Updates!

For my regular readers, I apologise for not updating this blog for a while as I’ve been very busy.  During the past month, I’ve passed my probation in the new job I started back in August and what with just having gone through the recent Black Friday/Cyber Monday, the weeks leading up to it have been extraordinarily busy.

I’ve cancelled Virgin Media and gone back to Sky for TV, phone and broadband (well, the phone not so much – I’ll be using my EE mobile for the most part and just keep the Sky landline for incoming calls).  I can tell you right now, the difference between Sky and Virgin is like night and day.  Sky Q has improved considerably in the 8 months or so since I originally joined Virgin with their Tivo 6 box.  The Tivo has been a massive disappointment what with TV programmes regularly suffering from messed up imagery/artefacts and I’ve not been able to delete all programs I’ve recorded either – they just end up stuck.  The whole Sky Cinema SD/HD thing was just awful.  So Virgin Media has been given the heave-ho permanently this time.

I’m a tiny bit disappointed that Sky has done away with their Sky Fibre Broadband Pro package which offered a static IP.  As I also work from home on a semi-regular basis, having a static IP makes a big difference when configuring access control lists for various endpoints.  But the max package I’m on is nevertheless not shabby in the least, and the lease times on IPv4 seems long enough – plus IPv6 has been re-enabled (took around 12 days after activation), so I’m dual stack here.

Getting back to Sky Q – there’s a new remote!  Instead of giving everybody two remotes for the main Sky Q box, there is just one.  It doubles as a touch-sensitive remote as well as being a regular clicky one – controllable from within the Sky Q menu settings.  I really like this approach and big kudos to Sky for taking on board feedback from customers.  It’s a real pleasure to use now.  But the biggest thing for me is the voice control.  I ask Sky Q to change the channel (and it will automatically select the HD version of that channel if available) as well as fast forwarding and rewinding X seconds or minutes.   It matches up with the Apple 4K TV just nicely.  If only we had a unified remote that could control both!

Sky Q now offers favourite channels – something that was sadly lacking last time.  It still needs a bit of tweaking: ideally, there should be a favourites button on the remote to take you to the TV guide that compliments the (new) existing feature of allocating favourites to the remote buttons.

Sky Cinema is back in full HD, and still offers a not unreasonable number of ultra HD (4K) content.  Unlike the Tivo V6 which didn’t offer anything at all.  And the best part is that Sky Cinema is only £10 a month for the duration of my 18-month contract.  Let’s hope we can do a deal again when it comes to renewing it!

For me, while I have had a massive speed drop from 300Mbs to 76Mbs (on average around 65Mbs), this isn’t a big problem.  Rarely do I achieve speeds above 150Mbs anyway – mainly because many websites simply won’t go above 100Mb due to bandwidth throttling at the hosting company – take a look at a lot of hosting packages and you’ll see what I mean.  But I’d rather Sky’s speeds with their brilliant Sky Q Hub than Virgin Media’s Intel-powered latency inducing SuperHub 3.

(BTW, not being paid by Sky to say these things – just a very happy customer with one exception – I have continually received “please return our equipment” SMSes and emails over the past month with threats to charge me despite the equipment being sent back with evidence of posting.  I think this has finally been resolved by speaking to an operator who got me to upload a scan of the Post Office receipt to a special section of Sky’s website.  So hopefully that’s that.)

Oh, and I’ve also replaced my Oppo 203 UltraHD Blu-Ray player with an Xbox One X – currently the most powerful console yet, with its 6 Teraflops of processing power.  It also has an UltraHD Blu-Ray player in it, and is much, much smaller than the Oppo.  I’ve been very impressed with it, but not so much with Microsoft Store who mucked up the extended warranty necessitating in two phone calls and a bunch of emails.  I’m not entirely sure the issue has been fully resolved as my account has weird XML related code embedded in the page where the warranty info is.  Let’s say that if I were considering a Surface Pro 2 which can cost up to £3k, I’d be very wary of buying it directly from Microsoft.  If they can’t get it right with an Xbox…

So that’s it so far!

Going back to my roots.. now hosting with Memset Hosting

I spent a very happy 9 years at Memset Hosting as an employee, working my way up from systems administrator to a senior systems administrator and finally to First Line Team Leader.  Changed offices three times (with two location changes).  Dealt with more customers and configurations than I care to count.

Now I’m working for an entirely different company that specialises in e-commerce/e-business platform development, I don’t get the perk of free servers or hosting.  Have to pay for it myself now.  For two months after leaving Memset I moved my cPanel and Ubuntu server to Digital Ocean – mainly to avoid any potential conflict of interest and also I wanted to check DO out properly.  All was good – I have no complaints with Digital Ocean.  I’d recommend them for development or testing stuff, and no doubt I’ll be doing so when I need to spin up a server for a day or two to try something out.

But gradually I’ve been moving stuff back to Memset – this time as a paying customer.  I got a bit fed up with Rackspace Cloud Files and the lack of decent granular controls over containers.  It just wasn’t the same experience I had back at Memset.  So I set-up a pay-as-you-go Cloud Storage service for backing up my virtual private servers.  Interestingly I’m using Nick Craig-Wood‘s (one of my former bosses at Memset)  rclone to push the backups to Memset Cloud Storage as well as Backblaze’s B2 object storage system.  I like some redundancy in my backup strategy in case things go completely awry.  It’s been working great so far.  And since I started the new job, I’ve been exposed much more to “git” and BitBucket, so I now use that to store configuration and automation tools I’ve written for my blog server.

I finally decided to commit to Memset for my long-term virtual private server needs. I set-up two of them – one for the blog, the other for cPanel.  I have an external cPanel license which I can take with me from hosting company to hosting company, but the downside is that it’s about £3/month more expensive than Memset – so there I’ve made a mistake.  But next year I’ll probably switch to Memset’s cPanel license instead.  I find cPanel to be like the G Suite of the hosting world – I can set something up and it’ll just work.  Doesn’t require too much effort on my part (except for the initial set-up and hardening/locking down).  So I decided to move my blog (which was running Varnish as an exercise for what I’m playing around with now) to cPanel.  That doesn’t run Varnish, but Memcache is still giving WordPress the edge.  There are a few hundred milliseconds in it, but that’s fine.  Everything on one server.  So the old new(!) blog server is retiring next month.  I upgraded cPanel to a better specification (and here’s one difference between Digital Ocean and Memset – you get an extra 2 CPUs at the 4Gb RAM mark with Memset and you do notice the difference).

I’ve had to make just one support query with Memset about the initial set-ups of my servers, and my former colleagues did me proud with a quick turnaround.  The only other problem was that the monitoring configuration was slightly wrong – I guess the CentOS 7 image might need looking at – but it was easily fixed and I’m using the bundle self-managed Advanced Port Patrol to notify me of any problems.

I provisioned each server with 20Gb of block storage, mounting it under /backup and keeping backups dumped there.  If I ever need to re-image the server itself, that block storage will be persistent and I can just restore from the backups stored there.  I also have the Cloud Storage backups too, of course, but this is ever so slightly quicker.

Overall I’m paying £35.50 including VAT for a 4Gb, 4 vCPU, 60Gb SSD Centos 7 virtual private server including the extra 20Gb block storage.  Cloud Storage costs me around 60-70p per month including the backups AND two snapshot images of the server.  Compare that to the £26 I was paying just for my Times and Sunday Times iPad newspaper subscription, it’s an absolute bargin.

(And before anybody asks – no, Memset are not paying me to post this, nor are they giving me any freebies – I’m 100% paying my own way here )

Game of Phones part.. oh, I’ve lost track now.. and the big screen experience at home

September is traditionally the time in which the two biggest players in the smartphone market release (or at least announce) their newest flagship phones to the masses.

Apple is due to announce the new iPhone 8 range of phones on September 12th, whereas Samsung is releasing the new Galaxy Note 8 a few days later.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve really struggled to move to Android and have always returned to iOS.  When I got the Galaxy Note 7, I absolutely loved that phone, but the whole battery/recall situation was unpleasant enough (which also took me to the Galaxy S7 Edge and Google Pixel XL) that I just bit the bullet and went back to an iPhone.  Earlier this year I had a brief encounter with the Galaxy S8+, but one of my most valued (and most used) applications kept crashing under Android and that forced me back to the iPhone – again.

Right now I’m thinking the best strategy would simply to keep using the iPhone 7 Plus that I have and wait it out until later next year to see what’s happened between the Note 8 and iPhone 8.  But I really like the look of the Note 8 – it’s square shape, the S-Pen and the dual cameras (both of which feature optical image stabilisation – a first for any smartphone) all appeal.  I liked that I could jot down phone numbers or write notes when the screen was off with the Note 7.  That’s great value to me.  With the iPhone 8, I stay within the Apple ecosystem with the Apple Watch and the MacBook Pro 2017 Kaby Lake (13″).

Speaking of the MacBook Pro, I decided that, as I will be occasionally working from home with my new job (which is going great, BTW – there’s a LOT to keep me occupied) to buy myself a monitor.  I’ve been using laptops almost exclusively close to nearly 15 years, and I’d never thought about buying an external monitor to use with them.  Back at Memset, I had a single monitor (21″) that kept me going for 5 years (whereas colleagues had multiple monitors) that I hooked up to my MacBook Air.  It was okay, and as such, I felt that I didn’t really need that sort of set-up at home.  This new job, on the other hand, gives me two 21″ monitors out the box on a desktop based Ubuntu OS (it was running Windows).

So last week, having endured two weeks where I had to work at least one day per week at home due to the South Western Railway signal/Waterloo upgrade situation, I decided that what I really needed to be able to work comfortably at home with a trillion SSH sessions going on, a web browser or three, and a Slack session all running at the same time was a monitor.  I had a look at Ultra HD/4K monitors and ruled them out due to cost.  I think it may be another year or two before costs are driven down.   So I had a look at a decent 21-24″ full HD monitor that would be both cost-effective and last me for a couple of years (or more).

I looked at a Samsung curved monitor, then ruled that out as it looked too odd.  Then there was the LG 25UM58-P-25 21:9 aspect ratio ultra-wide monitor, which looks incredible, but I wondered if it would fit on my desk.  I finally settled down on a Dell 2418H InfinityEdge display from John Lewis. £200.  It’s a lovely display and comes with its own speakers (tuned by Waves Maxx Audio) that sit within the stand.  The quality of the image is fantastic.  Yes, you can see the pixels in text given that it’s only a Full HD display and the Mac is capable of driving much higher resolutions – but for my needs it’s perfectly fine (the laptop screen runs at 1600×900 and this display runs at 1980×1080 – then when you combine both screens, I have substantially more real screen estate to play with now).

I also had to buy a new dongle for the Mac because of Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports don’t allow me to directly hook up to an external monitor without one.  I settled for a Cable Matters USB-C to 4K HDMI multiport adapter.  This also gives me a gigabit ethernet port and two USB 3 ports.  And it works brilliantly.  It also works with my Dell XPS 13 (9350) too.

Speaking of the Dell XPS 13 9350, I think it may be time to say goodbye to the only decent Windows machine I’ve used in the past year.  Dell is just about to refresh the line with the brand spanking new 8th generation Intel processors which bring quad core processing to 13″ notebooks for the very first time.  So if anybody is looking out for a very good Windows laptop with 16Gb RAM and 1Tb SSD, and still carries an on-site warranty until 2019 – please get in touch (details in the About Martyn page – link on the left).

You don’t need ransomware to make me WannaCry about Windows..

Windows Servers.  What a load of old tosh.  The past three weeks or so have seen me tinkering unnecessarily with the blasted things because of Microsoft’s inability to write an operating system which is so super sensitive to hardware changes – principally because of licensing – that just by upgrading underlying virtualisation software triggers the operating system to think it has a new network card.  You can imagine the chaos something like that can cause!

It’s not just that which makes me despise Windows Server.  For similar reasons, if a dedicated server chassis dies and needs to be swapped out – you’d better have a spare because any hardware changes will cause Windows to freak out.  Linux has no problem with such things providing you’re using a modern distribution and reasonably up to date hardware.  Generally speaking, with maybe a very few exceptions, Linux Just Works(tm).

Don’t get me started on those people that are still running the now 15 year old Windows 2003.. (though this article about Fasthosts running Windows 2003 for their backup platform made me laugh a lot more than it should – and bury my hands in my face for leaving an obsolete OS in charge of managing critical customer backups).

The whole WCry situation around these parts has been, strangely, pretty good – indeed, a lot more people have taken an interest in their backups and patching their systems and this is only to be commended.  A good old major outbreak tends to kick people in the teeth and get them thinking about disaster recovery.

Just because I use MacOS and Linux isn’t making me complacent – oh no.  Very recently Apple just released updates to iOS, MacOS and WatchOS to fix a rather nasty exploit, as well as general performance updates.  It’s one of the reasons I went back to iOS – Apple has become very good at rolling out updates much faster and on schedule than the likes of Samsung.

The server on which this blog runs on utilises something called KernelCare which patches the kernel in real time for newly discovered exploits.  This has the advantage of:

  1. Not having to wait for the OS vendor to release a patch.
  2. You don’t have to reboot the machine.

In my testing of KernelCare, it has worked very well.  If you’re using it in a VPS, it must support full virtualisation – paravirtualisation won’t cut it.

Meanwhile, Microsoft should stick to producing office productivity software and gaming (Xbox One) – it’s what they’re good at.  I’ve completely lost faith in their desktop and server operating system divisions.

Guardians of the Galaxy S8+ Vol. 2

Unfortunately, while I have genuinely liked the Galaxy S8+, I’m swapping it back for the iPhone 7 Plus.  The biggest issue I’ve found with the S8+ was the lack of Android Pay support in some apps which somehow worked with the OnePlus 3T (Starbucks, IIRC) and the Arriva Bus Ticket app keeps crashing with alarming regularity – and at the most inconvenient times.  Never happened with the OnePlus 3T.  Plus the size of the phone means that many apps can’t take full advantage of the screen size.  Yes, in time, this will change – especially as the LG 6 shares the same aspect ratio.  We’re going to see a lot more phones adapt this kind of size/ratio in the future.

So why not just stick with the OnePlus 3T?  Well, I think it’s a very fine phone, but the battery life just isn’t great.  It ran out of juice on one of my trips out of Edinburgh and I rely fairly heavily on the likes of Google Maps to get me around. It’s good enough for a backup phone, but I can’t say it’d be very good for a daily driver.  Especially if one is doing on-call.  And that reminds me – the Galaxy S8+ speaker isn’t that great – and I found myself missing on-call alerts.

So Apple it is.  I can’t say I shall be trying this again – two years in a trot with Android and Every. Single. Time. I come back to IOS.  That either says something about the strength Apple’s ecosystem, or how well iOS has been designed.  I don’t know.  Much of it is down to marketing, and to be fair to Samsung, they pulled off a very good campaign.  But has not been helped by the lack of the Gear 360 or the VR headset at the time of the S8’s launch either.

By heading back to iOS, I regain the ability to use iMessage again.  Many friends and family have this – and it’s particularly useful for those abroad.  Getting everybody on WhatsApp has been difficult.  I have other contacts on Skype.  So it’s all a bit fragmented.  Also Wi-Fi Calling.  The S8+ is not compatible with Three’s Wi-Fi Calling service at this time, so there’s that too.

There is a part of me that desperately wants to love and use Android full time, but there are too many inconsistencies.  Both in rolling out security updates (the Galaxy S8+ is still on April security updates), features (S8+ on version 7, the OnePlus 3T is on 7.1.1), and app performance.  iOS fixes many of these issues, and thus after the great swaparoos of 2016 and 2017, I declare iOS as the recommended mobile platform.

Now, I had a bet with somebody about all this, and I owe them a crate of Budweiser beer…