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.

Find My iPhone/Mobile Me for free

Find My iPhone is a neat little app from Apple that allows you to locate your iPhone either from the website or from the Find my iPhone app installed on another iPhone/iPod touch/iPad. Using the website or app you can locate your phone in google maps, remotely lock it, send a message to it or erase it.

The way it works is very tidy – it uses MobileMe set up as an email account on the iDevice to receive and process the requests (locate, lock, erase).  Doing it this way means once set it up on your iPhone it’s always on and doesn’t drain the battery, it just piggybacks onto the MobileMe push mechanisim.

Prior to IOS 4.2 you had to have a paid MobileMe subscription from Apple to use it but now it is free for the 2010 devices (iPhone4, iPad and ipod touch 4th generation). Although it’s not supported on older devices (iPhone 3G/3GS) you can get it working on these by creating and activating your MobileMe account on 2010 device running IOS 4.2, then deleting the account from that device and configuring the older iDevice to use that account.  For details on how to set up Find My iPhone with MobileMe see here, for details on how to get it working on an older iDevice see here.

Just what you need if lose your phone, or it gets nicked, and you want to track it down. However, the main reason I have it is that in April 2011 I’m support crew for Baubre while she runs in the London marathon. As there are approx 40,000 runners and she isn’t all that big I figured she could be hard to find. Not any more – as long as she has her phone I’ll know where she is and I’ll be on the spot doing whatever a support crew does.

The other vital iPhone application for marathon preparation is Runkeeper. This GPS enabled application records where you are going and how fast you are doing it, storing it all locally on the phone and also on the website.

The evolution of the virtual office – Part 1

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

The first bit (2002 – 2007)

Like many small businesses today we started out with a couple of PCs running Windows (initially Windows 2000) with Microsoft Office and a multifunction printer networked together using a SOHO router with a four port switch, all set up in the spare room.

Our main business tools were 1) Excel, 2)  Word, 3) Outlook for email and 4) MYOB to run our accounts.  Actually email was probably first on the list. One of the PCs had a shared folder that we kept all our documents on and every week or so we backed up this folder to a CD and stored the CD safely offsite.

This set-up worked well while Baubre was a sole practitioner with a small number of clients but as the business built up we needed to bring on more people to handle the volume of work. We welcomed Sue and we boxed on for a while using email and Excel but it was obvious we couldn’t grow much more with our existing system.

The solution was to implement a full function back office accounting system but these were all LAN based client/server packages designed for an old fashioned office environment and we didn’t want to run a traditional Accountancy firm with an office down town and all the overheads that go with it. In the end we decided to choose the accounting system first and then throw remote access technology at it so we could still run a virtual office where part time or full time staff could work from their homes, just coming into our home office occasionally.

Accounting systems back then were not very exciting and there wasn’t a lot of choice so in the end we went for the system used by most small and medium sized accountancy firms in Australasia at the time – MYOB Accountants Office (AO). To support it we invested in some technology…

  1. We registered the domain name, put in a Dell Server running Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 and migrated our email to Microsoft Exchange and our documents to an “office” share on the server.
  2. Backups were automated to backup to DVD (we had out grown CD’s by then) each night with a friendly emailed reminder to take the weekly backup off-site.
  3. Our two PC’s joined the Windows Active Directory domain and we used group policies on the server to standardise the desktop.  We also bought a couple of laptops and added them to the domain. By this stage all PC’s and laptops were running Windows XP.
  4. We added three more PC’s to the internal network without screens or keyboards. The Small Business Server has a facility where you can access a web page on the server from the Internet and then logon and connect to and take over the desktop on the internal network using Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). We used this to provide remote staff access to the headless PC’s.

With the server and remote access in place we installed MYOB AO onto the file share with the AO client programme installed on each PC and remote staff coming in via the SBS Remote Web Workplace to use their “own” PC in the office. We could of course have achieved a similar result using AO installed on a Microsoft Terminal Server rather than using dedicated remote PC’s but I’ve worked with Terminal Servers for years, way back from pre NT 4.0 days when it was Citrix Winframe, and as a solution for a small office it’s overkill – unnecessary complexity and cost.

We also put in a work phone and fax line and built the website and hosted it on our Small Business Server.

And it all worked! It took a bit of time to tame Accountants Office but once we had the chart of accounts standardised and reporting to match it did a good job of producing year end financial reports. The remote access was functional and fast enough and we kept growing and adding more remote staff as the client base grew.

Coming up next – virtualising the virtual office.

iPhone4 vs iPhone3GS – making the case for an upgrade

I loved my iPhone 3GS – except on those occasions when I left town and dropped off Vodafones 3G network. Worse than that in some out of the way locations like Waikanae Beach I couldn’t even reliably make or take calls on the 2G network.

The problem is that the iPhone 3G’s are 3G tri-band phones that operate on 850, 1900 and 2100 MHz. The Vodfone 3G network operates on 2100 (metro areas) and 900 (everywhere else).  The much maligned Telecom XT network runs 850 and 2100 making it a very good option for an iPhone 3G/GS.

The iPhone 4 is a quad band phone and runs on 900 Mhz (plus 850, 1900 and 2100) so it will have 3G everywhere there is a Vodafone network.

A quick bit of number crunching showed me that it was marginally cheaper for me to sell my iPhone 3GS and buy an iPhone 4 outright rather than break my Vodafone contract and switch to Telecom.  I was too early in the Vodafone plan to upgrade and I didn’t want to lock myself in for two years again as mobile rates are going to drop lots in the next year or two making some plans look very expensive.

After making the change and owning the iPhone4 for what seems like a lifetime but is actually 3 weeks I can say this:

  1. 3G coverage much improved – no issues there now.
  2. Battery life is much improved.  Running my Bria VOIP app on the 3GS by 5pm I’d be down to 30%, on the 4 it’s 5pm and 70%.
  3. The photos are definitely better and the flash very handy.
  4. Yes there is a grip of death problem – bridge the two aerials with your hand as I naturally do and the bars drop from 4 or 5 to 1. Calls didn’t drop out but data rates died. This was fixed by an Incase Snap under the iPhone case programme. The smoke coloured case hardly looks like it is there. Incidentally the iPhone 3G also drops bars when you grip it tightly – just not quite to the extent that the iPhone 4 does.
  5. Apps start a bit faster.
  6. The design is a triumph of form over function but you get to like it – functionally the iPhone 3 has it all over the iPhone 4 – with the iPhone 3 you can tell which way it is facing when it’s in your pocket and you don’t need a case.

Bring on the iPhone 5….

iPhone battery drain problem

Doing nothing special our iPhones drain their batteries at between 2% and 4% per hour so we usually charge them each night. However a couple of days ago they started eating battery at the rate of about 15% per hour which caused much distress in our household especially as it just so happened that I had upgraded the IOS to 4.02 around that time and also installed an update to the Bria iPhone VOIP client. I had broken the fundamental IT rule of change one thing at a time.

It seems from Mr Google that battery drain isn’t an uncommon problem on iPhones and there are multiple causes including dud batteries, errant applications not going to sleep properly with IOS 4, hungry VOIP applications and IOS 4 timeout too low talking to MS Exchange. One thing that did seem to fix a lot of the problems was restoring the iPhone to factory defaults and in the end I had to do this and it did fix the problem – until I configured the email that is and then it was deja vu all over again.

The problem it turned out was that I’d made a third change that day, I’d applied some Windows security patches the our Exchange server and one of them had crippled Activesync. I guess the phones were continually connecting to email to download mail. The fix here followed by a restart of the server fixed the problem.

From now on its strictly one change at a time.

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