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Preparing A Device for Someone New To I.T. April 26, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Perceptions, Private Life, Uncategorized.
Tags: , , ,
5 comments

In my previous post I covered what I felt were the main considerations on deciding how to get someone with no real experience of I.T. online, for an example an elderly relative like my mum. In this post I’ll cover setting up the device.  Set-up is actually quite complex and there is a lot of assumed knowledge, like how the keyboard works, what spyware you leave turned on (none!) etc. So I am setting it up for her.  First I’ll just recap the main points on why I decided to use an Apple iPad for my Mum:

Keep the main screen as simple as possible

  • A small tablet – but not too small.
  • Simple, intuitive interface.
  • A Smartphone or iPad mini was too small.
  • PC/laptop ruled out as too complex for her.
  • Apple device as her main potential contacts use Apple devices.
  • A lack of remote access by me was less important than the above considerations.

On of the first things I did was to ask my friends (via Twitter) what they would suggest or had found worked when they had a similar task. Thank you to everyone who replied. If you have further advice, add a comment or contact me and I can update this post. The main suggestions were:

Keep It Simple

Mum has never used a keyboard, never used a smartphone and is not very technically adept. Everything she is learning is almost new to her, from what the enter key does to what an icon is. The closest reference I can use for her is the menu of options on her TV recorder – and she has some pretty bizarre ways of using that (but if it works for her, that’s just fine). So using the device has to be very, very simple. I want the main screen to be simple and non-threatening:

  • Remove every App that is not for something she needs to use (or I need to help).
  • Move any icons I need but she does not (or at least not at first) off the first screen.
  • Be brutal, delete as much as you can –  you can add back anything you later find you need.
  • Only have one app for a given task. Choice in this case is probably just confusion.
  • Include one or two (and only one or two) key things she will want to use.

I’ll just cover some of those bullet points in more detail:

Remove every app not required. My mum has no interest in stocks & shares, in monitoring her health, in maps of where she is (she knows where she is, she does not go anywhere else!). She certainly has no interest in “iTunes Store”, “Photo Booth” or any of the other “free” apps provided by the vendor. They will just be confusing clutter at first.

If there are 2 dozen icons on the screen, Mum will worry about what they all do or what will happen if she clicks the wrong one. And she will click the wrong one. It is a worry we don’t need.

When she first starts, she will struggle to find the right icon – even from a simplified list (and she did). The fewer choices the better.

So I deleted absolutely everything but the half dozen things she needed. If in the coming weeks, months or years she wants anything a deleted apps provides, they can be added back. When she is comfortable with the first lot, I can introduce more.

The very basic “what the buttons do” help sheet

Move Icons I need to the second page. There are some things I need to get the device all set up for her and then tweak it. Two of them are “Settings” and “App Store”. You could argue that “Settings” will have things that Mum might like to change. But she won’t know how and she could mess up things if she changes her settings. So they are moved to the second page – and I told her to leave that page if she ever gets on it! The chances are she will not find the second page of Icons. (I did show her how to get off it, but stressed she call me if in doubt).

I also put a couple of things on the second page that I think she might want to use soon.

Only One Way.  I was advised to provide Mum with e.g. two ways of getting hold of me, in case one fails. Well, no. I do NOT want to have to show her two messaging apps and teach her the differences, I want one method that she can become confident with. It’s part of keeping it simple. Mum will be challenged to learn one interface, if I try and show her a second she will get confused over what works in which app. She can call me on the phone if the new way of communicating is not working, she is happy using a phone (as in just a phone, one that only makes and receives calls).

If Mum decides she does not like the app I choose (e.g. BBC News for, well, news) we can swap later. But right now I pick what I think she will like. And for the sake of simplicity, I chose a set of apps that are from the same provider, so work the same way.

We in the I.T. profession often love that we can swap between programming languages or have 4 or 5 social media apps to choose from. But we live and breath this stuff. This is all new to Mum. When you learnt to drive a  powered vehicle you learnt to drive a car. Or a motorbike. Or maybe even a tractor. You did not learn to use all three at the same time – and also an articulated lorry at the same time!

One or Two things she wants. I got a lot of advice of things to add to make the device fun or interesting, such as games, picture editing, or puzzles. The principle is good – but the reality is you need to think about the person and what they want from the device. And the keeping it simple aspect.

My mum loves jigsaws – but she loves the physical side of them! She has her tables set up, she talks about the manufacture she likes as the pieces fit together so well, she likes to glue together the occasional jigsaw she really likes. Maybe in the future she will look at Jigsaw apps, but right now she wants to keep her physical jigsaws.

What she wants is (1) a way to communicate with me (2) information on cycling and Formula 1 (3) the weather. So I gave her them. Nothing more, I’m keeping it simple. So that is Messenger, BBC sport and BBC weather. BBC news completes her intro to the web.

(Note, I also tried to introduce searching for things on google, but it did not work well – google does not understand “I want to know about him, that cycling chap, the one who’s not got side-burns”. We will come back to google in a month or so).

Make it Big and Bold

I don’t know about you, but the last time I changed my smartphone I got one with a slightly larger screen as I was having to hold the old one further and further away from me so I could focus on it. And I set my new smartphone to have larger Icons.

Add pictures they will like to their social media and the device. Keep personal information to a minimum to protect them.

If you are new to I.T. and you are starting to have issues with vision or hearing, there are options for any device to make it easier to use. Check out the “Ease of Use” or “accessibility” options of the device. Ironically, they are not always the easiest to find. For iPads they are not a main option but under “General”. That’s not very helpful, Apple!

You maybe don’t want to bring up the topic of failing faculties with an older relative – so don’t. Just set up the device to have large icons, big text. and loud messages. Big and Bold.

Also, think of adding pictures and sounds the person will like. I changed the iPad wallpaper for a picture of our cats and when I created her facebook account (hmmm, I’ve not covered that…) I added a background of myself and my brother up some hills and a picture of our last cat as her image. I would have made it a picture of one of her cats but I did not have one. And that will be a nice thing to do with her sometime. The main thrust is use images the person can relate to.

To make the device easier for Mum to use I considered the following:

  • Increase the text size.
  • Increase the icon size.
  • Bold text & increased contrast can help if vision is poor.
  • Set the volume loud and make sure one of the first things you demonstrate is how to increase (and decrease) volume.
  • When you start messaging, send pictures. It’s more interesting.
  • Show them emojis. My mum seemed to really like emojis. Less Tyoing!
  • Put pictures they will like as their wallpaper and social media images.

I think I could have done more in this respect. What I should have done was got pictures from her and scanned them, or looked back in my old photo collection. I could have set the wallpaper to a picture of my Dad (long gone) or of all us kids or something. And any social media you set up for the person, think what pictures you can use for backgrounds and avatars.

 

Reference Material

The online help on tablets etc is pretty good – once you are able to look for it and learn what you can ignore.

For anyone who is really new to technology, reference material is going to need to be a lot more basic.

Keyboards Confuse the Uninitiated

I prepared several sheets of information for my mum, like how to use a keyboard, which I show here. I also did some pictures of the iPad and annotated it – and left space for Mum to add her own notes!

My Mum found these really helpful, especially being able to scribble on them herself (which sometimes was replacing my helpful text with her weird description on what a key did!).

As well as this, I got her one of those “a senior citizen’s guide to the iPad” magazines. They are a good place to go to once the real basics of how to turn the device off and on and how a keyboard works have been learnt. BUT, they have a big drawback – they try and show lots of things in order to address a wide audience, and they usually have a long section at the start about “setting up your device”. I already set it up, Mum does not need it. So, edit the magazine!

I went through the magazine and crossed out in big, thick, black lines the bits she did not need. I also crossed out those sections on an app I had not given her but did a similar thing, and wrote at the start of it “do not read, Mum! Yours works differently!”

 

Random Other Advice

“Tell her not to clean the screen with a brillo pad! :)”
Well, it was a bit of a joke but it leads to a serious point. Explain how to look after the thing. I made the point that she should not get the iPad wet and to dry it immediately if she does spill things on it. And, if she drops it down the loo, take it out immediately, turn it off if it is on and put it somewhere warm – and call me!

“Yes, you can leave it plugged in, it will work for several days between charges. No you can’t damage the screen by tapping it with your finger, but do not use a screwdriver. Hitting it harder will not make it work more.”

We should (and will) get a cover for it so Mum can hold it more easily. Her house is carpeted throughout so dropping it (which she does, but she is close to the ground) is not such an issue.

“tell her how to get rid of Siri when she accidentally starts Siri up.”
I have turned off Siri as much as I can. And this leads on to the general topic of telling the person what they can and should ignore.

I told Mum to ignore prompts she will get (“You have not backed up your device for a week, kittens will die!”) or requests for feedback or surveys; how to shut down advertising boxes; do not respond to anything that ask you to provide information or download anything. And, just because you now have a “computer”, you should still ignore any telephone calls you get offering to help you with your computer problem. They were a hoax before you had a computer, they still are – keep telling them you don’t have a computer.

“Be patient…”
That last one is key. This is all new to them and if you are a regular visitor to my blog you are probably an I.T. expert. It can be very hard for us to understand how new this is for non-I.T. people and we assume knowledge. Like, what the enter key does in different situations and using the shift key (a single press of the shift key is different to a double press – and undoing the ALL CAPS of a double press only take a single press, which my Mum rightly pointed out is not logical!).

My mum really, really did not understand the keyboard very well to start. But touching the screen and dragging things around she took to straight away. I guess different people take to different parts more easily.

Be prepared to be very patient (*) and do not be surprised if some things take them an age to understand and yet other things they seem to get immediately. At some point, probably very early on, they will find out how to do something you don’t know!

(*) as my wife comments (in the comments section) alcohol may be required for post-training de-stress!

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Introducing I.T. to an Elderly Relative February 25, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Hardware, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

Introducing an older person to the connected world can be a challenge. So I thought I would describe my recent experiences in introducing my elderly mother to I.T and the internet. Each such situation will be different of course, depending on the prior experience of the person and the skills you believe they have. I’m going to run through what I think are the main initial considerations. I knew from the start it was going to be a particular challenge with my mother, so I think she is a good example. Hopefully, for many the task will be a little easier…

From cheezburger dot com

Firstly, why are we doing this?

Not everyone has to be on the internet and I knew it was going to be stressful for everyone involved, so the first question to ask is “Is it in the best interest of Uncle Bob to go through this?”

For years my mother has shown very little interest in computers or the internet, and at times she has been quite “Oh, those damn things!” about it all. But over the last 2 or 3 years Mum’s started showing an interest. This has nothing to do with the fact that her youngest son’s whole working life has been in I.T., I think she’s simply started to feel she is missing out as there are so many references on TV programs and the newspaper to things on the internet. “Just go to blingy bong for more information!”. And to her, it really is “blingy bong”.

I think it is vital that the person wants to get online – and this is not a one-week wonder.

Before now my mum had mentioned getting online but then lost interest when the one thing she was interested in disappeared, such as checking the state of play in the Vuelta cycling race as it was not on her TV. Setting someone up on the internet is not cheap and I knew she would insist on paying. You have to organise broadband to the property, buy a device and then spend time in training them. If mum lost interest after a couple of days of trying, it would all be a waste of effort. But she had been constant in mentioning this for a couple of months.

Another reason to get Mum online is so she can stay in touch more easily {am I really sure I want this?!?}. Her hearing is not as good as it was and phone calls are a ‘dedicated, binary activity’. What do I mean by that? Well, when you are on the phone, you have to keep the conversation going and you are doing nothing else, this is your only chance to communicate – dedicated. And when you are not on the phone you are not in contact – Binary (all or nothing).

I think those of us in the technology industry or who grew up in the last… 4 decades maybe take this for granted, but with email, texts, messenger, whatsapp etc you can throw a message or two at people when the need occurs to you, and leave them for the person to pick up. It is a more relaxed way of communicating and, in many ways, more reliable. At present if mum needs me to come over and change light bulbs she needs to call me in the evening. She won’t call me during the day, she is convinced nothing short of death is important enough to call during the day! So she also needs to remember to call and mum is getting worse for that. If she is online she can send me a message when she notices the bulb in hall has blown.

The next step is to assess the capabilities of the person you are helping.

I’ve introduced a few other people (mother-in-law, brother to some degree, relatives of friends) to computers and the internet over the years and the size of the challenge is very much dictated by their skills. I think you need to be honest about how much and how soon people can learn, especially if they are older or have learning needs. It’s great to be surprised by them doing better than you expected, but if they do worse then it can be demoralising for both parties.

My mother-in-law was a retired science teacher, interested in a dozen things, confident, and self-motivated. When she asked me to help her get on the internet I knew it was not going to be too hard.  But something I did not consider is that she had never typed at all (which surprised me, but there you go), so the keyboard was an initial, surprise challenge to the task. Just think about it, you have to explain the “enter” key, the “delete” key, “shift” key, special symbols… But the Mother-in-law was used to using equipment and took to it well. It did mean that the first session was almost totally about introducing her to the keyboard and just a few basics on turning the machine on and off and using email. After that I went on in later sessions to show her the basics of Windows, email, web browsing and she was soon teaching herself. She got a couple of “computes for dummies” and went through them.

Learning skills deteriorate as you age – but each individual is different. Be realistic.

My mother had also never used a typewriter – but she is also not good with technology. Getting her to understand how to use a video player was a task way back when.  It is not that she is no good with mechanical things or controlling them, she was a sewing machinist all her career – but she never moved from a simple sewing machine with just a dozen manually selected stitch patterns to ones which you can program or that have a lot of controls. This might be mean to say, but she struggled with an electronic cat-flap when we installed one for her! {Well, we installed it for the cats to be honest, we do not make Mum enter and exit the house on her hands and knees through a small hole in the door}. My mum has also never had (or wanted) a mobile phone, let alone a smart phone. Apps, widgets, icons, touch screens are all things she has never used.  We were going to have to keep it very, very simple. Mum also lacks focus and retention of details. Lots of repetition would be needed to learn, and only a few things at a time.

Third Question – What hardware?

This is a major consideration. A few years ago if you wanted internet access and email the choice was simply “Mac or PC” and probably came down to what you personally preferred and felt most comfortable supporting.

I realised from the very start that my mum would never cope with a Windows PC or a Mac. I know some people are so Mac-fanboy that they will insist it is “so easy anyone could use them” but no, Macs can have issues and there is a lot of stuff to initially learn to get going. And, like PC’s, they DO go wrong and have issues.

Choice made – will it be the correct one?

I did initially investigate if I could make a Windows PC work for my mum. I can sort out most issues on a PC and so it would be easier for me to support her. You can set Windows up to be simpler for an older person. I was more than happy setting up other older people with a PC in the past, as I’ve mentioned. Another big advantage with a PC would be I could set it up so I could remote access it and help. I live 2.5 hours from Mum, remote access would be a major boon. In another situation I think I would go down that route, set up a Windows laptop, reduce what was available on it, put on the things I felt they would want initially and ensure I had full access to the machine. I could then do interactive “show and tell” sessions. Of course, you have to consider privacy if you have full access to someone’s machine. But I felt I was trying to come up with a solution that was more easy for me rather than more easy for the person I was helping.

My final factor in my decision on what to go for was “the internet”. There is bad stuff on the internet (I don’t mean content so much, what my Mum looks at is up to her and I am under no illusions that when someone gets old they do not become a child to protect. I don’t understand why some people seem to think old people are sweet and innocent! Old people used to be young, wild, risk-taking and randy. They’ve lived a life and learnt about the world and they know what they do and do not like). What bothers me about the internet is viruses, spyware, downloads that screw your system over. No matter how much I would explain to my mum, there was a good chance she would end up clicking on something and downloading some crap that messed up the system or stole her details. Machines that are not Windows PCs suffer from this a lot less.

For a while my mum said she wanted an Alexa or something similar. Something she could ask about Lonnie Donegan’s greatest hits (this is a totally true example). But talking to her she also wanted email and BBC news and sport. Also, I’ve seen people using an Alexa and getting it to understand & do what you want is pretty hit & miss, I could see that really frustrating my Mum. Also I don’t like the damned, nasty, spying, uncontrolled bloody things – they listen all the time and I don’t think it is at all clear what gets send back to the manufacturer, how it is processed, how they use it for sales & marketing.

So, for my mum a tablet was the way to go. It is simpler, much more like using a phone (you know, the mobile phone she has never had!) and has no complication of separate components. Plus it is smaller. I decided on an iPad because:

    • The three people she is most likely to be in contact with already have an iPad mini or iPhone,
    • They are simple. Simple-ish. Well, not too complicated.
    • I felt it was big enough for her to see things on it but not so big as to be in the way.
    • The interface is pretty well designed and swish.
    • They are relatively unaffected by viruses and malware (not impervious though)
    • It will survive being dropped on the carpeted floor of her house many, many, many times.
    • You can’t harm them by just typing things and running apps. {Hmm, I’ll come back to that in a later post…}
    • If she really hated it, I could make use of a new iPad 🙂

The biggest drawback to an iPad is I cannot get remote access. I’ve had a play with one remote viewing tool but it is too complex for Mum to do her part of things, at least initially. If anyone has any suggestions for dead simple remote access to iPads (and I don’t mind paying for such a service) please let me know. I have access to all her passwords and accounts, at least until she is happy taking control, so I can do anything to get access.

I did not make the decision on her hardware on my own though. Having thought through all the above myself, the next time I visited Mum I took an iPad mini and an iPhone and I asked her what she thought she wanted. We talked about Alexas and PCs too. She did not want a PC, she hated the home computer my father had had (it made funny noises in the corner and disturbed her watching “Eastenders”). Even a laptop was too big – her table in the living room must remain dedicated to her jigsaws! Mum felt an iPhone was too small for her. I won’t say I did not lead the conversation a little, but if she had been adamant she wanted just a phone or a laptop, I’d have tried to make it happen.

Decision made, it will be a standard iPad.

Are we all set?

No, not quite. There is one last thing before starting down this route. Getting advice from others on how to do this (which might be why you are reading this). As well as looking around on the internet a little I tweeted out to my community within I.T. to ask for simple advice. After all, many of us are of an age where we have had to deal with helping our older relatives get online. And I got quite a lot of good advice. I love it when the community helps.

A lot of the advice was on how to set up the device. However, I think it best to cover the setting up of the device under a dedicated post. That will be next.

Friday Philosophy – Size is Relative February 15, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Friday Philosophy, Hardware.
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The below is a USB memory stick, a 64GB USB memory stick which I bought this week for about 10€/$. I think the first USB memory stick I bought was 8MB (1/8000 the capacity) and cost me twice as much.

Almost an entry level USB memory stick these days

This is a cheap, almost entry level USB memory stick now – you can get 0.5TB ones for around €50. I know, I know, they keep getting larger. As does the on-board memory of computers, disc/SSD size, and network speed. (Though compute speed seems to be stalling and has dropped below Moore’s law, even taking into account the constant rise in core count). But come on, think about what you can store on 64GB. Think back a few years to some of the large systems you worked on 10 years ago and how vast you might have thought the data was.

What made me sit back a little is that I’ve worked with VLDBs (Very Large DataBases) for most of my career, the first one being in about 1992/3. And that was a pretty big one for it’s time, it was the largest database Oracle admitted to working on in the UK back then I think. You guessed it – this little USB memory stick would hold the whole database, plus some to spare. What did the VLDB hold? All the patient activity information for a large UK hospital – so all patients who had ever been to the hospital, all their inpatient and outpatient stays, waiting list, a growing list of lab results (blood tests, x-rays)… The kit to run this took up the space of a large lorry/shipping container. And another shipping container of kit to cool it.

What makes a database a VLDB? Well, This old post here from 2009 probably still covers it, but put simply it is a database where simply the size of it gives you problems to solve – how to back it up, how to migrate it, how to access the data within it in a timely manner. It is not just about raw volume, it also depends on the software you are using and the hardware. Back in the mid 2000’s we had two types of VLDB where I worked:

  • Anything above 100GB or so on MySQL was a VLDB as the database technology struggled
  • Anything above 2TB on Oracle was a VLDB as we had trouble getting enough kit to handle the IO requirements and memory for the SGA.

That latter issue was interesting. There was kit that could run 2TB Oracle database with ease back then, but it cost millions. That was our whole IT budget, so we had to design a system using what were really beefed-up PCs and RAC. It worked. But we had to plan and design it very carefully.

So size in I.T. is not just about the absolute volume. It is also to do with what you need to do with the data and what hardware is available to you to solve your volume problems.

Size in I.T. is not absolute – It is relative to your processing requirements and the hardware available to you

That USB stick could hold a whole hospital system, possibly even now if you did not store images or DNA information. But with a single port running at a maximum of 200MB/s and, I don’t know, maybe 2,000 IOPS (read – writes can suck for USB memory sticks), could it support a whole hospital system? Maybe just, I think those figures would have been OK for a large storage array in 1993! But in reality, what with today’s chatty application design and larger user base, probably not. You would have to solve some pretty serious VLDB-type issues.

Security would also be an issue – it’s real easy to walk off with a little USB Memory stick! Some sort of data encryption would be needed… 🙂

The “as a Service” paradigm. October 27, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Hardware, humour.
Tags: , , ,
4 comments

For the last few days I have been at Oracle Open World 2015 (OOW15) learning about the future plans and directions for Oracle. I’ve come to a striking realisation, which I will reveal at the end.

The message being pressed forward very hard is that of compute services being provided “As A Service”. This now takes three flavours:

  1. Being provided by a 3rd party’s hardware via the internet, ie in The Cloud.
  2. Having your own hardware controlled and maintained by you but providing services with the same tools and quick-provisioning ideology as “cloud”. This is being called On Premise (or just “On Prem” if you are aiming to annoy the audience), irrespective of the probably inaccuracy of that label (think hosting & dedicated compute away from head office)
  3. A mix of the two where you have some of your system in-house and some of it floating in the Cloud. This is called Hybrid Cloud.

There are many types of  “as a Service offerings, the main ones probably being

  • SaaS -Software as a Service
  • PaaS – Platform as a Service
  • DBaas – Database as a a Service
  • Iass – Infrastructure as a Service.

Whilst there is no denying that there is a shift of some computer systems being provided by any of these, or one of the other {X}aaS offerings, it seems to me that what we are really moving towards is providing the hardware, software, network and monitoring required for an IT system. It is the whole architecture that has to be considered and provided and we can think of it as Architecture as a Service or AaaS. This quick provisioning of the architecture is a main win with Cloud, be it externally provided or your own internal systems.

We all know that whilst the provision time is important, it is really the management of the infrastructure that is vital to keeping a service running, avoiding outages and allowing for upgrades. We need a Managed Infrastructure (what I term MI) to ensure the service provided is as good as or better than what we currently have. I see this as a much more important aspect of Cloud.

Finally, it seems to me that the aspects that need to be considered are more than initially spring to mind. Technically the solutions are potentially complex, especially with hybrid cloud, but also there are complications of a legal, security, regulatory and contractual aspect. If I have learnt anything over the last 2+ decades in IT it is that complexity of the system is a real threat. We need to keep things simple where possible – the old adage of Keep It Simple, Stupid is extremely relevant.

I think we can sum up the whole situation by combining these three elements of architecture, managed infrastructure and simplicity into one encompassing concept, which is:

KISS MI AaaS.

.

.

And yes, that was a very long blog post for a pretty weak joke. 5 days of technical presentations and non-technical socialising does strange things to your brain

Return from The Temple of Apple June 22, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Private Life, rant.
Tags: , ,
4 comments

I doubt many of you are on tenterhooks as to how I got on with my phone today {after my << rant last Friday}. But I’m going to tell you anyway.

Overall, Apple have gone some way to redeeming themselves.

I got myself down into Cambridge this morning to visit the Apple Store, at my allotted slot of 10:10 {I later witnessed someone attempting to be 15 minutes early for their slot – and they were asked to go and have a coffee and come back. The customer was unimpressed as they had lugged some huge Apple monitor in with them}.

I have to say, walking into the store was somewhat like entering some form of modern temple. The clean lines, the two parallel runs of “desks” with precisely & spaciously laid-out items to worship, lit by discrete banks of lights in the ceiling. Down the center was a clear path to allow you to move deeper into the hallowed space, with a scattering of worshipful believers moving between the icons. And, at the end, a cluster of acolytes in blue tops gathered around and before the “Apple Genius Bar” alter.

I approached the alter…err, service desk… and was very soon approached by an acolyte holding a prayer tablet (iPad mini 3) in front of them. My name was on the list, my time was now. I would be granted an audience. I was directed to a stool to one side to await my turn.

Thankfully, the wait was short and ended when Dave came over, Dave turned out to be a friendly, open and helpful chap who managed to take the edge off what was frankly a bit of an OTT ambiance if you ask me. So far my impression had been that (a) you can see why the kit is so expensive to support this sort of shop frontage and space-to-item ratio, something I had only really come across before in Bose shops & car dealerships and (b) it’s just a shop selling I.T. kit, get over yourselves. Dave (not his real name, I’m afraid I forgot his real name, but he looked like a Dave – and had a great beard) listened to my potted history of the battery woes and upgrade deaths, looked over the phone briefly and then plugged it into one of the banks of MACs. It pulled up the ID of the phone and {Huzzah!!!!} set about blatting everything on it and reloading the OS I think. It took a few minutes (I read my paper magazine – “New Scientist”) and then the phone rebooted…. and put up the Apple icon… and thought about it. I could see Dave thinking “this is taking a bit longer than normal”. Anyway, the thing finally came alive.

We chatted about what the root cause could be as he said he had not heard of anyone having multiple upgrade issues and it just locking like this. He went and asked a more senior acolyte (perhaps already in the priesthood) and his opinion was that it might be a faulty motherboard – in which case all bets were off and I’d have to basically buy a new phone for £200. Dave said I might as well not bother and put the money towards getting a nice, new iPhone 6, as they were only £500 or so. I wonder what the Apple shop staff get paid to think £500 is no big shakes.

Meanwhile, Dave had verified the phone battery was indeed covered by the recall and it would be two hours to complete the work. Was I happy to get that done today? Sure, I’m happy to drink coffee and eat a bun somewhere for 2 hours. So off I went. And came back (witnessing the taking to task of a customer arriving before their time – they did let them leave the monitor behind in the end). My phone was presented back to me, working, and I just had to sign on a tablet. Sorry about using the indelible marker pen, guys. I took a photo of the temple and made a quick test call outside the shop to ensure all was OK – and it was. And apart from the brief suggestion of buying a new iPhone 6, no financial cost had been incurred (except the park & ride in, cost of coffee & bun and a lost morning).

I was soon back home and ready to restore my backup from last week. I plugged in the phone, iTunes recognised it, ran the restore… and the phone is no different – none of my contacts, no change to icons, layout or background, nothing – but now iTunes says it does not recognise the device. Ohhhh shit. Oh, and the photo of the Apple Temple is gone (it was going to be at the start of this update). A couple of hours later and trying many things, I think I know what the issues are and maybe were:

1) The device is just a bit dodgy and sometimes/often the connection with iTunes just ends (I’ve swapped cables, I know it is not that) .
2) It would not restore the backup with “Find My iPhone” running – but due to (1) it usually did not get so far as telling me that. I wonder if updates would fail for the same reason? They were very insistent I turn off the feature before I went into the shop, but of course with a locked up phone I could only do this at the web end.

I turned off the feature on the phone, ran the restore again and this time it completed and left me with a phone that worked and looked like it did a week ago.

So I eventually got the phone restored and it works as well as it did – but hopefully with more battery life. It will be interesting to see if the reception issues are any better. I kind of doubt it. It’s now at iOS 8.3 as well. Deep Joy.

My final conundrum now is that, given that my phone contract that partially paid for the phone in the first place ended a couple of months back, do I stick with this device and hope all is now OK? Or do I spend more money replacing something that is only just over 2 years old? And do I get anything but an iPhone? After all, both my wife’s iPhones have worked OK and they are nice when working. But I’m not a member of the Apple Congregation and have no desire to join.

One thing I do know. I won’t be putting the old Samsung phone I’ve had to fall back on away just yet.

Friday Philosophy – Friday Afternoon Phone June 19, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
6 comments

{<<my earlier attempts to sort out my phone}
{Update on my trip to the Apple Store >>}

There used to be a phrase in the car industry in the UK (I don’t know about elsewhere) a “Friday Afternoon Car“. This is a car which is unusually unreliable, as it was built on Friday afternoon when the workers were tired, the weekend was coming and, heck, they might have been to the pub at lunch. It is occasionally used just to describe something that is a bit crap and unreliable.

I have a Friday Afternoon Phone it would seem. I am fast becoming quite disillusioned with it. You may remember my post about my sitting on said phone to make it work again. It’s an iPhone 5, I bought it as I was finally persuaded that it would be more useful to have a smart phone than the “temporary” cheap Samsung I had bought about 2 years prior to then – as an emergency replacement for my previous web-enabled phone that committed suicide with a jar of pickled onions (it’s a long, hardly believable story). I expected the Samsung to keep me going for a month or two but it was so simple and reliable it just stayed in use for over 2 years.

Your Honour, allow me to present item A and item B

Your Honour, allow me to present evidence item A and item B

Comparison:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Phone A. . . . . . . . . . . . Phone B
Cost. . . . . . . . . . .£400 or so . . . . . . . . . £15 with a free £10 pay-as-you-go top up.
Battery . . . . . . . . New, 8-12 hours. . . . . .New, a week
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Now, 4-5 hours. . . . . . Now, a week!
Reliability . . . . . . Breaks every update . . .No issues ever
Making calls. . . . .6/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9/10
Receiving calls . . .4/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9/10
Plays Angry Birds. Yes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .No
Taking pictures . . 9/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0/10
Helps me up a . . . Yes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . No
mountain
Connection to web 6/10. . . . . . . . . . . . . .Are you kidding? But I’m mostly sat at a computer anyway
Impresses friends. No. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Yes, for all the wrong reasons 🙂

{There must be a better way to line up text in this wordpress theme!!!}

The Web Enabled Phone that Does not Like to Connect
In some ways the iPhone has been really good. The screen (at the time I bought it) was very good, apps run nice and fast, way too much software is available for it and it can hold a lot of pictures and videos before running out of space. Its size also suits me. But phone and web reception has always been a bit poor and its ability to hold onto a wireless connection seems to be especially questionable – as soon as a few other devices are contending for a router with my iPhone, my iPhone seems to give up its hold on the connection and sulk. I’ve had this in several places in several countries. I’m the only one up? Phone connects fine. 2 others wake up and connect? I’m off the network. I’ve also often been in a busy place (conference, sports event) and everyone else seems to be on the net but my phone just pretends.

Battery Blues
And of course, there is the issue of the battery becoming very poor. It runs on a full charge for only a few hours and if it gets cold it has a tendency to act like a squirrel and hibernate. I now carry around the spare battery pack my wife got given by her work for her work phone use abroad. The good news is, having been put on to it by Neil Chandler, I am now aware my phone has been recalled for a battery replacement. What I am a little irked about is that Apple have my details and the serial number of the phone but have never contacted me directly to let me know. OK, it is not a car (it’s just like a car – a Friday Afternoon Car) so I am unlikely to die as a result of the fault, but if they know it has a fault and it did cost a good whack of cash to buy, they should be being moral and contacting me.

Upsetting Upgrades
But the thing that utterly hacks me off is how it does not handle upgrading to the next version of iOS. I had an upgrade early on in my relationship with the phone and it blew everything off the phone. Not a big issue then as I had not had it long. But it made me cautious about upgrading. About this time last year the phone was insisting it must be upgraded and things were getting flaky (I suspect software manufacturers do this on purpose – I’ve noticed my PC running Windows can start acting odd when an update is due). Before doing anything, I backed it up. Or tried to. The first attempt said it worked but it was too swift to have backed up anything, let alone back up my photos. After then it just refused to back up. But the phone utterly refused to allow me access to the photos from my PC – it should do of course but no, nothing would pries those images out of the phone. I was particularly concerned as I had lots of snaps from a friend’s wedding. Said friend eventually helped me out by pushing all my photos to an iCloud account (It’s Just A Server On The Net) in a way he could access. I then updated the phone and, yep it failed. And locked the phone and I had to factory reset and lost all the photos. It had also lied about uploading the pictures to the net (which it took hours to not do) so they had gone for good. Grrrrr.

So this time when it started getting dodgy I managed to save all my photos (Huzzah!), backed it up, ran through the update – and it failed and locked up the phone. *sigh!!!!*. Only, this time it won’t respond even after a factory reset. My iTunes is up-to-date, it could see the phone OK at the start of the update (because I was doing it via iTunes!) but now it won’t see the phone and once I try, guess what, iTunes also locks up. So the phone is useless. I can’t help wonder if the battery issue and the failure to ever upgrade smoothly are linked somehow (by eg it being rubbish).

So I pop along to the kitchen drawer with the odds n’ sods in and pull out the old Samsung & charger and plug it in. 20 minutes later, I have a working phone. Turns out I have no credit on it anymore but I can sort that out. It even gets reception in the kitchen (I have to lean out the window of the back bedroom to get the iPhone to pick up a reliable signal at home).

Oh No! I have to Contact Apple!
Now the real fun starts. I contact my local Apple shop. Only I don’t, I access a damned annoying voice system that smugly announces “I understand full sentences” and immediately knows who I am and what my device is and when it was bought (as Apple have my details including home phone) – and it was over 2 years ago and it wants me to agree to a paid support package to go further. Of course it won’t give me options to speak to a human or understand “full sentences” even when I shout “battery issue recall” and “your update killed my phone!” plus various permutations at it. It also did not understand the sentence “I want to speak to a person”.

I eventually trick it by pretending that I will buy a support package. Huzzah, a human to talk to. Said human is helpful, pleasant, a bit hard to understand (usual call center woes of background noise and she has the microphone clipped to her socks). I explain that the phone has a recall on it and I just want that sorted and a proper reset. She’s not sure I can have this without a support package {after all, her job is to sell me some support and I am breaking her script} but she says the battery might be replaced under the recall (she has all my details, she can see the iPhone serial number, she could check!). “So I can drop it off at the store?”.

I expect “yes”. I get “no”. I have to organise an appointment. A 10 minute slot. Why? I want to drop off some kit for you to repair and I’ll come back another day. I am not making an appointment to see a doctor to discuss my piles. No, I have to have an appointment. On Monday at 10:10 or “plrbsburhpcshlurp” as the mike once once slips down the sock. OK, 10:10 Monday, she’s getting tired of me saying “please repeat that”. Then she says what sounded like “and the repair may cost up to £210 if there is a hardware fault”. WHAT?!? I don’t fully understand what she says next – but she understands I am not going to pay £210 to fix a device that has a known fault and has been screwed over again by their software update, so she backs off to “they can look at the device and advise me”.

It’ll be interesting to see how it goes on Monday. At 10:10 am. If they try and charge me hundreds of pounds to reset the damned thing or tell me (after I’ve checked) that they won’t replace the dying battery, I can imagine me becoming one of those ranting, incoherent people you see on YouTube. If they want anything more than the cost of an evening in the pub to get it working, I think it will become a shiny, expensive paperweight.

Meanwhile, welcome back Reliable Samsung Phone. You still seem to make calls just fine. Still not able to play Angry Birds though.

With Modern Storage the Oracle Buffer Cache is Not So Important. May 27, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, Hardware, performance.
Tags: , , , ,
11 comments

With Oracle’s move towards engineered systems we all know that “more” is being done down at the storage layer and modern storage arrays have hundreds of spindles and massive caches. Does it really matter if data is kept in the Database Buffer Cache anymore?

Yes. Yes it does.

Time for a cool beer

Time for a cool beer

With much larger data sets and the still-real issue of less disk spindles per GB of data, the Oracle database buffer cache is not so important as it was. It is even more important.

I could give you some figures but let’s put this in a context most of us can easily understand.

You are sitting in the living room and you want a beer. You are the oracle database, the beer is the block you want. Going to the fridge in the kitchen to get your beer is like you going to the Buffer Cache to get your block.

It takes 5 seconds to get to the fridge, 2 seconds to pop it open with the always-to-hand bottle opener and 5 seconds to get back to your chair. 12 seconds in total. Ahhhhh, beer!!!!

But – what if there is no beer in the fridge? The block is not in the cache. So now you have to get your car keys, open the garage, get the car out and drive to the shop to get your beer. And then come back, pop the beer in the fridge for half an hour and now you can drink it. That is like going to storage to get your block. It is that much slower.

It is only that much slower if you live 6 hours drive from your beer shop. Think taking the scenic route from New York to Washington DC.

The difference in speed really is that large. If your data happens to be in the memory cache in the storage array, that’s like the beer already being in a fridge – in that shop 6 hours away. Your storage is SSD-based? OK, you’ve moved house to Philadelphia, 2 hours closer.

Let's go get beer from the shop

Let’s go get beer from the shop

To back this up, some rough (and I mean really rough) figures. Access time to memory is measured in Microseconds (“us” – millionths of a second) to hundreds of Nanoseconds (“ns” – billionths of a second). Somewhere around 500ns seems to be an acceptable figure. Access to disc storage is more like Milliseconds (“ms” – thousandths of a second). Go check an AWR report or statspack or OEM or whatever you use, you will see that db file scattered reads are anywhere from low teens to say 2 or 3 ms, depending on what your storage and network is. For most sites, that speed has hardly altered in years as, though hard discs get bigger, they have not got much faster – and often you end up with fewer spindles holding your data as you get allocated space not spindles from storage (and the total sustainable speed of hard disc storage is limited to the total speed of all the spindles involved). Oh, the storage guys tell you that your data is spread over all those spindles? So is the data for every system then, you have maximum contention.

However, memory speed has increased over that time, and so has CPU speed (though CPU speed has really stopped improving now, it is more down to More CPUs).

Even allowing for latching and pinning and messing around, accessing a block in memory is going to be at the very least 1,000 times faster than going to disc, maybe 10,000 times. Sticking to a conservative 2,000 times faster for memory than disc , that 12 seconds trip to the fridge equates to 24,000 seconds driving. That’s 6.66 hours.

This is why you want to avoid physical IO in your database if you possibly can. You want to maximise the use of the database buffer cache as much as you can, even with all the new Exadata-like tricks. If you can’t keep all your working data in memory, in the database buffer cache (or in-memory or use the results cache) then you will have to do that achingly slow physical IO and then the intelligence-at-the-hardware comes into it’s own, true Data Warehouse territory.

So the take-home message is – avoid physical IO, design your database and apps to keep as much as you can in the database buffer cache. That way your beer is always to hand.

Cheers.

Update. Kevin Fries commented to mention this wonderful little latency table. Thanks Kevin.

“Here’s something I’ve used before in a presentation. It’s from Brendan Gregg’s book – Systems Performance: Enterprise and the Cloud”

Fixing my iPhone with my Backside May 18, 2015

Posted by mwidlake in Hardware, off-topic, Perceptions, Private Life.
Tags: , ,
10 comments

{Things got worse with this phone >>}

iPhone 5 battery getting weak? Damn thing is saying “out of charge” and won’t charge? Read on…

NB a link to the battery recall page is at the end of this post and the eventual “death” of my phone and my subsequent experience of the recall with my local apple store can be found by following the above link…

Working with Oracle often involves fixing things – not because of the Oracle software (well, occasionally it is) but because of how it is used or the tech around it. Sometimes the answer is obvious, sometime you can find help on the web and sometimes you just have to sit on the issue for a while. Very, very occasionally, quite literally.

Dreaded “out of battery” icon

Last week I was in the English Lake District, a wonderful place to walk the hills & valleys and relax your mind, even as you exhaust your body. I may have been on holiday but I did need to try and keep in touch though – and it was proving difficult. No phone reception at the cottage, the internet was a bit slow and pretty random, my brother’s laptop died – and then my iPhone gave up the ghost. Up on the hills, midday, it powers off and any attempt to use it just shows the “feed me” screen. Oh well, annoying but not fatal.

However, I get back to base, plug it in…and it won’t start. I still get the “battery out of charge” image. I leave it an hour, still the same image. Reset does not help, it is an ex-iPhone, it has ceased to be.

My iPhone is version 5 model, black as opposed to the white one shown (picture stolen from “digitaltrends.com” and trimmed), not that the colour matters! I’ve started having issues with the phone’s battery not lasting so well (as, I think, has everyone with the damned thing) and especially with it’s opinion of how much charge is left being inaccurate. As soon as it gets down to 50% it very rapidly drops to under 20%, starts giving me the warnings about low battery and then hits 1%. And sometimes stays at 1% for a good hour or two, even with me taking the odd picture. And then it will shut off. If it is already down at below 20% and I do something demanding like take a picture with flash or use the torch feature, it just switches off and will only give me the “out of charge” image. But before now, it has charge up fine and, oddly enough, when I put it on to charge it immediately shows say 40-50% charge and may run for a few hours again.

So it seemed the battery was dying and had finally expired. I’m annoyed, with the unreliable internet that phone was the only verbal way to keep in touch with my wife, and for that contact I had to leave the cottage and go up the road 200 meters (thankfully, in the direction of a nice pub).

But then I got thinking about my iPhone and it’s symptoms. It’s opinion of it’s charge would drop off quickly, sudden drain had a tendency to kill it and I had noticed it lasting less well if it was cold (one night a couple of months ago it went from 75% to dead in 10, 15 mins when I was in a freezing cold car with, ironically, a dead battery). I strongly suspect the phone detects it’s level of charge by monitoring the amperage drop, or possibly the voltage drop, as the charge is used. And older rechargeable batteries tend to drop in amperage. And so do cold batteries {oddly, fully charged batteries can have a slightly higher voltage as the internal resistance is less, I understand}.

Perhaps my battery is just not kicking out enough amperage for the phone to be able to either run on it or “believe” it can run on it. The damn thing has been charging for 2 or 3 hours now and still is dead. So, let’s warm it up. Nothing too extreme, no putting it in the oven or on top of a radiator. Body temperature should do – We used to do this on scout camps with torches that were almost exhausted. So I took it out of it’s case (I have a stupid, bulky case) so that it’s metal case is uncovered and I, yep, sat on it. And drank some wine and talked balls with my brother.

15 minutes later, it fires up and recons it is 70% charged. Huzzah, it is not dead!

Since then I have kept it out it’s case, well charged and, frankly, warm. If I am out it is in my trouser pocket against my thigh. I know I need to do something more long-term but right now it’s working.

I tend to solve a lot of my IT/Oracle issues like this. I think about the system before the critical issue, was there anything already going awry, what other symptoms were there and can I think of a logical or scientific cause for such a pattern. I can’t remember any other case where chemisty has been the answer to a technology issue I’m having (though a few where physics did, like the limits on IO speed or network latency that simply cannot be exceeded), but maybe others have?

Update: if you have a similar problem with your iPhone5, there is a recall on some iPhone5’s sold between December 2012 and January 2013 – https://www.apple.com/uk/support/iphone5-battery
{thanks for letting me know that, Neil}.

Friday Philosophy – Tosh Talked About Technology February 17, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, future, Hardware, rant.
Tags: , ,
9 comments

Sometimes I can become slightly annoyed by the silly way the media puts out total tosh and twaddle(*) that over-states the impact or drawbacks about technology (and science ( and especially medicine (and pretty much anything the media decides to talk about)))). Occasionally I get very vexed indeed.

My attention was drawn to some such thing about SSDs (solid State Discs) via a tweet by Gwen Shapira yesterday {I make no statement about her opinion in this in any way, I’m just thanking her for the tweet}. According to Computerworld

SSDs have a ‘bleak’ future, researchers say

So are SSDs somehow going to stop working or no longer be useful? No, absolutely not. Are SSDs not actually going to be more and more significant in computing over the next decade or so? No, they are and will continue to have a massive impact. What this is, is a case of a stupidly exaggerated title over not a lot. {I’m ignoring the fact that SSDs can’t have any sort of emotional future as they are not sentient and cannot perceive – the title should be something like “the future usefulness of SSDs looks bleak”}.

What the article is talking about is a reasonable little paper about how if NAND-based SSDS continue to use smaller die sizes, errors could increase and access times increase. That is, if the same technology is used in the same way and manufacturers continue to shrink die sizes. It’s something the memory technologists need to know about and perhaps find fixes for. Nothing more, nothing less.

The key argument is that by 2024 we will be using something like 6.4nm dies and at that size, the physics of it all means everything becomes a little more flaky. After all, Silicon atoms are around 0.28nm wide (most atoms of things solid at room temperature are between 0.2nm and 0.5nm wide), at that size we are building structures with things only an order of magnitude or so smaller. We have all heard of quantum effects and tunneling, which means that at such scales and below odd things can happen. So error correction becomes more significant.

But taking a reality check, is this really an issue:

  • I look at my now 4-year-old 8GB micro-USB stick (90nm die?) and it is 2*12*30mm, including packaging. The 1 TB disc on my desk next to it is 24*98*145mm. I can get 470 of those chips in the same space as the disc, so that’s 3.8TB based on now-old technology.
  • Even if the NAND materials stay the same and the SSD layout stays the same and the packaging design stays the same, we can expect about 10-50 times the current density before we hit any problems
  • The alternative of spinning platers of metal oxides is pretty much a stagnant technology now, the seek time and per-spindle data transfer rate is hardly changing. We’ve even exceeded the interface bottleneck that was kind-of hiding the non-progress of spinning disk technology

The future of SSD technology is not bleak. There are some interesting challenges ahead, but things are certainly going to continue to improve in SSD technology between now and when I hang up my keyboard. I’m particularly interested to see how the technologists can improve write times and overall throughput to something closer to SDRAM speeds.

I’m willing to lay bets that a major change is going to be in form factor, for both processing chips and memory-based storage. We don’t need smaller dies, we need lower power consumption and a way to stack the silicon slices and package them (for processing chips we also need a way to make thousands of connections between the silicon slices too). What might also work is simply wider chips, though that scales less well. What we see as chips on a circuit board is mostly the plastic wrapper. If part of that plastic wrapper was either a porous honeycomb air could move through or a heat-conducting strip, the current technology used for SSD storage could be stacked on top of each other into blocks of storage, rather then the in-effect 2D sheets we have at present.

What could really be a cause of technical issues? The bl00dy journalists and marketing. Look at digital cameras. Do you really need 12, 16 mega-pixels in your compact point-and-shoot camera? No, you don’t, you really don’t, as the optics on the thing are probably not up to the level of clarity those megapixels can theoretically give you, the lens is almost certainly not clean any more and, most significantly, the chip is using smaller and smaller areas to collect photons (the sensor is not getting bigger with more mega-pixels you know – though the sensor size is larger in proper digital SLRs which is a large part of why they are better). This less-photons-per-pixel means less sensitivity and more artefacts. What we really need is maybe staying with 8MP and more light sensitivity. But the mega-pixel count is what is used to market the camera at you and I. As a result, most people go for the higher figures and buy something technically worse, so we are all sold something worse. No one really makes domestic-market cameras where the mega-pixel count stays enough and the rest of the camera improves.

And don’t forget. IT procurement managers are just like us idiots buying compact cameras.

(*) For any readers where UK English is not a first language, “twaddle” and “tosh” both mean statements or arguments that are silly, wrong, pointless or just asinine. oh, Asinine means talk like an ass 🙂 {and I mean the four-legged animal, not one’s bottom, Mr Brooks}

Will the Single Box System make a Comeback? December 8, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, future, Hardware.
Tags: , ,
15 comments

For about 12 months now I’ve been saying to people(*) that I think the single box server is going to make a comeback and nearly all businesses won’t need the awful complexity that comes with the current clustered/exadata/RAC/SAN solutions.

Now, this blog post is more a line-in-the-sand and not a well researched or even thought out white paper – so forgive me the obvious mistakes that everyone makes when they make a first draft of their argument and before they check their basic facts, it’s the principle that I want to lay down.

I think we should be able to build incredible powerful machines based on PC-type components, machines capable of satisfying the database server requirements of anything but the most demanding or unusual business systems. And possibly even them. Heck, I’ve helped build a few pretty serious systems where the CPU, memory and inter-box communication is PC-like already. If you take the storage component out of needing to be centralise (and this shared), I think that is a major change is just over the horizon.

At one of his talks at the UKOUG conference this year, Julian Dyke showed a few tables of CPU performance, based on a very simple PL/SQL loop test he has been using for a couple of years now. The current winner is 8 seconds by a… Core i7 2600K. ie a PC chip and one that is popular with gamers. It has 4 cores and runs two threads per core, at 3.4GHz and can boost a single core to 3.8 GHz. These modern chips are very powerful. However, chips are no longer getting faster so much as wider – more cores. More ability to do lots of the same thing at the same speed.

Memory prices continue to tumble, especially with smart devices and SSD demands pushing up the production of memory of all types. Memory has fairly low energy demands so you can shove a lot of it in one box.

Another bit of key hardware for gamers is the graphics card – if you buy a top-of-the-range graphics card for a PC that is a couple of years old, the graphics card probably has more pure compute grunt than your CPU and a massive amount of data is pushed too and fro across the PCIe interface. I was saying something about this to some friends a couple of days ago but James Morle brought it back to mind when he tweeted about this attempt at a standard about using PCI-e for SSD. A PCI-e 16X interface has a theoretical throughput of 4000MB per second – each way. This compares to 600MB for SATA III, which is enough for a modern SSD. A single modern SSD. {what I am not aware of is the latency for PCI-e but I’d be surprised if it was not pretty low}. I think you can see where I am going here.

Gamers and image editors have probably been most responsible for pushing along this increase in performance and intra-system communication.

SSD storage is being produced in packages with a form factor and interface to enable an easy swap into the place of spinning rust, with for example a SATA3 interface and 3.5inch hard disk chassis shape. There is no reason that SSD (or other memory-based) storage cannot be manufactured in all sorts of different form factors, there is no physical constraint of having to house a spinning disc. Density per dollar of course keeps heading towards the basement. TB units will soon be here but maybe we need cheap 256GB units more than anything. So, storage is going to be compact and able to be in form factors like long, thin slabs or even odd shapes.

So when will we start to see cheap machines something like this: Four sockets for 8/16/32 core CPUs, 128GB main memory (which will soon be pretty standard for servers), memory-based storage units that clip to the external housing (to provide all the heat loss they require) that combine many chips to give 1Gb IO rates, interfaced via the PCIe 16X or 32X interface. You don’t need a HBA, your storage is internal. You will have multipath 10GbE going in and out of the box to allow for normal network connectivity and backup, plus remote access of local files if need be.

That should be enough CPU, memory and IO capacity for most business systems {though some quote from the 1960’s about how many companies could possible need a computer spring to mind}. You don’t need shared storage for this, in fact I am of the opinion that shared storage is a royal pain in the behind as you are constantly having to deal with the complexity of shared access and maximising contention on the flimsy excuse of “sweating your assets”. And paying for the benefit of that overly complex, shared, contended solution.

You don’t need a cluster as you have all the cpu, working memory and storage you need in a 1U server. “What about resilience, what if you have a failure?”. Well, I am swapping back my opinion on RAC to where I was in 2002 – it is so damned complex it causes way more outage than it saves. Especially when it comes to upgrades. Talking to my fellow DBA-types, the pain of migration and the number of bugs that come and go from version to version, mix of CRS, RDBMS and ASM versions, that is taking up massive amounts of their time. Dataguard is way simpler and I am willing to bet that for 99.9% of businesses other IT factors cause costly system outages an order of magnitude more times than the difference between what a good MAA dataguard solution can provide you compared to a good stretched RAC one can.

I think we are already almost at the point where most “big” systems that use SAN or similar storage don’t need to be big. If you need hundreds of systems, you can virtualize them onto a small number of “everything local”
boxes.

A reason I can see it not happening is cost. The solution would just be too cheap, hardware suppliers will resist it because, hell, how can you charge hundreds of thousands of USD for what is in effect a PC on steroids? But desktop games machines will soon have everything 99% of business systems need except component redundancy and, if your backups are on fast SSD and you a way simpler Active/Passive/MAA dataguard type configuration (or the equivalent for your RDBMS technology) rather than RAC and clustering, you don’t need that total redundancy. Dual power supply and a spare chunk of solid-state you can swap in for a failed raid 10 element is enough.