Back Home, Despite a Scare

I’ve spent the last 11 days traveling in Europe, returning home late yesterday. It wasn’t a holiday or even corporate boondoggle as this was 3 cities, 2 events at which I spoke, travel in planes, trains, and automobiles, a minor sinus infection, and movement across 6 hotels. All with just this luggage:

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Packed too full, and heavy, but I made it.

I returned late afternoon and in between spending time with family, I booted up my desktop and was surprised to find that Dropbox gave me an error. As I dug in, one of my SSDs wasn’t visible in Windows, containing VMs, my local DropBox folders and a few other things. Not what I wanted to deal with the first night back.

I shut down the system and rechecked connections this morning, then rebooted to find things working, but it was a good reminder to double check my backups and ensure that I’ve got copies of data in case I do lose an SSD.

Stress Testing

Many of the DBAs that manage production systems will at some point determine what level of hardware is needed to support a workload. Whether this is a physical server purchase or a cloud “rental”, someone has to decide what hardware is needed. How many cores, the amount of RAM, the number of disks, which hopefully correspond to some level of IOPs, and more. Even in the Azure SQL Database world, you must decide what database capacity you will pay for.

Since this is a big decision, and changes can be hard to make, many DBAs overbuy hardware. After all, no one wants to have a slow server. This is true for Azure as well, at least for many people I know. While changing from an S3 to a P2 is quick and easy in the Azure portal, it’s not such an easy sell to management. If they’ve budgeted $150/month and you tell them we want to go to $900/month, the technical change is the easiest part of this.

As a result, I’m surprised that we don’t really have better ways to determine if hardware will support our workload. I see this question asked all the time, and although there are tools and techniques suggested, I’ve yet to see many people have a set, known standard way of evaluating hardware and a particular workload.

One one hand, I think there should be better tools to do this, whether from Microsoft or someone else. I suspect since this is such a rare activity and businesses have been willing to overbuy hardware (or deal with substandard performance), that there isn’t any large impetus to solve this issue.

However I wanted to ask if any of you actually stress test hardware? Either your current hardware or new purchases. If you don’t know what your level your current hardware performs at, how do you compare that to new hardware?

Do you have a way to replay and measure a workload? Do you have the time to do so when new hardware arrives? Is there a documented method you use? Apart from discussing this today, I’d love to see some articles that detail exactly how you test hardware from a technical tool perspective, and then a followup that examines and evaluates the results.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 3.2MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

BYOD

This editorial was originally published on Jan 18, 2012. It is being re-run as Steve is on vacation. Some minor edits were made

As laptop prices have plummeted over the last few years to the point where most technical people can afford to purchase their own machine for around $500. Unless you want a really high end machine, in which case you’ll be looking at something over $1000. I have even used Macbooks for my work. There are quite a few people working with SQL Server on OSX, however, so if you want one for work, you can make the switch, and here are a few blogs for you (Aaron Bertrand, Brent Ozar, Joe Webb)

As computers become a commodity, and we use them more and more to live our lives as well as work, does it make sense for workers to purchase their own machines and use them in a corporate setting? I know some companies give workers a computer allowance and the workers can take the machine with them if they quit, presumably if they work at the company for longer than a few months. Other companies give their employees money for technology, which can be exciting for technical people that might want to upgrade their monitors or other accessories regularly.

There are definite security and data concerns, but with cheap memory, disks, and hypervisors, it’s possible to get around those issues, and allow employees to work with the tools they are familiar with. I ran across this blog that talks about workers owning their own devices in the future, even being required to provide them. Just like many other professions where the workers must own their own set of tools.

On one hand this seems crazy. Employers should provide computers, and as a young worker in this business, I would have struggled to purchase a $1500-2000 laptop. Or maybe I wouldn’t have. Maybe I would have seen it as an investment in my career, just like college was. These days, we have even more devices, and while IT departments struggle to secure them, that doesn’t stop people from using them, or wanting them. I think I’d like to provide my own smartphone and laptop, and get some sort of allowance from my employer each year to offset the cost.

I don’t know how we’d handle the data/security pieces of this scenario, but I’m there would be no shortage of ideas from the various software vendors.

Steve Jones

 

High DPI Test

On my new machine, running at a high DPI, I have some DPI issues.

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One is that I can’t seem to change the font for Open Live Writer. I see this:

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Which isn’t what I want. This is a test to see how things render on the web when posted.

Interesting Data Centers

I’ve spent a couple decades in technology working with lots of companies. As an employee, a consultant, or a sales engineer, I’ve had the chance to visit quite a few data centers over the years, some of which were quite interesting. A few impressive, and perhaps a few more that were quite scary.

When I started working in technology, the “server” was often just one box that lived on a desk in the office. In a few of my early small business clients, our server was often used by the secretary for Wordperfect typing while also serving applications and acting as a file server. In a few larger clients, including at a state government agency, multiple servers were piled on shelves in a closet.

Over time, lots of small businesses, and a few larger ones, learned that hot closets don’t work for multiple servers, nor does a lack of clean, UPS power serve them well.  I’ve worked with quite a few companies to upgrade their facilities to include better power and cooling, often racing to keep up with the proliferation of server systems.

As time progressed I found many companies that didn’t want to invest in a data center, including us here at SQLServerCentral. In the early 2000s, companies began to trust co-location facilities, those professional data centers built and run as a business. I toured many and saw some well built environments, and some not so well built. One small company SQLServerCentral visited had two corners of an office building downtown, on separate floors, with cool hoses (about 2ft in diameter) run outside, up the side of the building.

As we look to move to the cloud, which is the next evolution of the co-location facility, I expect that more and more of us may never visit a data center in our lives. Some small startup companies don’t even own servers, outsourcing their email, VCS, build systems, and more to some vendor.

That’s not for everyone, but it is becoming more commonplace. Vendors are even trying new ideas to lower their costs, while still maintaining the level of service we expect. There are data centers being built in mines, which provide cheaper cooling than traditional buildings. There are container based systems, and while electricity and water don’t usually mix, Microsoft is looking to try putting data centers in the ocean. Of course, not all ideas are good ones, as the ill-fated Sealand showed.

The future of data centers and where and how we run server hardware will certainly be interesting. I wonder how many future DBAs may never physically touch the actual hardware that contains all their bits and bytes.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 4.2MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

Laptop Build Quality

I’ve been looking around at various laptops, in preparation for getting a new one. I wrote about considering the Surface Book, which is still on the list, but has dropped a bit. The hardware quality is great, but when I was in the UK last week, a few people had them and complained about some driver bugs. In particular, I was messing with one person’s touch keyboard, and they warned me not to pull if off.  If I did, the machine might crash.

Ugh. At $2k and lots of hype, I wouldn’t expect any issues like that.

In any case, this post is about build quality, not software.

I was laying in bed this week, working on some editorials when my daughter came in. She wanted me to look over a piece she was writing for school and handed me her laptop. She has a Macbook Air, and as soon as I put my Toshiba z30 down, I was impressed with the Air’s build. It’s solid, it’s light, but it feels strong. I remember loving my Macbook Air, and holding it as I reviewed her work, I was reminded of that.

My z30 flexes, to the point that across a year, my touch point is unusable with the twisting of the frame. The trackpad was also far, far superior on the Air. I thought the Macbook Pro was like that, so I swung by a Best Buy to check. I walked in and went to the Apple section, picking up a Macbook and it feel solid. It’s just a better device than my Toshiba.

However I was curious about others. I did walk over and look at a Surface Book. It’s a solid machine, about the size and weight of the MBP. However it has the touch screen, which is interesting. The trackpad works differently, but it’s a nice machine. Detaching the screen, it’s a tablet, which is nice. I still don’t know how much I’d use the tablet factor, but it’s tempting. However the weight distribution is strange. The screen is heavier than the keyboard, the opposite of most laptops.

I also walked over to look at a Yoga 900, which I was curious about after reading Tim Mitchell’s review. I’m actually anxious to see how Tim’s machine looks next month in NM, but for now I contened myself with the display model. The hinge is neat, but this is a light laptop. At first glance, it also was solid. The flex I have on my Toshiba was not there. Despite a few reviewers noting this felt plastic and cheap, I didn’t get that feeling. It’s no Macbook, but it’s better than my Toshiba.

This will be an interesting decision for me, but since I’m going to wait for Apple’s announcement in March and see what they might do. I doubt they’ll go touch screen, but you never know. I have gotten used to touching my screen for some reading, and I think I might miss that with a MBP.

Surface Book

It’s almost time for me to get a new laptop. I’ve had a Toshiba for about a year, but it’s not held up well. The screen has gotten loose, the trackpad and clickers are not consistenly responsive, the pointer device sometimes drifts on its own, and I have had a couple memory related crashes. All in all, despite a similar travel schedule to what I’ve had the last couple years, this laptop is showing its age quicker than others. These are flaky issues, not easily reproducible, and something that the warranty doesn’t seem to cover.

As I look to future travel and talks, I realize that I need to find something that might be more reliable. That’s always tricky as it seems people have a variety of different experiences with the same model machine. This last year has made me hesitant to think about chancing a new, or unpopular brand, something I did last year in trying to find a small, lightweight machine that can handle 16GB of RAM.

I read a review of the Surface Book after two months, which is one I’d like to consider. I’ve been impressed with the Surface Pros, but prevented from using them as I need 16GB on the machine. The Surface 4, on which the Surface Book is based, has that capacity, so I am intrigued. I worried about the new hardware, but it seems that the Surface 4s have been fairly solid. A couple of firmware glitches relating to sleep mode, but I’m hoping those get ironed out in the next couple months. At least I hope they do because I really like the idea of a Surface machine.

I do suspect that like the reviewer, I’d mainly use the machine as a laptop. That’s what I need, and I’m not a big consumer of media. However the option to use the machine as a tablet is interesting. I had the chance to use Rob Sewell‘s Surface 3 as a notebook with a stylus during a presentation at SQL Relay and enjoyed the experience. There are some nice OneNote integrations, though I’m not sure how often I’d want to take notes on a computer rather than paper.

However the main contender for me is probably a MacBook Pro. I loved the MacBook Air I had, and was disappointed to move away from it. I also want to do some iOS and cross platform development, which a MacBook would allow. The hardware is solid and proven, and it’s a similar cost to the Surface. I have a few months to decide. If I go MacBook, I’ll wait for the March (rumored) refresh. If I’m unsure that that time, I’ll probably think about the Surface as a backup. Either way, I’ll be in hardware search mode across the next few months, with fingers crossed that my current machine survives.

Steve Jones

The Voice of the DBA Podcast

Listen to the MP3 Audio ( 3.0MB) podcast or subscribe to the feed at iTunes and LibSyn.

Hardware Issues

My backup drive failed last night. I was struggling with a few VM issues and when I finally resolved a few, I went to back up the VM in case I had more. I plugged the external, 2.5” SSD into my laptop and got nothing. No response, no new drive in Explorer.

That’s not what I want to see, though I’m glad it was a backup drive, and not one I needed for presenting. Not much I could do at night, on the road, but in the morning I resolved to get a new one.

I did have a California geek moment, heading to Fry’s for the first time to replace my drive. I’ve read about, and heard about the store for years. I’ve passed them in Northern California, but never gone in.

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It was a bit of a mistake, since I was late getting back to our Red Gate event. I got a little entranced with the various displays and options in there. It’s like a Best Buy++, combined with a Radio Shack and more. Microcenter in Denver is similar, but Fry’s has more.

I decided to go mSata rather than a 2.5” one, mostly for space and weight. It’s amazing to me how small things have gotten. I got the Samsung 840EVO 500GB drive and a small case.

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I carry a screwdriver, but the case came with a tiny one that I used to mount the mSata drive. How small is this? Small.

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The picture above shows my hand, a 16.9 oz water bottle, my Arc mouse, and the 500GB mSata drive in an enclosure.

500GB!

I could probably carry 4TB worth of these one hand. For $249 for the drive and $20 for the case, it’s amazing. I’ve got a nice backup for multiple copies of my VMs, which is very handy and cost effective.

If you haven’t tried mSata, take a look. I’m not sure I’d look at any other formats for portable storage.

Toshiba Portege Z30 Review

I saw recently that Grant Fritchey wrote a review of his laptop, the Portege Z30. I had noted Grant’s issues with laptops and waited to see what he got last year before I replaced mine. I actually had the chance to compare his Z30 with my old Lenovo T430 in Washington DC and was impressed.

With my old machine randomly failing, I decided to duplicate Grant’s efforts and get the same model. I figured we could support each other, and any issues one of us had, the IT department at Red Gate would gain knowledge as well.

Size and Shape

I used to have a MacBook Air and was thinking to go back to one, but since it wasn’t updated to contain 16GB, I couldn’t. I considered a MacBook pro, but they are a bit heavy, and the Z30 was fairly light. Here’s a shot of it.

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It’s definitely thicker and heavier than the Air, but it’s thinner and lighter than my Lenovo, so that’s nice. This is actually the test I use for laptops:

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Since I’m on the go, and I can be getting on and off podiums, I need to be able to easily carry this one handed. Not that I always do, but I want to. I can’t do this with a MacBook Pro and it was hard with the Lenovo. Here it seems to be OK.

The construction is metal and fairly solid. Not a lot of flex. The thin frame with rounded corners also easily slips in and out of my Everki bag, something that wasn’t the case with the Lenovo.

Keyboard

I think the keyboard is important and I wished I’d spent a bit more time on Grant’s. It’s loud, There’s a noticeable clacking when I type and the travel isn’t great. I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s mildly annoying to me, but not overly so.

the layout is good. Better than the Lenovo or Air for me. That’s the key, it’s better for me.

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I used the arrow keys a lot when demoing and having them separate is good. The Lenovo surrounded them with Page Up/Down, which forever caused me issues. Backspace/delete as well placed for me and I’ve easily learned where they are.

Backlighting is automatic, as you type. Slightly annoying when I need to start typing in dim space, but I can hit a key and then backspace and be fine.

The trackpad is too large for me. My palms always hit it, so I’ve disabled it. I use the pointed (blue button in the middle) exclusively, which is OK. I haven’t gotten it tuned well for my use. It’s either too slow or too fast (hence arrow key use). However it works just like the Lenovos.

The buttons, however, on the trackpad feel cheap. They travel and click too much. We’ll see how they wear over time.

Screen

The screen is pretty nice. I didn’t notice this as being amazing, as I did with a few cell phones, but it does look good. It handles bright sunlight fairly well, and I haven’t add brightness issues during indoor use. You can get specs from the Toshiba site.

It’s a 13" screen, which works for me. The resolution is fairly good, but I’m not too picky here so you’ll have to make your own judgment.

I will say that I like the touch screen. I do a lot of reading and scrolling around, and I’ve found it handy to reach up with my right hand and scroll while I’m holding the laptop with the left hand. I don’t use it to select or press buttons often, especially as edit boxes often bring up the on screen keyboard. That’s really annoying.

On the upside, I can use VGA or HDMI as outs to a screen.

Ports

I present with my laptop, so having a few USB ports is a must. The new Air with one port doesn’t even come close for me. I often need two USB ports for a mouse and my presentation device, plus power. Plus display.

This is a good laptop for me. It has two USB-3 ports on the right side and 1 on the left. That allows me to move an adapter depending on where I’m presenting. This also has a hard Ethernet port, which has saved me in a few hotels or venues where the wi-fi didn’t work. Not a big deal, but nice.

All ports are on the sides. Nothing in back.

Power

This is one of the big things for me. We have a power brick, but it’s tiny. It’s light. It’s a few ounces, which is amazing after the larger ones that I’ve had. It’s probably lighter than the Air adapter, though it’s still the power cord plugs into the adapter, which plugs into the laptop.

One thing I’ll note is I forgot my adapter in Europe and had to buy a new one. A generic one, putting out the 19V worked fine. Nice to know I can easily find one, and now I have a US and UK adapter, which suits my work.

Overall

I’ve been using the laptop for about three months now, and it’s one of the better machines I’ve owned. The keyboard and mouse buttons are the only downsides for me. The i5 and 16GB of RAM perform great. The SSD has been fast, and I can hook up an external when I need it and still have my two ports free for other use.

I’d have to say I’d recommend this if you need 16GB of RAM. If you can get by with less, I think you have some other choices in the ultrabook range that I’d look at.

Desktop Repairs – Power Supply Issues

My desktop didn’t restart after vacation a few weeks ago. That wasn’t what I wanted to have happen with a lot of work to get done before some travel. Needless to say I wasn’t thrilled when it happened.

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I was worried that something major had died. However I’d replaced the main boot drive recently and I had the old one. If I could get power.

I emailed Glenn Berry, who’s my go to hardware consultant. He suggested I check the power supply since I couldn’t get anything to happen. On his advice, I went to the local Microcenter and bought a new 650W power supply. Here’s the old one, with a stock CPU cooler. I bought a new one of those as well, since I find the heat alarm going off during some video editing.

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I didn’t remove the old power supply at first. I actually disconnected it and connected the new one to the motherboard from outside the case and powered things on. Sure enough, everything came on. Lights, drives, etc.

I then powered things down again and set about replacing the power supply. It’s actually easy, and I’m surprised I’ve never had to do this before in my life. Probably because I’ve tended to replace machines so often.

In any case, it was a matter of removing 4 or 5 screws from the back of the case, carefully slipping out the old PS and then putting the new one in there.

The CPU cooler was trickier. The tabs push through the motherboard and hook, but they are somewhat fragile. I was worried, and sure enough, the first time they weren’t tight. The cooler needs to be held tight to the CPU to pull off heat. It was loose and I got heat alarms once I started using the machine.

However I kept messing with it, slowly trying to get the tabs in there and eventually they are holding fairly tight. I still get heat alarms during heavy duty video processing, so I think this cheap $25 cooler isn’t good enough. Or I don’t have enough thermal grease. Either way, I’ll probably replace this soon.

Here’s everything together.

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And a happy Steve.

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