’s another story!) and off I went in to this brave new world.

And you know what? It was ok. Some things took a bit of getting used to, and I missed some Apps (most notably the Barclays banking App) but after a week, it was starting to fit quite nicely in to my life. As a fairly simple user, my demands were not high, but it pretty much did what I needed it to and in a very easy and simple way. No fuss, no bother. It just worked. The limited choice of Apps did initially bother me, but new ones are arriving all the time, and it’s altogether possible that there is too much choice on the other platforms. It’s worth being aware that certain Apps are unlikely to appear any time soon, such as Banking and perhaps other manufacturers (such as BMW) will probably not find the investment in creating Apps for Windows Phone worthwhile.

And so time passed by, and the recent announcement of iOS 7 and (invariably) another evolution of the iPhone prompted me to think about my phone and write this little piece about it. Will I go back to an Apple iPhone? Possibly, although it would need to be pretty compelling considering the high cost of the phone and most likely very minor changes from the 5. The Nokia Lumia 925 (https://www.o2.co.uk/shop/phones/nokia/lumia-925/) is a very nice looking Windows phone (the camera in the HTC is rubbish – The Nokia camera is significantly better) and if I was in the market for a new phone that’s what I’d be getting.

With the imminent release of 8.1 it’ll be interesting to see what that brings although I suppose Windows Mobile 8.5 or 9 will bring the more significant change (and perhaps I’ll be bored of it by then and ready to jump into Android)!