Tag Archives: Cloud Computing

Device Independence

Gogole GadgetsSometimes I wake up at 4:30am  in the morning and ponder over things. I don’t want to, I just can’t get back to sleep. On the weekend I was pondering over whether technology was making my life easier or harder. Certainly I seem to be working a lot more hours and have my fingers in a lot more pots than I use to, but I feel this probably isn’t so much caused by by technology, rather its something that technology allows me to do. Technology does however simplify some things and recently has started to make me “device independent”. That is I am no longer locked into “my computer” or “my phone”.

Take for instance, the concept of adding gadgets or to the home page of a search engine. The concept isn’t new, I just never saw the point of adding the weather or a clock gadget onto my desktop, despite how easy it was to do. But I realised that over the last year or so, I had built up a control panel of gadgets on Google, which accessed services I was using on my desktop, netbook, iPad and iPhone. For instance:

Timesheets

I need to track time between my projects, so I use a free web based product called Activity Tracker Plus. I can push the go button on a project, and it will record how long I spend, until I push the off button. Interestingly I can walk out the door and push the off button on my phone, rather than run back to the computer. I can also add notes to each entry. This makes life a lot easier for billing my time, or gaining insight into where my time is going.

Tasks

For keeping track of what I need to do, I use a product called Remember the Milk. This allows you to create tasks with a wide variety of attributes such as due date, priority, category and location. It has interfaces optimised for the web, and a separate front end optimised for the iphone and another for the ipad. The back end data is stored somewhere out in the cloud and it syncs automatically to each device I use it on. I don’t like the name but am in love with the product.

Calendar

The third main thing I have on my Control Panel is my Calendar. It is small view of my Google Calendar, which I can look at separately on the web, or on my desktop, iphone and ipad – where its all syncs automatically. This automatic background syncing is critical to me as I can’t be trusted to manually do it.

Documents

I use two different products to manage documents. When collaborating with others, I use Google Docs. This means that I can have a look at a spreadsheet anywhere I have a web browser. Alternatively If I’m just working on something myself and I want a bit more power, I use Open Office and store all my documents in Drop Box. Drop Box then Syncs these documents onto all my devices. My google based control panel gives me a view onto both types of documents.

So I realised that the reason I had finally started adding gadgets to my search engine, wasn’t so much because they were handy, but because they provided me with a view on the cloud based services that I use to make myself Device Independent. And of course the nice thing is that all these solutions are free, simple to deply and everything expect the time-sheets solution is scalable for a larger team. :)

Cloudy computing with a chance of showers

A great label for a technical product can work wonders for consumer takeup. See Blue Ray Vs HD-DVD, iPod v’s MP3 Player, Blackberry V’s Symbion O/S. Which leads me to Cloud Computing. I don’t generally like Cloud computing because internet access isn’t ubiquitous in Australia. Generally wireless access is good for around 40km from the CBD, then it becomes flaky or non existent in most places unless you have a land line connected.

Which leads me to a concept I do like, but there doesn’t seem to be a good name for it other than the description – Cloud Computing with automatic background sync and optimised local client. Basically your primary source of data sits on the internet, with a web based interface to access it, however it also automatically sync’s local copies of the data to what ever client your using, and has a local software for whatever environment you are using, that also automatically gets updated when a new version is released.

Too hard to understand? Picture this. I am writing an article using Open Office Write on the desktop in my home office. I get tired so I save it, shut down the computer and go to bed. Two weeks later I am in country Victoria without internet access, I pick up my iPad, open the article using Pages and add the new thought. Just like magic the article is there without me having to do anything. Some good examples of this concept, and free for the basic versions are:

IMAP Mail

Most Internet email setups default with what is called POP3 mail. This means you download your email to your local client, eg inmail, Outlook etc and delete it off the server. However there is almost always another version of email available with your ISP called IMAP. IMAP keeps your email on the server and syncs a local copy. I use Thunderbird on my desktop and netbook, and Apples email client on the iphone and ipad. All of them sync with the same IMAP mailboxes so I always have a local copy of all my incoming and outgoing emails no matter what device I happen to be using.

Dropbox

Dropbox is a file storage solution. It appears as a folder on my desktop, but anything I store in there, eg spreadsheets, images, drawings etc, also appears on my ipad and netbook where I also have dropbox setup. I have subfolders within my dropbox which I can share with friends and colleagues. This works really well for me as it makes it incredibly simple to work on and share share a document over 5MB with my colleague Grace in London, or some food recipes with a mate two blocks away. Drop box works on Mac’s Windows, iPads, Linux and is free for the first 2Gb of storage.

Calendar

I use Google Calendar for all my calendering which syncs with my Desktop, Netbook, iphone and iPad. Once its configured, it automagically keeps things up to date. My wife also syncs a copy of my main calendar to her iPhone so she can see what evenings I will be out, or what we have planned on upcoming weekends.

The advantage of these types of solutions are:

  • They are mostly completely free, or free for small usage levels.
  • I remove the major issue with most of my IT solutions, which is me. After they are setup, they simply work and I don’t have to do anything or think about it.
  • I don’t have to think about which device I will use, or which version I am accessing.
  • I don’t have to be connected to the internet, to be effective.
  • Accessing local data is much fast than accessing data on the internet.
  • The background sync can normally be encrytped or can be setup as encrypted, which means I don’t have to worry about being hacked when my data passes over the internet. Although there is no such thing as totally safe data on the internet.
  • Background sync means that there are lots of copies of my data – although bad entries can also propagate.

I am still looking for an encrypted password storage solution that works on Windows and the iPad, but I am sure one will appear soon as solutions that only sit on one decve are now considered to be “dumb” solutions.

Cloud Computing with automatic background sync and optimised local client isn’t a great name, but it is a great solution. I tend to think of it as Cloud Computing with local showers, but I don’t think this will catch on either.

Cloud Money

In 1998 I stopped getting paid to be an Accountant. I came to the conclusion that being a scorekeeper wasn’t satisfying enough for me, I want to be kicking goals, not cheering from the sideline. I called it – Getting in touch with my inner salesman.

I said “stopped getting paid” rather than “stopped working” as I always seem to be keeping a closer eye on finances than anyone else, and always end up being company secretary in my ventures. So as part of my “Moving into the cloud” project, I took a particular interest in the accounting system I was going to use.

Because I am a tightarese, I looked decided to take a look at open source offerings. I started my search at www.osalt.com which is a nice website that offers up open source alternatives to commercial software. The software available seemed to be : Grisbi, jGnash, GnuCash & GFP. All of them nice packages, but much more along the lines of personal finance managers, not accounting packages. Apart from that they were all designed to run on your desktop, not on the web,

Next off to Freshmeat where a search on accounting came up with 208 hits. A closer look brought up 2 candidates: Accounting & GnuCash. Both of which were just personal financial managers Damn.

Finally over to Sourceforge. I tend to search Sourcforge last for software because you have to really know what you want before you get there. With 135,000 Projects registered, its easy to get bogged down. Under Financial | Accounting Systems there was over 1200 projects. Flicking through (90 pages) I came across some interesting prospects such as WebERP which runs in the envirnoment I want and does everything I want plus a whole lot more. A google search for “WebERP Crap” came up with some interesting comments on it though. But at the end of the day, I didn’t like its usability as you need to to do an awful lot of configuration work before you could make anything happen.

SQL Ledger also looked promising, but after having a closer look I decided my bookkeeper would absolutely hate it and be massively inefficient for the first couple of months.

Time to broaden the search and just have a look around the web. And that’s where I ran into SAASU. SAASU is an Australian (tick) Web based system with lots of users (tick). It has a nice interface (tick) and comes preconfigured (tick). It also has some nice features such as auto generating invoices as PDF’s and emailing them off (tick). You can use it for free if your doing under 15 transactions per month, or have the unlimited versions is $59 a quarter. I went with SAASU as it was an easy choice. And now I don’t have to fart about emailing the myob files over to the bookkeeper and holding off invoicing until I get them back.

I also got to configure the chart of accounts so that I could get really useful information out of the system (people who don’t customize their chart of accounts drive me mad).

I didn’t end up getting a free a solution, but close to it. My banking and accounting now all happens online. My finances are in the cloud.

Life is good.

Living my life online since…just now actually

After four years of trusty service, my notebook computer is starting to look a bit dodgy. It’s getting slower, noisier and some of the accessories are broken. The battery now holds about 20 mins charge.

I tried to ring Fujitsu but found their customer service in Australia sucks. Nope I’m wrong. They advertise that they have customer service in Australia, because if they actually did they would have answered my web tickets or phone messages (“our service guarantee is that we will respond to you within 24 hours”). Therefore their customer service doesn’t suck, they’re just liars.

I did speak to a reseller though and it appears that I will need to spend around $300 to get the broken bits fixed.

Obviously this is the decision point where you say, “time to upgrade the laptop” or “you rotten stinking piece of s**t”. Either way it translates to at least $3,000 for a new machine and software.

Something else caught my eye though and made me stop and think. I was speaking to Con Zymaris the CEO of Cybersource who suggested he was going to upgrade to the new ACER Aspire One. This tiny little computer is called a Netbook [ pls link to. It has no hard disk (but 8gb of flash memory) and is light as a feather. The idea is that you use it to access internet based services such as the Web and email, rather than store them locally. The price? A little over $500.

The concept of thin client is old, however it is kind of new idea to use the internet as your server with a netbook as the thin client. Vendors obviously feel that its big area though as all major players are now releasing netbooks (Asus, Acer, HP, Lenovo, Dell etc) or announcing them.

The advantages of using a netbook appear to be:

1. Will make it easier to collaborate with others as it will force me to put most of my planning documentsbe online.

2. I can use any internet connected computer to access my resources, rather than being pissed off that I am in the wrong office.

3. I can have professionals managing my systems properly and backing them up regularly, rather than me.

4. Its total cost of ownership appears to be way cheaper at just $500. The operating system and almost all software I will use will be free.

5. If I don’t like it, it will be easy to change back.

So I have ordered an Acer Aspire One (a blue one) but have decided to challenge myself by ordering it with a Linux based operating system (free) rather than windows.

That next couple of weeks I intend to write on the issues I run into and how I solve them. I reckon if I give it a red hot go, and it works, there is no reason why corporates and schools shouldn’t look at them as a much more desirable alternative than managing a fleet of laptops.

Living more of my life online!

Everyone can be in business

About once a month I go to the movies with a mate of mine, a kind of very tame boys night out.  Anyway, whilst we were having a beer after the movie he mentioned to me that he had run into a women who owns a couple of hair dressing salons in the UK.  Apparently she is able to travel around as much as she likes, but still has a vice like grip on her businesses.  Using webcams, a web integrated accounting system and Skype, she’s able to monitor almost every aspect of her salons in real time from her home, or from a hotel room from another country.  How cool is that?

Which got me thinking about how virtual I could make a business, and here’s what I came up with.  A business setup for under $1,000 , that can be created without leaving the house, and run from anywhere I have an internet connection.

THE PRODUCT
My products will be the books that I am currently writing on business development. If my product was soft toys or say specialized lamps, I would change the warehousing arrangements.

THE MARKETING
Firstly I am going to buy a domain name to develop my own brand and make it easy for people to find my products, something like www.brendans-brilliant-business-books.com.au (maybe not that one actually). I can buy the domain name on the cheap at Intaserv or a bit more expensively at Melbourne IT .  Intaserv,  is the cheapest for com.au domain names but their domain name management tools are no where near as easy to use as Melbourne IT.   You get what you pay for, no surprises there.

The products will be advertised online using campaigns purchased from Google Adwords and via the Sensis site .  Of course my online shop will be Search Engine Optimised so it can be found easily.

I will keep a record of what’s happing and run email campaigns using a web based CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system.  The one I have chosen in SugarCRM as; Its Open Source, which for me means its more robust and free.  The trade-off though is that the documentation can be crappy.  SugarCRM requires the same supporting technical environment as my shop.

For the online shop, I am going to use OSCommerce.  This is another Open Source product available at Source Forge or at www.oscommerce.com Again its powerful, robust and free.  It also uses the LAMP stack (Linux operating system, Apache webserver, Mysql database & Php language) as its operating environment.  I will connect the shop to my bank account using a merchant account I will setup at paypal

ADMINISTRATION  AND LOGISTICS
I going to create the company online at a company registration site such as www.incorporate.com.au  Sites such as this have a web based wizard that walks you through all the steps required then sends you the company register as a pdf document once the bill is paid.   The end result is a not big sexy leather look binder, but I’m not looking for that anyway.

The shop and CRM system need to be hosted somewhere.  I’m going to choose someone like Quadrahosting Which have customer control panels to make life easier.  For around $150 a year I can get around 20 websites hosted and my email chucked in as well.

Since I have purchased some web hosting that comes with email, I can use the control panel at Quadrahosting to setup a whole lot of email addresses that forward email to my gmail account.  I can then get my email, anywhere in the world, that is sent to addresses such as accounts@brendans-brilliant-business-books.com.au and sales@brendans-brilliant-business-books.com.au

Now since I want to be as virtual as possible, I don’t particularly want to hold stock.  I’ve decide to use an online book sales site called www.lulu.com to layout and print my book on demand.  I simply (warning : loose use of the word simple) upload a word file, and select the design and title.  I believe a 100 page hardback will cost about US$16 to produce for a
print run of one.  Lulu will effectively become my on-demand warehouse, printing and sending out books as I want.

My banking is of course easy to setup online.  Many companies now have the internet only account.  Its normally an interest paying, zero fees account that you can tack onto another fee paying account you have.   I tend to use The CBA as my other accounts are there and I like suing the one net banking interface to manage my affairs.  And as mentioned before I will also setup a paypal account that will be the gateway between my bank account and my shop.

Since I want to have a local landline number (rather than giving out my mobile) I am going to use skypeIn .  I can have a local landline number that I can forward to my mobile, or simply leave it as an internet based voice mail system.

Now I can simply have my home as the postal address or the traditional Post Office Box.  However there is now a large number of virtual office suppliers in the market.  I can have a Collins St address for as little as $10 per week.  Companies such as Silent Partner offer you the ability to have that address and rent meeting rooms on as ad needed basis.

To keep track of what’s going on I need a good Accounting System that I can create GST compliant invoices with.  A quick search reveals a number of Open Source (free and configurable) web based (accessible anywhere) solutions, including  SQL Ledger .  There are also some interesting paid solutions for nominal amounts such as SAASU at around $250 per year.

Finally since things are now working well and my overheads are minimal, I am profitable.  Therefore I need to be paying tax (both income and my GST). Just as well that he ATO allows me to do everything online at www.ato.gov.au

My estimate is that I have invested about $800 (before marketing) to get the virtual business up and running and worked for maybe 2 days in total over an elapsed time of 2 weeks.

So…….

There are lots of other options for doing all of this.  For instance if I was selling art or t-shirts I would probably use Red Bubble as my shop and warehouse, if I was selling services I probably wouldn’t use a shop,  maybe I would use a free online content management system such as Joomla to run the website.  The principle is the same though, there is now no reason (investment, physical space or time available) why every technically literate Australian can’t be an entrepreneur on the side.

Why Free CRM makes me happy

I got an email from FreeCRM today. Free means that it costs nothing (but if you want the really good bits you have to pay $US14.95 per month per user!).

CRM means customer relationship management or, in plain English, a database of customer details, records and contacts that does cool stuff such as remind you to call people back, or report on what your sales pipeline looks like.

It’s great for doing things such as sending out personalised emails to every sales manager you know that barracks for Collingwood but hasn’t been “boned”.

FreeCRM, as its name implies, provides a free CRM system on the internet. I think that a free CRM system is a pretty cool thing because my friend the business broker says lack of customer records is one of the main reasons a business might be unsellable (and no, the debtors ledger doesn’t count as customer records).

Anyway, in today’s email said: “FreeCRM.com has had 99.99% uptime in 2005, and will give you a rebate if we do not hit at least 99.9% uptime.”
Marketers for the IT industry decided that uptime was a fancy way of saying “it’s working”‘ — the converse of downtime, which means “it’s broken or I turned it off”.

So I wondered what the difference might be between 99%, 99.9% and 99.99% in practical terms. As the Americans say: I did the math. Using trusty Excel, I worked out there are about 31.5 million seconds in a year (31,536,000 in a usual 365-day non-leap year). Uptime of 99% implies downtime of 1%, or 87.6 hours per year — a bit over two weeks. Unacceptable. Uptime of 99.9% means 8.76 hours of downtime — a third of one day a year isn’t too bad. Crank that uptime up to 99.99% and it means just 52.56 minutes of downtime — less than a lunchbreak — in a whole year. Yahoo!

I must say I was quite astonished to think that the difference between 99% and 99.99% is effectively two weeks of work time. So I am pretty happy with FreeCRM’s performance. Mind you, a rebate of zero dollars is still zero dollars.