Linode Improves… Again!

linodeI know I talk about Linode a lot on my site here, but they are my faithful VPS hosting provider, so I want to support them as much as possible.

Recently, Linode made the jump to SSD drives for VPS and at the same time, doubled the RAM for them. SSD drives are not new for VPS providers, for example, Digital Ocean has used SSDs for over a year and at a lower price point for a basic server ($5/mo for 512mb RAM & 20GB space). Linode has a higher starting price point, but it’s well worth the price considering the robustness of the Linode experience including the control panel, very active support staff and excellent hardware.

I currently have 5 VPS on Linode, but manage another half dozen or so for clients. So when it came to “testing” out the SSD upgrade, I wanted to try it on my own first. It was relatively simple. The only caveat was that a few of my VPS were setup with 32-bit kernels. I had to change them to 64-bit and that was all. I clicked the “Upgrade” button in the Linode control panel and it only took about 10-15 minutes to migrate my VPS to new SSD servers with the 1GB memory upgrade. I then proceeded to update Ubuntu to 14.04 LTS on them all and they are running smoothly. Very painless.

Doing a hdparm drive benchmark, it is notably faster than before.

Before

Timing cached reads: 6854 MB in 1.99 seconds = 3442.87 MB/sec
Timing buffered disk reads: 404 MB in 3.02 seconds = 133.82 MB/sec

After

Timing cached reads: 19672 MB in 1.98 seconds = 9931.54 MB/sec
Timing buffered disk reads: 2856 MB in 3.00 seconds = 951.48 MB/sec

So, in conclusion, Linode continues to make major improvements to their infrastructure without raising the cost to the end-user. I hope they keep up the good work and they will have my business for years to come.

Linode “Nextgen” upgrades

Linode has invested over a million dollars into upgrading their network, servers and bandwidth to levels that are unparalleled when it comes to all the features they have already made available to subscribers.

There are three parts to the “Nextgen” upgrade so far.


The Network

“We’re spending $1 million making our network faster. Way faster. Cisco Nexus 7000 routers. Cisco Nexus 5000 switches with Nexus 2000 Fabric Extenders. Linode outbound network cap increased 5x. Outbound monthly transfer quota increased 10x.”

The Hardware

“We’re investing millions to make your Linodes faster. Crazy faster. We’ve begun a refresh of 3/4 of our entire fleet to a new ‘NextGen’ host hardware specification. And we’re upgrading all Linodes to 8 cores! Right now. As in all you need to do is reboot to double the computing power of your Linode.”

RAM Upgrade

“We’re doubling the RAM on all of our plans. This upgrade is available to existing and new customers. New Linodes will automatically be created with the new resources. Existing Linodes will need to go through the Upgrade Queue to receive the upgrades.”


These upgrades represent a MAJOR upgrade. I went from 1.2 TB of outbound to 12 TB. That is quite substantial. The 8 core hardware upgrade is a little harder for most to quantify, but it’s better than the 1-2 “visible” cores I get on DigitalOcean or other “minor” providers. The RAM went from 512 (for me) to 1024. That is very substantial as well when you determine how many sites you can run on a single 512 machine and how many more you can run with double the RAM.

I actually, to Linode’s loss, removed one of my VPS servers and moved sites over to one of the newly upgraded ones. I’m sure, once I outgrow my latest linode, I’ll expand to a new one once more, but for the time being, I love having the additional resources. For my “first” linodes and client ones, it’s great to have the additional resources, especially the “pooled” bandwidth.

Anyone who is looking for a VPS server would be stupid not to get one on Linode with all they have to offer. I manage 9 linodes split between 3 different accounts and the piece of mind that my sites are “safe” is reassuring. I have linode backups on half of them. 30 day S3 and personal rsync backups on the others and do not have to worry about my clients.

Here is my referral link.

How to Balance Work and Family Life

Creating harmony between your career and family life can sometimes be a bit difficult, especially for those of us who are freelancers, in management and/or have a full-time job as well as side-work that can consume your family time.

I’m no expert on the topic, but after having virtually neglected my family life for many years and “losing the love I loved the most”, I feel that I can at least speak on the topic.

Freelancers

This is the way I am currently making my living.  I am 100% freelance and while making enough money to survive,  I hope to continue being more successful in the future so I can support my kids and have some savings when I get older.

For freelancers, the most important aspect of life is being able to delineate your time between work and family.  Stick by it as “religiously” as possible. Things will come up occasionally “after hours”, but make sure your significant other understands that fact and make sure (100%) that he/she is OK with these occasions. Perhaps even have an associate on call who can help if you are completely indisposed.

Since I unfortunately don’t have many day-to-day familial responsibilities as I used to, most of my work is performed in the afternoon and late at night. I usually sleep from 5-6am to 12-1pm.  I get my work done and still have time in the early evening to visit my daughters, family and participate in social activities.

If married, getting your work done during normal business hours is key. Have a dedicated office space to stay “in the zone” or if possible, rent a low cost office outside the home so you can separate your work location from home.

Fulltime + sidework

This was the way I operated for many years before and after I was married and had children.  I worked for many corporations, contractors and agencies and still had a “side job” hosting websites for friends, family and numerous clients.  Before I streamlined my hosting operations, it was consuming MANY evenings, sometimes days of my time when problems arose.

The actual design work wasn’t too time consuming, but the fact that I was on call virtually 24/7 could overshadow a vacation when the phone rang or during a holiday when it was hard to assist clients.  Laptops started going with me on vacation, to visit family and virtually anytime I was away from home.  Sometimes I even had to “clock out” of my day job to serve my personal clients.

This was probably the most stressful period in my life. Work, kids, wife, more work, then finally sleep for 3-6 hours. It took it’s toll on my health and due to bad handling, it also played a part in destroying my relationship.

For this category, I give the same advice as I did for freelancers. Streamline, follow a schedule, make sure there is truly an understanding with your spouse and have some backup if needed.

Managers

I know many people who are in management, from team leads to program managers and VP/CEO’s of companies.  Some of them are able to balance their lives well, but many others are hopelessly attached to their smartphones or work laptops, checking and responding to email at all hours of the night, even from bed, while still being at work before anyone else.  Some are “heroes” to their families, some have had their life crumble before their eyes.

The managers that are usually the worse offenders are  younger ones (25-45) who feel like they HAVE to work unlimited hours for “the company” so they don’t lose favor in the eyes of their superiors.  In extreme emergencies, I agree they should respond, but for normal daily operations, disconnect and enjoy life a little.  There’s always tomorrow and most likely nothing major is going to change from 7pm to 7am.

Conclusion

I’ve made many mistakes in the past, many mentioned above, and am doing my best so they never happen again.  My hosting operations are solid and streamlined.  I rarely have problems with that unless it’s an upstream provider.  I’ll send out one email to the affected parties and just wait for service to return. Design work can be scheduled appropriately.  As long as my clients don’t expect a full website whipped out in 24 hours, I am able to schedule and get them done in a reasonable timeframe.  Prioritize your work based on income, urgency, etc. and you shouldn’t run into many problems.

Full, honest and open 2-way communications is KEY in a relationship. Whether or not you have children, your significant other still needs to know that you are giving him/her adequate time without “pining” to be back on the PC.  Offer as much time as possible outside of work obligations.  Make a plan, understand his/her needs, keep a normal schedule… Don’t be creeping into bed at 2am, disturbing their sleep.  Be sure to make the time you spend quality time. Not just sitting around watching TV.  Make dinner, go for a walk, go to the movies, visit extended family or friends, find a mutual hobby, etc.  Turn off the phone or silence it.  Stay away from computers.

Losing one impatient client is better than losing your family.

Steve Jobs is Dead (1955-2011)

Steve Jobs died on Wednesday October 5th, 2011.  It is a sad day.  His death is no more “significant” than anyone else’s, but the world has truly lost an icon… Someone who has probably changed the world of computing more than anyone else in recent history.

I don’t really know what more to say…

Rest in Peace Steve.

 

Why I like Linode (after using others)

When I started hosting websites for clients, I hosted them in-house, literally, in my house. This was nice because I had direct control over the servers and could quickly fix them or migrate data if there were hardware failures. But obviously, it does not scale very well when it comes to bandwidth, and if you need many servers, the power and cooling requirements can get out of hand.

GoDaddy

At the point when I felt my home setup was “obsolete”, I then took the plunge onto GoDaddy dedicated servers, 2 of them at the time. One was for websites and ran Windows 2003 Server with IIS. The other was a mail server and each had DNS running on them so I didn’t have to depend on/pay for a third-party DNS provider.

GoDaddy dedicated servers ended up being the biggest mistake I ever made.  They ran well for a while, but then a worm of some kind crawled around their internal network and came in through some backend they use to manage the servers.  I had everything well locked down, all Windows sharing turned off, including unneeded admin shares (C$, etc.) and had the firewall pretty tight. It took around 3 days to recover fully from the crash and even though the machines were virtually “destroyed”, I was fortunately able to FTP out all my customer data.

Crystaltech

I moved most of my ASP & .NET sites over to a Windows 2008 Server at CrystalTech. Including email (SmarterMail), which I love, but with the limited space on a Windows VPS, it is quickly filling up with email (people rarely delete things when using IMAP). I still use Crystaltech and they’ve been very stable, but their cost is quite a bit higher than other virtual solutions.

Slicehost

After the GoDaddy crash, all my PHP sites moved to virtual servers running Ubuntu with a standard LAMP stack. Apache got old real quick. It required constant tuning.  I explored many web servers to find one with better performance, at one time, I had three setup for ALL my virtualhosts where all I had to do was stop all the web daemons, change the config of the one I wanted to use to 80 and just start that one, bring up all my sites on a different daemon.  I finally settled on Cherokee and have NEVER looked back.

Slicehost, in my opinion, had HUGE potential at one time (pre-Rackspace buyout).  The support was phenomenal, everyone in the company was open and reachable. I many times talked to the founder via chat and email.  But all of that went down the drain with Rackspace and all Slicehost’s offerings and prices went stagnant.

I recently cancelled Slicehost completely after getting a hard to access domain, whose DNS was hosted with Slicehost, to change their nameservers to Linode’s.

Others

I’ve used a number of other minor providers from time to time that I won’t get too much into here. None of them seemed to be as “turnkey” as places like Linode and Slicehost when it came to the admin backend experience. They were either too complicated or did not even have some of the basics required for “full service” hosting.

Linode

Linode, so far (knock on wood), has been the best company I’ve ever done business with. Rock solid, great support at all hours, fast host servers, lots of datacenter locations, excellent control panel, iPhone app, etc. I can’t say enough to express my happiness with the service.

I currently host a number of VPS servers with them and have brought over a few clients onto their own server(s).  We host everything from test servers to full production and even PBXs. All runs perfectly.

It will be a sad day in VPS hosting land if Linode ever gets bought out by some mega hosting company like Rackspace.

To end this up, decentralization has been the best thing I have done and it is multi-faceted. I separated websites onto multiple, less expensive virtual servers, which prevent ALL my sites from going down when something happens to one of them. I’ve moved most of my clients to Google Apps for Domains, both business and standard, for email.

My uptime has dramatically improved, my customers are happier and that’s what matters.

What I think Apple Should Do…

Dear Steve Jobs,

I feel that with the “death” of the XServe Server and the uncertain future of Mac OS X Server OS, Apple should delve into offering hosted services to pull in entities who are now scattered among numerous other services such as Google Apps for Domains, commercial hosting, and numerous other third party hosted or self hosted apps, which require a lot of maintenance, multiple accounts, billing, etc.  Many of my IT associates who have switched to Apple laptops and desktops have commented to me that they hate still having to use non-apple apps to complete their daily business.

For example, the MobileMe interface already is an attractive and functional interface for email, contacts, calendar, iDisk, Photos and location services.  How much harder would it be to allow a company to signup and fully attach their own domain to the MobileMe framework.  Perhaps even create a separate enhanced version of MobileMe in their [Apple’s] newest “cloud” datacenter in North Carolina and, over time, have an ‘a la carte’ offering of additional new services that users need/request.  Maybe even allow developers to write custom Apps that can be cleanly integrated into the web interface and a matching app for the iOS device(s).

Keep the price reasonable, no more than $1-2/mo per user, which would be very attractive for small businesses, special pricing for larger corporations and perhaps discounts when Apple devices are purchased and attached to an account.  Perhaps 1 year for free when any iOS device is purchased to draw users in.

The advantages of this would be numerous, it would give small businesses and organizations a unified and complete “Apple Branded Experience” on their Mac PCs, iPhones, iPads, etc.  Almost everyone I know has a Apple device of some kind and many would prefer to use their own domain.  Apple does offer the capability of attaching a domain to your MobileMe webspace, but that does not extend to customization of the other services.

Also, with minor modifications to the existing MobileMe framework, it would bring a whole new potential residual revenue stream that millions of users could utilize.  It may also spur additional companies and users to buy Apple hardware knowing that all these services are so well intergrated. Adding similar features as Google Apps for Domains and improving upon them would make it a very attractive alternative.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do use and am VERY happy with Google Apps for Domains, but it would be nice to have some competition from another major player to keep things interesting.  Google does accomplish a lot of what I’ve stated in this email, but it’s not as “pretty”, well integrated and cost effective for those with many needs.

Perhaps Apple could even purchase a VoIP company and add that to their portfolio of services.  With an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and an old Mac Mini, it would be nice to get deep integration of all my communications needs while not being forced onto the @me.com domain.

I guess only time will tell how far Apple is willing to ascend into the cloud.

Need to Accept Credit Cards? Try Square!

Square Card Reader in iPhone 4

Square Card Reader in iPhone 4

Guess I’m a little late jumping on the bandwagon, but this past week I discovered Square. Square is a, in my opinion, revolutionary way to accept credit cards, whether it be within a company’s location or anyone who is constantly on the go.

It is very easy to signup and really the only thing to do is verify your bank account, so Square can direct deposit the funds you charge and the waiting time for the reader itself. I only signed up this past week, so I’m still waiting on my reader. Once it comes in, it looks as if it’s compatible with the iPhone, iPod touch, iPod and some Android devices. Just plug it into the headphone jack, open the app and swipe away.

When you swipe a card with the Square reader, the fee is only 2.75% which is quite excellent. Manually entering the card is 3.5% + 15¢, which is bit higher, but still not bad for the convenience it provides. I went ahead and manually entered a test charge from one of my cards and it went right into my account, minus the transaction fee. So even with the higher charge, $20 came out to $19.15.

A photographer friend of mine uses Square and it increased his revenue quickly. An IT associate uses “Square Up” with his clients onsite and does not have to worry about monthly invoicing paperwork and running to the bank to deposit paper checks. You don’t even have to be a “business” to utilize this, even individuals can use it. Square can be very helpful for anything from flea market selling to adding a convenient payment option for garage sales. Heck, you could even sit outside at your kid’s lemonade stand and use it for the “larger” transactions.

I plan on primarily using this “app” when I do work onsite for clients or over the phone if credit cards are the best option for them. I may add a slight surcharge if it’s done manually. But I think with the convenience it provides, it’ll definitely help increase my revenue stream.

Amazon S3 Static Website Hosting

Sometimes you don’t need a full blown web hosting environment with MySQL, PHP and other dynamic components.  Sometimes you just need to host a static website.

We can host static websites on one of our normal servers and support quite a large number of hits, but sometimes you may need VERY high availability service.

Examples of this include:

  • Informational sites with links to many downloadable files requiring high bandwidth
  • A “micro site” that is being sent out to a large number of people simultaneously requiring a large number of concurrent connections.
  • Static file hosting, such as images.  For example, if you have a blog with a lot of images, you can host the main site on a normal PHP server and the images on a high power system.

This is where Amazon S3 Static website hosting comes in handy.

You simply create a “bucket” in S3, create the website endpoint, choose the “index” file such as “index.html”, upload your static website and add a CNAME pointing to the URL that is given to you in the S3 control panel.

Although it’s not too hard to set up this service, we can provide assistance in establishing the initial site and helping you setup a client to upload files into the web space.

One advantage we can offer is the ability to host your static website on Amazon and still have some dynamic capabilities such as email forms, entering form data into a MySQL database, etc.

Contact us for more information and a quote on setting it up.

Ways to integrate QR Codes into your life

Website link to QRCreate.com

Website link to our QRCreate.com code generator

Look around you when you read magazines, order pizza from Papa Johns and surf the web. Chances are, you’ll spot a QR Code.

QR Code use has taken off with the advent of smartphones, especially those running Android. Most Android phones come with a barcode reader capable of decoding QR Codes as well as standard consumer UPC codes and others.

QR Codes are much more versatile than normal barcodes and can contain much more information. There are many ways to utilize them for personal or business use.

  1. Labelling
    For example, you can label boxes while moving and more easily put much more information like: Contains PC accessories, cables, power plugs, software X, software Y, software Z, etc… Sometimes the unpacking process is slow and by having QRCodes on all your boxes, you can simply scan them to find the contents.
  2. Business Cards
    There are many sites out there that’ll help you create codes for use on cards, some have direct integration with product creation and purchasing sites like Zazzle.
  3. Real Estate
    Real estate agents can generate codes they can put on signs that will allow more savvy home seekers as they look around neighborhoods for homes. Most people who use QR Codes are pretty much guaranteed to scan them to see what they say. Those who aren’t as knowledgeable about them may become curious and can be directed to a website printed under the code to give further explanation. You can easily put a lot of information about the house such as the MLS number, square footage, # of bedrooms and baths, agent name, contact information and more.
  4. Inventory Management
    Specialized apps can be utilized to allow businesses to manage inventory and assets.
  5. Product Discounts
    Put a code on your flyers, emails, billboards and other advertising mediums to offer discounts and draw new customer in. Again, people who know about QR Codes are very likely to scan them and tell others about them.

There are many other uses, these are just a few. People are doing lots of things with them… T-Shirts, hats, sweaters, bumper stickers, scavenger hunts and much more. Please leave a message in the comments with unique uses you have seen.

We, of course, prefer to use our own QR Creator site (http://QRcreate.com). It contains a few form input styles for different uses and makes it fast and simple to generate downloadable and embeddable QR Code images.

We can help you integrate QR Codes into your business. Let us know how we can help you embrace this relatively new technology.

XENServer: Simple Virtualization Solution for Small Businesses

Over the past few years, I’ve become a big fan of Virtualization technologies like VMWare, VirtualBox, Xen, Microsoft Hyper-V, etc. So much so that I moved the majority of our clients to virtual server solutions.

On the desktop, I tend to use VirtualBox from Sun. It seems to perform the best for both Windows and Linux, but does not contain (on Windows) many “enterprise” level features found in XEN and VMWare Server.

I initially used VMWare Server to setup numerous VMs for software and platform integration testing and other fancy stuff like that.  I still use VMWare Player for a couple VMs I have left from the past, but VirtualBox is my favorite for desktop testing.

When it came to XenServer, I did not have much experience with it since I *thought* it was more of a IT Backendish type of Virtualization software and more arcane (CLI Only). Perhaps it was at one time.  Now I’m no stranger to the command line interface, but still like a nice interface to be able to “see” all the settings right in front of me.

But regardless of my misconception, I decided to download XenServer and install it on one of my spare test boxes. XenServer is full virtualization host “OS” that you install and all the guest machines are run inside it.

I won’t go through all the minute details, but XenServer was a breeze to install, only asking basic questions and the IP to assign to the server. It’s best to put it on a decent machine with lots of hard drive space, plenty of RAM and processor power. Having virtualization extensions on the CPU is a BIG plus and allows you to run Windows VMs.

On older machines, like my old Pentium D Dell server, that do not have virtualization extensions, are not able to run Windows virtual machines.  The Linux (Ubuntu in my case) VMs worked just fine without them.

For Windows VMs, I used a newer Quad Core Phenom box and put 4 Windows Server 2003′s (by cloning them) on it by using the VMWare to XEN conversion program.  It was a little buggy getting the image converted, but the Citrix XEN forums helped quite a bit.

Overall, I’ve been extremely happy with the performance of XenServer and when it comes to testing, I don’t think I’ll go back to desktop type virtualization solutions like VirtualBox (big learning curve for advanced CLI functionality) and VMWare Server (which has a crappy, buggy web interface, the last time I used it).  They also require you to already have an existing full blown host OS, at least under Windows.

To manage the servers, there is a desktop application called XenCenter you can use to connect remotely to one or more XenServers.  It allows you to manage all aspects of your XenServer(s) even allowing you to easily upload, install, snapshot, clone and even do live migrations of VMs between XenServers.

One of my favorite features was the ability to create “templates” of a machine so you can easily spin up a new one from the template.  It’s always there and you can have many different variations of a server for example, like a clean server install, one with IIS & ASP.NET configured and yet another with a full custom configuration.  Just use the template, create a new VM from it, be sure to change the default IP so it doesn’t conflict with an existing machine and you’re good to go.

There are some sites out there you can google that have XEN ready images you can upload through the XenCenter software into the server and boot.

XenServer is an OS+Virtualization solution all-in-one and helps you get the most out of your machines.