Dan Holme’s Extreme Technology Holiday Makeover

As my regular readers know, I’ve been traveling a lot this year. I’ve now been home for two weeks, which is more than the last two months combined. Being away from home so long, I’ve neglected the infrastructure of my home office and of the tools I use on the road.

The last time I did a "tools I use" column, I got a tremendous amount of positive feedback, so I thought I’d summarize some of the current and upcoming changes in my own technology stack, for whatever insight it may provide to readers. So we’ll look inside my home office, inside my carry-on luggage, and up to the cloud to see one combination of infrastructure that works for a seasoned road warrior.

WINDOWS HOME SERVER 2011

I finally installed a new system running Windows Home Server (WHS) 2011 to centralize data storage and to serve media for me at home and in my home office. Requirements included a small footprint, low power utilization and noise. I decided to assign the WHS role to a laptop I’m using less frequently now.

This minimizes the footprint and power utilization, and because it is a pimped-up laptop, it gives me a lot more horsepower than some of the microservers sold with WHS. I’m really happy with WHS2011 so far, and I’m looking forward to using it for remote access.

WINDOWS LIVE SKYDRIVE

Now that I can get to my files while on the road, using WHS 2011 Remote Access, I can take less data with me on my laptop or tablet. I’m planning to migrate much of my productivity data to SkyDrive so that my data is available across devices.

DATA STORAGE FOR HOME AND HOME OFFICE

As part of the upgrade to WHS2011, I migrated 5TB of storage. If you had told me, 10 years ago, that I would have 5TB of data just by myself, I would have laughed out loud. Well, I do…

I built a storage unit using an inexpensive (but so far fantastic) four-bay Mediasonic Probox external enclosure attached to the WHS2011 server with USB3.0. I opted for an external enclosure for a variety of reasons including the ability to (physically) lock up the data when I leave town, and the ability to attach the drives to another computer if necessary.

Here in Hawaii, I have to be particularly concerned about technology failure. The humidity leads to sometimes bizarre failures, and replacing any technology takes several days.

With an external enclosure containing four drives (two mirrored sets), I can continue to access data if any component fails. I opted to use the Probox rather than a device that has built-in RAID controllers because I discovered the hard way that when a proprietary RAID controller dies, it takes a long time and costs a lot of money to get a replacement device.

With this setup, Windows is doing the RAID, so I can port the drives to any other computer, in any external enclosure, and access data. With my home server, the gigabit network is the bottleneck for data transfer, so I was not concerned about a minor hit to performance by using Windows software-based RAID.

TEXT MESSAGE READING AND DICTATION ON WINDOWS PHONE

Siri on the iPhone is really cool. I love her intelligence ("Remind me to feed the dog when I get home" actually works thanks to GPS) and it’s fun to test her sarcastic and witty responses. But Siri can’t read.

And the killer feature for me with the Windows Phone Mango update is certainly the Voice-to-Text and, more importantly, having my text messages read to me while I drive. If I have one thing to thank for extending my life just a little, it’s that now I can carry on text message conversations, hands free, both incoming and outgoing. Wow!

And I’m having fun with Microsoft TellMe which, while certainly “geekier” than Siri, has quirky ways for dealing with cursing, emoticons, and other funky text.

A couple of tips I’ve found useful. First, you can go into Settings > Speech and set text message reading to "Always." Now my phone sits on my desk and reads me my texts as they arrive, including Facebook messages. I’ve also added contacts for Facebook and Twitter, so I can update my status with a simple "Text Facebook" or "Text Twitter" command.

SANTA I WANT AN UNLOCKED HTC TITAN

I adore my Samsung Focus. The display is sexy and beautiful, and music sounds terrific—audibly better than my iPhone.

But I want an unlocked phone for travel, and I am eying an unlocked HTC Titan. The Titan’s screen is big… OK, huge… but thin.

But now that my old eyes are wearing out, the extra screen size means I can read text messages without my glasses. Crazy, but truly the reason I’m going big. I’m looking forward to being able to use my unlocked phone for tethering, as well!

NEW VOICE AND DATA PLANS (ESPECIALLY INTERNATIONALLY)

I was horrified to discover I’ve spent close to $4,000 on wireless service with AT&T this year. Horrified, because I’m out of the country so much—at which point I use the phone far less to avoid exorbitant international usage charges—and because when I am home in Hawaii, service is so poor that I have to return any call that actually makes it through to me back from a land line.

It makes no sense to me to spend close to $250 per week that I’m actually home for a phone that I can’t use. To make matters worse, my experience (like that of many other folks) is that AT&T coverage in cities like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and in the mountain towns of Colorado (where my brother lives) is unforgivably bad…

So I’m going to invest in an unlocked phone and use SIMs for each country to which I travel, including the USA, so that I can find the best combination of service and rates. It’s not inconceivable that I’ll drop my domestic cellular plan altogether… it’s that bad… and just use WiFi and my 4G ClearSpot.

We’ll see, but something has to change. The value proposition for multi-thousand dollar bad service just isn’t there.

MORE SKYPE

I expect to centralize all of my calling through Skype. It makes particularly good sense for inbound calls.

I have a really cool phone number as my Skype In number, and I can forward it to whatever phone number, on whatever SIM, in whatever nation I’m working. And when Microsoft fully integrates Skype into its stack, I expect there will be an even bigger payoff.

DEDICATED SERVERS GOODBYE, OFFICE 365 AND CLOUD HELLO

I just retired two dedicated SharePoint servers I had hosted at GoDaddy. The workloads carried by those servers will be absorbed by Office365 and cloud services at companies like FPWeb and Rackspace,I hope!

I’ll also be consolidating my dispersed content and blog entries onto WordPress. Yes, I am not using SharePoint for my public blog… It’s a great product for many scenarios, but it just doesn’t meet all of my requirements.

VIRTUAL MACHINES IN THE CLOUD

My shoulder will sigh with relief when I get to take a trip next month without my HP EliteBook—the 16GB, 256GB SSD, quad-core i7 powerhorse I use for virtual machines (VMs) at events and customers. The computer has been flawless, but it’s heavy.

So it’s time to move VMs to the Cloud. I’m going to start with CloudShare—I have high hopes for it—and I’ll connect to my VMs from events, rather than bring the heavy host with me. If this doesn’t work, I’ll be looking for a lighter weight laptop with 16GB and an i7 processor.

WINDOWS SLATE HELLO, MACBOOK AIR GOODBYE

Finally, I hope to make more use of the Windows Slate. I was lucky enough to get a Samsung Series 7 slate at the BUILD Windows event in September.

Now the devices can be purchased online and in the sexy Microsoft Stores in select cities. Wait… who ever thought that you could say “sexy” and “Microsoft” in the same sentence with a straight face? But it’s true! The stores are!

The device is tremendous and I can definitely see it replacing my laptop and perhaps even my iPad for much of my use. I’ll keep my iPad for airplane trips (reading, movies, and TV) and for specific apps.

Hopefully, when Windows 8 arrives, and app developers jump on the Windows 8 marketplace to reach a billion potential customers (orders of magnitude greater than what Apple can reach today), I will be able to once again proudly step away from iOS devices… but not yet.

There are two problems with my Samsung Slate. One is Windows 8, which is a pre-beta developer preview build and (no surprise) has a few glitches that should be ironed out over time but that make it a less-than-perfect productivity machine.

I might roll back to Windows 7, but I’m going to give it a good shot. The other was the fact that—inexplicably—they designed the slate with zero option for connecting to a VGA projector. Since I give a lot of presentations, this was a show stopper.

There are USB-to-VGA options but none with drivers that work under Windows 8; and there are only two USB ports on the slate anyway, so I don’t want to lose any. I eventually discovered that Samsung makes a Micro HDMI to VGA adapter (found on Amazon, model AA-AH1NAMB) that works perfectly.

Now that I can give presentations from the Slate, I hope to transition away from my MacBook Air.

I have adored the Air for its size and weight, but the keyboard is simply not author friendly (Mac keyboards lack some really important keys for those of us who work with words), and the Thunderbolt port has proven to be a bad way to increase cost of peripherals ($500 for a 2TB external disk? Really?) and a really flaky and unreliable way to connect to VGA projectors from bootcamp’ed Windows.

Lucky for me, the Samsung Slate is as sexy as the MacBook Air, in a different way, so I won’t lose any of that "oooh—look at that device" cache of the Air.

So that’s an updated look into my technology stack. We focused a lot on hardware and infrastructure here.

My software stack remains very close to what I described in August  but I’m moving back to Microsoft OneNote from Evernote (as I described in last week’s column).

I’m actually quite bullish on the Microsoft stack in 2012. I had to use a lot of other non-Microsoft technologies and devices in 2010 and 2011, but I think 2012 is the year I’ll swing back towards a more “purist” Microsoft stack, because it will meet my needs for both work and play.

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