It MUST be the END of the WORLD... El Reg man thanks commentards
Cool tech, nice PRs, breaking the server-client tether: This was 2012
Sysadmin blog As the year draws to a close, I'd like to take the time out to thank companies and individuals that have made my life as a writer, a systems administrator, and business owner easier in 2012. Readers of The Register - myself among them - are notorious for their endless cynicism and love of a right good digital kicking, but some companies, products and services in our industry do well by others and they deserve some recognition.
Influencing the influencers
Writing for The Register, I get to deal with a lot of PR and marketing folks. The number of press releases and so forth landing in my inbox is threatening to match that generated by my systems administration clients. Dealing with PRs is rarely fun - they are judged by how successful they are in convincing me to write a piece on their client's gear... I am notoriously lazy and their desperation can reach a fever pitch.
VMware stands out above the rest here. When I talk to them I use words like "vTax." I argue with the suits about licence-tiering. VMware's marketing folks - most notably Melanie Terbeek - have handled my ingratitude with aplomb. More importantly, they answer even my most difficult questions, including the ones I'm not supposed to ask. That sets them apart.
Supermicro has to be on my list. They may well be the busiest (or most understaffed) PR department on the planet, but they make a solid effort. Drobo gets a gold star here too. Their VP of technology even added me on Skype so I could pester him in real time with questions. Not the brightest move if you value your sanity, but it made sure I got a chance to test every single feature on that device.
Spiceworks has of course been amazing; they found time during the middle of their busiest week of the year to let me ask the brass hats uncomfortable questions and have worked with me to improve specific features in the application that bug me. EasyDNS and Ninite should get a mention here as well, for similar reasons.
Intel has been awesome this year. They have a byzantine, multi-tentacled marketing machine consisting of internal PR folks as well as various contractors. Both Intel insider Brian Johnson and PR contractor North of Nine Communications have been notably helpful. When I needed to cut through marketing and branding crap and get to the substance of the matter they delivered.
I mention these companies not to thank PR bodies for doing their jobs properly, but to recognise companies whose corporate culture allows their staff - and contractors - the freedom to answer the tough questions and work with people like myself who are deliberately never "on message".
As a systems administrator I find it far easier to trust companies that let their marketing and sales folks speak plainly. Banging on about being on message more than being proud of the products or companies you represent is always worrying. When company representatives are upfront and honest with me I am far more likely to believe that they are convinced their products compete on merit.
A stress free philosophy
While I find most software ultimately replaceable, Dragon, ComboFix, Hirens, DBAN, Housecall, Ninite, Puppet, Webmin, Teamviewer, Trillian, Notepad++, PuTTY, WinSCP, Navicat, Pocketcloud and Firefox's enormous library of plugins are all tools I am not sure I could live without. They are my list of 2012 "must have" tools and applications.
Microsoft's Small Business Server 2011 is a truly amazing product that I have grown to adore. I lament its brutal murder at the hands of Microsoft's ham-fisted licencing department. (No Microsoft, I will not be buying an Office 365 subscription.) I will continue to use the installs I have for as long as I possibly can.
The CyanogenMod, CentOS and Mint communities have produced excellent Linux distributions that make my life easier. CentOS has replaced Windows Server 2003 R2 as my go-to server OS, while Cinnamon Mint has become my desktop of choice. CyanogenMod has been my preferred mobile distribution (go team Hacksung!) I find it a lot more usable than stock ROMs or the ASOP.
VMware's 5.1 Essentials Plus offering has changed the way my clients do business. By bringing high availability and live VM backups down to a mostly reasonable price, smaller businesses are finally able to compete with larger enterprises. It has saved me a lot of time and grief; I appreciate the change in their tiering.
A special shout out to Classic Shell, Start8 and RetroUI for making Windows 8 just that little bit more palatable than being waterboarded by SCO lawyers using liquid Oracle licences. Thanks guys; it makes more of a difference than you'll ever know.
At your service
The beginning of 2012 involved a major reorganisation of my employer, including closing two locations and engaging a distributed, work-at-home workforce. Our ageing phone systems had to be replaced, and SIP provider Planet Telecom stepped up to the plate.
The last thing that I want to do when I am done fixing all my clients' computers is spend time fixing my own. I turned to Google Apps to provide my company's e-mail hosting and productivity suite. So far it has been excellent; quite a bit less stress than the Office 365 installations I maintain for some of my clients. The inclusion of Mobile Device Management for Android users as a freebie for business users was greatly appreciated.
Wave accounting is another fine cloud service. Intuit's online store in perpetually broken; if we can't buy their product we can't evaluate it or use it. Sage Accounting's store worked, but I really wish it hadn't. A few months of use had one of our number in tears; it ultimately proved less effort and frustration to move a year's worth of books to Wave than continue trying to beat Simply into submission. Bonus points for being a Canadian company; helps put to bed any legal issues that might exist if we dealt with an American outfit.
Year of transition
2012 is the year I broke the client-server tether. While not an intentional transition on my part, I have slowly moved towards Android devices as my primary endpoints. I live in various RDP sessions most of the time, but am seeing cloudy SaaS applications creep in at the edges. While I still use Firefox as my primary browser - I don't like browsing the internet without shields - Chrome has started to see far more front line use. Sometimes I need a website to "just work," even if that means risking things crawling through my browser.
With the exception of Outlook 2003 still kicking along in my home Windows XM VM, I've almost kicked the Office habit. Libre Office has matured enough that the last time I wiped my PCs arguing with an Indian call centre representative to have my Office activations reset just didn't seem worth it. I started the year off with Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 and have ended it with VMware 5.1 Essentials Plus.
How I use computers has changed; to some extent it has been a natural progression driven by necessity. Some of it has been exposure to new things thanks to all the press releases that land in my inbox. A lot of the change, however, is driven by The Register's excellent readership.
Our beloved commentards certainly do not hesitate to make their voices heard. Whether it be insightful analysis, a helpful email to the author or stinging criticism, I learn a lot from our readers. A lot of interesting tools and services I ultimately adopt I heard about in the forums first. So to the our readers, thank you. If you have the time, fill up the comments section below with your take on the best tools, products, services and people of 2012. Share your tales of woe and the unexpected moments of awesome; who knows, maybe your comments will help change what we end up using next year. ®
Re: I have a question or two
@John G Imrie; interesting question. Mind if I take a bit of a roundabout approach to this?
There are really three answers to this that cover the various use cases in which I see Linux deployed; each with their own rationale.
1) Linux belongs on mobiles only. There are some customers with certain use cases which cannot (or do not desire to) move away from Windows on their desktop/notebook. These individuals require or desire fat clients, and Apple and/or Linux simply will not do for them. In general, they use Android handsets, however. Almost all of them perform basic tasks (e-mail, browsing, etc.) from their Android devices.
2) "Windows in a Windows." I see a lot of interest in "working from home" or "working from anywhere." This leads to "living in an RDP Window." In these cases, the endpoints are almost always Apple, but a notable number of them are Android or Mint. Windows is increasingly legacy for these people as they start to get "an app for that" to handle most things locally. Bonus points if the app syncs the data to their Windows work desktop/VM on the fly.
3) People who use Linux and/or Apple exclusively. Apple certainly dominates this category, but I have had people ask me to put Mint installs in as live desktops. We even have some trial Android desktops out there. These are not the majority of users...but they are also not my idea. These are at the request of the customer; non-technical customers as well as technical ones, I should point out.
For my own personal part, I maintain a Windows XP VM at home…only because I'm too lazy to nuke it an install Mint. That takes time, and time I don't have. I have an Alienware MX18 for video games and serving as my "desktop." I do nothing locally on it but play games and run various test VMs. It RDPs into my work Windows VM and my home Windows VM. My work Windows VM is a series of RDP sessions into various servers I am maintaining, a bunch of Firefox windows (usually populated with Webmin) and a whole lot of SSH sessions.
If Gaben gets this "Steam for Linux" thing off the ground, then 5 years from now I can see myself not needing Windows at all on the endpoint. At least personally. I suspect most of my clients could do without as well, but that is their decision; they have to decide if paying the tithe is worth it. I refuse to preach to them, I show them the alternatives and give them CapEx and OpEx over the timeframes they request. They make the call.
That said, I can't imagine life without Server 2012. I loathe the interface, but damn that is a beautiful operating system. Better than any Linux I've had the pleasure of working with for a number of use cases. I am also quite taken with System Center 2012 SP1 and Microsoft Dynamics.
Microsoft has good technology. They have smart people. Their licenceing and pricing, however, are increasingly incompatible with my desire to see a demonstrable return on investment from each dollar I spent on IT. That's okay; there are alternatives. Life is good.
Maybe 5 years from now Microsoft will change their tune and I'll be out in front cheerleading them as the bee's knees. This is tech; you never know what's coming next.
Re: Thanks us for being cynical
You are a dirty, vicious pack of soulless piranhas striping the self respect self esteem from every single person who touches this website even tangentially. But you follow the pig to find the truffles.
I'd not have you lot be any other way. :) <3 commenttards.
Re: Error: no address supplied...
"Firms?" There are "firms" behind open source projects now? Or maybe Sascha at Ninite - whom, last I recall I bought him a beer out of gratitude for his work - will suddenly develop eleventy squillion dollars and shower me with riches.
Supermicro, VMware, Intel and the like certainly have my address already; they've sent me demo gear (or NFR licences) so that I can test their products. So do other companies. News flash: I review stuff for a living. Sending me stuff to review doesn't guarantee that you'll get a nice review; only building stuff that's not crap guarantees that.
Maybe you should check out my rather love/hate relationship with Microsoft. I'm sure their PR guys would love to string me up by my nether regions – gods know there's no love lost between the licensing department at The Beast and myself – yet I will cheerfully turn around and sing the praises of Server 2012 or System Center 2012 SP1 because those products are worthy of praise.
I wrote a nice piece on Apple in the Enterprise a while back. Do you suspect that I am secretly swimming in fruity goodness? Hint: the poky whoresons won't even return my phone calls, and I am still hunting for a reasonably priced used iOS6-capable device to do a review for some of the startups that have iOS-only apps they want me to look at.
Some times I get to keep the demo gear that is sent to me. I won't hide that. Some times I get sent on a junket by a vendor, or get a nice tour of the campus and a swank backpack. (Thanks Supermicro!) I don't hide that either. It doesn't change anything. It doesn't make me say nice things about your product if they are undeserved. What it does do is make me hate you less, trust you more and be a hell of a lot more willing to sell your stuff to my clients.
So let's be perfectly clear here: if you give me Free Stuff That I Can Keep as part of my reviews then one of three things will happen to that equipment.
1) If there is a use for it, I will incorporate it into my test lab. This means I can then review even more things and that is good for readers. Having a bitching test lab means less "I got a new iPad" reviews and more "let's see how this new enterprise filer stacks up and handles 10Gbit from multiple hosts." You know, reviews we actually care about.
Why would a vendor just give away hardware or software licences? Because if it is in my testlab for the next three years, I will talk about it over the course of those next three years. It'/s sort of inevitable; if I am reviewing Widget A and using Widget B to do it, widget B is mentioned in the methodology." So vendors without an internal demo program who are taking a unit out of production that they can then not resell get an upfront review for their expense and some "long tail" mentions.
I also periodically loan out equipment from my lab to other bloggers if they have a definable need and a project in mind, so they may get some wider exposure that way too. Not bad marketing ROI for the company, but I'm still not going to call that marketer's widget awesome if it's a piece of crap.
2) I might pass it along to another blogger so they can review it/incorporate it into their testlab. If the company in question is just handing out gear that reviewers can hang on to, and I legitimately don't think that I can find a long term use for it as a test item which will bring some sort of benefit to my readers, then I will give the company in question a shortlist of other bloggers I know who should get the widget instead. I'll still do a review, but I'll forward it on. Good for the marketing bloke – he still gets some long tail investment somewhere for that piece of demo equipment he can no longer resell as new – and good for everyone's readers as more reviews bring more perspectives to the table.
3) If I can't find a use for it and I can't find a fellow blogger that needs it, I help the company taking that demo equipment off the line for review purposes find a worthy charity that can receive the equipment after I have done the review. That way the company sees a tax credit for the equipment they took off the line, and I can still review the widget.
That said, the overwhelming majority of equipment that passes my way is on a time limited demo. I often request the equipment for a month's use because I don't want to open a box, look at it and say "well that's nice." I torment the stuff, often giving it a short stint in production to see how it holds up.
Being nice to me won't change what I write about your product. Being a customer or supplier of my company won't change what I write about your product. They will influence whether or not I buy your product, or whether or not I recommend them to my clients.
A review on The Register, however, is a review of that product in isolation. I can not – I will not – allow any other considerations to come into play.
Calling me a shill because I thank people for being awesome? That says a lot more about your own personal hangups and how you approach the world than me. I will let my reviews speak for themselves. There are a bunch hitting in the next month. You decide.
Ultimately, there is no need for me to be biased. It serves zero purpose. There are so many companies out there that I can piss off a new one every week and they'll still fall all over themselves to get demo gear into my hands. You don't comprehend the sheer volume of press releases that land in my inbox, or the desperation of PR guys.
Besides, if I allow myself to lose my objectivity, I lose my credibility with my readers. If I lose my credibility with my readers, then I can't write for The Register anymore. If I can't write for The Register anymore, than I don't get to play with new toys.
Thus the only way I get to keep the flow of cool toys to play with is to be completely honest and as objective as I possibly can.
In any case, I hope you have a great holiday season. Cheers.