Offices are so last century…how to effectively work from home.

flatiron-buildingIn a recent Hartford Business article, Marten Mickos, CEO of Private Cloud Computing company Eucalyptus Systems says that “offices are so last century.” Everyone working in one location “was really an invention of the Industrial Revolution. It’s much more natural for people to work where they live.” I couldn’t agree more. As we shift from a manufacturing economy to a services, technology and knowledge economy, we no longer need to work from one location. In reality, many of us can now work from just about any location in the world that has an internet connection. In fact, this is how I work today. Here are some tips to help you work effectively, so that in time, we make offices curious artifacts of the last century.

Normalize your office hours and area.

Working from home has its own set of challenges that don’t affect regular office workers. You will need to dedicate a space to work from within your home as well as establish the hours that you will work. While a separate home office is preferred, this is not always practical, so don’t be dismayed at working from a desk anywhere in the home. The same goes for office hours. While a normal block of hours, such as 9-5, is preferred, sometimes flexibility is more important than structure. The important thing is to make sure that you complete all of the tasks that need to be done; get your work done if you will. Having a designated home office and office hours can go a long way to improving your efficiency working from home.

Two is one and one is none.

I don’t even know where this old adage comes from, but I know it is popular in military circles, where I picked it up years ago. What it means is that things always fail, so having a backup is very important. For remote workers, the three most critical items to have backups for are your computer, phone and internet connection. Having a spare computer may not be feasible for a number of reasons, but often an iPad with an external keyboard can suffice. Having a spare way to communicate by phone can be any combination of a land line (even a VOIP solution like Vonage works), a cell phone and/or a service like Skype which allows you to place calls to regular phone numbers from your computer. Lastly, a spare internet connection can be something as simple as tethering your smartphone to your laptop and using that, or as nice as a mobile hotspot from the likes of Clear, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc. If you are really paranoid, like me, you will have two backups to each one item, making three. The point is to be able to continue working even if one of your devices fails.

Don’t always work from home.

This tip can actually help on several levels. On one level, it often helps to have a change of scenery and environment when working remotely. If you don’t have to be on many calls one day, needing silence, head out to a local coffee shop or restaurant which offers free WiFi. This change of pace can boost your productivity in untold ways. On another level, this can be your spare internet connection (see above.) Should your home internet connection fail, having a known local spot to hop on WiFi can be a life saver.

Keep your hands free.

When working remotely, phone usage often spikes as compared to being in an office; for obvious reasons. While on the phone, you will often need to use your hands to type notes, use a mouse, write notes down or even search the web. Your co-workers or clients do not want to hear you fumbling with the phone, so get a headset. Getting a good quality headset to use with your computer and another for use with your cellphone is recommended. A USB headset is preferred over one that connects to the traditional mic and speaker jacks on your PC because there is often less interference with USB. A Bluetooth headset is recommended for use with your smartphone, just remember to keep it fully charged throughout the day.

Should you need recommendations for any of the above items or more information for any of the tips, leave a comment below and I will try my best to answer. These are just a few tips that will help you be a more effective mobile worker, and hopefully keep you from ending up at a place like Yahoo! Yea, I said it….

iWork for iCloud released to the public in beta

iworkUnless you have been under a rock for the last few days, or not a fan of the excellent Apple ecosystem, you might have heard some news regarding Apple’s iWork for iCloud. Point your browser over to www.icloud.com to see what I mean. I have been using the service since Apple launched it to select beta testers back in July sometime, and now it is available to everyone, though still in beta. Now, some of you who follow my blog might not know what iWork is, or even iCloud for that matter. If that is the case, shame on you! Regardless, here is a chance for you to become more informed about an excellent software platform and make use of the next competitor to Google Docs and Microsoft Web Apps (Office 365).

If you have an iPhone, iPad or any other Apple device where you use the iTunes/App Store ecosystem, then you are probably familiar with iCloud. Likewise, if you have been using a Mac for business, and more recently an iPhone or iPad, then you are probably familiar with iWork. For those not familiar, iWork is Apple’s office suite, which has three separate applications for word processing (Pages), spreadsheets (Numbers) and presentations (Keynote). iCloud is Apple’s Cloud Storage offering which ties all of the app ecosystem together, allowing you to store photos, documents and other data in their Cloud. iWork was traditionally sold as a stand alone office suite, like Microsoft office (though much cheaper), but was revamped into the App Store as three separate apps. Collectively, the three apps are even cheaper than the stand alone version was. In addition, the three apps were revamped for mobile and released for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. Moreover, the iWork apps were “cloudified”, allowing you to store your documents in iCloud and work on them across all of your devices. While all of this was awesome, there was still one thing missing…

Being a consultant, I am constantly traveling for business. This requires me to be able to work on things wherever and whenever I can, on any device I happen to have in my hand. As such, I am a heavy user of web apps like Google Docs. Being able to access my documents, in a web browser, with a full office suite is probably the most amazing and innovative thing that has happened to the business world in recent memory. While I do have iWork and even Microsoft Office for Mac installed on my Macbook Air, I rarely use them. I do nearly everything in Google Docs. While Google Docs is awesome in all kinds of ways, it is quite spartan and minimalist. I happen to like this, but some people have complained about the lack of “robust functionality” (I say bloat) as compared to a regular desktop app like Microsoft Office. At the same time, I do have an appreciation and love for well designed interfaces and apps that just work. This is why I am so invested in the Apple and Mac ecosystem. So, when I heard that Apple was working on a web-based version of their amazing iWork suite, I was very excited. Enter the new iWork for iCloud…

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If you log into your iCloud account, which for most people uses the same credentials as their iTunes or App Store accounts, you will see the new “desktop”. As you can see from the screenshot above, there are three new icons tagged with ‘beta’ for the new iWork apps. Pages, Numbers and Keynote are now web apps, just like their Google Docs counterparts. Clicking on any one of them takes you to a new work space where you can see all of your documents that have been uploaded to iCloud. You can then select which document you want to work on, or create a new one, and off you go working in a web app that functions just like the desktop version.

There are a few caveats to note with the current beta version of iWork. For one, you can’t print directly from the web app yet. You have to click the ‘share’ icon from the work space and download the document you are working on as a native iWork document, a PDF or a Microsoft Office document. Personally, I download them as PDFs and then print the PDF. I think this is a very logical approach as everyone has a PDF viewer that prints on their machine. I am more than sure Apple will add native print functionality in soon, but as this is beta, they are gradually rolling out and testing features. Second, there has been some debate as to whether Apple will keep iWork for iCloud free after the beta period or if they will charge for it. Based on past history as well as what their competitors are doing, I believe Apple will keep iCloud for iWork free. You can also work on Microsoft Office documents easily within iWork for iCloud, but you do have to upload the documents by dragging the documents into the virtual desktop space. Not a big problem, but it may confuse some users.

I think that Apple has taken a huge step in the right direction with iWork for iCloud. Releasing apps that work in the Cloud is the current and future trend, and the future of successful software platforms lies in multi-device support and inter-connectivity via the Cloud. iWork for iCloud does this perfectly, with the polish and ease of use that Apple is known for. I think iWork for iCloud will be a huge success and I urge you to give it a try as soon as possible. Also, one last note: this is clearly a beta and Apple is hoping for feedback on the platform. There is a small icon for feedback in the upper right hand corner of the three work spaces. Please be sure to give feedback (positive or negative) to Apple so that they can improve the platform over time. Just like voting, you can’t complain if you don’t participate! I have included some more images of the new service below for you to peruse. You can also read the official Apple page on iWork for iCloud here.

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NFS and Eucalyptus: using a network file system to back your Cloud storage.

nfscloudOne of the questions that I am often asked by customers looking at Eucalyptus for a Private Cloud is “how can I use NFS with Eucalyptus?” The scenario is usually one where the customer has deployed a NetApp SAN and prefers to use NFS over iSCSI or has deployed another highly-scalable distributed storage platform, like GlusterFS, with NFS exports.

In a normal HA deployment, Eucalyptus uses local disk for the Walrus storage and iSCSI SAN storage from a supported SAN (NetApp, EMC VNX or Dell EqualLogic). While the performance is much better with these types of storage back-ends, sometimes it is more practical to use something universal, like NFS, for your cloud storage back end.

The solution here is very simple, actually, with one caveat: you will not be able to use HA. In a non-HA implementation, Eucalyptus can in fact use NFS to back the Walrus and Storage Controller, and the configuration is very simple. Set up your cloud following the instructions in the Eucalyptus Installation Guide (for a non-HA setup) and simply mount the NFS partitions under /var/lib/eucalyptus/bukkits (for the Walrus) and /var/lib/eucalyptus/volumes (for the Storage Controller). From this point on, Eucalyptus will use your NFS exports as back-end storage for it’s services.

So what do you do about failure in a non-HA setup? There are a few ‘standard’ Linux faculties to give you redundancy in this scenario. I will cover those in a future blog post, but essentially, you could use standard backups of the front-end components that could be restored in the event of a failure or you could get a little more creative and mirror the front-end components to what is essentially a ‘warm spare’ that can then be brought online if there is a failure. There are other options as well, and we will discuss those more detail in the future. For now, you can start building your cloud on top of NFS and start testing functionality and performance to see if it meets your use case(s).