Tuesday 28 February 2012

Online VAT woes

Arrgh - we're trying to be good citizens and are preparing to file our UK Gov't VAT (Value Added Tax) returns on-line. At the moment we're doing this unpaid work to fit in with the Government plan to reduce its costs by entering data for them on-line. We used to print off the details and mail them in a letter to them, but no not only do we have to be unpaid tax collectors now we must use their computer system.
We've been through the first stage of registration on-line, then we waited for a confirmation letter with an activation code, but when we attempt to logon to record the code the system does not accept our login details. It's not like we've forgotten the password or user Id, we printed it and also wrote it down. We're even using cut and paste to make sure we make no mistakes. No luck, so we've gone through their on-line password reset rigmarole, effectively answering eight identity questions to find the new password apparently doesn't work.  It was not until we 'phoned the HMRC that we discovered that three failed login attempts leads to an automatic two hour lock out. So we now have to sit and wait. Why didn't their system tell us we'd been locked out?

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Best investment in UK

At the moment the best investment paper in the UK can be found in the shape of Royal Mail stamps. I'm not talking about philately type of rare stamps, but the routine day to day 1st and 2nd mail letter post stamps. Not the ones with an actual value in pence, but the ones which actually state "1st" or "2nd" class.  Their value has increased way above the rate of  inflation over the past few years. Now I hear the Royal Mail has the agreement from Ofcom to put up the price of 2nd class stamps by a further 50% in a few weeks time.

Buy now to avoid the price increase! Mail your letters at the old price.

Monday 20 February 2012

kebab.co.uk Domain for sale

For anyone who is interested, we've decided to put the domain name kebab.co.uk up for sale.

I've had a few SPAM comments from people self-advertising, be assured those will be ruthlessly deleted and reported as SPAM.

Friday 17 February 2012

PayPal continues to suck!

PayPal continues in its efforts to engender hatred from its business client base. We've had our problems with their erratic behaviour in the past. Another recent incident merely helps to cement that belief.

A couple of weeks ago we had an email from PayPal demanding that we update the details of our business on our on-line account. Their purported reason was that EU legislation demands that they must have additional information about the registration of our company and its principals. They already had most of that information and the rest is publicly recorded in Companies House (UK Gov't Business Registrar). Anyway to humour them we completed the information on-line through our PayPal account screen within an hour of receipt of their email.

Yesterday we received a customer support from questionnaire from this corporate dinosaur asking us how we'd felt about having our account restricted while they considered our case!! Apparently in their panic to collate this data about our company they'd deemed it necessary to restrict our business account. We've been a customer for several years and even had a credit card acceptance account with them for at least 4 years. We'd never had a customer dispute. Yet they again decide to treat us like fraudsters/criminals until proven innocent. Needless to say, they had a very poor score in our response to the questionnaire.

It is telling to note we'd not realised they'd restricted our account.

35% Increase in Microsoft Licensing costs?

A report in The Register yesterday projects concerns from Microsoft Channel partners warns that in the UK the cost of Microsoft software may rise by as much as 35% in 2012. He's concerned it may increase piracy. In these times of near recession it is plain lunacy.

I'm not so worried for my business. We increasingly use Linux operating systems and office tools.on our desk tops and servers. Microsoft software is becoming a secondary tool. Their corporation has effectively lost the brilliant leadership of Bill Gates and is behaving like a corporate dinosaur. Witness the Skype purchase - overpriced, but they'll corporately smother the product.

All I can suggest to businesses is that when a Microsoft  salesperson (or Channel) visits your office you give them every opportunity to see you working via a Linux desktop on your PC. It's not geeky nowadays, it just plain works! If that scares you a bit, maybe a thin client running an older version of Microsoft tools.

Monday 6 February 2012

Liquid submersed servers

Here's an interesting technology - keep your servers cool by immersing them in dielectric liquid. It cools better than air by a factor of 1300. These server blades can be rack mounted in a cabinet yet the heat is removed through a pipe system at the back of the rack.
This won't totally deal with the heat in a data centre, but it could help with the compute heat load of intense financial calculations. It should help increase the cooling efficiency of the data centre for those servers.

Edit 2nd March 2012: I saw these Data Centre World 2012 . They are being marketed in the UK by Boston. Apparently according to the guy on the stand they are "flying off the shelves", but they would say that wouldn't they?

Micro second access times to data files

An interesting note came across my desk this morning. A colleague said I might be interested in a report in The Register about Micron's take over of a company called Virtensys. Virtensys make PCIe bus extenders which a very fast way of share access for servers. A similar product is made by  NextIO. Where there is heavy server virtualisation it can greatly increase performance and flexibility whilst reducing the amount of cables required in a 48RU cabinet stuffed with large servers.

What I found particularly interesting was the reference to Micron's SSD  technology. using the Virtensys technology is is possible to share access to the SSD devices between servers. The Micron SSDs such as their enterprise device can give very fast data read times. The quoted figures are 3.3GB/sec and 715,000 I/Os per second. If carefully planned and implemented the user can see massive improvements in database retrieval times.  EMC are planning/using similar technology in some of their storage systems. Note this for read times and not write times as there are some system resilience considerations.

I look back and remember having to implement a forex trading system in 1985 where the mini-computer server database could only give 80 I/Os per second. Quite a change!


How much does your Fibre cost?

If you are a small/medium size business (SMB) it is wroth watching what BT is currently doing with its FTTP programme. This is of course optical fibre (optical fiber for our USA colleagues). In a lot of the country BT plan to deliver such services in a way that will provide high capacity at lot prices. This TechWorld article gives some detail, but you may get 300 Mbps for less than £100 a month and a £1000 installation. That is a lot cheaper than current business data link offerings.

It may be worth reviewing existing contracts for phone and data links in the UK to see if your suppliers can come up with a better offering. For example do you need all of those ISDN telephone services? Can you replace them with VOIP technology over a fibre data link? You might be able to save substantial amounts of money.

I hold quite a few shares in COLT and will be watching carefully how they respond to this threat. Their "escape route" of cloud/data centre services is a highly competitive field. Maybe Interoute will be casting their acquisitive eyes in the direction of COLT? The current low COLT share price could be attractive to Interoute, given the substantial network and skilled personnel held by COLT.


Sunday 5 February 2012

Low cost Support Desk for your business

The software as a service (SAAS) industry are spawning some great new tools which allow your organisation to add good support desk features to your web site with ease and at a low cost. You don't have to be tied to your desk top PC to offer support; these systems will reach out to your mobile device such as iPhone etc.  The pricing allows even one-man-band businesses to project an image of large enterprise facilities to their clients. 

The cost is low for start up (but can escalate as you add operators) and the financial commitment is low. You don't need extra servers, just a standard Internet link. This type of product can also work for large enterprises, either in routine operations or maybe as part of a special project such as a merger/office move where communication & control facilities need to be set up quickly with the minimum of fuss. A quick set up and easy removal after.

These products tie in with social media like Twitter, Goggle chat and Facebook, etc. It is well worth a look even if it is just to understand the capabilities.

I've been trying out:
Desk.com - support desk system
Zendesk.com - support desk system
Olark.com - browser chat system
SnapEngage - browser chat system

I've looked LivePerson - but their pricing is not exactly competitive, an obvious sign is their prices are not displayed on their web site. You have to contact them and ask.

Desk.com allows clients/subscribers to contact you by Twitter, Facebook, and Email.  Of course you can record other contacts such as by telephone. The call can be assigned to one of your staff/agent who can then progress the support call. A complete history is maintained. You can also use the system to track what people are saying about your business on Twitter without the need to watch a separate Twitter screen.  I watch @oaksys using it!

Good support mean happy clients!

Thursday 2 February 2012

The PayPal sprinter turning into a dinosaur

Earlier I commented how we'd blacklisted PayPal as a payment service provider. Their actions today have helped confirm the validity of our decision. Their support team sent us a whining email to alert us that my registered credit card had expired, that they'd removed the details and, whooopeee-doo, I would not be able to make instant payments. Is that the real case even if I have sufficient credit in the PayPal account?!

Anyway I replied to their email pointing out that given their earlier performance they do not feature on our business food chain any longer. I was not surprised to receive an automated response email with a canned response saying I had to log on to the account and raise a support request if I wanted to communicate with them.  I don't know if you've ever tried that but they force you to plough through a forest of questions designed to stop you from communicating with them before you get to send a reply.

Hey PayPal; I was responding to a message which you sent to me. For heaven's sake PayPal sort your systems out so they are convenient for your paying customers and not just your Byzantine management diktats .