Monthly Archives: January 2015

Why Microsoft is hard to love

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stated last week that “We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows. That is our bold goal with Windows.”

It is an understandable goal. Many users have discovered a better experience using a Mac than with Windows, for example, and they are reluctant to go back. I will not go into all the reasons; personally I find little difference in usability between Mac and Windows, but I do not question the evidence. There are numerous factors, including the damage done by OEMs bundling unwanted software with Windows, countless attacks from malware and adware, badly written applications, low quality hardware sold on price, and yes, problems with Windows itself that cause frustration.

There is more though. What about the interaction customers have with the company, which makes a difference to the emotional response to which Nadella refers? Again, Apple has an advantage here, since high margins enable exceptional customer service, but any company is capable of treating its customers with respect and consideration; it is just that not all of them do.

Now I will point Nadella to this huge thread on Microsoft’s own community forums.  The discussion dates from September 10 2014 and the contributors are customers who own Windows Phone devices such as the Lumia 1020. They discovered that after updating their devices to Windows 8.1 they experienced intermittent freezes, where the phone stops responding and has to be cold booted by pressing an emergency button combination (volume down plus power). These, note, are critical customers for Microsoft since they are in the minority that have chosen Windows Phone and potentially form a group that can evangelise this so far moribund platform to others.

The thread starts with a huge effort by one user (“ArkEngel”) to document the problem and possible fixes. Users understand that these problems can be complex and that a fix may take some time. It seems clear that while not all devices are affected, there are a substantial number which worked fine with Windows Phone 8, but are now unreliable with Windows Phone 8.1. A system freeze is particularly problematic in a phone, since you may not realise it has happened, and until you do, no calls are received, no alerts or reminders fire, and so on, so these customers are anxious to find a solution.

Following the initial complaint, more users report similar issues. Nobody from Microsoft comments. When customers go through normal support channels, they often find that the phone is reset to factory defaults, but this does not fix the problem, leading to multiple returns.

Still no official comment. Then there is an intervention … by Microsoft’s Brian Harry on the developer side. He is nothing to do with the phone team, but on 27 October receives this comment on his official blog:

Brian, sorry to hijack you blog again, but you are the only person in MS who seems to care about customers. Can you please advise whoever in MS is responsible for WP8.1 and make them aware of the “freeze” bug that MANY users are reporting (31 pages on the forum below). There has been NO feedback from MS whatsoever in the months that this has been ongoing and it is obviously affecting many users (myself included). If “cloud first, mobile first” is to be a success, you better make the bl00dy OS work properly. Thanks

Harry promises to raise the issue internally. On 12 Nov still nothing, but a reminder is posted on Harry’s blog and he says:

Nag mail sent.  Sorry for no update.

This (I assume) prompts a post from Microsoft’s Kevin Lee – his only forum post ever according to his profile:

I’m sorry we’ve been dark – I work closely with the Lumia engineering team that’s working directly on this. Trying to shed a little light on this…

Beginning in early September we started to receive an increased number of customer feedback regarding Microsoft Lumia 1020 and 925 device freezes. During the last two months we have been reaching out for more and more data and devices to systematically reproduce and narrow down the root cause. It turned out to be a power regulator logic failure where in combination with multiple reasons the device fails to power up the CPU and peripherals after idling into a deep sleep state.

I am pleased to pass on that we have a fix candidate under validation which we expect to push out the soon with the next SW update!

Appreciate your patience.

OK, so Microsoft knows about the problem, has sat back saying nothing while users try this thing and that, but now after two months says it has a “fix candidate”. This is greeted warmly as good news, but guess what? Phones keep freezing, no fix appears, and in addition, there is lack of clarity about how exactly the fix is being “pushed out”.

Two months later, user Shubhan NeO says:

And I broke my Lumia 1020. Not going back to Windows Phone ever ! Switching back to Android ! Here is sneak peek of my phone !

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It is not quite clear whether he broke the phone deliberately in a fit of frustration, but perhaps he did as he comments further:

Works ? Seriously ? It hangs 2-3 a day, has stupid support for official apps. So many issue.

I’m done.

Here is another:

I paid the extra £ for a better phone; with a better ’41-megapixel camera’… now to find out that people with cheaper models have not had any freeze problems. Despite peoples comments about this being an aged device, and probably the reason for lack of support, I must add that I only purchased my 1020 ‘NEW’ in July 2014 (which is only 6 months ago). For 3 of those months it has been very unreliable … I am extremely disappointed in how I and everyone else here has been treated by Microsoft.

Read the thread for more stories of frustration and decisions never to buy another Windows Phone.

What are the real problems here? The hardest thing to accept is not the fact of the fault occurring, or even the time taken to fix it, but the apparent lack of concern by the company for the plight of its customers. If Mr Lee, or others from the team, had posted regularly about what the problem is, how they are addressing it, possible workarounds and likely time scales, it would easier for users to understand.

As it is, it seems that this part of the company does not care; a particular shame, as Nokia had a good reputation for customer service.

I post this then as feedback to Nadella and suggest that a cultural shift in some areas of Microsoft is necessary in order to make possible the kind of emotional transition he seeks.

Microsoft’s Lumia 400, the cheapest Windows Phones yet, but what is the brand becoming?

Microsoft has announced the Lumia 435, the first 400-series Lumia and the cheapest Windows Phone yet. The Lumia 532, also just announced, is an upgrade to the Lumia 530 and also pitched at a low-end market.

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Lumia 432

The 435 has a dual-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon processor, 1GB RAM and 8GB storage, front-facing camera, back-facing 2MP camera, micro SD slot. 4″ 800 x 480 pixel screen. GPS, wi-fi and Bluetooth. Replaceable battery. Dual-SIM is available.

The 532 has a quad-core 1.2 GHz Snapdragon processor, 1GB RAM and 8GB storage, 5.0MP main camera, front-facing camera, micro SD slot. 4″ 800 x 480 pixel screen. GPS, wi-fi and Bluetooth. Replaceable battery. Dual-SIM is available.

The phones are expected to go on the market in February at a price of around €69 (£53.50) for the Lumia 435 and €79 (61.50) for the Lumia 532.

I like the Windows Phone OS, and these devices look like great value. That said, the last aspirational Windows Phone was the Lumia 1020 in Summer 2013, with its fantastic camera. You would be forgiven for concluding that Microsoft has given up on high-end Windows Phone devices, which is unfortunate for developers since those are the devices likely to deliver more app sales.

If the Lumia brand has become strongly associated with cheap phones it will be hard for the company to convince customers that a high-end device is worth their attention in future.

We may get some phone news soon, linked to the launch of Windows 10; we may hear more at the event on January 21 in New York.

More details here.

Review: Synology DS415+ Network Attached Storage

Synology’s DS415+ is a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device aimed at small businesses or demanding home users. I have been running this on my own network for the last 6 weeks or so.

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First, a note about Synology’s product range. Let us say you want a NAS with 4 drive bays. Here are the choices, with current bare NAS prices from Amazon.co.uk:

  • DS414j £252.63: Budget offering, 512MB RAM, 1.2 GHz  dual core ARM CPU, 1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, 1 1GB Ethernet port. 90W power supply, 32.64W power consumption.
  • DS414 Slim £237.87: Smaller case designed for 2.5″ drives. All the other units here support 3.5″ drives. Given that you can normally tuck your NAS away in a corner, there is limited value in restricting yourself to these smaller drives, but there is also an energy as well as space saving. 512MB RAM, 1.2GHz single core ARM CPU, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 2 1Gb Ethernet ports. 30W power supply, 15.48W power consumption.
  • DS414 £332.83: Core product. 1GB RAM, 1.33 GHz dual core ARM CPU, 1 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, 2 1Gb Ethernet ports, 90W power supply, 28.42W power consumption.
  • DS415 Play £379.99: Home oriented. Benefits from hardware video transcoding. 1GB RAM, 1.6GHz dual core Intel Atom CPU, 3 USB 2.0 ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 1 1Gb Ethernet port, 90W power supply, 27.33W power consumption.
  • DS415+ £460.74: Business oriented. 2GB RAM, 2.4GHz quad core Intel Atom CPU, 1 USB 2.0 port, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 1 eSATA port, 2 1Gb Ethernet ports, 100W power supply, 32.64W power consumption.

You can get a more detailed comparison of these four models in this table. Incidentally, I am guessing that in the Synology numbering scheme, the first digit represents the number of drive bays, and the second two digits the year of release.

The 415 models are the latest releases then, and the only ones to use Intel CPUs. The extra cost of the 415+ buys you double the amount of RAM, a quad core CPU, and an eSATA port.

The software is mostly the same on all the devices, Synology’s Diskstation Manager (DSM), currently at version 5.1. It looks as if some limits are lifted with the 415+, for example there is support for 256 iSCSI LUNs on the 415+, versus 10 on the 415 Play. The 415+ also has specifica support for VMWare VAAI (vStorage API for Array Integration) and Windows Server ODX (Offloaded Data Transfer); this enables some storage tasks to be offloaded to the storage system for better performance on the virtualization host.

Why buy a unit like this when you could simply get a server with plenty of drive bays, or with hardware RAID, and install Linux or Windows Storage Server? The two reasons are first, simplicity of operation, and second, low power consumption.

The distinction is not as sharp as it first appears, since a Synology device like this is in fact a server. If you require maximum flexibility and do not care about energy use, a generic server is probably better. If you require only simple network attached storage, such as a large shared folder on the network, a unit like the 415+ is overkill; just get a DS414j or some other brand. On the other hand, if you expect to install and use several apps, the extra for a DS415+ buys you a substantially more capable server.

Another way of looking at this is that the processing power in the DS415+, while still modest compared to a modern desktop PC, is sufficient for some real work, such as running web applications or even a media server with software transcoding.

Setup

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Unpack the box, and you find the NAS unit, power supply and a couple of ethernet cables. Unclip the front cover and you can see the four drive bays, with caddies which can easily be removed for drive installation.

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The drive caddies are screwless for 3.5″ drives; just remove the side panels, insert the drive, and replace the side panels to secure.

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You can also install 2.5″ drives with four screws through holes in the caddy base.

At the rear of the unit, there are dual fans, two Ethernet ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, eSata port, and the power connector.

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I fitted four 3TB Western Digital Red drives – currently £89.36 on Amazon – attached the device to the network and powered up. You can than access the NAS management UI with any web browser. Normally, entering diskstation:5000 will find it. The initial setup downloads and installs the latest version of DSM, and offers an instant configuration which is a single large network folder backed by Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR).

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I accepted this just to try it, and then blew it away in favour of a more flexible configuration.

Diskstation Manager

Synology DSM is a version of Linux. You can access the OS via SSH, or use the browser-based GUI. The GUI is rather well done, and presents a desktop-like environment with a windowing system.

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The button at top right open a kind of Start menu:

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Applications are installed and removed through the Package Center:

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Generally, you should use only the Package Center to manage applications, though terminal access can be useful for troubleshooting, cleanup, or tweaking settings if you know what you are doing.

Since packages are only available from Synology, you are limited to those applications which are supported, unless you do a manual install:

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Even a manual install has to be in the Synology package format (an archive with appropriate metadata). Some packages, such as the Plex media server, are available for download as manual installs, though may need tweaking to install correctly.

Third party developers can create packages, free or paid, and submit them to Synology for approval.

If an application is updated, it can take a while before the Synology package is updated. This could be a problem if, for example, a critical security bug is found in an application running on a Synology device exposed to the internet. There are not a huge number of packages available. I counted 63 in the DS415+ Package Center. However, this does include everything you need for a basic business server, including a mail server, DNS Server, LDAP Directory Server, Drupal CMS, SugarCRM, web server with PHP and MySQL, Tomcat application server, and more.

On the multimedia side, there are applications for serving audio and video, a DLNA media server, and Logitech Media Server (also known as Squeezebox Server).

There are several backup applications, including one for Amazon’s Glacier service (low-cost cloud storage).

Storage management

The primary role of a Synology device is for storage of course, and this is configured through the Storage Manager. Configuration begins with Disk Groups, which represent one or more physical drives in a RAID configuration.

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There are several supported RAID configurations:

SHR: Synology Hybrid RAID with 1- or 2- disk fault tolerance. You need at least 4 drives for 2-disk tolerance.

RAID 0: disk striping, no fault tolerance

RAID 1: drive mirroring

RAID 5: 1-disk fault tolerance

RAID 6: 2-disk fault tolerance

RAID 10: RAID 0 across mirrored drives, 1-disk fault tolerance with high performance.

What is SHR? There is an explanation here. The high-level story is that SHR is more efficient with drives of varying capacity, and more flexible when adding new drives. It is not proprietary and apparently data can be recovered if necessary by mounting SHR drives in a Linux PC (provided no more than one drive has failed).

You set the RAID level when you create a disk group. Once you have a disk group, you can create volumes or iSCSI targets on that group.

I was interested in trying iSCSI. I have a desktop PC that is running out of space. I created a 1500GB iSCSI target and mounted it on the PC using the iSCSI initiator in Control Panel. It worked perfectly, and a new drive appeared in Disk Management.

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Is this sensible, or should you just use a network folder which is more flexible, since it is shared storage? An iSCSI target behaves like a local drive, which can be an advantage, but iSCSI is mostly used for servers where centralising storage is convenient. You should also use a dedicated network for iSCSI, so it is probably not a great idea for a desktop PC.

I compared performance. On simple tests, such as time taken to copy a file, there was little advantage; in fact, my iSCSI drive was slightly slower: 61.2 MB/s vs 76.4 MB/s for a shared folder.

I tried ODX, copying a file from one iSCSI drive to another. Capturing the copy thermometer was a challenge, as it was near-instant:

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In general, I have been very happy with the performance of the NAS.

Folder permissions

My local network uses Active Directory (AD), so I was keen to set up permissions on the NAS using AD. Connecting a Linux server to AD can be a problem, and at first the Synology would not play. I connected it, seemingly successfully, but it would not see any users. There are threads on the Synology forums showing users with similar problems. The fix for me was to enter my Domain Controllers as IP numbers rather then FQDNs (fully qualified domain names). Since then it has worked perfectly, though DSM shows the Domain Server Type as “NT4 Domain”, puzzling when my DCs are on Server 2012 R2.

Once connected, you can set folder permissions using the Synology File Station package. First, create the shared folder, then right-click the folder and choose Permissions.

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Apps and Applications

Aside from the storage services, the main application I run on the Synology is Logitech Media Server (LMS). This used to run on a Windows server, and actually runs much better on the Synology. Search is quicker, the server is more responsive, and it is more reliable.

I tried the Synology audio and video applications, and the media server. There are various companion mobile apps, such as DS Audio and DS Video, for media playback.

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The apps I tried worked well for me, though I am sticking with LMS for home music streaming.

Final words

I have no complaints about the DS415+, which has performed well so far. Browsing through the user forums though, I have noticed some areas of difficulty. One is that the Cloud Station service, which synchs files between your NAS, computers and mobile devices, is notorious for consuming disk space. Users find their drives filling up even though the total size of their files is much less than the available space. Currently, the best advice seems to be not to use Cloud Station.

The general issue with a system like this is that the friendly GUI is great while everything is working, but if something goes wrong and you have to dive into Linux, the ease of use disappears. That is worth noting if you plan to use this as the main server in a small business (beyond storage), unless someone there has the necessary troubleshooting skills.

The device does tick a lot of boxes though: resilient storage, excellent performance, low power consumption, flexible configuration, AD integration, and enough power to run something like Logitech Media Server without blinking.

Recommended.