On holiday with the iPhone

As I mentioned in a previous post Baubre signed up to run the London marathon on 17 April this year and my plan to follow her progress (as I was her support crew) was to us the Find my iPhone app to keep track of her phone.  How did it work out? Not too badly actually…

For my cunning plan to work we needed 3G data on our phones in London, and given that international data roaming costs $10 per megabyte using our NZ SIMs was never going to be a starter (about time the regulators had a look at this).  So prior to leaving for the UK I did a wee bit of research (thank you Mr Google) on UK SIM options.  Very confusing and plenty of options – in the end it looked like Vodafone or O2 prepay/pay as you go SIMs would give the best combination of data, coverage and price.

So on arriving in London I trotted down Oxford Street looking for Vodafone or O2 shops.  I quickly found both, but at 8:30am they were firmly closed.  Some time after 9am the Vodafone store opened so I purchased a 10 GBP SIM for the iPhone3GS. I got a very helpful but not very knowledgeable staff member, and a SIM that had 10 GPB credit for calls (21 pence per minute), and 300 txts plus 500 MB data to be used within a month. Popped it in the phone and it worked.

However as Vodafone had run out of micro SIMs for iPhone 4s I had to cross the road to the O2 store. Not open till 10am. Actually more like 10:30am before the doors opened and I handed over 10 GBP for a micro SIM for the iPhone 4. For this I got 500Mb of data and 300 txts. I thought I got calling credit too but I could be wrong there.

The first disappointment was that neither of the pay as you go SIMs allowed tethering (and in our low rent hotel you had to pay for WIFI), the second was that coverage on Vodafone wasn’t as good as O2 (maybe that was iPhone3Gs vs iPhone4), and the third was that on our way back through London 10 days later the Vodafone data seemed to have expired.

However, enough of the complaints. Tooled up with our 500MB data each we were ready for marathon day. On the day Baubre took the iPhone4 as it has significantly better battery life than the 3Gs and using Runkeeper drains her phone in about four hours which by her calculation wasn’t going to be enough time to complete the marathon.  She set off on the marathon bus at 7am for a 10am start, and I followed somewhat later on the tube and DLR to find her. First stop was the Cutty Sark in Greenwich near the start of the marathon. I exited the DLR and parked myself on the very crowded side of the road to watch the runners and was feeling very confident as the trusty Find my iPhone showed her still a 1km away.  I watched every runner, time passed, no Baubre, more waiting, no Baubre so out with the Find my iPhone and dang – missed her, she was 1 km in the other direction now.

Back on the DLR and off at the brilliantly named Mudchute. I’d spotted this stop on the way over and it looked relatively uncrowded with lots of good viewpoints. By my reckoning Baubre  was at least an hour way, even after adjusting for momentary confusion between KM’s and miles. By this time the day had warmed up – the long range forecast had been a high of six degrees, but on the day it reached about 20,  so I sought a shady spot on the side of the road and watched the first of 37,000 odd runners come through – no Borats but a few dressed as bottles of beer. After about half an hour I realised I had a small problem – I’d crossed the road when there were only a few runners but now they were coming thick and fast and getting back to the station was going to be like crossing the motorway on foot during peak hour traffic.  So I did what most blokes would do, wandered around aimlessly and hoped for the best – which turned up in the form of a narrow part of the road, a break in the traffic, and several other confused and dazed blokes crossing with me.

This time I was on top of it and tracked Baubre carefully all the way in and then all the way past my unseeing eyes and out the other side. Missed her again. Now I was worried – all this technology and I couldn’t find her. Worst of all apart from the ribbing I might get about the failure of the mighty iDevice I could see that I’d have a hard time showing  I hadn’t just spent the whole day lounging around the hotel. By this stage Baubre was at about the 13 mile mark and the easy vantage points were over so I resigned myself to not finding her and moved into think up excuses mode. Back on the DLR, and with luck there might just be time for a quick visit to an electronics shop or two before closing time.  As the train approached Canary Wharf I had one last look to see where Baubre was tracking – whoa! – very close indeed. Off the train, down the down escalator, elbow through the crowd and there she is, running past me looking as fit as a fit thing. I yelled, she saw me, job almost done – as her track was going to do a bit of a u-turn I cut the corner and positioned myself, video running to capture her in full flight, as she rounded the next corner. Once again, past my unseeing eyes and gone. The interesting thing is that later when I replayed the video that evening I had no problem seeing her. I guess my eye/brain isn’t all that good at scanning lots of unfamiliar faces to find one very familiar face in real-time.

Given the pace she was running at and the crowded trains I didn’t have time for shopping, so I headed for the finish line. Baubre came home in 4 hours 32 minutes, a personal best, number 17,001 of 37,000 and in the first 500 in her age group. But the best bit was I found her at the end, thanks to the iDevice and Stalk my Wife (as Baubre insists on calling it). She wasn’t too keen on the 3km walk back to the hotel so we hailed a bicycle cab and headed off to hotel St Giles for a shower, rest and then out for a very average curry – but the beer was good.





The evolution of the virtual office – Part 2

This is part two of a series of posts on our experiences in running a virtual office.

Virtualising the virtual office (2007 – 2009)

By the end of 2007 our virtual office was working away but there were a few things I didn’t like about the remote access – in particular although our headless PCs worked it just didn’t seem right that they chugged away day and night. I tried various power save schemes to put them into standby and then wake them up when someone tried to connect to them but end the end gave up on this approach as they didn’t always wake up – very annoying for the person trying to connect remotely.

Also with the Windows SBS Server 2003 there was no easy mechanism to automatically share or pool the remote PCs – we had to have one per remote staff member.  As some of our staff were part time this wasn’t a very efficient use of PCs.

I’d spent the last few years implementing server virtualisation using VMWare at several large organisations and VMWare Server had been recently released as a free product so I decided to virtualise the remote access PCs. To do this I bought a dual core Dell desktop with 4GB of memory, installed Linux (Ubuntu LTS 6.06) and VMWare Server 1.02 and built four (then five then six) Windows XP VM’s. It just worked and now we had one physical PC with six VMs instead of the three physical PCs we started with.

Then sometime in 2009 the Dell SC420 server we had purchased in 2006 started logging events indicating possible problems with its system disk. I’ve never enjoyed restoring or rebuilding Windows servers so I wasn’t enthused by the idea of replacing the system disk – too often a simple job like that has turned into a major operation. So I bought another Dell server, an SC440, with no operating system and installed Ubuntu (LTS 8.04 by then), VMWare Server and used the VMware Converter tool to convert our SBS Server into a VM on the new VMWare Server. As with the PCs it just worked and performance was about the same as it had been on the old server. Best of all the next time I wanted to change hardware, all I needed to do was to move the VM files. No more rebuilding Windows servers.

The old server had lived in the office and popped its DVD out each morning after backing up as a reminder to me to change DVDs. However the VMWare servers had a home in our Harry Potter cupboard under the stairs and I couldn’t see myself remembering to change DVDs each day. Also I didn’t like the idea of burning DVDs on the server, if something went wrong I’d have to reboot it and the VM. So I repurposed one of the old remote access PCs to run as a backup server. A little bit of scripting and then each night the SBS server would wake the backup server, copy the backups to it, burn them to the DVD, pop out the DVD and then shut the backup server down. Occasionally we would shutdown all the VMs to copy the virtual machine files and Ubuntu installation files to a USB drive. This was stored offsite in case of a disaster.

I’d been worried for some time that the remote access via the SBS server was slowing down as we put load on, and the new virtual server didn’t speed it up at all – perhaps the reverse. Plus I wanted to be able to transparently share the remote access virtual PCs. It took a week or so but in the end I had a replacement remote access system using iptables on the Ubuntu server up and running.  The new website that handled the staff logons and set up the iptables rules wasn’t all that pretty, but it worked, and the remote access was definitely faster.  It also meant that I was able to build a remote PC pooling system where you logged onto your preferred remote PC, but if that wasn’t available you got any PC that wasn’t in use.

That pretty well took care of the infrastructure side of things for a while, it was now time to update the accounting side of the business.

Coming up next – Xero and starting the move into the cloud.